Despite the abundance of resources and information available to all car shoppers, women surprisingly still feel less comfortable shopping for and buying a car than men. According to a recent AutoTrader.com survey, approximately one in four women (24%) find shopping for a vehicle "stressful," compared to 15% of men. And while nearly half of men (44%) feel "certain and confident" when visiting car dealerships, only one in four women (25%) feel the same way.
Choosing the ideal vehicle – and getting a great deal – can be a smooth ride with some simple tips that will put you on the road to being a more informed car shopper.
Phase I: Researching and Planning
Let's get started! Before visiting a dealership or talking to a private seller, take the time to research and consider what type of car will be the best for you.
Keep your eyes and ears open. Look at cars on the road and determine what features and models appeal to you.
Ask other drivers about their experience with cars that catch your eye.
Consider your driving needs. Ask yourself questions to determine what features are essential for you and what fits with your needs and lifestyle:
- Passenger Seating – How many passengers are normally in your vehicle?
- Storage Space and Hauling Power – Do you need a significant amount of trunk space or hauling capacity?
- Driving Terrain – Do you need an all-wheel drive vehicle?
- Maintenance & Fuel Costs – How much driving do you do? Can you afford to fill up your tank often? What are normal maintenance costs?
Get online. Going to a dealership prepared will help you feel certain about what you're looking for, and ultimately, about your purchase. Visit sites like AutoTrader.com to compare vehicles side by side, research prices, get a sense of the best vehicles for your lifestyle, look at videos and photos and access current inventory in your area. Researching cars by make, model, body style, etc. can help navigate you through all of the questions and concerns that are important to you.
New, used or certified pre-owned (CPO)? There are positive aspects of each of these; it's up to you what works best for your current lifestyle.
- New - One of the best reasons to buy new is the new-car warranty. Warranty periods are typically at least three years or up to 36,000 miles and cover just about everything from bumper to bumper.
- Used - The most obvious advantage to buying a pre-owned car is that you can get a fantastic deal. Just be smart about it. If it's too good to be true, it probably is.
- CPO - CPO cars are a happy medium. They're typically two to three years old, have been reconditioned and come with some warranty protection. A CPO car will have a higher price tag than a similar non-CPO vehicle, but the warranty protection may make it worth it.
Phase II: Visiting a Dealership or Private Seller
Visiting a dealership or a private seller is nothing to fear. With a few key tips on what to watch for and go in with, you can let any seller know you're an informed, smart shopper.
Keep asking questions! Asking questions of your dealer or seller will help you get to know them, sense how committed they are to their customers and show them that you're prepared and knowledgeable. Be sure to ask:
- What special offers do you currently have available?
- What types of warranties do you offer? Can I purchase an extended warranty?
- What did the previous owners use the car for and what type of climate was it driven in? (If it is pre-owned)
- How long of a test drive can I take?
- What new equipment comes as part of this purchase?
- Do you take trade-ins?
Bring along your research.
- When doing your research online, print out pages or ads about the specific cars you're interested in seeing and test driving. This will make it easy to compare what the seller said about the actual car, and you can make notes on the page for each car you look at.
- If there are similar cars at lower prices across town, print out those pages, too. You may get a seller in the more convenient location to match that price if he or she knows that you know there's a similar car at a lower price nearby.
- Many on-line shopping and research sites now have mobile functionality so you can build your list of favorites and bring them with you right on your phone.
Take a break.
- If you ever feel uncomfortable in the process of car shopping, get up and take a walk! You'll think more clearly if you get up and take a breather.
- Don't be afraid to also go back to the dealer or seller for multiple visits – you should never buy a car on your first visit.
Phase III: Test Driving and Inspection
You're so close to riding off in the vehicle of your dreams, but before starting the negotiation process, be sure to test drive and inspect your soon-to-be vehicle.
Bring a buddy. If you're not a serious car person with an understanding of body work and mechanics, bring along a friend who is for the test drive and to help you fully examine the body, interior and engine.
Ride in the daytime. Schedule your inspection and test drive during daylight hours – preferably during strong light so you can clearly see everything.
Take a thorough spin. When conducting your test drive:
- Turn the radio off, roll down the windows and listen to the engine while the car is moving. Problems that aren't apparent when a vehicle is idling will become clear once it's in motion.
- Make note of the exhaust sound and smell. Stinky emissions or a sputtering exhaust could signify engine troubles.
- Pay attention to the vehicle's handling, taking note of how the suspension reacts on bumps and turns. Accelerate a few times to see how the car responds.
- Once you're satisfied with the car's sound, smell, handling and performance, conduct the visual inspection.
- Take your time to inspect the entire vehicle, exterior and interior, for scratches, dings, rust, leaks, stains, etc. This is more important for used cars, which are more likely to have some wear and tear or damage. But also take a close look at any new car you're buying for small imperfections that may have occurred in shipping, while the car was being test driven by others or sitting on the lot.
Phase IV: Considerations and Precautions
Once you've tested out the vehicle and are happy with its performance, be sure to take a few more precautions before going into the negotiation process.
Get a CARFAX report. Before buying any pre-owned vehicle, based on the vehicle's Vehicle Identification Number (VIN), to review its history.
- Aside from Carfax.com, you can also get this on AutoTrader.com – there are thousands of vehicles listed that include free CARFAX vehicle history reports.
- Make sure the VIN on the vehicle match what's on this report.
Consider safety. Review government and insurance company crash test ratings for any vehicle you're considering and look into the available add-on safety features before signing your lease or purchase agreement. You can do this on sites like Safercar.gov or IIHS.org.
Phase V: Negotiating
Negotiating can be the most difficult part of the car buying process. Follow these tips to help ease the process.
Be prepared with financing. When shopping for your vehicle, lining up your auto financing before you visit a dealership could save you money. Ask your bank or credit union what auto financing programs they offer before you start your negotiations.
Focus on the big picture. When negotiating a monthly payment, focus on the actual price of the car.
- Most dealerships use a system called "four-square." In four different quadrants on a page are: trade value, MSRP (or the price of the new car), down payment and monthly payments.
- During what's called "first pencil," the salesperson will usually throw out some high numbers in the monthly payment and down payment boxes, focusing on how much you're able to put down and what you will pay monthly. They usually want to keep you focused on payment, not the price of the vehicle.
- While this is happening, remain focused on the quadrant that shows MSRP, or the price of the car. Insist on discussing the price of the car and let that dictate the payments.
Watch out for add-ons. A lot of dealer profit is made later in the sales of aftermarket parts, services and add-ons:
- Exterior paint sealant
- Pre-loaded alarm systems
- Fuel maximizers
- Underbody coating
If you are interested in these features, wait to add them on later. It may save you money to purchase these items somewhere other than the dealership!
Get it all in writing. Ask the dealer or seller to explain to you how the cost specifically breaks down and see it clearly in writing. You want to make sure that you understand where any additional fees come in, and that you're aware of every cost, large or small, for the vehicle. This is your purchase and you have the right to know this information!
For more information, please visit www.autotrader.com/roadmap. You can also see more of these tips in Courtney's book, "The Garage Girl's Guide to Everything You Need to Know About Your Car."