The 5 Best Online Car-Buying Sites and How to Use Them

User-friendly sites could completely change the process for you

Overhead Shot of Couple Sitting on Couch With Laptop and Color Guide Shopping for a Car
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Buying a car in person can be a time-consuming and nerve-wracking process. So can you make it easier on yourself by just doing the whole process online? 

In short, you absolutely can—but the site you use to do so may make all the difference. By shopping with reputable, best online car-buying sites, you may be able to improve your chances of getting a great deal on your next vehicle, and perhaps even enjoy yourself in the process. 

How We Approached Our Research

First and foremost, we chose the sites on this list because they are user-friendly at every step of the experience, from browsing to final sale. It doesn’t matter how cutting-edge a website is if it fails to help you find your perfect ride. And it doesn’t matter how low-tech a site is as long as it succeeds in accomplishing that task. 

To compile this list, we spent time using and reviewing dozens of sites. We include trusty standbys dedicated exclusively to selling vehicles, along with promising new upstarts and online marketplaces that leverage the power of social media.

The sites are listed in alphabetical order.

An Important Caveat for New Car Buyers

While many of the websites on this list do have listings for new cars, you can’t buy a new car entirely online in the United States without going into a dealership (unless you’re buying a Tesla).

In all 50 states, manufacturers that have franchised dealers cannot sell directly to consumers, because that would be considered illegal competition with their franchisees. Because Tesla is the only U.S. manufacturer that doesn’t have franchisees, they’re the only exception.

You can only fully buy a used car online. A new one still has to be purchased on-site at a dealer’s location, by law (except for Teslas).

You can purchase a used car fully online, though often with a delivery charge and other associated fees. Be sure to read all the details when completing your sales contract carefully.

Autotrader

Founded in 1997, Autotrader is an online review site and marketplace that offers new, used, and certified pre-owned vehicles from private sellers and dealers. Autotrader has earned several awards over the years from J.D. Power & Associates, Information Week, Dealers’ Choice Diamond Awards, and more.

What We Like

Autotrader’s site is sleek and modern, with all the bells and whistles you’d expect from an industry leader. A homepage tool integrated with Kelley Blue Book allows you to get an offer on your old vehicle while using the site. It’s easy to browse by vehicle type and sort by location, trim packages, price, and a host of other variables. The site also offers ample research and helpful information that may be useful to those looking to purchase a new vehicle, even if they eventually choose to do so elsewhere. Many of the sellers are dealers rather than private sellers, meaning you can expect a higher level of professionalism than other sites. 

What We Don’t Like

A plethora of options isn’t always a good thing. Sometimes the millions of search results can be overwhelming if you don’t know how to narrow your filters and find what you’re looking for in a vehicle. It’s also challenging to find financing information without contacting multiple lenders on your own.

Carfax

Carfax is a trusted name in vehicle history reports. You might not realize that it also has a used-car marketplace online. It works with more than 30,000 dealerships nationwide. Carfax is integrated with Facebook Marketplace to bring more transparency and confidence to buyers shopping for their next used car. This partnership makes Carfax well-known among shoppers looking to buy a car.

What We Like

The site is simple, but it comes with the peace of mind that a quality vehicle history report brings you. Every car listed comes with a free Carfax Vehicle History Report. You can find out how much a car is really worth before you buy it with the Carfax History-Based Value feature. Another thing we like is that you can sign up for email and text alerts when similar used cars appear for sale.

What We Don’t Like

The site is old-school and a bit clunky, but it gets the job done. There aren’t a ton of original search filters beyond make, model, body type, color, price, ZIP code, and quality of Carfax history you’re comfortable with, so it may be hard to find exactly what you’re looking for in a vehicle.

CarsDirect

This car-buying service began in 1998. CarsDirect has been recognized with numerous industry awards, including being named one of the "50 Best" websites in the world by Time Magazine, a "Top 100 Classic Website" by PC Magazine, and a "Top Site for Buying or Selling Anything" by PC World.

What We Like

This site has no frills at all, but if you have bad credit or no credit, this is the site may be for you. Because it can often be uncomfortable for those in this financial situation to shop for a car in person, this site helps take some of the awkwardness out of the process. You can also easily save your search history so you can compare models as you shop.

