Wheeling and Dealing

How to buy a car online.

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Christoph Hitz

Many years back my wife and I went shopping for our first "family car": something big enough to hold our infant son, 100-pound dog and the second child we assumed we'd eventually spawn.

Determined to get a killer bargain, we hit the dealership in the fall, near the end of a month, figuring they'd be champing at the bit to negotiate in order to make quota and clear room for next year's models. The goal was to pay no more than $300 over sticker, and we were prepared to accept dealer financing.

After the salesman agreed to all our terms, we congratulated ourselves for being savvy shoppers. Then we sat down with the dealer's finance manager. As we signed off on endless documents, waiting for our loan to be approved and our new car to be detailed, he began to work us over.

Were we sure we didn't want to extend the warranty on the power train? What about a security system to guard our investment? Undercoating and fabric protection would help our vehicle's resale value. And on and on and on. We were his captives; there was no escape.

Three hours and another $3,000 later, we finally drove off in our brand-new minivan, exhausted and miserable. That was nearly 20 years ago, but I remember the feeling like it was yesterday. So last winter, when it was time to buy a gently used car that both I and my now-teenagers could drive, I vowed not to set foot in a dealership. Thanks to the Internet, I could make my next car come to me.

Let's Make a Deal

There are at least a half-dozen sites—with cutesy names like Beepi, Carlypso, Carvana, Shift and Vroom—where you can conduct the entire transaction online and have the car delivered to your driveway. All claim to offer substantially lower prices than traditional dealers because they don't foot the bill for a fancy showroom or big sales commissions. (Some will buy your vehicle from you or take your old clunker as a trade-in.)

An all-digital interaction was exactly what I wanted. And though the process ended up taking about a month from start to finish, it was amazingly easy. I started by picking the places where it made the most sense for me to shop. Some sites only operate in certain areas of the country; others charge hefty delivery fees to haul cars across the continent. I zeroed in on Beepi, Shift and Vroom. All three were available in my area (San Francisco), promised a haggle-free sales price and offered 7- or 10-day guarantees—meaning, if I decided the car was a lemon in a week, they'd come get it and return my money.

From there, I needed to decide what kind of car I wanted. Clicking through the virtual showrooms on these sites is like traveling to gearhead heaven. The range of inventory is insane: from humble, very used $5,000 Toyotas to pristine $150,000 Porsche Turbos. Depending on the site, you can filter results by make and model, year, body type, price, mileage, horsepower, options and color.

After about a week of debating whether to buy a midlife-crisis sport coupe or a practical-but-clownish smart car, I settled on something in between: a four-door hatchback with less than 30,000 miles, decent gas mileage, a sporty exterior and a price tag around $15,000. (It had to have an automatic transmission, because my kids absolutely refuse to learn how to drive a stick. Evidently the thought of a clutch pedal is terrifying.) In another week or so I found a perfect match on Beepi: a 2014 Hyundai Elantra GT.

Clicking through the listing gave me more information than I could possibly glean from a slick salesman or window sticker. A 240-point warts-and-all inspection report revealed any potential mechanical issues, as well as the location of any cosmetic flaws. I could view the vehicle's history, read reviews from well-respected car sites, and even email specific questions to the inspector.

Once I'd gone through all that and called Beepi a half-dozen times with questions (they were very nice), I mustered my courage and clicked the "Checkout" button. That lead to more choices—I could type in a credit card number and pay for the car outright, put down a $500 deposit and pay the rest on delivery, or pay $500 now and apply for financing. Lacking 15 large in cash tucked under my mattress, I opted for the latter. A few days later my loan was approved; I uploaded photos of my driver's license and proof of insurance to Beepi so they could register the car for me, then awaited my delivery details.

Driving Mr. Lazy

About 10 days later my new-used Hyundai arrived on a flatbed truck, complete with a huge bow on the front hood. I climbed into the cockpit to take her for a spin with Robert, the jovial 20-something deliveryman; it was love at first drive.

Back at my place, we sat on the couch and Robert handed me papers to sign one by one—title transfer, registration, warranty, loan forms. All in all, the paperwork took about half an hour and there were no sales pitches for undercoating, extended warranties or anything else. I never felt like I was being taken advantage of.

A couple of months later, my sporty little Hyundai began running a little rough, so I called Beepi, which offers 90 days of free post-sale service. I figured they'd send me to a local mechanic, but instead they sent another guy in a flatbed truck to my house. He ran some diagnostics and we took it for a test drive. Of course, it ran like a champ. Naturally.

