• Buying Guides

How Long Does it Take to Buy a Car?

By Autolist Editorial | May 12, 2021

How long does it actually take to buy a car from start to finish? Cox Automotive Research & Market Intelligence came out with a 2020 study about the car-buying experience, based on a survey of thousands of car buyers.

When the average consumer goes to a lot to purchase a vehicle, they spend an average of 2 hours and 50 minutes with the dealer, including time spent looking at vehicles and talking with salespeople, test driving vehicles of interest, negotiating for purchase price and trade-in value, and signing on the dotted line to close the deal.

Most people are in the car-buying “market” for an average of 89 days, according to the study. While car shopping, consumers typically spend more than 9 hours researching vehicles they like and shopping online for a vehicle to purchase.

In truth, the car buying process can take even longer in some cases. This is especially true if you do not have the right paperwork with you or if financing takes longer than expected. If you have a trade-in, it can also hold things up. Let's take a look at what takes so long when buying a car.

What Affects The Purchase Time?

There are three main factors that affect purchase time at a car dealership. Two of which are based on the type of financing you are planning to use, whether through a bank or through the dealership. The latter is going to take longer.

If you are buying a new vehicle with cash, this will shave time off your experience and may even give you better pricing overall, sometimes even below the sticker price. If you have a vehicle to trade in, then you can expect to spend more time at the dealership on average.

Why Does The Process Take So Long?

There are a few reasons that buying a car takes such a long time:

  1. Many car buyers do not come into the dealership properly prepared for the car buying process. They do not know what is on their credit report or even what their credit score is. Furthermore, they may not have proper paperwork, like proof of auto insurance or the title for their trade-in, readily available.

  2. Dealers still tend to rely on a strategy of wearing buyers down to get the price of the car more in their favor.

  3. Buyers may have poor credit, which requires salespeople to jump through a few added hoops to find a financing deal for the buyer.

  4. Buyers have no idea what type of car they want to buy. This generally translates to additional time to browse the inventory and test drive vehicles of interest before narrowing down the options available to them.

Why Does It Take Longer With A Trade-In?

Having a trade-in could extend your car buying time by days, not just hours. For example, if the dealer does not offer you a fair price, you may have to leave and try your luck with Carmax or even sell your car privately.

If this affects your immediate ability to buy, then it could mean putting the purchase off for days. However, assuming that you do not leave the dealership, you will spend extra time there while the dealer looks over your car and negotiates a price.

Car Buying in the Age of COVID-19

As you can see, a lot goes into the car buying process. By allowing yourself enough time to deal with salespeople, properly peruse available inventory, and take a lengthy test drive, you can be better assured that the car you end up with is one that you will enjoy for the foreseeable future.

But what happens when you need to practice social distancing but still need to buy a car? A lot has changed about the way folks find and buy cars during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Edmunds notes that buying online and arranging for contactless test drives and deliveries is quite popular and may be for the next few years, or even indefinitely.

Nearly all auto dealerships now offer customers the ability to do most of the car-buying steps necessary, from car loan arrangements to test drives, without coming in to the dealership.

Be sure to find your next new or used ride by searching AutoList.com.

How To Speed Things Up

Buyers tend to have a love/hate relationship with car shopping. They hate the tedium of the process but enjoy getting a good deal. If you want to make your car buying process go faster, there are a few things you can do.

First, get your own financing or come in with cash.

Second, figure out which additional items you are interested in buying at the dealership before going in.

One area where things slow down is when the car salesman tries to convince you to buy a number of additional add-ons or choose advanced safety features with your car, like an extended warranty, a sunroof, or a special undercoating to reduce the chance of rust on down the road. If you already know exactly what you want and do not want, you can speed through this part.

The third tip is to shop around at other dealerships and negotiate your deal in advance over the phone or online. And last of all, know what type of car interests you most before you head out car shopping. This can reduce the time you spend looking over the available inventory and taking test drives of cars that you like most.

What Should You Bring Into The Dealership?

As previously mentioned, unprepared buyers are one of the top reasons for lengthy car buying times. Before you head into the dealership, take a look at this checklist of items you will need:

  • Payment if you have arranged financing with an outside lender, and/or down payment (this might be a cashier's check, personal check, or credit card)

  • Driver's license

  • Trade-in vehicle title

  • Current registration for trade-in

  • Proof of car insurance from your insurance company

  • Trade-in loan account number, if applicable

  • Rebate eligibility documents, if applicable

What About Special Orders?

If you want a specific car that you cannot locate on any dealer lot, you might opt to have a new one shipped from the factory or let the dealer find your car through trading with other dealerships. If you do this, you can expect to wait up to 12 weeks for an American-made vehicle and several months for a foreign vehicle. If you are depending on the dealership to find you a specific old car or a vintage sports car, the time might vary, and in some cases, they may not be able to find it for you at all.

Is It Faster To Buy Used Vehicles?

The process of buying a used car at a dealership is a little bit different than buying a new car.

First, you will typically have to order an inspection for a used car. The dealership may give you some idea from their service department what is wrong with it, but you will probably want to get an opinion from your mechanic as well.

The second aspect is that used cars are generally cheaper than new cars, so it is usually also easier to buy them with cash or get an auto loan. However, searching for the right used car can be a time-consuming process. You might find something that looks great at first, but then you get in to look at it and find out that it has serious issues. In other words, buying a used car can be short and sweet, or it can take much longer than buying a new car.

And that's not to mention buying from a private seller, which can be a fast way to get behind the wheel of a car you want at the best price, but can also come with a few added steps you will not have to deal with if you go with a dealership instead.

What Happens When You Are A Cash Buyer?

In essence, you are a cash buyer whenever you are not financing through the dealership. That means that even if you have your own outside financing, you are a cash buyer for all intents and purposes. This allows you to skip sitting down with the finance manager, which can save you a lot of time.

However, it is important to realize that the dealer may have money-saving incentives available if you use their financing. You can skip this sit-down at your own risk. Dealerships generally prefer that you use their financing as they typically make a profit off the interest rates.

Test-Drive Times

The normal test-drive should only take about 30 minutes or so while you drive the car locally and put it through its paces. Some dealerships allow longer test drives, such as allowing you to take the car home for 24 hours or longer. These can be legitimate ploys to let you bond with the car, or they can be ploys to get you to pay more. In the latter case, the dealer might tell you that they are waiting on financing, but then come back and say that they cannot get it unless you agree to a higher price.

This is the main reason you should never drive the car off the lot based on financing. The 24-hour or longer test-drive is technically also a ploy to get you to pay more but in a more subtle way. Once the buyer becomes emotionally attached to the car, they are less likely to be tough on the price.

Do not rush your chance to test drive vehicles that you like. Consumer Reports notes that it is important to test drive all the vehicles under consideration on the same day in order to get a fair assessment of which works best for your needs.

Drive each car for a minimum of 30 minutes and take different routes on a variety of road surfaces in order to get a real feel for how the car handles. Take time to pay special attention to each car’s:

  • Acceleration. Does the car accelerate quickly and easily?

  • Braking. How does the car respond to braking? Smooth, progressive braking is ideal.

  • Comfort level. Does the car’s suspension hold up to muster when you hit a pothole, or does it feel like a kidney punch instead?

  • Handling. Does the car operate smoothly? Does it seem to be an effortless joy to drive it?

  • Sound. With the radio off and the windows closed, how loud is the car at idle and during cruising or acceleration?

  • Steering. The steering in your car should feel easily controllable.

  • Visibility. Can you see well from all points necessary for safe driving?