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What it's like to buy a car during COVID-19

Social distancing test drives? Yes, please.

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My husband and I bought a Toyota 4Runner during the coronavirus pandemic. It's not easy buying a used car now -- but it's possible.

Bridget Carey/CNET
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I wouldn't recommend buying a car in a pandemic. It's incredibly stressful, especially if you want to test drive before buying. But maybe you're like me and have no choice -- I had to buy a car to move my family out of New York City in the middle of this coronavirus mess. 

Dealerships are closed or have limited resources. Touching anything makes you nervous. There is no haggling. There is no, "Let's get a coffee and sit and talk and come back tomorrow." This is: Mask and gloves and, "Can you leave the keys on the hood of the car?" This is: "Can you just email me the Carfax?" This is: Wait five hours to process a sale because only two guys are working today. 

After lots of research, phone calls, emails and two dealership visits, my husband and I successfully bought a used Toyota 4Runner in a week. We did it without having a car already (because New York City) and while bringing our young kids along for the hunt (because no babysitter).

If you're looking to buy a car right now, I want to share what I've learned from my experience so you can be best prepared.

Read moreBest used cars under $20,000 for families

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Make lots of calls and cross your fingers

Start with online research to find the type of car you want. Many dealerships post their inventory online. But just because a car is listed doesn't mean the dealership is open to make a sale -- or willing to let you do a test drive. 

We found some dealerships near us in New York were completely closed. Other dealerships had reduced hours and furloughed staff. It can take a day or two for some to get back to you. 

Find a dealership that will get creative

Many dealerships were pushing to sell us a car online, like it's a pair of shoes. But I don't buy shoes online. And I wasn't about to buy a used car online without driving it first. 

When we started our hunt, one model that caught our interest was a Toyota Tacoma. We found a dealership in New Jersey that would let us do a test drive with just one of us in the car to maintain social distancing. I would wait with my kids in our rental car while my husband took it for a short drive. And then we would switch and I would take it out.

And it's a good thing we did test drive it, because we weren't in love with the feel of the steering and it was making a sound we didn't like (turns out it was a bad belt). But that visit got us to look at another car in the lot: a black Toyota 4Runner. We really liked the 4Runner, but we were not in love with some aspects of that particular unit. The miles were high and it wasn't a certified used car. 

So after a night of more research, we found another dealership in New York that had a better-priced red 2019 4Runner with fewer miles -- and it was certified used. 

Deals are made by appointment only

We drove up on a Sunday to see the 4Runner we liked in person. But with dealerships cutting their hours, no one was going to open up that day just for us. So we came back Monday with an appointment. 

Price negotiations aren't really a thing

I figured in these economic circumstances, I could negotiate when dealerships would be desperate for a sale. But there wasn't much haggling to be done. Everyone we talked to on the phone told us the price they are giving was the lowest they could go. But what about this other dealership quote we got? Can you go lower? Nope, that's it. (Funny, we found a better deal still by just looking online.)

But consider it an advantage when you don't want to waste time. When we got to the red 4Runner we wanted, the online advertised price we paid was $7,730 lower than the sticker price (before tax). The dealership manager told us that they dropped the price to the lowest they could go online to get cars off the lot and save time by only dealing with customers who were serious about buying. 

Don't expect the staff to always take the same precautions as you

For us, we still needed to interact with humans to make this sale. We bought the car a month ago, before wearing a mask was part of the law. And no sales staff then had masks, but they kept distant from us. For that reason I was glad we had masks, gloves, hand sanitizer and Lysol wipes. 

It can be mentally exhausting, but it does take effort to remember to social distance in every aspect of a transaction. So when passing along keys or paperwork, we would leave things on the hood of the car so we wouldn't have to approach each other. 

Be patient -- this is going to take a while

With reduced staff, the transaction will take longer than you may expect. We started talks at 11 a.m. for the car we wanted, did test drives and didn't leave with the car until 5 p.m. (We did leave the lot for a few hours and returned to give staff time to process the transaction and get the car washed and ready.)

But through it all we were very grateful for staff that could keep their dealerships open under restrictions to give us a chance to try out a car. We're happy and feel more secure now with an SUV and I hope folks buying and selling all do what it takes to keep each other safe.