How-To Pick the Right Car for Your Family & Budget
While driving a shiny new car might be exciting, shopping for one most certainly is not. A 2014 survey by Edmunds.com found people rate car shopping as more stressful than planning for a wedding. More recent studies show consumers would rather be stuck in an elevator than visit a car dealership. It’s the “unknown factor” that scares so many: people don’t always know if they are picking the right vehicle if the dealership is being truthful, and whether or not they are getting the best deal.
Below we outline a simple but effective strategy for car shopping. It’s an Always and Never list of best practices to make the buying process easier. We want you to feel relieved, not stressed when you finally say “I do” to that new vehicle.
By: Carl Anthony of Automoblog for Turtle Wax
Use this table to easily navigate throughout the article by selecting sections relevant to your car care needs.
Always: Do Your Research
Just as you would read reviews on anything else you would buy; a car is no different. Many top automotive sites offer comprehensive reviews on new models and provide insight on everything from how the vehicle handles in traffic to how much it will cost to own. Here are a few quick resources you can use when doing your research.
- Edmunds.com has what’s called a True Market Value Tool, where you can see what others in your area are paying for a vehicle similar to the one you are looking at.
- The U.S. Department of Energy offers a website where you can see EPA fuel economy ratings as far back as 1984. The site has a place for side-by-side comparisons of the vehicles you are shopping for.
- Automotive search engine iSeeCars.com, by using big data analytics, amassed a healthy body of research to help point consumers in the right direction when shopping.
Not sure about a particular dealer? Cars.com offers this dealership and salespeople review tool.
Always: Consider your Budget Realistically
Data from Cox Automotive shows the average payment on a new vehicle exceeded $530 in 2018 or about 10 percent of the median household income. In May 2019, Kelley Blue Book noted the average transaction price for a new vehicle was $37,185, up four percent from May 2018. Consumers who have not been in the market for some time may experience sticker shock when they start shopping. The idea then is to make sure every dollar spent is actually worth it.
It might be tempting to go for higher trim levels with all the options, but ask yourself if you really need all that extra stuff. Leather seats, a sunroof, and a premium stereo are all nice, but can you live without them? The upper trim levels might offer a bigger, more powerful engine, but do you really need the extra horsepower? If not, you can save money by purchasing a lower trim level with a smaller engine that gets better gas mileage.
In terms of active safety features, manufacturers are making those more widely available. While technologies like adaptive cruise control and lane departure warning may once have been reserved for upper trim levels, automakers like FCA, Ford, Honda, Nissan, Toyota, and Volvo have spread these features across their entire product line. If having these types of safety technologies is important, it might not be necessary to go to a higher, more expensive trim level to get them.
In terms of planning for monthly payments: every $10,000 spent will equate to about $200.00 a month on a five-year note. After you find a few vehicles you are interested in test driving, run the numbers on a loan calculator first. This will give you an idea of what to expect before you go to the dealership.
Never: Buy Without Putting Something Down
Paying cash is still the best way to buy a vehicle, but for many, that simply is not possible. If you are getting a loan for your new vehicle, there are things you can do to streamline the process. First, consider that a down payment should be at least 20 percent of the vehicle you plan to buy. Longer loan terms of 72 and 84 months look attractive because the monthly payments are lower, but if you are financing a new vehicle, try and go no longer than 60 months.
The issue with longer loans is owing more than what the vehicle is actually worth in time. Lower payments may be enticing, but remember vehicles do depreciate and will drop in value faster if you are putting a lot of miles on each year.
Opting for a shorter note of 48 or 60 months, with a down payment, can lessen that chance. If you don’t have at least 20 percent saved up for a down payment, don’t be in a rush to buy a car if you can help it. In the long run, a down payment will save you money on financing a new car.
It’s true that financing through the dealership can work in your favor. Since dealers “buy” so many loans from the banks they work with, they can often get their customers a low rate assuming their credit is good. However, secure your own financing ahead of time from your local bank so you know where you stand. This way, if the dealership cannot get you better loan terms, you still have a method to pay for your new vehicle.
Never: Assume Leasing is Better
Leasing has benefits, including a lower monthly payment, always being under full factory warranty, and the ability to drive a new vehicle every two or three years. If you want a higher trim level, leasing will often make it more affordable than financing. Lease payments are determined in large part by the yearly mileage allotment. Simply put, the lower the mileage allotment the lower the payment (usually 10,500 miles a year is the lowest, or 875 miles a month).
Be aware that miles can add up fast. If you commute long distances or like to go on weekend drives, leasing may not be the best option for you. There are other factors to consider, like when you turn in the vehicle you might be on the hook for damages, including dings and scratches. With leasing, it’s important to keep the car in the best condition possible.
You also cannot get out of a lease easily. Similar to an apartment, if you sign a lease for two or three years, that’s the car you are going to have until that term is up. Just because leasing is good for some, doesn’t mean it’s right for you. Before signing the paperwork, consider how many miles you drive each month and go from there.
Never: Put the Cart Before the Horse
Any dealership that begins the conversation by asking for a credit application is reason to be suspicions. A typical interaction should go like this between you and a dealership.
- Meet and Greet: the sales consultant welcomes you to the dealership.
- Needs and Wants Analysis: here is where they help you pick the right vehicle. They should be asking questions that are focused on your genuine needs, not fishing for a sale.
- Test Drive: Do a good mix of both city and highway driving.
- Initial Numbers Discussion: If you like the dealership and the vehicle, then it’s okay to start discussing financing, loan terms, and monthly payments. If you feel comfortable at this point, it’s okay to fill out a credit application.
During this process, don’t be afraid to ask questions if you are unsure of something. At reputable dealerships, the staff members are an immense resource. Some employees are even master certified by the manufacturer, meaning they have successfully completed classes that cover the automaker’s product line, customer service, and general vehicle knowledge.
Never: Fall Head Over Heels
Buying a new vehicle can be an emotional decision and it’s really easy to fall in love with new cars. However, let your pocketbook and your pocketbook alone guide your decision.
Yes, the dealership will likely want to sell the more expensive model; the ads on TV for that luxurious SUV are going to tug at your heart; and yes, you would look really good in a new red convertible, but at the end of the day let your wallet be your guide.
Always: Ask to See the Service Department
If you are buying a vehicle from a traditional dealership, chances are you will bring it back for service. Routine maintenance is one of the best ways to protect your car and should not be ignored.
At some point during the buying process, ask the sales consultant to show you the service department. Ask them to introduce you to a service advisor and get their business card. This way you have a person to call at the dealership if you need service or have questions about maintenance.
Always: Sleep On It
Once you have filled out the credit application and compared what the dealership financing terms are versus the ones you secured from your bank, take 24 hours to think it over. Get the best, bottom-dollar price from the dealership in writing. Don’t fall for the “this car might not be here in the morning” line. It will. And if it’s not, there is always another one.
Putting it all together:
While car shopping may be one of the most stressful things we can do, following these Always and Never principals will help ease the process. Best of luck!
Carl Anthony is Managing Editor of Automoblog.net, an award-winning automotive news, technology, and lifestyle publication based in Detroit, Michigan and Berlin, Germany. He serves on the Board of Directors for the Ally Jolie Baldwin Foundation and is a member of the Midwest Automotive Media Association and the Society of Automotive Historians. Anthony has worked in experiential marketing roles for Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, Ford Motor Company, General Motors, Mercedes-Benz, Honda, Volvo, and Local Motors over the years.