According to Statista, in 2017, over 237 previously offered car models were available to US consumers, and another 38 new models were added to the market by year’s end.
Choosing a new vehicle can be a fun and exciting experience, but it can also be daunting. Purchasing a vehicle is the second-largest purchase most consumers make (second only to their home), which means that finding the right car for you is an important thing to get right.
With so many models on the market, and new options being introduced multiple times a year, it can be difficult to know where to start. In fact, choosing a new car is often such a confusing experience that many consumers opt to stick with the brand they already know, simply upgrading to the most recent model of their current car, truck, or SUV.
While this isn’t always a bad option, you certainly are leaving a lot of options unexplored. Regardless of where you land in the car shopping spectrum, there is a much more practical way to approach your new purchase, and we intend to help you every step of the way.
Step 1 – Figuring out what you need
You can imagine it now, wind blowing thru your hair, red hot convertible revving at the tap of your foot on the accelerator. Or maybe you’re feeling a bit more masculine. Perhaps you’re dreaming of that heavy-duty, jacked-up beast of a truck that strikes fear into lesser men every time you let it rip on the open road.
But then you come back down to reality, where the rest of us (mostly) sane people live. Fact is, the convertible will probably get you a speeding ticket, not to mention a chewing out by your more conservative friends, family, or significant other. And that behemoth of a truck? Well, you’re unlikely to be pulling logs out of the mountains or trailers out of a ditch any time soon.
As with most things in life, we need to balance our “wants” with our “needs.” So when choosing the right car for you, make a list. That’s right. Keep it simple. What do you NEED? Your must-haves. And what are the things you want…you know, the nice to have but not necessary items.
For example, if you have a child under the age of 8, a vehicle with an appropriate setup for a car seat is a must. Need to truck your pre-teen kiddos and their friends to the junior high dance? Better make sure you have ample seats available.
The key at this stage in the selection process is to stay practical.
Step 2 – Setting a Budget
We’re off to a good start.
You know what you need and want and have established a healthy balance between the two. The next most important filter (unless you are Bill Gates or Warren Buffet) is a budget.
Every vehicle class has a range of options at varying levels of pricing. And unless you have a pile of cash lying around, you’re going to have to make some hard choices here.
Likely you’ll need to take out a car loan. It is advisable to keep your total monthly car expenses (including insurance, fuel, monthly payments, registration, and repairs) to 20% or less of your monthly take-home pay.
Using a car loan calculator can help give you a rough idea of what your payments will look like given your credit, approximate interest rate, and down payment (if any). Use this estimate to figure out a price range that you are comfortable with and avoid the temptation to stretch that loan out into infinity to squeeze in a more expensive car into your budget.
Step 3 – To buy or not to buy…that is the question
Or rather, whether to purchase the car outright or lease it. Ultimately this is a personal decision you’ll need to make on your own, but we’ll provide you with a quick rundown of the benefits of each option below.
Leases typically require little money down (upfront) and offer lower monthly payments. However, upon the lease termination date, you’re left without a car. Purchasing a car outright comes at a higher initial cost (i.e., down payment), and monthly payments can also be higher depending on the situation. However, at the end of it all, you own the vehicle outright.
Advantages of Buying:
- Low-interest rate deals can make greater financial sense than leasing
- No unexpected penalties for mileage overages
- More control over the maintenance of your vehicle
- Greater flexibility. You can sell the car whenever you please.
- You can modify the car as you wish
Advantages of Leasing:
- Often allows for driving a higher-end vehicle for less money
- Every few years, you can upgrade to a newer model
- No trade-in hassle.
Step 4 – Have you Considered all your Options
Today’s auto marketplace is ripe with options. And consumers often find it difficult to keep up with what is actually available to them.
The internet is a great resource, and there are numerous sites where you can search for all the makes and models of any brand to get a well-rounded picture of options you may not have thought about.
Compare by make, models, price ranges, and market segments, then narrow it down based upon your other preferences (like a sunroof, Bluetooth, etc.).
Step 5 – The Actual Cost of Ownership
One of the most often overlooked aspects of buying a car is what that car will cost you year after year in maintenance. For example, one car might be less expensive and initially seems more attractive to your wallet, but it also might cost you more in the long run once you add in maintenance and repair fees.
Also, it’s a good idea to call your insurance company at this stage to see if there is a big difference in the cost of coverage between the options you are considering. You might be surprised to find that there is indeed a major difference.
Step 6 – Research. Research. Research.
With the amount of information we have available to us with a few quick clicks on the keyboard, there is no excuse for not doing your due diligence before finding the right car for you and your family.
Many auto sites such as Kelly Blue Book and Autotrader have sophisticated tools that allow you to search and filter based on any number of criteria. We suggest you build a targeted list of 3-5 cars (makes, models, and options) that you are considering.
From there, check all the comparable prices to make sure your original estimates are in range with the prices the market is currently buying and selling. Also, just because you’ve convinced yourself that a specific make or model is the ONE, don’t firmly rule out any competitor models that you may have previously overlooked.
Next, read consumer reports, first-hand reviews, professional car reviews, reliability reports…basically anything you can get your hands on to help you make an informed decision. It also doesn’t hurt to ask around on social media to get feedback from someone you may know that owns or has owned the same cars you are considering.
Step 7 – The Test Drive
Reading about a car is one thing. Feeling it under your feet is an entirely different experience. Running all over to car lots, dealing with sales reps, and taking time out of your day to “test” isn’t always the most glamorous, but in the end, you’ll be happy you made an effort.
Step 8 – Review Everything
You’ve done your homework. You know what you want, how you want it, and at what price. You know whether or not you’re going for a purchase or a lease and the terms you hope to land on the deal.
This is a good point to hone in on the details you’ll need to present the dealership. Things like comparable prices at other dealerships, your target interest rates on financing, the term of your finance period, etc.
We suggest you get all this onto 1-3 sheets of paper. Then, print it out and bring it with you to the dealership. This shows them you’ve done your homework, are educated on your options, and aren’t afraid to negotiate for a fair price.
Step 9 – Contact Dealerships
Begin your search for dealerships close to you and work outwards. You may find that only a few have or can obtain the EXACT car you are looking for (color and all) within the timeframe you’re looking to purchase. This is important.
Step 10 – Negotiate and Close the Deal
Once you’ve found a couple of dealerships that can accommodate your needs, it’s time to set up meetings. Again, make sure to talk to at least two competing car lots, and be ready with all your research to back up any prices claims.
We won’t get into negotiation tactics here, but it wouldn’t be an entirely bad idea to brush up on some basics online before going in.
Suppose you’ve made it this far; congratulations! With any luck, you’ve landed the car of your dreams or at least a practical ride that accommodates your needs and budget.