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Buying a Car During the Pandemic

Authored By: Chris Cooke on 1/11/2021

It's safe to say that the pandemic has significantly disrupted just about every corner of the retail world, and the auto industry is no exception. The pandemic has forever changed how we shop for and purchase both new and used vehicles.

Measures to stem the spread of Covid-19 - such as social distancing, shelter-in-place & shut-down orders, occupancy limits, and sanitization procedures - have put serious pressure on dealers to extend online sales and delivery options, thus eliminating the need to visit showrooms in some cases.

While auto sales have largely recovered to near pre-pandemic levels after huge losses early in the pandemic, many dealers are eager to make up for lost revenues and to hit new sales goals.

Of course, with sharply rising coronavirus case numbers and possible lockdowns and dealership closures, it's hard to say what the future holds.

The combination of last year's lost sales and general uncertainty has caused some automakers to roll out generous deals on highly profitable and popular models. If you're in good financial shape and can afford to purchase a new car, this could still be an excellent time for you to take advantage of motivated dealers offering special incentives.

Now that dealers have finally evolved online sales practices in response to the pandemic, little remains that must be done in-person at the dealership. In some cases, the entire process can be handled online, including contactless delivery of the vehicle.

What about used cars? There are still good deals to be found, and purchasing a used car can be a smart financial move depending on your situation.

The used car market took a big hit early in the pandemic and saw a significant decrease in used vehicles coming into dealerships. But once dealerships began to reopen in the late spring, the used car market experienced a surge with pent-up demand and cautious buyers looking to spend less, driving prices higher than usual.

While prices are settling and are expected to return to pre-pandemic levels, this can make it tricky to get the price you're looking for. That said, strong demand makes this is an excellent time to trade in your old car for a new one. So, what do you need to know?

3 Steps to Buying a Car During the Pandemic

Perhaps you've been thinking about getting a new car for some time now. Maybe your old vehicle is past its prime, your lease is up, or you're just ready for a change and a shiny new car. You've run the numbers; you can afford it, and you work in a stable job market and will more than likely get through this mess relatively unscathed. So, you've decided to purchase a new car smack dab in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic.

So, where do you start?

Step 1: Shop around and do your research. Just like in the pre-pandemic world, your car buying purchase begins by shopping around and choosing your next vehicle. Traditionally, this would involve investing a few weekends driving around to your local dealers, chatting with salespeople, and taking a few cars out for a test drive. That approach just isn't as desirable nowadays.

Luckily, there are several online resources that will make your auto research easier than ever. It's also possible to view available inventory and even initiate the purchasing process from the comfort and safety of your kitchen table.

Here are a few resources to start your research:

CUDL AutoSMART - enables you to conduct custom searches of new vehicles from existing stock.

Edmunds - delivers upfront pricing on new cars, new trucks, and new-to-you vehicles without haggling over price.

Car and Driver - is a leading automotive industry resource with the latest news and reviews of the vehicles you're interested in.

Kelley Blue Book - allows you to price new vehicles and research their values as well as get estimates on your car's trade-in value.

Step 2: Get pre-approved. Thankfully, the banking world long ago embraced doing business online. It's easy and smart to get pre-approved for a loan before you ever contact a car dealership. In fact, having your pre-approval in place comes with several key benefits.

  • Getting pre-approved will help you determine a realistic budget for your vehicle purchase. Sure, you really want that Tesla Roadster. But the pre-approval process will let you know whether it's in the cards or not this time around. You might have to settle for a Model X;)
  • Getting financing from the dealer is undoubtedly convenient, but you may end up paying a lot more in the long run. But if you haven't shopped around and gotten pre-approved, the dealer will likely try to give you a higher interest rate than you should pay. With a pre-approval in your pocket, you can rest easy knowing that you've gotten the best rate you can qualify for.
  • Having your pre-approval in hand will also give you a stronger negotiating position. Car salespeople will often focus on the size of the monthly payment. That's easier for the average buyer to wrap their head around than the total cost of buying the vehicle. But negotiating the monthly payment can often result in extra fees and costs getting stacked into the monthly payment, so you end up paying much more than you should over the long run. With pre-approval, you can skip the finance manager's shenanigans. Go straight to negotiating the total vehicle cost, aka, the out-the-door price, and you may save significantly.

Step 3: Take advantage of contactless options whenever possible. Most of the car buying process can now be done online without ever coming in physical contact with anyone. Going 100% contactless is undoubtedly the safest bet during the pandemic, but if that's not possible, eliminate as much direct contact as possible.

  • Check out virtual test drives like this one from While it's certainly not the same as assessing the car in person and taking it for an actual test drive, you can still learn a lot and get a feel for the vehicle that way.
  • Go with a dealer who offers at-home test drives if possible. With growing pressure to evolve the car buying process, more and more dealerships offer at-home test drives, where the dealership delivers the vehicle straight to your home for a specific block of time. Of course, you must exercise caution and make sure the car was adequately sanitized after the delivery driver exited it.
  • If you must visit the dealer in person to conduct your test drives - which, let's face it, is still pretty likely - use recommended precautions and follow the CDC's advice. Wear your mask and make sure they wear theirs! Ensure all surfaces in the vehicle have been sanitized or sanitize them yourself if you're not sure. It's also a good idea to bundle up so you can drive with the windows down for maximum airflow, especially if the salesperson must join you on the test ride.
  • Shop around at multiple dealers. Of course, you'll want to do your due diligence, explore different options, and find the best deals you can. But remember, these days, the negotiation process can be conducted entirely online, via email. Which, in addition to eliminating coronavirus risks, can help you in the negotiation process. You'll have time to think through your response or ask for advice from friends or colleagues rather than going head to head in person with a motivated salesperson that negotiates for a living all day, every day.
  • The next step is signing and submitting all the various paperwork required. The good news that many dealers will now allow you to take care of this step virtually and ahead of time. Ask the dealers if this is an option they offer as you shop around. It's safer, and it can reduce the time spent with a salesperson getting final signatures and wrapping things up.
  • And the last step, of course, is taking possession of your new vehicle. More and more dealers are actually starting to offer home delivery. Again, if this is an option you'd prefer or require, be sure to ask during the research and shopping around phase. If you've taken care of most of the paperwork online, the drop off should be short and sweet. As always, wear your mask and be sure to sanitize your new car before you take it out for the inaugural spin. Of course, you could leave your Tesla Model X in the garage for a week to make sure it's free of Coronavirus and safe to drive. But we both know that's not going to happen!


Happy Car Hunting!

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