The Complete Guide to Buying a Car — Without Losing Your Mind

how to buy a car

Most of us hate the experience of buying a car.

According to Accenture, 75 percent of drivers would consider completing the entire car buying process online if given the opportunity. That says a lot about our desire to avoid the traditional car-buying experience that involves visiting a dealership.

While there’s no avoiding some hassles, it is possible to get the best possible deal and keep the annoying aspects to a minimum. Here’s your step-by-step guide on how to buy a car without getting totally stressed out.

Here’s your step-by-step guide on how to buy a car without getting totally stressed out.

1. Figure out what you want in a car

The first step is to know what you want in a car. If you want to avoid being upsold, it helps to be firm in what you want, according to Paul D., a car salesman in Idaho Falls, Idaho. Understand your must-haves and know what you can leave behind if needed.

“When you know what you want, it’s harder for a salesperson to convince you to upgrade,” says Paul. “Coming in with a list of what you need makes it easier for me to match you with the right car for your situation.”

As you shop for a car, think about the primary use. Do you want a reliable vehicle you can use as a regular commuter car? Do you just need a beater to get you around town on occasional errands? Maybe you need a truck for hauling or a minivan for your growing family.

Figure out the purpose of the car, and then consider the features that make sense for you. Here are some of the main things you should consider include.

Engine

The engine determines how fast your car drives and how efficient is it. You can usually choose between four, six, and eight cylinders. As a general rule, the cars with more cylinders also have more power — and a lower fuel efficiency.

If saving money on gas is important to you, a car with a smaller engine makes sense. However, if you need a little more power, something with a bigger engine is more desirable. Many four-cylinder cars now offer a “turbo” option which means you get better acceleration but without a huge drop in fuel efficiency.

Carefully think about how important power is to your car. Do you really need to accelerate faster? How often will you be hauling something with your vehicle? Just keep in mind you can save money upfront and over time with a four-cylinder.

Transmission

Driving a stick isn’t a necessary skill anymore. In fact, according to U.S. News & World Report, only 18 percent of American drivers know how to drive a manual transmission.

When buying a car, think about the transmission. In some cases, you can get a better price on a used car with a stick shift. Because the potential buying pool is much smaller, sellers need to motivate buyers by offering lower prices.

However, the Los Angeles Times reports, less than 3 percent of cars sold in the U.S. are manual transmissions. If you buy new, you might have to pay more for a manual transmission, since sports cars are more likely to have a stick shift.

Or you might not even have the option. The Los Angeles Times also reports that only 27 percent of new models offer the manual transmission option.

Axles

You’ve probably heard of terms like, “rear wheel drive” and “all-wheel drive.” These terms refer to which axles get power from the engine. If you have front wheel drive, for example, only the two wheels in front get power from the engine.

In general, cars with front wheel drive offer better traction than those with rear wheel drive. If you know you’ll be driving in bad weather fairly often, front wheel drive might make more sense. The main advantage to rear wheel drive is the acceleration speed.

Four-wheel drive and all-wheel drive seem like the same thing, but they are different.

Four wheel drive sees power to all the wheels, providing superior traction. Plus, four-wheel drive is great for rugged vehicles. However, driving a four-wheel drive car on dry pavement can actually damage the axle. That’s why many four wheel drive vehicles have a front wheel drive mode that you can use while driving on regular roads.

All-wheel drive is more adaptable. Power from the engine goes to all wheels, but not always in the same amounts. All wheel drive often sends most of its power to one axle but can adjust to divert some power to the other axle when extra traction is needed.

General features

Don’t forget to think about more general features, too. All of these features have their uses, but you should prioritize what you prefer:

  • Remote start
  • Power windows
  • Heated seats
  • Tow packages
  • Rooftop storage racks
  • Navigation systems
  • Temperature control

Many families with multiple children like the idea of getting a minivan with power doors on each side of the car. It makes it easier to load up the kids and their gear. If you know that you will use a truck to haul trailers on a regular basis, a tow package makes sense.

Think about how you will use the car and prioritize features. Once you get into the nitty-gritty, you might discover that getting everything isn’t practical for your budget. Figure out the most important items and look for a car in your price range that has what you need.

2. Research car prices

Whether you’re wondering how to buy a car at a dealership or whether you buy a used car from a private seller, you should take the time to research car prices.

Paul recommends checking Kelly Blue Book, Edmunds, and NADA Guides. All three of these guides can help you get a feel for the price you can expect to pay in your local area. It’s possible to enter different features so you aren’t relying on the base model pricing as well.

