6 Things to Do Before You Buy Your Next Car

by Miranda Marquit · 9 comments

Now that my son is 14 and getting ready for a driver’s permit, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about buying a car. (Yes, you read that right. In Idaho, you are eligible for a permit at 14 and a license at 15.)

It’s a few years since I’ve bought a car; I tend to buy something late model that I like and then drive it for as long as possible.

As I get ready to move forward with a vehicle for my son, here’s how I’m preparing to make the decision:

1. Figure Out What You Need

It’s not always about what you want, but what you need. My son would love a brand new sports car but he doesn’t need something nice. What he needs is something that will get him from point A to point B around town. At his age, he doesn’t need something that will help him go on an epic road trip. Nor does he need something that accelerates really quickly. In fact, a car with more horsepower is actually bad for a new driver because it’s a bit harder to control. It’s also more tempting for him to drive dangerously. I just want him to safely and conveniently get himself to fencing practice and (eventually) work.

2. Acknowledge What’s Practical

This is about tempering expectations. When I bought a Saturn wagon 14 years ago, what I really wanted was a Subaru. It just wasn’t practical at that time. The car didn’t fit in the budget and the Subarus that did were old with high mileage. Be realistic about your situation before you buy. I got the car I wanted eventually, but only after nearly 10 years of driving a car I didn’t really care to own.

3. Check Into Your Credit

Do you know where you stand with your financial reputation? You’ll get better loan terms and be in a better position to negotiate if you have good credit. Look at your credit report to see if there are errors that could drag you down. Also, have a look at your consumer credit scores from free sites like Credit Karma or Credit Sesame. While they won’t provide the “official” scores a lender will use, they can give you a very accurate idea of where you stand.

4. Know Your Budget

You can use car loan calculators to figure out monthly payments versus total loan amounts ahead of time. Know your budget and be prepared to stand firm. Once you get to the dealer, there’s a good chance they will try to nudge you a bit by focusing on a monthly payment and convincing you to get a 60-month or 72-month loan. Figure out a total price you want to pay for the car and stick to that.

5. Research the Options

Do your homework. I’m already pretty certain my son is getting an older Toyota, Honda, or maybe a slightly newer Ford Focus. It’s about low cost and a degree of reliability. I’d also be willing to get a Focus because there are a lot of good places around where I live that work on Fords, and because it’s easy and (relatively) inexpensive to find parts. Figure out what works best in terms of safety, reliability, fuel economy, and other items.

Consider Certified Pre-Owned or a lease return if you’d like a newer but used car. These are lower cost, but these cars still come with warranties and other perks.

6. Look for Incentives and Sales

I bought my Subaru during a year-end clearance when there were dealer and manufacturer incentives. I got great financing because of my good credit and incentives that meant my new car cost less than an equivalent used car. Check to see what’s available before you get out there, then use that information to negotiate the best terms.

Don’t Rush into the Decision

You’d think a big purchase like buying a car deserves some careful planning, but many people buy cars on impulse with little thought of the financial consequences. The funny thing is that researching the car you want to buy is actually half the fun because you get to picture yourself in the new ride while you take your time looking for the best option. Next time you are in the market for a new (or at least new to you) car, take some time to make a good decision. Your wallet will thank you for years to come.

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{ read the comments below or add one }

  • Ryan G says:

    A few things to add..

    1) Seriously consider buying a used car. The number one vehicle expense isn’t gas, insurance, or maintenance… it is depreciation. A new vehicle will, on average, lose 50% of its value over the first 3 years. Luxury cars are worse, while small, historically reliable economy cars are better. But depreciation takes its toll. Let someone else pay that depreciation.

    2) If you plan to take out a loan, be reasonable about the length of the loan and bring enough cash to ensure you won’t owe more money than the car is worth. Planning to put 20% down (like you would for a house) is a good rule of thumb to ensure you won’t be upside down.

    3) If you do take out a loan, plan to put your car payment into a savings account once the loan is paid. If you pay cash for your car, figure an equivalent 0% interest car payment and put it into savings each month immediately after purchasing the vehicle. Depreciation is your greatest expense in owning a vehicle, and even if you pay cash for a car, you need to offset the cost of your vehicle’s depreciation in your monthly budget. If you have a loan, your loan payment effectively does this. If you pay cash, then you need to start saving for your next vehicle.

    • David @ MoneyNing.com says:

      Starting to save immediately for the next vehicle is a habit more people should adopt. This way everyone will have enough cash to pay for a car outright and they won’t overspend either just because they just look at the higher optioned car and cost just seems like it’s only a bit more per month.

  • Sagar Nandwani says:

    Be sure to always negotiate based on the purchase price of the car, and not the monthly payment. Also make sure that you know the “full” purchase price of any car that you buy. There could be many extra, hidden costs factored into the price including various taxes, car preparation and delivery fees, and dealership costs that you won’t know about unless you ask.

    • David @ MoneyNing.com says:

      Always know the out the door price. Some sales people may be hesitant to talk about that number, which is why you must insist on them telling you because that’s the cost you’ll have to bear when you walk out with that car.

  • Linda says:

    Encouraging what’s practical is always the best thing to do to avoid financial struggle. Owning a car can be very expensive. If you really need to own one, look at your budget first. Is there any alternative available like purchasing a second hand car which is fit on your budget? Sales can be a great option too! Look online for these options.

    • David @ MoneyNing.com says:

      Researching and even negotiating the price online can be a huge time as well as a money saver. Good tip Linda!

  • Millennial Money says:

    This is a great, step by step breakdown of purchasing the car you need in an affordable way. Making sure that your purchase makes financial sense before its emotive appeal to you as a consumer is a very smart idea. Good post.

    • XinLit says:

      This might be an arrogant thing to say to a 14 year old, but I am sorry for those who has to get a loan to buy a car. Being a good that loses half of its value the moment you drive off the lot makes my really wonder how can someone take on a 1.9% loan for it (and this is a website supposedly teaches you how to be money savy?!?!). Now there are plenty dealership offers 3 years 0 apr deal, though it may not be your ideal car brand. If you are a student and not make much money or just intrinsically poor, the rest of this article told you right, suck. it. UP and get something move you from point A to B!

      • Ryan G says:

        A vehicle will not lose half its value when you drive it off the lot. There is a loss of value, but it isn’t that extreme. It is on the order of 10%-15% assuming you paid at or close to invoice price. If you pay MSRP, then it is going to be higher.

        A new vehicle will, on average, lose about 50% of its value over the first 3 years.

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