Google has made it way too easy to sink your time into finding the perfect fill-in-the-blank. And a car — which, for most people, is the second-largest purchase you’ll ever make — is no exception. The experts over at Car and Driver have narrowed down the must-know guidelines for researching your brand new car — and beyond.
STEP 1: RESEARCH
Stay away from the lot. Your laptop + that fancy new sofa = research central; the car dealership, not so much. A few decades ago, the way to buy a car was to spend a Saturday on dealership row to decide what you want. Despite your car-enthusiast dad’s insistence that this is still how it should be done, experts now say you should do your research online and only visit dealerships for test drives. Why? Because a car salesman can’t give you the unbiased, big-picture info the interwebs can.
There are many ways to research new vehicles online, from magazine websites such as CarAndDriver.com to the automakers’ own sites. The volume of information is staggering. Consume the info, take notes, make a spreadsheet if that’s your thing — but do it before you head out to shop. When you reach the dealership, confidently let the rep know what you’re there to test drive — and make the rides count.
Check the quality ratings — but don’t put too much stock in them. Old-school car buyers (again, thanks, Dad, got this) were obsessed with the automotive quality ratings from J.D. Power and Associates, and automakers frequently use them to trumpet how safe their vehicles are. Yes, there are some brands that do spectacularly well and some that do quite poorly. Just remember that J.D. Power’s quality surveys don’t guarantee that a new car will be problem-free. Don’t write off brands with an average rating, especially if you can get a good price on the car you like. Bottom line: It may not be worth paying extra for a brand just ’cause it has the highest quality score.
Find out if a deal on last year’s model is really worth it. During the late summer or early fall, dealers are starting to make room for next year’s model. Obviously, last year’s leftovers will be cheaper than a brand-new model. But here’s where doing your homework pays off: You have to weigh the savings against other factors. The stupid-fast pace of technology means a redesigned model is likely to offer more features and better fuel economy, so a new car might be worth the extra cash.
Think of it this way: You get a discount for taking home last year’s model, but all that time that it’s been sitting on the lot, getting passed up by buyer after buyer, its trade-in or resale value has been quietly dribbling away too. So the discount you score needs to be bigger than the losses you’ll take on the value of the car. The depreciation will be even worse if the carmaker added new features after it built last year’s (now-surprisingly-affordable) model. That makes it important for you to know when the automaker did or will overhaul the model you’re shopping for — because when the refresh happens, a year-old version will suddenly seem pretty lame (and, ergo, less valuable) in comparison.
Most vehicles have a life cycle of four to six years before they get substantially reengineered. Sometimes a mid-cycle refresh can bring updates even sooner, and these plans are often reported well in advance. Have a car enthusiast friend help you poke around; knowing there’s an improvement coming soon will better inform your purchase.
STEP 2: NEGOTIATE
Be straight with your salesperson about what you want and how much you’re willing to spend. Say you’ve test driven your car, everything checks out, and now you’re ready to pull the trigger. Before sitting down with a salesperson, shop around at other dealerships and be sure to come armed with knowledge about your options and how much other dealers are selling your car for. If you know what you want and what it’s worth, you won’t be forced to waste time as the dealership tries to sell you a car with option packages you don’t need.
Trading in your old car? Mention this first to get the dealership’s best offer. While it’s convenient to trade in your old car at the dealership when you purchase a new one, know that this won’t always yield a fat return. If you go this route, tell the salesperson upfront instead of springing it on her after you’ve made a deal on the new car. Knowing you’ve got a car to trade in first and foremost puts her in the position of having to make her best offer to try to secure your business. If you want maximum value for your old car, however, sell it yourself.
STEP 3: CLOSE THE DEAL
Arrange your financing through the dealership. They can often get you financing as good or better than your bank. If the dealer can earn a profit off the markup, or “reserve,” on the interest rate, you may be able to negotiate a lower price on the car. That said, it doesn’t hurt to know what rate your local lender can offer you before heading to the dealership. (Remember, interest rates partly depend on your credit history, so it’s smart to know your credit score and make sure your finances are in order before applying for a loan.)
Before you pass on tire, wheel, and key coverage, listen to what the finance-and-insurance person is selling. Age-old advice would say to turn down everything, but some types of optional warranty coverage might actually make sense for you. Consider, for instance, that replacement keys can cost hundreds of dollars. If you’re always losing your keys, find out what a new one for your car costs — it might be a lot more than you think. You should still be wary of extras, so make sure you fully understand every line of your sales contract.
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