13 Must-Know Tips for First-Time Car Buyers

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Nicole Franzen

If you’re in the market to buy a car for the first time, there’s a great deal to consider beyond the color of that interior upholstery, that’s for sure. It can be intimidating, so to help you emerge victorious from the dealership or Craigslist resale rabbit hole, we’re rounding up 13 tips you need to know so you can land your dream set of wheels.

Keep Your Options Open

First and foremost, consider a handful of models that might work, and then weigh the benefits and drawbacks of each. Don't make any quick decisions.

Do Not Buy on the First Visit

Dealerships inflate prices, and they want to sell you on your first trip to the lot. Establish that you're a discerning consumer, and you'll be able to get a better deal.

Time Your Purchase Wisely

Dealers work month to month and will often acquiesce to lower offers toward month’s end to meet their quotas. They’re also significantly less busy on weekdays, so salespeople may be more likely to offer a great deal then than during peak weekend hours.

Consult All the Experts

The Internet is full of ratings, reviews, and insider scoops. There are tons of websites that contain detailed user ratings and reviews, such as Kelly Blue Book or Edmunds, as well as forums where consumers discuss must-know information on new and used car models. Have there been any recalls? Does the car you're considering handle snow as well as you think it should? Crawl the web to find out.

Get the Most out of Your Used Car

Buying a used car is a great way to save, but it takes a lot of work. Finding the best car for you means sorting through a vast expanse of potentially not-right cars. Consult Carfax’s used-car listings to see what different dealers are offering.

Craigslist also has tons of used cars from private sellers. Obtain a Carfax vehicle history report to get details on ownership history, readings, service records, and accident history.

Before pulling the trigger on a used car, it’s a good idea to contact a mechanic to do a full, in-depth inspection.

Check out the Car in Person

When buying a used car, always go see it in person—and go during the daytime! Make sure body panels match, raise the hood, and peer inside to check the condition of the upholstery.

Take a Test Drive

Whether you’re buying a used car or one fresh off the shipping container, take a test drive no matter what. Drive the car as you would if it were yours. Try out cruise control. Play with the audio and the AC. Test out the seat recliners. Do it all.

Know the Market

If you’re interested in making an offer on a used car, reference Kelley Blue Book's Fair Purchase Price resource to see what comparable cars are selling for.

Consider What’s Important to You

For example, is fuel efficiency a primary concern? Do you want to go electric? Thinking about your priorities will help you in the overwhelming search for a good fit.

Assess Your Transportation Needs

Consider cars that can accommodate your needs. Will you be using your car daily? If so, skip the convertible. Will you be using it to haul around expensive items like boxes or hefty sports gear? Don't go with the mini!

Establish a Budget

Create a budget based on what you can afford each month. According to Jeff Ostroff, founder and CEO of CarBuyingTips.com, if you’re buying a new car, you should be able to put 20 percent down at the time of purchase and pay the car off in 48 months. If this feels out of range, consider a three-year-old used car.

When assessing this, take into account all the costs of the car, such as insurance, maintenance, unforeseen repairs, and gas mileage. Consult the budgeting worksheet from the Federal Trade Commission if you need help figuring out how much you can responsibly spend on financing or leasing a new car.

Learn About Loans

If you’re going to take out a loan, decide which is the best fit for you. Direct auto financing involves a loan from a bank or credit union. Once you sign a contract with a dealership to buy your new car, you use the loan from the lender to pay for it. This allows you to shop around for the best terms before buying a vehicle, and also means you’ll have a full grasp of your loan terms while shopping.

Dealership financing, on the other hand, means you enter into a contract with the dealership directly.

Be careful with dealership financing! Many dealerships offer incentive programs for prospective buyers, but they’re also notorious for inflating interest rates.

Things to consider include the amount of the loan, the interest rate (the annual rate charged by the lender), the length of the loan, and fine print, such as if there is a grace period for late payments. Don’t just take the first offer you get; shop around.

Get Schooled on Auto Insurance

The cost of auto insurance depends on your location, your driving record, and the state of your car. There are a lot of tools out there to help you find the right coverage, but you’ll ultimately be deciding it based on planned usage and what you want covered in the event of an accident.

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