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What Does COVID-19 Mean For Car Buyers?

We've put together a rundown of what new & used car shoppers should expect when buying or leasing a car amidst the coronavirus pandemic. While most states have reopened to varying degrees, surging infection rates have prompted some states to reimpose restrictions with the prospect of stay-at-home orders.

New online buying options and social distancing measures can help keep buyers safe. In addition, some manufacturers have been offering never-before-seen incentives. But is it really a good time to buy a car amid COVID-19? Read on for our analysis of what this unprecedented situation means for shoppers.

Originally published March 18. Updated December 7.

Are Car Dealers Open or Closed?

Most dealers are now open for business, although state & local guidelines may vary after federal guidelines for essential services were expanded to include car sales back in April. In many cases, in-person showroom visits are possible, but you may be advised to book an appointment in advance.

Expect dealers to implement safety measures such as social distancing, enhanced sanitization, and e-signature options to help save time and limit unnecessary in-person contact. You may be expected to wear a mask or face covering, so be sure to prepare for what might be required in your area.

Many dealers are going nearly 100% digital. Whether it's virtual consultations over chat or FaceTime, online auto loan approvals, or even free home delivery, auto dealers are making it easier to buy or lease a car in most parts of the country.

We recommend contacting your local dealers to learn how each is responding to the situation. Coronavirus restrictions can be fluid depending on infection rates, so be prepared for anything especially as we enter the colder months.

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Is It Safe To Buy A Car?

According to the CDC, "the best way to prevent illness is to avoid being exposed to the virus." The agency adds that the virus "is thought to spread mainly from person-to-person" between individuals in close contact and via respiratory droplets passed through the air.

While everyone is at risk, older adults and those with chronic conditions may be at a higher risk for complications. The agency also says that "people who are infected but do not have symptoms can also spread the virus" (this is referred to as asymptomatic spread).

Dealers are taking steps to help protect customers with special measures such as limiting capacity and encouraging social distancing of at least 6 feet when possible. In addition, dealers have been increasing their sanitization of both facilities and vehicles.

Unfortunately, the risk of infection remains high in many parts of the country in the absence of a vaccine. However, not every car buyer may have the luxury of time when faced with factors like a costly car repair or the end of a new car lease. In some cases, automakers have been offering to extend leases.

Fortunately, there are things you can do to save time at the dealer. For example, CarsDirect offers Target Pricing to help in your negotiation, as well as the latest insights on manufacturer incentives. You can also compare specs, view photos, watch video reviews, all from the comfort of your own home.

Just remember to celebrate your purchase with an elbow bump or a thankful wave rather than a handshake.

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Is It A Good Or Bad Time To Buy?

A lot has changed over the past 8 months. In March, every major automaker began offering better deals and assistance. A slew of outstanding 0% APR deals offered the potential to save thousands in long-term interest costs compared to offers before the pandemic.

Manufacturers also offered buyers an unprecedented amount of flexibility. For example, VW introduced no payments for 6 months across nearly its entire lineup plus built-in job loss protection in the event a buyer lost his or her job as a result of COVID-19.

Similarly, Ford introduced a program called Ford Promise involving as much as a $15,000 benefit in the event of a qualified job loss. However, the incentive changed on October 1 and now focuses exclusively on used and certified pre-owned Fords.

Outstanding rates have even made their way to used cars with 0.99% financing on factory-certified vehicles from brands like Toyota.

However, the decision to take on a major commitment like buying a car will most likely depend on your situation. Although many buyers have been flocking to 0% financing, we recommend that consumers select the best car for their needs rather than simply chase a particular deal.

A number of auto factories halted production to protect workers and respond to an anticipated drop in demand. Toyota and Subaru faced some of the worst inventory shortages of any brand. In some cases, consumers may experience higher car prices as a result.

Truck buyers face an especially challenging situation. For example, truck deals involving low APR have been scaled back from companies like Ford and GM. Coupled with reduced selection, the odds of getting a deal are considerably different than earlier this year.

Have bad credit? Subprime car buyers may face worsening credit conditions. Lenders tightening their auto loan requirements could make it harder to get financed. As a result, consumers may need to work with a dealer that specializes in bad credit car loans.

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Are There COVID-19 Car Deals?

We've seen a dizzying array of incentives for buying & leasing. However, the best deals have generally revolved around financing. For example, GM offered 0% APR for 84 months on select models back in March. Even Subaru cut rates across its entire lineup to as low as 0% for 63 months.

We've also seen mainstream brands like Hyundai offer one of the cheapest leases in America on the 2020 Elantra. Even ultra-luxury brands like Maserati introduced 0% APR for 84 months, with sports car maker Porsche offering low-interest financing plus no payments for up to 90 days.

Some brands introduced larger loyalty discounts to keep consumers from switching to a competitor. For example, Honda debuted a $1,000 discount in addition to better financing rates. That said, shoppers should keep in mind that the best deals are often reserved for those with top-tier credit.

It's also important to know that a lot of these offers come with a catch. For example, Ford offered 0% APR for 84 months but only on 2019 stock. FCA introduced a similar deal on a broader range of model years, as well as Employee Pricing on the Chrysler Pacifica, Jeep Wrangler, and Jeep Gladiator.

Sadly, a lot of these offers have come and gone. You can still find 0% APR for 84 months, but on far fewer vehicles than before. In general, expect to see the best deals on popular models. That said, 84-month financing isn't for everyone and we recommend considering all your options carefully.

Those planning to buy and keep their vehicle for a long time may find these offers appealing from the standpoint of lowering their monthly car payment. Be sure to consider the risk of purchasing a depreciating asset and ending up with a situation involving the possibility of negative equity.

Healthcare workers may be eligible for special discounts worth up to $2,500 from over half a dozen brands. Mazda even began offering free oil changes to help support frontline workers. One of the more substantial offers came from GM with Supplier Pricing in combination with lower financing rates.

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Will Future Vehicles Be Delayed?

Automakers have been busy adjusting the production of key vehicles out of safety concerns and due to an expected drop in demand. GM reportedly delayed launches like the updated Chevy Equinox by up to a year. Similarly, Ford delayed an early reveal of the redesigned Bronco.

Those looking forward to Cadillac's upcoming EV lineup may be in for a wait following the reported delay of the new Lyriq all-electric crossover SUV. Even the famed Detroit Auto Show was canceled. In addition, several spring car launches were delayed.

Another example is Genesis, Hyundai's luxury brand. The all-new GV80 crossover was delayed to this fall due to COVID-19. Meanwhile, Toyota is limiting production of the new RAV4 Prime. Coupled with high demand, we've seen some extreme markups at dealers.

Sadly, the highly-anticipated Chevy Corvette was severely affected by the production shutdown and Chevy stopped taking orders. Given that production was already cut by 20% and base Corvettes have been practically non-existent, buyers will likely be compelled to buy a 2021 model.

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      As CarsDirect’s resident pricing expert, Alex offers must-know analyses of pricing & incentives to those looking to buy or lease a car. His consumer-oriented coverage of the latest trends and breaking news has been featured by The Wall Street Journal, Fox Business, Motor Trend, Automobile Magazine, and more.

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