So, You Want to Buy a Car

Lauren’s going to be sorry she asked for this stuff by the time I’m done.

Important Things to Know When Buying a Car

The most important thing I can tell you about buying a car is that the car dealer is not your friend and everything that happens to you from the moment you enter the car dealership is about keeping you off-balance enough to make a poor decision.

Before you go to the dealership, you should spend some time looking at car ads and reading Consumer’s Report so that you get a good feel for what kinds of cars are out there, both new and used.  Once you have a good idea what make, model, and year car you’re looking for, you should, if it’s a new car, try to get a good idea of what the dealer paid the manufacturer for it (the invoice price), which will be a couple of thousand dollars less than the MSRP (the price the manufacturer recommends the dealer charge you).  You can get this information from the Kelly Blue Book, which, happily, is on line here.

You should never pay the MSRP, and you probably aren’t going to get the dealer to go below the invoice price.  But that gives you a range for negotiations.  The dealer will have incentives to offer you to get you to buy a car.  Many of them will seem to be time sensitive.  Most of the time, that’s not that true.  They want you to feel pressured to make a deal, because they know if you feel pressure, you’re libel to make a mistake in your decision making.

But remember, they’re the ones that need to get cars off the lot before the new model year, not you.  And often times you can get great deals on card–new and used–right before the new model year ships, because dealers need space on their lots for the new cars and the cars people trade in to buy them.  Which reminds me, new or used, never buy a car that is the first year of its model (too many bugs yet to be worked out), nor the last year (the manufacturer has stopped caring about keeping that car’s technology up to date). 

Never tell them you have a trade-in until you have a final price set.  You should also know the Blue Book price of your car, so that you know if you’re getting a good deal on your trade-in. 

Never agree to buy a car the first time you go to a dealership.  Never.  No matter how awesome.  Once your heart is set on a specific car, your ability to negotiate decreases dramatically, because now you both have something to lose: you–the car you want, them–a sale.  For as long as possible, you want to be the person with the least to lose.

That first trip to the car dealership, you should test drive whatever car(s) strike your fancy.  But once you’ve settled on a car that you like, you should insist on test driving that specific car, not a car similar to it.  You want to drive the car you’re going to buy.

If you are shopping alone, make the salesperson get in the car and test the lights–running, brake, turn signals, headlights–while you are out of the car and can make sure they work.  Have him pop the trunk.  Can you get to the spare tire easily?  Can you get it out?  Look at the trunk design and your body type.  Can you get a flat tire back in that trunk?  Is the trunk roomy?

Look in the back seat.  Are all the seatbelts there?  Do they work?  Will they work with your car seat(s)?  Is there enough leg room for someone to actually sit back there?

Pop the hood.  Even if you have no idea what you’re looking for, you should fake it.  Check everything that looks like it might twist on and off to make sure the seals on the caps seem to be tight.  Insist on checking the oil, if the salesperson doesn’t do that in front of you.  Take the dipstick out, wipe it off, stick it back in, pull it out, and make sure the oil comes to the mark on the dipstick. Check the inside of the hood for black or coolant-colored marks (this would indicate previous overheating). Pop the cap to the radiator fluid reservoir and look for any oily residue floating on the top. Also look for rust — another bad sign.

When you’re in the car, you should test all the controls to make sure they’re where you want them and work how you expect them to do.  If you’re going to check the radio, now is the time to do it, because once you start to drive, you should drive in as much quiet as you can get.

 Pull out of your parking space.  Stop the car.  Get out.  Go check where the car has just been and make sure there are no fresh spots on the pavement.  There should be nothing black nor fluorescent.  If it’s warm, you might see some condensation from the air conditioner (if someone else has taken the car out recently), but that should only be water and running your finger through that quickly should let you know if that’s indeed what it is.

Do not buy a car that leaks.  If they can’t patch it up enough at the dealership to keep it from leaking, you’re going to struggle with that the whole time you have the car.

Once you’re driving the car, you want to listen to what the car is doing.  Is it making any weird noises?  If you are test driving an automatic transmission, you want to watch the RPMs and listen to what the car is doing.  Does the engine seem to be too loud or the RPMs get too high before the car shifts gear ratios?  An automatic transmission should move through the gears smoothly.  You can test this by getting on an entrance ramp to a freeway or a long stretch of open road and putting your foot on the gas peddle and pushing about halfway down.  Your experience as you speed up should be smooth and not clunky and the engine should not be particularly noisy.

When you are going around 60 miles an hour, take your hands off the wheel (not very far off!).  Does the car go in a straight line on its own or does it drift one way or another?  Slight drift indicates your tires need alignment.  Too much drift and you could be seeing evidence that something is bent. Okay, hands back on the wheel.

What happens when you brake?  Does the car begin to respond immediately?  Does it seem to pull to one side or another?  If you’re going 30 miles an hour and begin to gently apply the brakes, you should stop in less than a half a block.  If you slam on the brakes, you should stop in about a car length.

I believe you should take every car by your mechanic before you buy it, but this is especially true for a used car.  Do not buy a used car without running it by your mechanic first, even if your "mechanic" is just the sixteen year old kid on your block who likes to tinker with cars.  Get someone else to look at it.  Get a compression test–this is where they test the compression on the cylinders in your engine. If you don’t know a mechanic you trust, even a place like Firestone can do this cheaply and quickly, along with a battery of other tests for around $50.

