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Buying a new car can be a daunting process — from trying to get the best deal to avoiding unwanted upsells.
Doing it during a pandemic doesn’t help either. Supply chain disruptions and a lack of semiconductor chips have led to inventory shortages and rising prices. You may not be able to find the model you want in stock, and it could take months for it to arrive. If you need a car now, it’s worth considering buying a used car — a similar but often more involved process.
To avoid common car-buying mistakes in the current market, there are some tried-and-true steps you’ll want to follow, such as determining how much you can afford to spend, which car you want to buy and the true market value (what other people are paying) for that car in your area.
1. Set your budget
Start by deciding if you want to pay cash, take out a loan or lease your new car.
Paying cash makes your budgeting process pretty simple, but don’t spend all your savings. And remember that you will also have to pay sales tax, registration and insurance.
Taking out an auto loan is the most common option, but make sure to research financing ahead of time — this will help you get the best deal during the negotiation process. Use a car payment calculator to figure out the right monthly payment for you.
Here are some helpful tips if you want financing:
Check your credit score. If you need to build your credit, consider waiting until your score will let you get acceptable financing terms.
If your credit score looks good, apply to get preapproved for an auto loan. If the dealer can beat the rate and terms, take that loan — but give them something to beat.
Select the best interest rate and the shortest loan term you can handle.
» COMPARE: Car loans for good, fair and bad credit
2. Identify your car’s must-have features
Now the fun begins — picking the right car for you. Here are some helpful questions to ask yourself:
How do you plan to use your car? For example, if you have a family, you’ll want enough room for everyone, plus ample cargo space.
What’s on your list of must-have features? Maybe you want a sunroof, heated seats or remote start. Make sure to include that in your search. If safety is a top priority, check the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety for crash test ratings.
Once you’ve established your criteria, search for models that meet them. Many automotive sites and car-buying apps have a car finder tool to help you identify strong candidates, as well as in-depth rankings and research guides. Filter your search according to your budget and desired features. Identify three to five target models to research in more detail.
3. Check reliability and ownership costs
Choose models not only for their dependability but also for their low cost of ownership. J.D. Power and Consumer Reports (which requires a paid membership) may be helpful resources; they collect maintenance reports from owners and rate cars for reliability.
Check the total cost of ownership for each model. Some cars are cheap to buy, but will cost a lot in the long run because of insurance, maintenance, repairs and depreciation. Use tools like Kelley Blue Book’s Five-Year Cost to Own or Consumer Reports’ Cost of Vehicle Ownership to estimate these expenses. Sometimes, it may be wiser to pay more for a car upfront than to risk high maintenance costs down the line.
» MORE: Car insurance comparison tool
4. Locate and test drive the car
Now it’s time to see your picks in action. It’s important to test drive all the cars you’re interested in so you have a good feel for the different models. Ideally, you would do this in quick succession so your impressions would be fresh in your mind for comparison.
Set aside a morning or afternoon for the process, and, if possible, do it mid-week when dealerships aren't too busy.
Call ahead and schedule an appointment. That way, the right model will be pulled out and ready to go.
Select a test-drive route that has a bit of everything: hills, rough pavement, curves and even a stretch of highway.
Due to the new-car shortage, it may be hard to find what you want on the lot. You can find dealership inventories online or use an app or website that lets you quickly search multiple dealerships at once.
Maybe one of the cars you tested meets your needs but isn’t the right color or doesn’t have the option combination you’re looking for. If nothing is available nearby, try broadening your search radius using an online car-shopping tool like Autolist or Autotrader to cover an entire region — or even the entire country.
5. Find the right price
Pricing guides such as Kelley Blue Book and Edmunds allow you to cut to the chase and find out what other people in your area are paying for the car you want. To see prices on either company's website, just input the car options you want — in some cases, even the color, since every factor can affect the car’s price.
Make sure to see what, if any, incentives and rebates are available for the car you want. Most manufacturer websites list current offers, which typically change each month.
6. Get dealer quotes
Requesting dealer quotes by email can take the stress out of negotiating. You can ask for a price quote by emailing the dealership, or by using a third-party tool such as TrueCar that lets you quickly request quotes from multiple dealerships.
Compare the seller’s asking price to the average market price you determined through the pricing guides. Chances are, the seller is asking more than the market average.
If you negotiate in person, here are a few tips to use on the car lot:
Don’t be a monthly payment buyer. If you have a preapproved loan, you’re treated as a cash buyer. Negotiate the price of the car, not the size of the monthly payment.
Be unpredictable. Don’t let a salesman leave you trapped in a sales office while he “goes to talk with his boss.” Instead, roam around the showroom or go get a cup of coffee.
Negotiate slowly and repeat the numbers you hear. It’s easy to get confused, so go slowly and even write down the numbers thrown at you. Make sure you know whether you’re talking about the “out-the-door” price, which includes all taxes and fees, or just the sale price of the car.
Ask about fees before saying yes to a deal. Some dealers may include bogus fees to recoup the profit they lose while negotiating. Ask for a breakdown of additional fees before you agree to any deal.
Be ready to walk. If you aren’t making progress toward a deal, or you don’t like the way you’re being treated, just walk out. No goodbyes are necessary.
7. Maximize trade-in value
If you have a car to trade in, make sure you’re getting the best price for it. You can use an online pricing guide’s appraisal tool to determine what your car is worth. Make sure to fill everything out accurately, as certain features and options can add more value.
Here are some terms you might encounter:
Trade-in value: How much you would receive when trading in the vehicle.
Private-party value: How much you would receive if you were to sell the vehicle on your own.
Dealer-retail value: How much the dealer will try to sell the vehicle for.
You can also sell your car online through car-shopping sites that will give you an instant offer for your vehicle, valid for a few days — even if you don’t purchase a vehicle from them. Having that as a reference point will put you in a better negotiating position at the dealership. If the dealer won’t beat the offer, you can always fall back on the better one.
8. Seal the deal
If you're negotiating by email or phone, ask to have the car delivered to you rather than picking it up at the dealership. It’s quick and stress-free.
But not all dealerships offer this service, and most people go in person to sign papers. Even if you’ve been preapproved for a loan, the dealership’s finance manager may offer to beat the terms of the loan. It doesn’t hurt to see if they can get you a better interest rate. Just make sure all the other terms of the loan are the same.
Before the contract is drawn up, the finance manager may try to sell you additional products and services. Buying an extended car warranty at the right price can provide peace of mind. But first, check the terms of the warranty that's included with the price of your new car.
Most new cars have a bumper-to-bumper warranty covering at least three years and 36,000 miles, along with a powertrain warranty that typically lasts up to 60,000 miles. The powertrain warranty covers all the parts that make the car drivable, such as the engine, transmission and suspension.
Take your time reviewing the contract and don’t let yourself be pressured into signing just to get it over with. The contract will include the agreed-on sales price and these additional figures:
State sales tax. This is a percentage of the cost of the car and may vary based on your city and county.
Documentation fee. As crazy as it sounds, the dealership actually charges you for filling out the contract. This “doc fee” is capped in some states. In states such as Florida, some dealerships charge as much as $700 for doc fees.
Registration fees. A dealer has the ability to register the car for you, which is convenient.
Dealerships might include additional fees, some of which may be bogus. It’s tricky to know what’s legit and what’s included just to boost their profit. If the dealer's finance manager can’t explain a fee in the contract to your satisfaction, ask to have it removed.