11 Essential Tips for Buying the Right Car at the Right Price

Purchasing a new car, for the first time or the 10th, can be daunting. Besides a house, it’s probably the most you’re going to pay for any single item, it’s going to be with you for years and, depending on your commute, you might be spending hours with it every day. It’s important to get it right. Here are 11 tips to help you on the way.

1. Buy used

While everyone loves that new car smell, used cars are generally going to be more economical. Cars suffer the most depreciation in the first few years — including a big drop the moment the vehicle drives off the lot — so the goal is to find one that’s a year or two old and in good shape. Let someone else will take that big initial loss. Yes, buying new will allow you to customize it with the extras you like and in the color you want, but with a bit of luck and shopping, you can likely get most of those features in a used model. This is especially true right now, because there is an unusually large number of used cars on the market.

2. Have a budget and stick to it

Ideally, you should buy a car outright, if you have the financial reserves.

Otherwise make a realistic budget that includes how much you can make in a down payment, and how much you can afford in monthly car payments. You might want to play around with an auto loan calculator, which can help you figure your monthly payments. Change the loan amount to see how much you can save each month if you make a larger down payment. If you don’t need the car immediately, save some money for a larger payment up front in order to lower the costs in the long term. Also be sure to look at the length of the loan. A longer term will mean smaller monthly payments, but it will end up costing you more in interest over the life of the loan.

Remember that the price you see may not include taxes and other fees. And don’t forget associated costs such as insurance (most insurance companies will give you a quote before you buy if you have a couple of models in mind), registration, maintenance, parking and gas.

(Be sure to shop for insurance as well. Here’s a great place to compare rates and terms.)

3. Arrange financing

If you’re one of the lucky ones who doesn’t need a loan, you can skip this step. Otherwise, it’s best to arrange for your loan before you go in. Doing so affords you the time to shop around for better terms, and lets you make a decision without a high-pressure salesman sitting across from you. If the dealer can make you a better offer, that’s great, but it’s best to have options.

A good place to get started comparing car loans is here, in our Solutions Center.

4. Determine your needs

What’s this car for? How many people will it be transporting, and how far? Are you going to be in a city where parking necessitates a smaller car? Will you need to hitch something to it? Make an honest assessment of your bottom-line needs.

5. Determine your wants

Needs are more important, but you need to be happy with your purchase. It’s OK to have a little fun — as long as you stay within your budget. If you really want those upgraded speakers and can afford it, a little splurge won’t hurt. Just don’t get carried away.

6. Do your research

Once you’ve narrowed things down to a few models, check reputable third-party reviews. There are a number of websites to help you along the way. You’re looking for vehicles with a track record of reliability and safety. Some sites even help by calculating estimated maintenance and other charges for a given car.

Edmunds.com has a lot of information, along with a True Cost to Own calculator. J.D. Power, Consumer Reports (if you don’t have a subscription, you can usually get access at your local library) and Kelley Blue Book (which has a calculator on the five-year cost of owning a car) are other good sources.

Once you’ve got the numbers, compare them with your budget; it’s likely you’ll eliminate a few options as too expensive, or not quite what you’re looking for.

7. Find a dealer

A quick internet search will turn up the dealers in your area. Asking family and friends for their opinions is a good place to start. Like pretty much everything else, car dealers are rated on Yelp, and it doesn’t hurt to check the reviews there. Getting a good dealer can be particularly important with a used car, since the pricing on used models can vary. Don’t be afraid to shop around if multiple places have the car you want — make them work for your business.

8. Take a test drive (or two)

This is probably the most fun part, but also the most necessary. No amount of research is a substitute for sitting in the car and making sure it fits right. Can you find a seat and steering wheel position where you’re comfortable? Are you just the wrong height so the mirrors are inconvenient? Is the seat too narrow or too broad or at a funky angle that can’t be fixed? Do you like the layout of the controls? You want to test the specific car you’re going to purchase, not just the same make and model — the very car. If you’re not sure what to watch out for, Consumer Reports has a test-drive checklist. Edmunds.com has a story on “How to Test-Drive a Car,” and there’s also a how-to from Car and Driver.

Don’t be afraid to try a few different cars. Sure, the salesman may get annoyed, but it’s more important that you’re happy with the purchase than that he is. Don’t feel like you have to buy the car that day. If you need to sleep on it, say so. This shouldn’t be an impulse buy.

9. Determine the price

Not the price the dealer wants, the price you think the car is actually worth. The internet in general, and the websites in No. 6, are a good place to start. The Manufacturer’s Suggested Retail Price (often called the MSRP or sticker price) is fairly easy to find for a new car. Internet searches can give you a decent ballpark number for used cars. Don’t begrudge the dealer a profit, but you obviously want to pay as little as you can.

10. Get it inspected

A new car will come with a warranty. If you’re buying used, have a mechanic you trust give the car a good going-over before you commit to anything.

11. Negotiate

This is probably everyone’s least favorite part, and for good reason. The salesman does this for a living. You do it every few years. Odds are he will be better at it than you are. Be willing to ask for help if you know someone who is genuinely a good negotiator. If you aren’t getting a deal you like, or they just can’t get the price down to your budget, be willing to walk away.

For some great insights on haggling over the price, check out: “7 Secrets Car Dealers Hope You Don’t Know.”

And if in-person negotiating really isn’t your cup of tea, try it online. You’ll have more time to research what you’re asking for against what you’re being offered, and you can easily work with multiple dealers at the same time to get yourself the best offer. Don’t be afraid to let the dealer know you’re casting a wide net. They might cut you a better deal if they know they’re competing.

Check out: “The 5 Keys to Car Shopping Online.”

Have you bought a car recently, or do you have any tips to share? Let us know below or on our Facebook page.

Disclosure: The information you read here is always objective. However, we sometimes receive compensation when you click links within our stories.

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