Is there a more intimidating shopping experience than buying a car?
Considering that most of us will buy a car in our lifetime, the stress that many feel towards the purchase is extreme. But does it have to be? This three-part series talks about how to research your car-buying, how to have the best experience at a dealership, and how to decide whether new or used is the way to go with a vehicle.
Research is key! That may seem simple, but knowing-before-you-buy is a surefire way to boost your confidence before purchasing something as big as a car. Fortunately, there are plenty of online tools these days to take the mystery out of car shopping.
Find Your Car
Your first step should always be identifying what you want out of a car. New or used? Price range? Sedan or SUV (or something else)? Color? What features matter to you? There are hundreds of car models out there, with more rolling off the assembly lines daily, so narrowing down your desires will go a long way to finding the car you want.
What you want in a car isn’t always the same as what you need out of a car. These two things don’t always align, but keep both in mind when selecting your dream car. Imagine using the car in your everyday life, week after week, and how it will fit into your routine. A sporty car with a tiny trunk could be a huge hassle, and the complete lack of leg room in the back could turn off everyone from riding in any seat other than shotgun. Make sure the car you choose will be practical in addition to meeting your other wish list items.
If you’re not sure about what kind of car you want, there are plenty of websites ready and willing to help with that. Search the web — there are hundreds, if not thousands, of sites devoted to every car model out there. In order to narrow those interests, try more general information websites like caranddriver.com or cars.com. You can even fact-check what you find, thanks to government pages like the FTC’s car-buying guide or consumer-service sites like Kelley Blue Book.
One thing to note about making this sort of decision: You’re not wedded to any one car until you drive it away from the dealership. Keep an open mind about a couple of models during your search, weighing the pros and cons of each before you commit. Price differences and features that turn up during your research can mean the difference between the car of your dreams and a just-OK vehicle!
Where to Buy
Now that you’ve found the car you want, it’s time to locate the right place to buy it. This might be as easy as popping over to the nearest car lot or going online, or you may need to do a little more work.
Back in the days before the internet came into play, this stage of the car-buying process was the most time-consuming. Days could be spent traveling from dealership to dealership, notebook in hand, looking for the best price and sales experience. Thank goodness we don’t have to do that anymore!
Instead of all that work, dealership and aggregator websites make pricing research a snap. Look up dealers you’re familiar with and use search engines to find more in your area. These days, they all have plenty of information to help you narrow down your purchase. In-stock cars are listed, usually with details of the available features, along with prices. Many dealers also include photos of the individual cars plus special sales info. It’s the entire car-buying experience in the virtual world!
All of this information means that you can make extremely informed choices about where and what to buy. You can also compare local dealers with national companies (like autotrader.com, cars.com, and carmax.com) or with wholesalers (like Costco), which might offer additional savings.
When you find vehicles you like, get that information. Save PDF versions of the descriptions or print out the website information so you have it handy when you are ready to buy. You’re less likely to be taken advantage of if you know what’s going on. Also be prepared for the negotiations drag out as extra add-ons get tacked onto the sale – thus driving up the cost. Research extended warranties, undercoating, fabric protection, paint sealant, and more. And remember: You have the power to walk out at any time the process becomes onerous or you feel uncomfortable.
When to Buy
Do you need to buy a car now? Or can you wait a month or two? The answer to that question can save as much as thousands of dollars for the careful shopper!
Cars, like most other consumer goods, do go on sale, and, because cars are so expensive, those sales are always worth watching for. Keep an eye on local ads — dealerships usually do a big push before anniversary or holiday sales. You still need to be careful that the discount you’re getting is real, but some sales can be amazing for your wallet.
There are also specific times of the year when pretty much all dealerships are ready to lower prices. Dealers start getting the next-year’s models well before January and therefore have an incentive to get the older cars off the lots. If you can buy in the last quarter of the year — and if you are happy buying the previous year’s model — you can expect to save thousands. Year-end sales start as early as October and peak during December and the Christmas season.
If you can’t wait for the end of the year, what about waiting a few weeks? According to Kelley Blue Book, many dealerships offer lower prices toward the end of each month. Even when prices are not formally lower, salespeople may have monthly incentives to cut you a deal.
Money, Money, Money
No matter how good a deal you find on a car, you can expect to pay a lot for this purchase. Do you have the cash? Most of us don’t, so that means financing of some sort, either via bank loans, a credit union, or online lenders.
Applying for a bank loan is a process. While you typically will need to visit a bank and speak with a personal banker about what is possible, many loans can now be done completely online. What they can offer in advance of a car purchase will vary greatly based on your credit history and income.
Alternately, credit unions typically have significantly lower rates on their loans. If you’re a member of a credit union, this may be a better option for you. Online lenders can also be very convenient and provide competitive rates. Be mindful of scams and verify the lender with the Better Business Bureau before submitting your precious data.
Fortunately, you do not always need to go through this step before moving forward: Most dealerships have established relationships with creditors and will work with you on-the-spot to get good financing options. But even if you go this route, prior research about interest rates and terms will give you valuable knowledge and shrewd negotiating power later.
When you’re planning on buying a car, also consider related costs, such as car insurance, maintenance, and fuel. Car loan payments won’t be your only monthly expense, so do your research and determine what you can afford.
Direct Contact Without the Face-to-Face
These days, you don’t have to physically go to a car lot to get more information. Many dealers are happy to reach out to you — either by email or by phone — to talk about how they can help you. Take advantage of this service, since lower prices can result even before you arrive on-site for a purchase. You can also conduct your entire purchase online with dealership aggregators, such as autotrader.com.
This method gives many shoppers an edge, especially for those of us who are more introverted. High-pressure sales tactics have to take a pause when the response is by email or online chat, after all. The salesperson may try to get you to commit, but you can wait an hour, a day, or even a week before you even respond. Such advantages can be key in making the car-buying experience your own.
Look for contact information, customer-service forms, or online chats on each website. Someone from the business will be in touch as soon as they have your information.
Get Ready to Buy
Got your research done? Know what you want? Understand your total cost of ownership? If this is the case, you will be ready to go when it’s time to test drive your car! After that, it’s time to buy – whether in person or online.
Now that you’ve finished the part one of our How to Buy a Car series, get ready for the second and third installments. Part 2: “An Edge When it’s Time to Buy” will be out on Friday, September 21st. The series will end with Part 3: “Ultimate Advice on New or Used” on Tuesday, October 2nd.
Petite2Queen provides virtual mentoring to young women in life, at work, and in sales. Follow us for more practical advice you can put to use to improve your life and career.
Laurel Brown is a writer and social-media expert. Ridiculously over-educated, she has an undergraduate degree in astrophysics from Colgate University and graduate degrees in Middle Eastern studies from Columbia University. When not playing professor or interviewing Hollywood celebrities for online publications, Laurel’s career included a stint in marketing at a Fortune 500 company. She is now pursuing a law degree in an attempt to become a true Renaissance woman.