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How to buy a car online

Despite all the benefits of online dating services, couples meet in person before heading down the aisle. But surveys show that growing numbers of car buyers are taking the online-only approach, avoiding the hard sell in the showroom and even skipping the test drive altogether.

There’s no question an Internet search allows the car shopper to cast a bigger net, improving the odds of landing a great deal they might not get if they’re limited to what’s at the dealership. And if you save hundreds of dollars or more, it may be worth going 100 miles to pick up your new baby.

But most buyers will be wise to take a hybrid approach, visiting a dealership or two in addition to scouring the Web. If you haven’t shopped for a car in a few years, it may be news to you that some dealerships now have an “ Internet department” to help buyers find vehicles that aren’t on the lot, often at substantial savings.

An online search can certainly help you find a good used car as well as a new one, but there are just too many potential problems with older cars to risk buying sight unseen. In fact, unless there’s a terrific warranty, you should really have your own mechanic check the vehicle before signing any sales contracts. A new car is a safer bet for Internet shopping because today’s warranties cover so much and last so long.

Still, it can be pretty risky to buy a car without having driven the same year, make and model with similar options. Reviews are helpful, but it’s not likely the reviewer was exactly your height and weight, shared your concern over blind spots or the feel of the arm rest. You really have to get in the driver’s seat to know if a vehicle feels right, and it’s a good idea to have the family ride too.

The chief benefit of Internet shopping is price comparison. Start by checking your preferred model at sites such as Yahoo! Autos, and look for the typical price over dealer’s invoice. Then use their services, or the manufacturer’s own website to find vehicles within a specified distance of your home.

The test drive can obviously be done at the local dealership, but in fairness, the dealer who provides a test drive should be given a chance to match or beat any deal you find online. Going in with printouts of the cheapest deals will boost your negotiating clout and help you avoid the hard sell, though you may be pressed to accept a car on the lot that’s not exactly what you want. It will help if you’re not in a desperate hurry.

Also, as mentioned above, ask a person at the dealership for its Internet department, typically one or more sales people assigned to get a hold of vehicles that aren’t already on the lot. A dealer’s Internet department could provide an identical vehicle for $1,000 less than the same dealer’s traditional sales people.

Experts say sticking with the same Internet salesperson for the test drive and all paperwork can streamline the process and eliminate additional pressure for financing and unwanted options.

Before signing a contract, though, ask about all fees on top of the sales price, registration and tax. Don’t get stung by an unexpected “documentation fee,” for example. Some dealers charge hundreds of dollars just for filling out paperwork.

If you haven’t seen the car you are agreeing to buy, be sure to find out how many miles are on it, as some “new” cars have hundreds of miles that should reduce the price paid.

Also, be sure to ask if you will be charged for any aftermarket add-ons such as mud flaps, tinted windows or a paint-protection package. Sometimes, dealers neglect to mention these until the last minute.