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How to Buy a Car During a Pandemic

Four tips for worry-free car shopping at the dealership or from home.

Before you head to the dealership, begin your car shopping experience online.  

Minerva Studio / Alamy

The old model of buying a car—parking yourself at the dealership, test-driving a few models, haggling over a desk—isn't viable in this new era of social distancing and extreme hygiene. But people still need to purchase cars. Here's how to shop for your next ride online or in person.

1. Do your homework.

Research and compare cars online. With enough at-home legwork, you may never even have to step onto the sales floor. To narrow your options, consult the AAA Car Guide at AAA.com/carguide. (This year's top pick is the 2020 Volvo S90 T8 eAWD R-Design, a plug-in hybrid.) "Buyers may not have experienced the latest technology for themselves," says Bryan Steward, general manager of AAA AutoSource (a buying service available in Oregon). "The AAA Car Guide can point them in the right direction." Another good resource to check: AAA.com/carreviews.

Many dealerships and online car buying resources let you compare vehicles, review car history reports, take virtual showroom tours with 360-degree views, apply for financing, order an inspection, get a trade-in appraised, and negotiate, all without leaving your home.

If you're planning on taking out a loan for the purchase, get pre-approved through the dealership or your financial institution.

2. Ask how the vehicles are being handled.

If you're ready for a showroom visit, find out how the dealership is managing crowds and cleanliness. Does it limit the number of in-person customers and take clients only by appointment? How thoroughly are vehicles cleaned between drivers? All common surfaces should be disinfected regularly, especially before and after test drives and prior to the sale.

3. Wear protective gear and stay distanced.

When visiting a dealership, take all the precautions we're now accustomed to: Wear a mask, and insist that staffers do the same. Bring disinfecting wipes, hand sanitizer, and your own pen. As much as possible, stay at least six feet away from anyone you're working with. Test drives are tricky: Ask your dealer about doing one at home.

4. Close the deal at home.

With some effort, you can complete the car-buying process at home. Once you've come to an agreement, ask the dealer to email you the out-the-door numbers on a legally binding buyer's order, then schedule a time to have your new vehicle delivered to your home. The key should be left on your doorstep; paperwork can be left on the passenger seat for you to review and sign. "Most dealers will do everything in their power to accommodate you," says Marie Dodds, public and government affairs director for AAA Oregon. "Buyers have more say on the matter than ever before."