Just like any other large purchase or investment, buying a car can be daunting—especially for first-timers. Sure, you may be envisioning driving off into the sunset in a luxury convertible, but the reality of budgets and needs could paint an entirely different picture. Even though the car-buying process is generally straightforward—do your due diligence, calculate your budget, and negotiate adequately—there’s a lot more to being a savvy car shopper than just nailing the basics.
To help you conquer your next search, we tapped Rebecca Lindland, senior director and executive analyst at Kelley Blue Book, to give us some lesser-known car-shopping hacks that will shed dollars off your next purchase. With a dozen personal car purchases under her belt and much more analysis knowledge from her role at Kelley Blue Book, Lindland knows a thing or two we certainly didn't about buying a car. Do you calculate your car's five-year cost to own? Do you walk into negotiations with preapproved financing? With these car-buying hacks, you'll never walk out of your dealership with buyer's remorse.
Keep Livability in Mind
"Buying a car is a long-term commitment, not a one-night stand, so it needs to fit your lifestyle and the people you share your life with," says Lindland. "When thinking about a car, consider your personal size, as one size does not fit all. What's your geographical location? All-wheel drive is great to have in all driving conditions, but it's a must-have in cold places where it snows. Do you haul around kids? A third-row seat may come in handy. Do you often have your parents or grandparents with you? Some vehicles have easier ingress and egress than others, and finding one that accommodates all the people in your life will help a lot. Look for where the top of the driver's seat hits on your body—if the top of the seat is at waist level, it will be easy to get in and out. If it's at the knees, like a sports car, it will require sliding in and out."
Factor in Ownership Costs
"Sometimes a vehicle with a higher upfront price can actually cost you less over time," explains Lindland. To avoid getting bombarded with hidden costs, she recommends looking up the car's five-year cost to own—in other words, what a new car will cost you over the first five years in terms of fuel, maintenance, insurance, depreciation, and other related vehicle expenses. "Understanding the big picture of ownership costs can help you make a smart decision," she adds.
"When I was shopping for my latest car, I went with the uppermost trim line on a premium but not luxury brand, so I have all the bells and whistles that fit into my $28,000 to $32,000 budget and a goal of under $45,000 for five-year cost to own," she told us. "I test-drove several different small crossovers, which had the right amount of seats, cargo, and all-wheel drive for my lifestyle. After factoring all of my needs and the needs of those around me, I ended up with a really cute chocolate-brown Buick Encore."
Know Your Redesign Cycle
"If a car you have your mind on is set for a redesign, you may be able to get a better deal on the outgoing model," says Lindland. "Dealers are anxious to clear their lots of previous-generation vehicles when an all-new model comes out, so if your heart is not set on the brand-new design, you can likely negotiate a great deal on the current year's model right before a redesign."
Consider Certified Preowned
"Certified preowned vehicles offer the best of both worlds, as you get a lower-cost alternative that gets you into a nearly new car," explains Lindland. "CPO vehicles are preowned, but they are late-model, low-mileage vehicles that have been fully inspected according to manufacturer guidelines. They also come with a warranty. You likely can get a CPO vehicle in a higher trim level or class for the same price as a lower-end new car."
Upgrade Your Keychain
Expand Your Search
Car prices aren't the same around the country. "When looking for a new car online, you may be able to get a better selection of options or even a better deal if you look in a broader geographic area, so don't be afraid to expand your search from 'within 25 miles' to 'within 100 miles' or more," suggests the Kelley Blue Book analyst. "You can still use your local dealer for service."
Get Preapproved Financing
Showing up prepared to the dealership doesn't only look good; it could help you save money too. "Lining up your financing ahead of time can be key to saving you money in the long run," explains Lindland. "Talk to your bank, or look for auto financing deals online to have your line of credit squared away before ever stepping into the dealership." While the dealership's finance department may ultimately be able to give you a better deal, at least this way you have options and possibly some bargaining power when it comes to financing.
Understand Your Test Drives
"The test drive you do when you're shopping should be completely different from the one you do when you're ready to buy," explains Lindland. "When you're shopping, get behind the wheel of two or three models you're considering to find out which ones are as good in the real world as they are on paper. Once you've decided which model you want, take a long, thorough test drive on main roads and highways at a variety of speeds in the exact vehicle you plan to purchase. Leaving the radio off and the windows up, pay special attention to visibility, seating position, ease of ingress and egress, noise in the cabin, and the feel of the ride. Visibility is a vital component of selecting a vehicle and something to be cognizant of on a test drive."
"Budget is a natural constraint on such a large purchase, so always make sure you're negotiating from the price of the vehicle and not the payment amount," insists Lindland. "Don't be lured by longer loan terms. Try to stay with a 60-month loan—it will protect you from owing more on your vehicle than it's worth. And make sure you're budgeting for a vehicle with plenty of safety features, like lane-departure warning, lane-keep assist, a backup camera, remote start, and automatic rear liftgate." As for a quick bargaining tip: "Some people have reported being able to get a better deal if they go to a dealership on a rainy day when the store is likely to have less foot traffic, or on a day toward the end of the month, when salespeople have their monthly quotas top of mind."
Next up: seven smart things people do when negotiating for a car.