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Should I Buy a Car During the Coronavirus Pandemic?

As the toll from a global pandemic of COVID-19, or the coronavirus, continues to mount, state and federal regulators have ramped up measures to slow its spread. As of this writing, an increasing number of states have closed schools, restaurants, bars and other attractions to spur social distancing. On March 15, President Donald Trump called on Americans to avoid for the next 15 days eating or drinking at restaurants and bars, as well as any activities involving 10 or more people — but what about car shopping right now?

Related: Coronavirus and Car Buying: What You Need to Know

Major retailers from Apple to Nike have closed outlets in the U.S., among other countries, yet many car dealerships remain open. Some have closed in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, but Hyundai said on March 13 that its U.S. dealerships remain operational. Fiat Chrysler Automobiles told Cars.com the same on March 16. So did Toyota, though a spokesman later clarified that three stores had closed.

Car Deals to be Had?

Several automakers are rolling out new relief programs in light of the epidemic. Ford’s credit arm announced potential payment flexibility to owners affected by COVID-19, while Hyundai said it would make up to six months of payments for those who lost their job due to the virus.

As for buyer incentives, it’s hard to say whether the pandemic has spawned a huge ramp-up in discounts; that’s something we won’t know that until month-end data arrives in early April. But it stands to reason that any collapse in demand would leave individual dealers, if not manufacturers, itching to move the metal.

How and when will that happen? There isn’t an exact precedent of late, at least in this country. Consumer sentiment wavered after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and downright tanked during the Great Recession. In both cases, major automotive incentives followed — from GM’s Keep America Rolling campaign after 9/11 to the federal government’s recession-era Cash for Clunkers. The COVID-19 crisis echoes pieces of both periods: sudden, wide-ranging shutdowns resemble the first days after 9/11, while the prospects for a long-term economic downturn smack of 2007. Neither trend bodes well for auto sales, but the aftermath might see strong new-car incentives as the industry tries to make up lost ground. One analyst even reportedly said the government might consider reinstating a cash-for-clunkers-type program to spur auto sales impacted by the virus.

Those who wait might find significant discounts in months to come, but those who need something now should check out the six models highlighted in Cars.com’s roundup of the best new-car deals for March 2020. Both groups, however, should benefit from low interest rates, given emergency cuts on March 15 by the U.S. Federal Reserve.

Is It Safe to Buy a Car?

The relative safety will depend on crowds at the dealership, as well as how you choose to buy. Dealer Inspire, a Cars.com company, observed March 13 “potentially declined activity nationwide” in terms of dealership foot traffic, but added that it’s too early to draw broad conclusions. But it’s worth remembering that much of the shopping process — researching the right car, applying for a loan, some aspects of negotiating — can occur online from the social-distanced security of your home.

Still, in some areas you reasonably can’t do anything beyond that. President Trump stopped short of calling for a nationwide lockdown, but some locales have effectively done just that. San Francisco issued a shelter-in-place order for all residents starting March 16, effectively locking down all nonessential movement through at least April 7. The same day, Philadelphia ordered all businesses to close except those deemed essential — a list that excluded car dealerships — until at least March 27.

Such orders suggest the country is heading into a period during which residents should stay home except for vital errands or, if their jobs require it, work. Still, many consumers may be in a position where they need a car — transportation to help care for a sick relative, for example — regardless of COVID-19. In such cases, it’s best to exercise a few precautions:

  • Do as much as possible online. You can’t test-drive a car on the internet, but just about everything else is possible without leaving home. You can research vehicles here, and negotiations and credit applications can occur online once you contact sellers for a car you find here.
  • If you visit a dealership, practice social distancing, which, per guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, means staying a distance of 6 feet away from others when possible. Wash your hands regularly, and avoid going if you’re feeling sick.
  • A widely cited study finds the coronavirus can live up to several days on plastic and stainless-steel surfaces, so consider using disinfecting wipes on high-touch areas of your prospective vehicle, such as the steering wheel, gear shift and seat-belt buckles, plus all major controls and touchscreens.
  • Consider dealers that can drop the car off with you for the test drive and paperwork — a situation that can limit your interactions to just one person. Some dealers are offering that: A Ford dealer in West Virginia said on March 11 that it can conduct the “entire purchase transaction online” and deliver the vehicle to your house, potentially minimizing interactions. Toyota told us it can deliver a new or certified vehicle straight to your door at no extra charge, and owners in select areas can have service performed remotely at their home. GM offers a similar shopping service, as does used-car retailer CarMax. Want to know more about buying a car online? Read our primer here.
  • If you’re shopping for a used car, consider a certified pre-owned vehicle. We strongly recommend taking any prospective used car to a mechanic before you buy, but doing so introduces one more round of social interaction — perhaps a bridge too far for some shoppers. Since CPO cars come with a longer warranty to cover things should something go wrong, the need for a mechanic is comparatively less.

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