By Steve Anderson
I need a car. I've been a pedestrian for too long. I need information. I'll hop on the web. Search for "car buying guides." Whoa! Over 15 million sites/pages! Refine my search. "Free first time car buyer guides" and narrow it down to only 4 million. That's about as refined as I can get right now. Look over the first page of my results, chose some links with names I recognize. Open some pages. Lots of interesting articles. Let's see if I can pull together a cohesive list.
What type of vehicle do I need? Notice I wrote "need" not want? I want a cool car, but this is a major investment and cool doesn't really last that long. Do I buy new or used? What kind of driving am I really going to be doing, and in what kind of conditions? How much can I reasonably spend for monthly maintenance? How much can I spend on a loan or lease payment? Should I buy from a dealer, an auction or private sale? How's my credit rating? Where should I buy insurance? Lots of questions to answer, and probably some I haven't included here.
Before you search for that cool car, decide exactly what your needs and wants are. Don't buy what you want, buy what you need. Don't get into a cash bind because you spent more than you can really afford because the "cool" factor fades fast but those monthly payments continue. Review your budget to determine how much you can really afford. That means not only the car payment, but insurance and an estimate of your monthly maintenance (gas, oil, etc.)
Check your credit so you have an idea of what type of loan you can qualify for. Decide on a firm price (payment or full-purchase), because dealers and salespeople will be doing their best to get more out of you. Be firm and stick to your dollar amount. If financing, decide on a realistic maximum payment you can make. If possible, check with your bank to see what type of loan you qualify for.
With the internet, it's now much easier to compare vehicles. Take the time to check out some websites that offer information about vehicles and compare. Don't just rush out and buy the first car you see. Remember, your vehicle is a major investment and unless you can change vehicles every year, this car will probably have to last you 4 or 5 years. Be choosy. Look at the pictures, sure, but READ the information. Check to see if the dealership offers web discounts (that is, if you buy from them they will offer some discount for using the web).
Educate yourself about vehicle pricing. Dealerships have to make a profit; otherwise they would not be in business! Simple economics. Dealers will negotiate, but YOU have to be prepared as well. The dealers and salespeople know their bottom line on any vehicle. Again, check the web for information regarding pricing. Ask family and friends to help you learn about vehicle pricing. There are many factors that most people don't even know about.
Make certain you qualify for insurance. Check out your state's department of motor vehicles website and learn the minimum insurance necessary. Check around the web and you'll find many major insurance companies with rate comparison features. Use those resources. Be very aware that your past driving record will affect your rates, but also if you are a first time buyer, be ready for slightly higher rates to begin with. After all, the insurance company is really gambling on your not making any claims against the insurance. Think about the type of driving you will be doing and review the "extras" offered by the insurance provider. Also, the type of vehicle you are looking to purchase will affect your rates as well. Older cars usually mean less safety features, so rates will be higher. Your vehicle insurance is just as important as your health insurance.
A short note here about car dealerships (and not just the new vehicle showroom guys). I personally have not had good results buying from a private seller. Way too many variables and basically no recourse if something isn't right. Dealers have certain rules and restrictions they must comply with, such as title registration time limits, the lemon law, and the "buyers remorse" (3 day changed my mind) rules. Dealerships must be licensed and follow the laws; private sellers often don't. Dealerships also can provide a wider range of options than a private seller. Go to your state motor vehicle or department of licensing website and educate yourself. What you don't know can hurt you.
Also, there is a list called the Customer Service Index (or something similar) which each car maker maintains for dealerships. The ranking indicates who a dealership satisfies customers not only in sales, but also in service. Basically, go to the manufacturer's website, search for customer service index and then navigate the website to find that manufacturer's criteria for a great dealership. Yes it takes time, but this is a major investment. Family and friends can help here as well.
Once you have decided what type of vehicle you want, and which dealerships you want to check out (always try at least 2 dealerships, don't just settle on one!), take someone with you, preferably someone knowledgeable about the vehicle you have chosen (a family member or friend you feel comfortable with). That person will probably ask some questions you didn't think of! I'm a wimp when it comes to negotiating, but my hubby isn't, and he knows about cars. I let him do most of the questioning, even though I was the one purchasing the car. Believe me, it helped, because he asked questions I really never thought about.
Last, but certainly not least, TEST DRIVE THE CAR! Sounds simple, but it is very important. Just because you found what looks like the car of your dreams, it may still not be right. You need to be comfortable behind the wheel, your sight lines should be clear, you should be able to judge your surroundings based on the size of the vehicle, and you should be able to find all those little areas of vehicle maintenance you can do yourself.
Remember, a vehicle is a major investment. It should be chosen with care and deliberate thought. There a many factors to consider and, ultimately, you are the one that has to pay for any mistakes in your choice.
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