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.
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.