Car shopping is shifting online, which means more and more people are buying a car that they haven’t seen in person. While the convenience of this prospect is undeniable, there’s also a chance you could get burned. Steve Lehto, consumer protection attorney and Road and Track contributor, said in a recent podcast to never buy a car sight unseen because you often don’t really know what you’re getting. You simply can’t know everything about the car from photographs and the information that a seller provides to the buyer.

Even if you’re not purposely misled, there’s likely something about that car that you won’t like or would have impacted your decision to buy. In Letho’s podcast, he urges people to never buy a car without seeing it in person or having it inspected by someone you hire or trust. While we fully agree with Lehto, we understand that technology is pushing people to buy cars online without actually seeing them up close. Luckily, there are a few things you can do to make sure you buy a good car when you do.

Do Your Homework

researching online

You can track down most car histories easily enough with services like Experian, AutoCheck or CarFax. While knowing the vehicle’s documented history is important, it doesn’t show you everything, and sometimes things get left out of a car’s history report. Just because these reports aren’t infallible, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t look over them. It just means you can’t trust them completely.

To get a vehicle history report, go to the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System's website. It will direct you to a number of websites that can issue you a report for a small fee. According to Edmunds, 88 percent of U.S. DMV data is represented in the NMVTIS, which means there’s a good chance the car in question will have at least some information on file.

Get the Car Inspected


In Letho’s podcast, he suggests having the car inspected by someone other than the seller. There are many car selling websites out there that claim to inspect cars themselves. However, when the buyer receives delivery of the car, they realize it has issues. The best way to ensure that the car you’re interested is in good condition is to have a friend or someone you hire look over and drive the car.

At the very least hire a person to do a point-by-point inspection. Websites like WeGoLook offer services where a car inspector will go out to the seller of the car and look over the vehicle for you. Some car inspection companies, like CARCHEX, offer a test drive service as well as a detailed point-by-point inspection, which is preferable because there are some things you can’t tell until you actually drive the car.

Make Sure You’re Protected

Signing a contract

Read the fine print. Too often people buy a car as is. When the vehicle that shows up at their door isn’t what they expected, they’re either in for a long legal fight or simply stuck with a car they have no desire to own. Read over the seller’s contract carefully, and if you see anything you don’t like, bring it up to the person selling the car. If they really want to sell, they’ll work with you.

Don’t think you have the skills to understand the contract yourself? Have an attorney look over the document. This may seem like more hassle than it’s worth. However, if you don’t have the contract looked over by a legal professional, you could get stuck with an undesireable car.

Shop at the Right Website

You shouldn't buy a car sight unseen at just any website. Many people buy cars sight unseen on Craigslist or eBay, but you have to know how to do it right in order to not fall victim to a scam. There are some new car selling websites out there that streamline the car buying process and try to do their best to protect the shopper.

Carvana is one of them. At Carvana, you can search for a car, do a 360-degree virtual tour of the vehicle, get financing and make a purchase all online. Once you buy the car, you have the choice of having it delivered to your house or you can pick it up from one of the company’s vehicle vending machines. Carvana does its own inspection process and looks at a vehicle’s history report for you. Basically, the company tries to cut out all the work for you.

Carvana isn’t the only car company taking a new approach to sight unseen car buying. Beepi was a major player in this segment of the industry with a system similar to Carvana. However, Beepi recently merged with, and it is unclear as of yet how things will go in the future. As time goes on, we’re likely to see more of these types of websites pop up.

Does Buying Sight Unseen Scare You? Don’t Do It

worried guy

If you’re at all uncomfortable purchasing a car without seeing it in person first, don’t do it. There are plenty of other options out there, from shopping online for a car near you that you can then go test drive to going down the road to the nearest dealership and talking with one of the sales representatives. Car shopping may be shifting to a more online model, but that doesn't mean you have to be an early adopter or jump on the sight unseen car shopping bandwagon.

The safest way to shop for a car is still to go look at it yourself and test drive the vehicle. That way you’ll not only be sure the car is in the condition it’s supposed to be in, but you’ll also be able to tell if the car you think you want is really right for you. Many people go test drive a car and realize it’s not the right vehicle for them. Test drives and in-person inspections may not be necessary anymore, but they still make a lot of sense.