Five Questions to Ask Yourself Before Buying a Car (And One After Buying)

If you’re going through the process of buying an automobile (as I am right now), there are many thoughts that are likely to pass through your head – and none of them should involve kicking tires.

To avoid being suckered into buying a certain car when you get on the dealer’s lot, it’s a good idea to sit down and do a little decision making and research before you even begin to look. Here are five questions to ask yourself honestly before you go buy a new vehicle.

What is your upper limit on spending?
Many people make the mistake of looking before figuring out what they can really afford. Before you ever start thinking about makes and models and features, sit down and make up a simple budget (or review the one you already have), so you can get a grip on how much you can afford to spend each month on a car. Once you have that number figured out, use this calculator to determine the sticker price that you can afford.

Once you’ve figured out what you can afford, you need to commit yourself to not going over that amount. If your price range means you’re going to have to purchase an older automobile, so be it. So often, people find themselves falling in love with a sparkling new Lexus when their budget says Plymouth and they find themselves in deep, deep trouble a few months later when the bills start rolling in. If you’re going to hem and haw about price, do it now so that you have a final number in mind before you hit the lot.

Have you considered other operating costs?
Many people fall in love with big SUVs and sportscars that seem to be within their budget, but when they discover that they need to fill it up with gasoline every other day, their budget implodes. If you already budget a certain amount for gasoline each month, buying a car that gets worse gas mileage will increase that allotment. On the other hand, buying an economical car will likely increase that allotment.

Are you most concerned with luxury, utility, or reliability?
These dimensions can basically point you in the direction of a specific type of automobile and also indicate to you the types of features you’re looking for. For example, a person looking primarily at utility and luxury might want a SUV, but a person gearing towards utility and reliability may want a minivan, and someone who wants luxury and reliability may want a high-end sedan. Think about what you really want from each category before you leave so that you have an idea of what you’re looking for.

What models are appropriate?
Once you’ve figured out the type of automobile you want, do some research. I recommend visiting the library and visiting their periodical room to look at the automotive magazines as well as Consumer Reports. If you’re buying used, look for older issues of magazines and also check for articles on used cars in those magazines. If you have trouble, a librarian is always happy to help if you’re courteous.

You can also do some internet searching, but don’t expect this data to be perfectly reliable, especially on sites where anyone can submit reports. Auto companies often submit glowing reports of their own products. If you use the internet, find as many sources as you can for a recommendation.

What dealers are you going to shop at?
Did you see an ad on television for a friendly-looking car dealer? Are you going to shop at the place that sold you your last car? Before you do anything, check the Better Business Bureau to see which dealerships have a good track record and which ones do not. If a dealership has a large list of complaints, then you should probably avoid them.

If you’re buying used, don’t ever buy upon your first visit. Ask for a vehicle’s VIN if you’re really interested, then do a CARFAX check on it. If the dealer refuses to give you the number, then don’t bother even considering the purchase as the dealer is hiding something.

You should also ask friends for recommendations and any bad experiences. Your social network is always good for this type of thing, as the experience of a “random customer” is often a good indicator of how you will be treated. Pay special attention to dealers that handle complaints well, as you want the dealer to listen to problems that you have with their automobiles.

What consumer protection is available to you?
If you have trouble with an automotive purchase, be aware that consumer protection agencies do exist. Don’t hesitate to the Better Business Bureau if a dealer treats you poorly, and be sure to the Federal Trade Commission if you find issues with the car itself, particularly new car purchases.

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