1. Determine your budget.
How can you tell if the deal is actually a deal if you haven’t sat down to crunch the numbers? Maybe it’s a good deal for someone that makes $90k a year but if you’re in a situation where you have lots of debt or expenses, you might only be able to afford a $200 monthly car payment versus $600, regardless of how much you make. Add up your monthly expenses and how much you usually have left over then leave some wiggle room and base your budget off that. You don’t want to be living check to check just to drive that cool car around town.
2. Figure out what you want in a car.
Sometimes it can be overwhelming to be in a space where there are so many nice cars that all perform well and have amazing features, but don’t let the shiny objects distract you. If you walked into the dealership (new or used) or Craigslist meetup knowing that you wanted all wheel drive, then don’t compromise when the salesman tells you that he has a car on the lot with low mileage and great speed but it doesn’t have all wheel drive. Show up with a checklist to remind yourself of what matters to you in a car. It might even be worthwhile to list the things you are willing to give up (leather seats, three rows) as well as a list of things that are must haves (CD player, A/C).
3. Take someone who can offer a second opinion.
If you get too wrapped up in the hype, you could easily be fooled into buying something you later will consider a regret or at least not the best option for you. Whereas, if you bring another person with you such as a friend or sibling or parent or spouse to help you make your decision, they might be able to offer insight that you hadn’t thought of. ‘Hey, this is a good price for the car but if you could make your insurance go up since it’s considered a racing car.’ Or ‘I know you didn’t know anything about this car before so maybe you should wait another day and give yourself time to research instead of only having the salesman as your source of info’. If nothing else, they can tell you what the car feels like from the passenger’s seat while you drive!
Before we bought my husband’s third car, I mentioned to him that it felt a bit bumpy. He couldn’t feel it from the driver’s seat but our roommate also rode in it and mentioned the same thing, so we didn’t buy it.
4. Learn your credit score ahead of time.
They’re going to check your credit score if you have to apply for a loan so it’s best to know it ahead of time so you don’t get any surprises. This is not the time to find out that you have a 550 when you were sure you had something closer to 780! When my friend’s dad took me car shopping the summer I graduated from college, I didn’t even know what a credit score was or that mine was bad.
5. Test drive many cars.
You might think one car drives smoothly until you drive another that feels even better. For me, I discovered later that the cars which didn’t make me feel super close to the ground (since I’m short) were my favorite and allowed me to drive better without constantly adjusting my mirrors. Test drive on parking lots, side roads, highways, and any other area that will give you as much exposure to different surfaces as possible.
6. Compare prices.
Whether you use Kelley Blue Book, Craigslist, Google or another resource to check prices, make sure to use more than one! It will give you more leverage to negotiate if you can say you saw the same car of the same year and with the same mileage cheaper somewhere else.
7. Perfect your poker face.
If you have been riding your bike to school or your significant other’s house or to work or the supermarket and you’re desperate for anything with a motor and the ability to shield you from rain, do not shout it from the mountain tops while you’re buying a car. People will take advantage of your position and assume you’re willing to pay more than someone who’s not in a rush to buy. Keep a straight face and don’t give any tells when deciding if you like a car or don’t. You want to be holding the majority of the cards in this situation so you can play them right instead of letting a sales team or Craigslist Joe play you. I didn’t say you have to lie or feign interest…just don’t let them know what you’re thinking.
8. READ EVERYTHING!
Gosh, I could write a whole post on how this applies to so many things in life, but I’m listing it last in this piece because I want you to remember it. Did you get offered 12 months of interest free financing? Did someone tell you that new floor mats would be included? Make sure to ask where that’s specifically stated in the contract or it doesn’t mean anything. And when you call customer service a few days later to complain, they won’t care about anything that’s not in writing.
You need to read everything because no they can sneak in things that you never agreed to (knowingly), but if you sign, it’s on you for not being responsible enough to understand what you were agreeing to. Perhaps they’re giving you less money on your trade-in that was originally discussed or maybe they’re throwing in a clause that says they’re not responsible for anything that’s wrong with the motor (check your warranty coverage). Look before you sign!!
This is a big purchase. If my husband and I didn’t have two car loans we would have about $800 extra income every month. We were newlyweds and without kids at the time but now I wish we had settled for a car that we could have paid off right away and saved that money for something else. Everyone is different though so I’m just giving you the tools to consider things that you might not have thought of while you were on your way to getting a sexy car to impress your hot girlfriend (or that flashy mini van with a TV for the kids).