Once you think you’ve found a car that fits your budget and your needs and works okay, you need to think about financing.  I don’t recommend financing with the dealership (though sometimes, depending on the financing deals, it’s worth it) because it’s not that much of a problem for them to get rid of a car that’s been repossessed.  They sell cars.  They get your money or they get your car back, either way, it’s not a problem for them.  But everyone else who gives you a car loan–the banks, credit unions, etc.–would much rather have your money than your car back.  In general, they’re much more willing to help you pay them at least something rather than take the car, if you should hit hard times.

 If you think there’s any chance that you might struggle to make payments at some point, don’t finance through the dealership.

Anything else, folks?

6 thoughts on “So, You Want to Buy a Car

  1. As lame as this suggestion may seem: Never accept free refreshments from the dealers because that creates a psychological sense of obligation.That’s the first rule of carbuying that my dad drummed into my head when I was a kid. At 10 I didn’t understand why we were passing up free Cokes. But darned if he wasn’t spot on. When I went into a dealer (rhymes with Zoo Bivers Dord) a few years ago, I was thirsty and took the free soda. The salesman kept saying "How’s that Coke? Would you like a refill" every time we’d try to beat him down on the price. It was like clockwork. And darned if I didn’t feel that I couldn’t argue $1K off the price of the car just because I had a twelve-cent cup of soda.

  2. These are all great guidelines. The only time we bought a car new, I went in with a paperback book listing the manufacture’s cost of all items, and blatantly referred to it while discussing the price with the salesman. Other than that, we have bought most of our cars ‘executive driven,’ which means that a dealer’s wife, mother or daughter drove it for about 9 months, usually for less tahn 8000 miles. For this you get a good chunk (several $1000s) taken off the price, and the cars have been very well cared for.In fairness, I must disclose that my brother-in-law is a partner in a dealership, and we have gotten our last few cars through him, as well as my Mom’s last two. It might surprise you to know that the dealer’s average profit on a regular car is only about $500, though it is higher on SUVs and trucks; and from this comes their profit. They also have to sign some fairly restrictive contracts with the big GM guys or whomever’s cars they sell.The rest of their profit comes from the repair facilities, and in my BIL’s case, at least, they do a fine job. You could eat off the floor in that garage.Another thing to check is some database where it is listed what repairs the vehicle has had. We were in an accident once where the car was totalled by our insurance company, but the dealer where we traded it in bought it cheap, fixed it up nice, and sold it as ‘practically new.’ They did not mention that the entire underframe had been cracked and welded back together. Another thing you can check is the serial number. My BIL told me that each specific letter and/or digit has a meaning, and that you never want to buy a car that came off the line on a Monday, as they are more prone to problems because the workers were tired and hungover from the weekend. Hey, I’m just passing the info along, but I would guess he knows what he’s talking about. Heh, it sounds like I’m a shill for him now. And by the way, how are the Shill and little Millard doing?And the best thing you can do to ensure that your car gets the maximum performance over the most years? Change the oil every 3000 miles. My car (a 1995 Aurora) is closing in on 100,000 miles and has had very few repairs, considering its advanced age, because we have always followed this advice.

  3. Several years ago Consumer Reports suggested that you always negotiate for at least 20% off the advertised price, more if you can get it. My Mom and I have used this math several times and it usually works out to mean a good deal. I take a legal pad with me and do the math long hand on the pad, no using the calculator for me (and they always want me to use the calculator). This seems to give the impression that I am more serious about the pricing- my math’s not always right but they can’t see that. I never even mention the trade in potential of my old car until we are done and signed on the new car. If it’s a good deal then we’ll start on that deal, but if it’s not, I keep the old car and sell it myself.The last car I bought new, I negotiated down 25%. a year later it was totaled in a traffic accident and my insurance blue book rated payoff was more than I paid for the car. I came out $4000 ahead after paying off the loan and losing the deductible. That won’t happen very often , but it helps.

  4. I’d correct it to say that if you are going to a dealer you’re already screwed, but for the purposes of this article, we won’t go there.Going to a mechanic is spot-on — never buy a car unless a good mechanic has seen it. Further, as far as I am concerned, a compression test is a must — this is the #1 thing that can spot problems with a car that are otherwise tough to spot visually or viscerally. This is where they test the compression on the cylinders in your engine. If you don’t know a mechanic you trust, even a place like Firestone can do this cheaply and quickly, along with a battery of other tests for around $50. It’s worth it, trust me. I’ve been saved from at least two potentially disastrous vehicle purchases when the compression was checked and revealed serious problems.Check the inside of the hood for black or coolant-colored marks (this would indicate previous overheating).Pop the cap to the radiator fluid reservoir and look for any oily residue floating on the top. Also look for rust — another bad sign.But, I’ll say it again: *get a compression test*. compression test, compression test, compression test.

  5. I would love for someone to tell me how to negotiate. I’ve been incredibly lucky so far, and never had to go through the car-buying process (my grandparents just gave me their old car, which they had maintained quite well), but although I’m perfectly fine with drafting contracts and arguing with insurance companies, I simply can’t imagine how I would go about negotiating a price on a car. Or anything else involving haggling, for that matter.Any tips? I’ve got the prior research, careful math, and come-armed-in advance bits down, already. It’s the "what to say after the guy tells me the price" bit that’s got me stymied.

  6. All I know about negotiating, I learned from a story my friend told me once. He and his wife were in Mexico at some kind of market, looking at pottery. She saw one she liked, and pointed it out to him (it was clearly the best one there), but he made a face and asked the price of a different one. He acted like that price was too expensive, then asked about another pot. That one was "too expensive" too. Then he asked about the pot his wife had liked in the first place, which he also liked best, and got a good deal on it.I bet this kind of strategy would work with cars, too. Especially if you have a partner to play off of that knows the drill.

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