Buying a new car should be a joy, but the up-selling and haggling you’re likely to get at a dealership can quickly turn the experience sour.
Fortunately—say it with me—there’s an app for that.
The only surprising thing about today’s online-and-app car-buying services is that it took so long for them to appear. After all, you can have an app pick clothes for you—or arrange a date with a stranger—so what’s the big deal about buying a car without kicking the tires?
“Unless you’re looking for a very rare vehicle, cars are a buyer’s market,” says Linda Sherry, a director at Consumer Action, a national nonprofit advocacy group based in San Francisco.
And if you’re thinking of buying new wheels, now’s the time to pull the trigger. Discounts on new cars are largest in December, as dealers try to clear inventory to make way for 2019 models.
To maximize your savings, follow this guide.
Start your engines
Why gaze at car models in a lot, when you can gaze at them on your phone or computer screen? To help you decide on a specific make and model, read reviews on sites like edmunds.com (free) and consumerreports.org ($35 for a one-year digital subscription). Both have an app version, too.
Then head to car-listing sites and apps like autotrader.com and cars.com. They offer a look at nearly every used car for sale by dealerships—and many being sold by individuals—near your hometown. After selecting a particular model, make, range of years, maximum mileage, and distance you’re willing to travel from your home zip code, you’ll see what’s on the market and what the asking prices are.
The listings often include analyses of the asking price compared to a national standard, such as Kelley Blue Book, but Sherry suggests taking those numbers with a grain of salt. “Take a look at the prices for a dozen of the same car, and you know the market,” she says.
The ads also typically include free CarFax reports, which give the vehicle’s accident and repair history—though you might have to pay. “Many individual sellers and even small dealers can’t afford an account that gives every online shopper free access,” says Autotrader executive editor Brian Moody.
But if you’re seriously shopping, Moody says, it’s worth paying $100 for up to six CarFax reports.
Roll out on the street
If you want to negotiate via app, but buy in person, head to TrueCar. Enter the make, model, year, trim line, color and every other detail you want, right down to the spoiler or remote car starter.
Armed with that info, TrueCar will give you a bell curve showing fair, good, and great prices people near you have paid for the exact vehicle you’re interested in—and connect you with local partner dealers who will charge you an excellent price (or sometimes less!) without any haggling.
Speed along the highway
Brave enough to buy sight unseen? The newest breed of online/app car service, Carvana, mimics the Amazon model.
Carvana is an online dealership for pre-owned (i.e. used) vehicles. You search its inventory, and buy the car you want, no haggling involved.
The car is delivered the next day—unless you’re in one of 14 markets around the country where the company has one of its car vending machines, a nine-story automated parking garage that will literally dispense your vehicle for you.
You get to inspect and test-drive the car at delivery—and if you’re happy with the vehicle, you trade a cashier’s check for the car keys. The same works in reverse for your trade in, if you have one: The driver brings you a check for a pre-agreed-to value, and after an on-site inspection, loads it onto the same flatbed that delivered your new vehicle.
Carvana certifies that its cars have not been in accidents and have passed a 150-point inspection. They also come with a 100-day bumper-to-bumper warranty—and a seven-day return policy; a driver will come to pick it up with no questions asked.