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Online car shopping in ten simple steps

Surfing the internet for a car can leave you feeling lost in a maze of car websites. For a focused search, stick to this ten step strategy when shopping for cars online.

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You decide it’s time for a new car so, naturally, you jump on the internet and start surfing. Two hours later, your head is swimming, and you’re no closer to your destination. Why? You didn’t use our car-buying road map.

We’ve done the surfing and legwork for you by connecting the dots. We will remind you of the best new-car route and the sites to see along the way. We’re not saying these are the only sources of good information on the internet, but the following suggestions are our picks for reliable data and easy navigation.

This road map follows the car-buying steps outlined in How to Buy a Used Car, where you can find a more detailed explanation of each step.

1. Set your budget

Before you decide what car to buy, you need to know how you are going to finance it and what your monthly payment should be. It’s a good idea to get pre-approved for a car loan and run the numbers through an auto loan calculator or a lease calculator. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has a downloadable worksheet for tracking all auto loan costs.

2. Choose the right car

Now that you know your price range, the fun begins: finding the best car to suit your needs. Most of the major car-buying sites have search tools to help you sort through a crowded field of choices. Use Edmunds’ car finder to build a list of three to five target cars and click through the results to read road tests by automotive experts and reviews by current owners.

3. Check reliability, safety and ownership costs

For years, Consumer Reports has collected repair data from owners, but a subscription fee is required to access all the information. Another source is J.D. Power, which also provides lists of its top picks. Kelley Blue Book has a great breakdown of all car-related expenses in its 5-Year Cost to Own tool. To check out safety ratings, go to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s SaferCar.gov. And while you’re at it, find the fuel economy onFuelEconomy.gov.

4. Locate your car

AutoTrader is a great resource for new and used cars because you can filter your search to find exactly what you want. CarGurus is a newer site with friendly navigation for new and used cars. Craigslist is good for low-end used cars, but beware of scammers. For used cars, CarMax has created a friendly shopping experience with no-haggle pricing. Its inventory can be searched in person or online. And you can always search the inventory of your local dealership’s website.

5. Price the cars

Pricing guides are an essential tool to show you the sticker and invoice prices and — most importantly — the current market value of the car you want to buy. There will be differences between guides, and some are made easier to read and understand by the use of graphs, charts or columns of figures. Recently, TrueCar.com has grabbed attention by urging buyers to push for the lowest price — but it’s a good idea to check several pricing information sources.

6. Check the vehicle history report

If you are buying used, getting the vehicle history report is a quick way to see if the car’s past has any red flags. Dealers routinely provide these reports for free — if you ask. Many used car listing sites link to the car’s vehicle history report. If you are buying a used car from a private party, you will have to purchase your own report from either CarFax or AutoCheck.

7. Contact the seller

Before you go to see a new or used car, you should contact the seller. Here’s how to handle this step whether you’re buying new or used.

  • New cars: Call the dealership’s internet manager and verify that the car you’ve found is still for sale and has the color and options you want. By calling first, you can build rapport with the salesperson and gauge the level of customer service provided by this dealership.
  • Used cars: If you’re buying from a private party, it saves time to contact the seller and verify the information in the listing. The listings on eBayMotors.com make this easy by allowing you to email questions to the seller. But before you get too far into the deal, go old school and establish phone contact.

8. Test-drive and inspect the car

The problem with test-driving new cars is you don’t get much time in the car and you get the hard sell when you return to the lot. Instead, call ahead and schedule a test-drive through the internet department. If you sound like a serious buyer, you might even convince them to bring the car to you for a test-drive. Carmakers are always experimenting with extended and remote test-drives, such as Buick’s 24-hour test-drive program.

If you’re buying a certified pre-owned car, you can skip the pre-purchase inspection or order a mobile vehicle inspection.

9. Negotiate the best price

Most people hate negotiating. But you can remove the stress by using the dealer quote system. Or let a car-buying service, car broker or car concierge locate your vehicle, make the deal and maybe even have it delivered to your home. If you handle this step yourself, remember: Before you say yes to a new car deal, ask for an out-the-door price and a breakdown of all fees.

10. Close the deal

Whether you’re on the car lot or buying from a private party, you have to handle the payment and paperwork correctly.

  • New cars: Now that you have a breakdown of a dealer’s fees, plug them into the NerdWallet calculator and remember that registry fees will be extra. When you see the contract, make sure the numbers match and no new charges or fees have suddenly been added.
  • Used cars: If you are buying a used car from a dealer, the process is similar to that of reviewing a new-car contract. When you buy from a private party, go to your state’s motor vehicle registry website to see what forms are required.

Philip Reed is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email:preed@nerdwallet.com.

This article first appeared at NerdWallet.

The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of the best personal finance bloggers out there. Our guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. To contact us about a blogger, click here. To add or view a comment on a guest blog, please go to the blogger's own site by clicking on the link in the blog description box above.

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