May 29, 2023

Buying a car online? Here’s how it compares to traditional dealers.

You know that term “middle of nowhere”? That’s where my husband works.

It is for that reason – and that reason alone – that I agreed to buy a car two years earlier than scheduled. Despite taking good care of it, his 10-year-old vehicle regularly required the automotive version of CPR, and I listen to far too many true crime podcasts to ignore my husband’s (probable) fate should that car break down in the middle of nowhere.

It just so happened that our son and daughter-in-law were car shopping the same week. While we visited a dealer near our home to purchase a new vehicle, they purchased used cars online through Vroom.

Comparing the experiences

Our kids came to visit a few weeks after we made our purchases, and we had plenty of time to compare notes and decide who got the best deal.

Spoiler alert: They did. The moment they chose to buy low-mileage vehicles and skip paying the “new car premium,” they won. Still, we compared features that traditional dealerships handle exceptionally well and those that online dealers have down pat.

Where traditional dealerships have a leg up

By comparing notes, we determined that purchasing through a traditional dealership boasts a few advantages:


While we normally opt for a low-mileage used car, this time around the vehicle we purchased was new. That meant that there were manufacturer incentives available that brought the price down. No such incentives were available through the online dealership.


We were able to test drive the exact car we would be buying, whereas the kids purchased cars they’d never driven. Vroom offers seven days (or 250 miles) to test drive a vehicle. If the buyer decides it’s not right for them, they can return the car within that period.

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If they traded in a car, their original vehicle would be returned to them. However, if they decide to return the car, they must pay a restocking fee or be out the amount they originally paid for shipping ($699 to $999). The ability to test drive the car before making the purchase offered a better sense of whether we were doing the right thing.

Time spent waiting for delivery

We were able to pick our vehicle up within hours of purchase. Our kids waited 10 days for one car to be delivered and more than three weeks for the other one to make its way across the country. The edge here goes to the traditional dealer, particularly if you need a new car quickly.

New car owner training

Each of the vehicles has its own set of bells and whistles, some of which we’re unfamiliar with. Our dealership schedules a time for new buyers to return and go over each feature with an expert. While a BMW dealership near our son’s house does the same for all BMW owners, regardless of where they purchased their vehicle, it does not appear to be an option with the Audi.

Where online dealerships have the advantage

The advantages don’t all go to traditional dealerships. Shopping with online dealerships offers its own set of benefits:

Time spent shopping

When we buy a car, we typically drive from dealership to dealership, wasting our time. Shopping online means being able to narrow down what you want from the comfort of your living room.

Time spent at DMV

One thing Vroom did that our dealership did not was make sure sales taxes were paid, paperwork was filed, and the new cars were licensed. Along with what appeared to be every living soul in our county, we stood in line at the DMV to take care of those issues on our own.

Ease of trade-in

It was apparent that we were serious about buying a new car, which gave the dealership little motivation to sweeten the deal. While we had lost confidence in the vehicle we were trading, we were still surprised by how low the trade-in offer ended up being. On the other hand, the kids received a higher trade-in price on both of their cars than expected. According to Edmunds, online salespeople assume three things: Car buyers are informed, have shopped around, and may not necessarily purchase today.

Ease of negotiation

Vroom does not allow for haggling. The advertised price is the price the consumer pays. While there are plenty of folks who live for negotiating a lower price, no one in our family enjoys the dance. There are few things more uncomfortable than sitting in a room with a salesperson or finance manager who makes us feel as though we’re being held hostage. Besides, knowing that the sticker price is the price means you can move on without wasting your time if it’s outside your comfort zone.

Where both sellers got it right

Auto dealerships, whether online inventory or your traditional sprawling car lot, clearly both have a couple things down pat:

Ease of financing

Our credit union had a great financing deal, while our kids were surprised by the low rate offered through Vroom. Financing was fast and easy all around and ended up being good for our bank accounts.


Whether we purchased through an online dealer or brick-and-mortar dealership, we were all able to purchase extended warranties on our vehicles. As it turns out, we’re all fairly certain that our vehicles will break down the day after the manufacturer’s warranty expires, so the convenience of purchasing an extended warranty at the time of purchase is important to us.

As with any vehicle purchase, it pays to do your homework. Find out how much the car you’re shopping for typically costs. That way, you’ll know if you’re getting a good deal, whether you’re buying online or working with a dealership in your area.

We’re firm believers in the Golden Rule, which is why editorial opinions are ours alone and have not been previously reviewed, approved, or endorsed by included advertisers. The Ascent does not cover all offers on the market. Editorial content from The Ascent is separate from The Motley Fool editorial content and is created by a different analyst team.The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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