Take a look at potential prices from all three websites to get a better feel for what to expect. You can also use these resources to get estimates for used cars. This includes what the trade-in value on your current vehicle might be.

When you know what you want, and what you can expect to pay for it, you are far more likely to come out ahead. So avoid hassles when you visit the dealer or negotiate with a private seller: Be prepared.

Don’t forget that some dealers have leftover inventory. If you want a new car, looking at last year’s model, or the year before can mean a little more wiggle room when it comes to price negotiation. The latest model is going to have a little less room for negotiation.

3. Don’t forget about depreciation

As you figure out how to buy a car for a great price, don’t forget about depreciation. Edmunds estimates that a new car loses 11 percent of its value the moment you drive it off the lot. During the first five years of ownership, cars depreciate by 15 to 25 percent each year, according to Edmunds.

There’s no way to avoid depreciation, but as you decide which car you want to buy, you might want to consider looking for cars that depreciate at a slower rate. It can be really disappointing to get three years into a five-year car loan and realize that you owe more than the car is worth.

If you think you will sell the car or trade it in, a car with slower depreciation makes more sense. On the other hand, if you plan to drive the car until it dies, keeping it for at least a decade, the rate of depreciation doesn’t matter as much.

4. Consider timing

Geoff C., founder of FindTheBestCarPrice.com, offers information on the best time to go car shopping. You are more likely to get a good deal when you pay attention to timing. For example, many salespeople are trying to meet their quotas at the end of the month, so coming in as the month closes can mean more incentives.

The same is true of the end of the year. The last time I bought a car, I did so toward the end of November. There were manufacturer and dealer incentives in place that saved me close to $3,000 on my car. You can also find good deals on last year’s models in the fall when dealers are making room for new inventory.

You can even get a better deal if you shop early in the week. Since most people are buying a car on the weekend, coming in on Monday or Tuesday can mean a salesperson ready to do what it takes to close a deal.

5. Know your credit score

Knowing and understanding your credit score before you look into buying a car with a loan is a must. The amount you pay depends on your credit. If you have good credit, you can get the best rates and save hundreds — or even thousands — of dollars over the life of your loan.

Someone with very poor credit might pay as much as 10 percent more in interest than someone with excellent credit, according to Credit.com. Your best results come when you have a credit score of at least 740. However, you can still get a pretty decent interest rate with a score of between 680 and 739.

Know where you stand so you have an idea of what interest rate you can expect to pay. That way, you’ll know if a dealer is quoting you a rate that is probably too high.

6. Get preapproved

Get preapproved with your own bank before setting foot into a dealership. Paul points out that, in many cases, your best rates will come from credit unions.

“The truth is that sometimes a dealer won’t tell you the lowest rate you qualify for,” Paul admits. He says that sometimes dealers enter your information and get three or four quotes from partner lenders. Instead of offering you the lowest rate, a dealer might steer you toward a loan with a slightly higher rate, or one that pays a better kickback.

“When you have preapproval from your own bank, you have something to negotiate with,” Paul says. “If the dealer says they can offer you 3.2 percent, and you can say your credit union is offering 2.7 percent, the dealer might come back with a better offer that’s been sidelined.”

And, of course, if the dealer can’t match or beat your financing deal, you can always fall back on what’s offered by your own institution.

7. Look into financing

Financing is one of the biggest pieces of learning how to buy a car effectively. While it’s a nice thought that you can pay with cash, after saving up, the reality is that many of us are going to borrow at least some of the car price.

You’d think that cash would be king when buying a car, but Paul says that isn’t always the case. “So many dealerships are involved in financing,” he points out. “When you finance through a dealer, that dealer gets a commission from the financial institution. You paying in cash is sometimes seen as costing the dealer money.”

Dealers might be willing to negotiate a little more if they know some of what they give up on price will be made back on financing. Of course, on your end, financing automatically means you pay more because of the interest charges.

When you decide to finance, it’s important to understand what you’re getting into when buying a car.

It’s usually possible to get 100 percent financing when you buy a car, says Paul. However, if you want to reduce what you owe in the long run, a down payment can help. You are likely to see a lower interest rate when you have a down payment. Plus, the less you borrow, the less you pay in interest.

8. Focus on the overall cost

Car dealers try to get you to focus on the affordability of the monthly payment, rather than the overall cost of the car. “This is a trick to disguise the cost of the car,” says Paul.

You might want to buy a car for $15,000 and finance it for three years. But when the conversation turns toward monthly payment, you might be convinced to buy a car that’s more expensive and finance it for five years instead. It feels like you’re getting a good deal because your monthly payment is affordable and easy to make. But you’re paying a higher price for the car, plus paying the interest charges on a longer loan.