You Auto Know

Though I ended up buying a car on Beepi, I could just as easily have gone with one of the other sites. They're all very similar. For example, I almost purchased a nearly identical Hyundai on Vroom, but it got snapped up by someone else.

The biggest barrier is geography. Vroom is based in NYC but says it will ship free to any location in the lower 48. Beepi and Shift operate on the West Coast and across portions of the mid-Atlantic; Beepi covers some of the South as well. Carlypso is based in the Bay Area, with delivery centers in Phoenix and Sacramento, and will deliver anywhere in the continental U.S. Delivery charges vary for all three, so pay attention. Also, you may incur charges if you change your mind and return the car. Carvana has physical locations in nearly 20 cities nationwide; if you're within 100 miles of any of them, delivery is free—beyond that radius, third-party delivery fees become part of the equation.

But these sites are not necessarily for everyone. First, they sell only used vehicles, not new. If your heart is set on a specific make and model, you may have to wait a long time or settle for your second or third choice. Some people genuinely need to kick the tires before they commit. Others like to haggle. Not to worry—there are alternative sites that provide some of the same benefits, although you finish the transaction the old-fashioned way. (See "Driving the World Wide Web," below.)

For me, though, it was far and away the most painless car buying experience of my life, and I would do it again in a heartbeat. My only problem now is figuring out what to do with that damned bow.

Driving the World Wide Web

The Internet has forever changed how we buy and sell cars, but not all sites are created equal. Do you know the difference between CarMax and Carfax, AutoTrader and DealerRater? Jump in for a quick spin.

Auto Marketplaces. A number of sites buy and sell used cars directly on the Internet. Beepi and Vroom purchase autos from private owners and resell them. Carvana buys former lease or rental vehicles at auction for resale. Shift connects sellers with buyers and manages all the nitty-gritty details, such as inspections, test drives and paperwork. Tell Carlypso what kind of used car you're shopping for and they will estimate a price, settle on a limit with you and then buy it at a dealer auction on your behalf.

Car search engines. Options including AutoNation, AutoTrader, Cars.com, CarsDirect and TrueCar help you find your new or used dream machine, then direct you to a nearby dealer or private seller where you buy it. CarGurus goes one better: It tells you whether a price is a fair, good or great deal compared to similar cars on the market; it also provides user reviews of each dealer.

→ Dealer sites. Most car dealers have a site where you can peruse the cars on the lot and ask questions. (If you do, be prepared for an avalanche of emails, calls and texts from salespeople, who won't stop until you forcefully tell them to go away.) CarMax is a national used car retailer with a web interface: Use the site or app to find the vehicle you want, then schedule a test drive and seal the deal at one of its 160 locations.

→ Informational sites. Sites like Edmunds and Kelley Blue Book can help you determine a car's true market value. Carfax lets you look up a vehicle's ownership and accident history. DealerRater provides Yelp-like reviews of auto sellers and their service departments. All also provide search engines for finding new or used cars for sale.

4 Great Car Buying Apps

You don't even need a computer to buy a car online; your smartphone is plenty. (FYI, many of the sites listed in "Driving the World Wide Web" are also available as Android and iOS apps.)

1. Consumer Reports' Car Buying Guide. Comes with a helpful feature that walks you through the entire process, from what questions to ask the seller to whether you should get a lease or a loan. You can look up MSRP and dealer invoice prices for new models and calculate your monthly payments. For $3 a month, you can get access to Consumer Reports' ratings for hundreds of new cars. Android and iOS, free

2. iSeeCars Used Car Search Pro. Search more than 4 million used car listings and get detailed descriptions, photos, price and vehicle histories and more, then find a dealer where you can make your purchase. The app will even tell you if the asking price is under market (and by how much) and send you alerts if it drops. Android and iOS, free

3. Torque Pro Is that used car you're eyeing a jewel or a lemon? To eliminate the guesswork, Torque Pro (Android, $5) communicates with a Bluetooth-enabled dongle ($100 to $200) that plugs into a car's Onboard Diagnostics port, giving you the same report used by your mechanic. OBD Fusion ($10) does the same for iOS.

4. Vinny. Scan a used car's Vehicle Identification Number barcode with your smartphone's camera, and Vinny will pull up information about the car and give you the wholesale price. The app doesn't cost a thing, but vehicle history reports do run $10 a pop. Android and iOS, free