Buying a Car : So what'll it be?

Alright, then. The next step might just be the most important one: what’re you’re going to buy?

Sounds like a simple question – after all, you already know how much you can spend, so you get the most expensive car you can, right?

Uh, no. There’s actually a lot more to picking a car wisely. Here are some things to consider:

What do you need? Did you catch that last word? Need. Not want. Everybody wants a gorgeous little convertible, but not everyone needs it, especially on a budget. So ask yourself: What do you need?

  • How will you use the car? Getting to class? Going home for the weekends? Road trips? You know what you need. Don’t confuse it with what you want.
  • Where do you live? New York City? Then you can probably get away without four-wheel drive, and you might want something small enough to fit into tight spaces (and if you do live in NYC or another city with good public transporation, consider not buying a car). Jackson Hole, Wyoming? Well then, a 4x4 might not be a bad idea after all.
  • What kind of driving do you do? If you spend most of your drive time in a city, you may want to go with the automatic transmission. Trust us on this.

Shop around: You know what you need, now figure out what cars give you those things. Start with the auto magazines and websites, things like Consumer Reports. Check the manufacturers’ websites for factual details about features and dimensions. Ask your friends. Just don’t expect to get good comparative information from a dealer. He is, after all, trying to sell you something.

By the way, you’d be wise to shop around for the right dealer, too – it matters. All dealerships pay the same price for the cars in the beginning. But the dealerships with better CSI (Customer Service Index) ratings often get better bonuses that allow them to offer you a better price. Find those dealerships.

Get in and drive: You don’t buy a pair of jeans without trying them on first – why would you buy a $20,000 car that way? Take the car you’re looking at for a test drive, and if you can, do it without the salesperson in the car. In fact, you may want to rent the cars you’re interested in. It’ll cost a little money, but you’ll be able to drive them all day without listening to a hard sell.

Think about getting used: Okay, so it doesn’t have that smell, but you can get “new-car scent” at the car wash, and it’s a lot cheaper than buying an actual new car. Of course, buying a used car comes with its own set of concerns:

  • Quality control: You can look at a car’s paint job and its odometer, but neither will tell you how it’s been treated. Get a car’s VHR (Vehicle History Report) using the Vehicle Identification Number. It’ll cost you about $10-$15, but you get a report on any major accidents that may have weakened the frame. You can start at places like carfax.com.
  • Where do you buy it? Used car salesmen have a lousy reputation, but a dealership isn’t a bad place to buy. Most manufacturers nowadays offer warranties and “certified” used cars, which can give you a little peace of mind. Of course, you can get a better price from someone who’s offering their car on craigslist, but buyer beware.
  • More homework: Check the Kelley Blue Book value for any used car before you buy – that way you’ll know roughly where the negotiation ought to begin. Ask the seller questions – What was the car used for? How’d you get that dent in the front bumper? Bring the car to a mechanic you trust, and consider subtracting even minor repairs from the price you’ll pay for the car. Remember: it’s a used car. If you’re not being careful, you’re being stupid.
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