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How to Buy a Car During the COVID-19 Pandemic

People aren't driving as much as they used to during the COVID-19 pandemic, but if you're in the market for a new car, you can still get one. Depending on where you live and the restrictions imposed by state and local governments, though, the process can be a lot more challenging than you might think.

Here's what you should keep in mind if you're considering a new car purchase in the near future.

Are Car Dealerships Open?

Many states and counties have stay-at-home or shelter-in-place orders that prevent dealerships from operating as usual. As a result, you may not have the opportunity to shop for a car in person.

Keep in mind, though, that health and safety orders are fluid, and many states are beginning to relax certain rules as conditions continue to evolve. So while your local dealerships might not be open now, they may be in the near future.

When the dealerships do open, you can expect them to practice social-distancing rules, such as solo test drives, home delivery and no-contact pickups. In some cases, test drives may not even be an option, which could be a deal breaker for many buyers.

If you're planning to buy a car in person, try to do all of your research online so you can avoid spending more time at the dealership than you have to.

If you can't wait or you want to avoid going out even with relaxed rules, it's possible to shop for and buy a car online. Carvana, for example, allows you to browse used-vehicle inventory and complete your purchase, including financing, from your kitchen table. A delivery driver will bring the car to you, and you'll have seven days to return or exchange it.

There may be some costs associated with delivery, however, if you don't live in one of Carvana's local markets.

Trade-Ins Can Be Complicated

If you're planning to trade in your current car to reduce the price of the new one, the appraisal process may vary by dealer. Some, for instance, may avoid the most frequently used areas of your car, and the interior may need to be cleaned before a technician takes it for a test-drive.

Call your local dealer ahead of time to find out what their appraisal process looks like to make sure you feel safe.

Also, consider selling the vehicle to a private party instead of trading it in at the dealership. While trade-ins are much more convenient, you could get hundreds or even thousands of dollars less than if you were to sell the car on your own. The process can take more time, but if you're hurting for cash or simply want to maximize your savings on the new car, a private-party sale could be a better option if you can complete the process with current restrictions in mind.

Now May Be a Good Time to Buy

Even if dealerships in your area are doing business as usual, there are likely fewer people in the market to buy a car, especially considering over 30 million U.S. workers have filed unemployment claims since the coronavirus crisis began.

This lower demand means that you'll not only be more likely to find the model you want, but you may also find salespeople more motivated to negotiate on your terms to meet sales goals.

Also, due to interest rate cuts by the Federal Reserve, you may be able to get a lower interest rate on your auto loan. Note, however, that some lenders are tightening credit criteria to reduce their exposure to risk, so you may need a higher credit score, more income and a bigger down payment than would have been required before the pandemic began.

Also, keep in mind that while there aren't currently any model shortages, many domestic and international car manufacturers have shut down or reduced production, so there may less inventory of new models later in the year. There will also likely be delays for the 2021 model year.

What to Do if Your Current Lease Is Expiring Soon

Depending on the dealership you leased your car from, you may have a few different options with your expiring lease. For example, you may be able to return the vehicle through the service department, or the dealer may have someone pick up the car at your home.

In some instances, the dealer may simply extend your lease agreement for a few months to avoid potential problems with returning it.

Of course, you'll also have the option to purchase the vehicle at the end of the lease. If you're considering this, do some research to find the value of the vehicle and compare that with the sales price.

If the car is worth more than what the dealer is asking for, buying may be a good idea. But if you'll end up paying more than what the car is worth, replacing it with a new lease or buying a new or used car may be a better option.

Consider Your Financial Situation Before You Pull the Trigger

The current situation is complicated, and while you may be financially able to purchase a new car now, things can change quickly. If you work in an industry that may be impacted by the coronavirus crisis, it may be best to hold off on major purchases until things go back to normal.

The last thing you want to do is to get locked into a car loan payment, then lose your job. Some lenders are willing to work with you if you're experiencing financial hardship, but it's not the same as avoiding the issue in the first place.

Unless buying a new car right now is a necessity, think twice before you start the process.

Stay Safe While Buying a Car

The best way to stay safe is to avoid buying a car unless absolutely necessary. But if you're in an emergency situation or you want to take advantage of low demand, here are some steps you can take to remain safe during the pandemic:

  • Do as much research online as possible to minimize in-person contact.
  • Consider purchasing your car online instead of at the dealership.
  • Talk to local dealers to understand which measures they're taking to protect customers.
  • Try to avoid dealers that limit your interactions with the vehicles, such as not allowing test drives.
  • Shop around for auto loans online before you head to the dealership.
  • Wear a face mask at the dealership and use hand sanitizer or wash your hands after being in contact with other people or touching surfaces.

Check Your Credit Score Before You Buy

Unless you're buying a car outright with cash, you'll need to finance the vehicle with an auto loan. The best interest rates are generally reserved for people with great credit, so check your credit score to see where you stand.

If your credit isn't in great shape and you have time before you need to purchase a car, work to improve your credit before you start the car-buying process. If not, you may end up with a relatively high interest rate, or you may not get approved at all. Taking the time to boost your score could pay off when it's time to buy.

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