What We Don’t Like

Because you’re interacting directly with dealerships, the process can be hit or miss. It will often take many cold calls and emails before you successfully match with one. As CarsDirect is a direct marketplace, you must negotiate with lenders via the dealers individually. You will get an idea of the interest rate and other loan terms you’ll qualify for from that particular lender, even if you have bad credit.

Carvana

Getting a car from a vending machine just might be the high-tech dream you didn’t know you had. In select cities, Carvana can make that dream come true. The process of using the site is simple—there are more than 23,000 cars in stock on the site, and each one comes with a Carfax history report. Carvana's cars are stored in reconditioning centers, where they are inspected and certified. These facilities are not open to the public. You get to search from thousands of quality cars on their website, then Carvana can deliver the car directly to you, once you've found the one you like, or you can pick it up at a car vending machine. 

Carvana has completed several unique marketing campaigns that have gotten attention on social media. When it announced next-day delivery in New York, people at the company drove the newly purchased vehicles that were wrapped as huge carryout bags on the back of semi-trucks to buyers. The company encourages people to use its hashtag and the car vending machines tend to get a lot of attention, often inspiring people to share their experience.

What We Like

You fill out all paperwork on the site and there’s free delivery to most major cities. There’s no minimum credit score needed to apply for financing, and only a soft credit inquiry, once you do. Once you’ve chosen your vehicle and obtained financing, you can finish the process online. If you want to experience the vending machine in person, Carvana will often subsidize your flight. For example, the eight-story vending machine located in Tampa and a few other sites across the country hold 32 cars ready for pickup after online purchase. It's operated using a special oversized coin that you drop into the machine. Then out comes the car that you chose and bought online. Caravana staff is on-site to help with the process. 

What We Don’t Like

This site isn’t great for students or other part-time employees, as you must make at least $10,000 per year to apply for financing. Additionally, buying a car online may not be for everyone since you can’t look at the vehicle in person, but Carvana at least offers a seven-day return policy.

Vroom

Vroom offers no-haggle pricing, approximately 5,000 vehicles, and financing through more than 12 banks. It may not be the largest online seller, but it does have lots of clean, high-end vehicles to choose from.

What We Like

Every car on the site comes with a seven-day test period during which you can return your vehicle with no questions asked. Every vehicle has a 90-day, 6,000-mile limited warranty, even used cars, and each car on the site has a clean title, inspection, and Carfax report. Most of the vehicles on the website are low-mileage, and many are still under the original manufacturer’s warranty. 

What We Don’t Like

Vroom is tailored toward those who want newer vehicles—and have the good credit to make that desire come true. Vroom does not have a minimum credit score requirement. However, it may be a good idea to shop around on other sites if your score is less than stellar. And the standard delivery fee for vehicles is also an eye-popping $499, if you can’t pick up the car in Houston.

Article Sources

  1. Franchise Law Journal. Stolze, Eric. "A Billion Dollar Franchise Fee? Tesla Motors’ Battle for Direct Sales: State Dealer Franchise Law and Politics," Page 295. Accessed Nov. 5, 2019.

  2. Autotrader.com. "Important Facts about Autotrader," Accessed Nov. 3, 2019.

  3. Carfax.com. "Partner with Carfax," Accessed Nov. 3, 2019.

  4. CarsDirect.com. "Who We Are," Accessed Nov. 3, 2019.

  5. CarsDirect.com. "The Special Finance Authority," Accessed Nov. 3, 2019.

  6. CarsDirect.com. "Auto Loan Providers," Accessed Nov. 5, 2019.

  7. Carvana.com. "The New Way to Sell Your Car," Accessed Nov. 3, 2019.

  8. Carvana.com. "Finance With Carvana," Accessed Nov. 3, 2019.

  9. Vroom.com. "Finance With Vroom," Accessed Nov. 3, 2019.

  10. Consumer Affairs.com. "Vroom Review," Accessed Nov. 5, 2019.

  11. Vroom.com. "Vroom Help Center," Accessed Nov. 3, 2019.