Know how much you want to pay total for a car, and stick to that number. Don’t get bogged down in discussions about your monthly payment.

9. Watch out for add-ons

Once you start going through the paperwork, you’ll discover that the salesperson will try to get you to buy additional services. These might include paint protection, extended warranty, and a number of other items.

“You probably don’t need any of that stuff,” says Paul. Instead, stick to your guns and just pay for the car. The more you add to the mix, the more you pay in the long run, especially if you roll all the extras into your financing.

One exception is gap coverage. If you’re worried about the car depreciating in value or getting into an accident within a few weeks of making the purchase, gap coverage is a good idea.

10. Pay attention to extra fees

When learning how to buy a car, you will inevitably come across extra fees. Some of these fees are required, like taxes, title, and registration. Most states require these by law. But once you get beyond those fees, there’s a good chance the dealer is making them up. And that means they’re negotiable.

You don’t want to get nickeled and dimed when you buy a car; you’re paying enough as it is. Some of the fees you should second-guess from a dealer include:

  • Doc fees: This is what dealers say covers processing the paperwork. In some cases, this fee is mandated by state law. Check with your state to see what the requirement is. In a lot of cases, though, there are no specific requirements. Check your state’s DMV to see the process. You might be able to call BS on the dealer and get a lower doc fee.
  • Preparation fees: Some dealerships try to stick you with a fee for removing protective coverings or washing the car to prepare it for delivery. Try to negotiate that away. Unless the dealer is doing something above and beyond, this is the bare minimum to get the car ready for sale, and you shouldn’t have to pay an extra fee.
  • Admin fees: If you see this listed, ask for the factory invoice. Compare the VIN with the invoice on your paperwork. If it’s a line item on the factory invoice, the dealer might be passing it on to you. If it isn’t a line item and the VINs don’t match, the dealer is just trying to milk you for a little more. See if you can avoid this fee.

11. Negotiate with the dealership

When you negotiate with a private seller, the best you can do is use the information you get online to come to an agreement you can both live with. Negotiating with a dealership when buying a car is a little bit different.

One negotiating tactic Geoff suggests is playing dealers off each other. Not only should you do research on sites like NADA, Kelly Blue Book, and Edmunds, you should also look up cars on websites like Autotrader and Cars.com.

Geoff recommends emailing local dealers and letting them know what you’re looking for and asking for a quote. Once you have a few quotes back, you can choose the lowest and then contact the other dealers and see if they will beat it.

This method also works in person, if you prefer to visit the dealership. Visit one dealer to get a quote and then take that quote to another dealer. Don’t forget about similar models from different car brands. As long as the car has your “must haves,” you might be able to get a better deal with a slightly different make and model at a different dealer.

12. Be ready to walk

One of the best negotiating tactics is to be ready to walk. As long as your target price is reasonable, based on the research you’ve done, you should be able to get it by getting dealers to bid against each other.

You also need to be willing to walk away from a deal. If you aren’t in dire straits with your car situation, you can afford to wait for the right car at the right price. When the dealer knows you are ready to walk away, they might be more willing to close the deal.

And you really do need to walk if it’s not working out for you. Never buy a car if you’re not fully comfortable with the terms.

13. Buy a car and drive it home

Learning how to buy a car can be a wonderful experience — once it’s all over and you get to drive your car home. Leading up to that moment can be stressful and grueling.

If you want to cut back on the time you spend in the dealership, do your research ahead of time. Call or email dealers for best quotes, and come ready with your preapproval. Laying the groundwork can mean a faster negotiation, a lower cost to you, and the best possible deal.

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  1. Terms and Conditions Apply: SOFI RESERVES THE RIGHT TO MODIFY OR DISCONTINUE PRODUCTS AND BENEFITS AT ANY TIME WITHOUT NOTICE. To qualify, a borrower must be a U.S. citizen or permanent resident in an eligible state and meet SoFi’s underwriting requirements. Not all borrowers receive the lowest rate. To qualify for the lowest rate, you must have a responsible financial history and meet other conditions. If approved, your actual rate will be within the range of rates listed above and will depend on a variety of factors, including term of loan, a responsible financial history, years of experience, income and other factors. Rates and Terms are subject to change at anytime without notice and are subject to state restrictions. SoFi refinance loans are private loans and do not have the same repayment options that the federal loan program offers such as Income Based Repayment or Income Contingent Repayment or PAYE. Licensed by the Department of Business Oversight under the California Finance Lender Law License No. 6054612. SoFi loans are originated by SoFi Lending Corp., NMLS # 1121636. (www.nmlsconsumeraccess.org)
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