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Buying a car online

So you want to buy a car? You flick through the car ads in your local paper, wander around a couple of car showrooms; perhaps you even buy a copy of Parker’s motoring guide. Somehow you end up engaged in a toe-curling haggling session with a salesman in a dodgy suit who smooth-talks you into a deal that’s more than you can really afford. Surely there must be a better way?

The web can be your most powerful ally when buying a car. It could save you from the ignominy of shelling out on a second-hand car that turns out to be a lemon, or a new model that depreciates faster than you can say power steering .

You can use the web to do everything from figuring out what make and model suits you, to locating a suitable seller, and finally ordering and paying for your new car.

Many buyers plump for the first two stages, but refuse to commit to buying a car – particularly one with a few miles already on the clock – sight unseen.

But where to start? There are a bewildering number of motoring websites to choose from.

I’ll go through the stages of buying a car one-by-one and explain how useful the web can be in helping this stage of the car-buying process go smoothly.

The research stage

First you need to make two vital decisions: how much do you want to spend and what kind of car are you looking for?

Several sites have buyers’ guides that can help you to compare one model to another within your budget: among the best are AA’s car buying guide and Parker’s price guide. Both review new and used models and will also estimate how much your current car is worth.

The other potential car buyer’s essential bookmark is What Car? Online. with comprehensive reviews and ratings for both new and used cars and its target price search facility will allow you to check whether your budget will realistically stretch to a Lexus RX. If it’s a new car you’re after, the Car Pages’ new car guide is also worth a look.

Once you’ve settled on a make and model, don’t ignore your chosen manufacturer’s website. Most allow you to order brochures, book test drives and check both new and used models that dealers have in stock without the need to tramp around car showrooms. UK-Click has a full list of manufacturers’ UK sites here .

Then head for the European New Car Assessment Programme site to find out how your dream car/old banger (delete as appropriate) performed in a variety of crash tests. Whether you live in a high crime area or not, if car security is important to you, check out Thatcham ‘s Vehicle Security Ratings for a five-star rating of how easy it could be to steal and to steal from. Thatcham also rates new cars for whiplash, here .

The search stage

By now you should have a rough idea of the kind of car you want and how much you are prepared to pay for it. Now you need to find someone willing to sell you the right car at the right price. This could be a private seller, a franchised dealer, a car supermarket, a car auction or an internet-only seller. The net allows you to widen your search far beyond the ads in the back of your local paper, which can be crucial if you have set your heart on a rare model, colour or specification, or have a limited budget.

But before you commit to buying a car from a private seller or dealer located hundreds of miles away from you, remember, at some point you have to pick the thing up. This could be a hassle if the seller’s in Aberdeen and you’re in St Ives.

Buying a new car

If you want to carry out the whole car-buying process online to purchase and beyond, there are more than a dozen UK net-only new car sales sites to choose from, all with slightly different offerings in terms of stock, site features and prices. Find yourself a site that suits your needs: the online buying sites scorecard from the comprehensive and aptly-named Where-can-I-buy-a-car-online site is very helpful at laying out their pros and cons.

One site that’s worth flagging up is Drive the Deal. Where-can-I-buy-a-car-online says of this site: Make sure you at least check this site out when doing your online price comparisons as it consistently came in far below other online vendors I looked at. Meanwhile OneSwoop. which is owned by Norwich Union, is rated as Where-can-I-buy-a-car-online’s best bet site.

Reading the small print is particularly important if you are going to buy a new car, sight unseen. Check how long will it be before your car is delivered. If it has been imported to the UK, will the specification and warranty be the same as models sold in UK franchised dealers? Make sure you get this in writing so that you have a paper record should the site disappoint.

If you do decide to do the buying in person rather than online, trawling sales sites will give you a target price to keep firmly in mind when you engage in the battle of wills that is the price negotiation process, either with a salesperson or a private seller. Use the links on the left-hand side of the Car Pages site to locate trade sellers within driving distance of your home: many have sites listing their current inventory which could save you a pointless journey, too. The British Independent Motor Trade Association, which represents non-franchised car dealers, has a search tool that allows you to find Bimta-approved dealers selling your chosen model in your area.

Buying a used car

There are even more places to look online if you decide to buy a used car. When it comes to name recognition, the two sites that stand out are Ebay Motors and AutoTrader .

Ebay Motors’ biggest plus is that many car buyers are now familiar with its online auction format. The site’s head, Claire Gilmartin, says that a UK car is sold on eBay every four minutes, each one attracting an average of seven bids.

However it’s the eBay buzz that can be a buyer’s biggest downfall, though: bids are binding, so think carefully before you click away and commit to buying a car of which you’ve only seen a blurry digital photo. Many buyers choose to search by region to ensure they’re close enough to inspect the car in person first. EBay’s advice to buyers is invaluable. Many people fail to read this, and quite literally pay the price.

If you’re worried you’ll get carried away on eBay, try AutoTrader, where you’ll have to make your arrangements directly with the seller once you’ve shortlisted a car. One of AutoTrader’s strong points is a postcode search, so every listing includes the distance in miles from your location to the seller – very handy if you want to take the sensible precaution of checking it out in person. You can also narrow the search to private individuals or dealers, or see both, although some could find the pop-up window layout for individual ads annoying.

Other options include using Autolocate or the slicker site AllApprovedCars. to search the inventories of thousands of used car dealers.

Buying the car

Before money changes hands, make sure you’re up to speed on the legal aspects of buying and selling by reading the AA’s advice. including their print out and keep the legal contract for private car sales.

And don’t forget to check your chosen car’s history for fraud, finance or other problems, and find out whether you’ll be able to afford the insurance by visiting services such as HPI or Carfax. If things do go wrong, the Office of Fair Trading has links to the organisations that can help you get things sorted out.

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