9 Steps to Buying Your Dream Car

Your dream car is out there, waiting for you. It’s a noisy marketplace, so planning and focus is a must when car shopping. Whether buying a van to haul the kids or a two-seat convertible for cross-country road trips, our checklist can help.

1. Know what you want. Maybe you need 4-wheel drive and a tow package to haul a boat. Or you want seat warmers and navigation. Use the list below to help you find exactly what you want.  

  • Body style
  • No. of passengers
  • Gas mileage
  • Engine (hybrid, electric, gas, diesel)
  • Transmission (automatic or manual)
  • Drive train (4-wheel drive/all-wheel drive, rear-wheel drive or front-wheel drive)
  • Power equipment (windows, heated seats, seat adjustment, mirrors)
  • Towing capacity
  • Audio, Bluetooth and navigation
  • Storage capacity
  • Seat material
  • Exterior and Interior color
  • Sunroof/moon roof
  • Safety features (some are critical when buying a family car)

2. Know what you can afford. First, get a copy of your credit report to confirm there aren’t any credit issues you should clear up. Typically, the better your credit, the better your interest rate. Then, get pre-approved financing from your bank, credit union or online lender. It could make it easier for you to negotiate with dealerships, since you’re a cash buyer. You can always check later to see if the dealership’s financing provides a better interest rate.

3. Narrow your search. Based on your preferred price tag and wish list, find three or four vehicles that fit the bill.

4. Focus your research. Before heading to the dealership, get online and research consumer organizations for information.

  • What are people really paying for the cars on your list? Make realistic offers and avoid paying too much.  
  • Check safety ratings to understand your car’s reliability. (Plus, your auto insurance may offer discounts for reliable cars that have certain safety mechanisms, such as airbags.)
  • Look up free car history reports for vehicles you find online—dealerships often provide links. If buying from an individual, use the vehicle ID number to find its history. Tip: Those car history reports don’t always include all accidents, but they can give you some indication of its background.
  • Read reviews to see what others say about the vehicle’s performance.

5. Take a drive. A short test drive is a first step, but you’ll want to know more before you buy. Most dealerships let you take an extended test drive—some even allow overnight use.

  • Take the route you usually take to work.
  • Make sure it fits in your garage. You can’t return a vehicle if you find out later it’s too big.
  • If you tow a boat or trailer on a regular basis, hitch it up and take it for a tow to test its towing power.
  • Music lover? Play some tunes to hear if you get the sound you want.
  • Try out the 4-wheel drive. If you’re comfortable with the process, that’s great!

6. Make an offer. You can make offers online at some dealerships. Remember: price isn’t the only negotiable. You can ask for a better trade-in deal or interest rate too!

7. Accept an offer. If that includes trading in a vehicle, make sure you have the title and all headrests, mats, etc. as well as keys. 

  • Talk to your agent about getting your insurance set up for the date you’ll take possession and cancel insurance on your previous vehicle as of that date, if needed. Be sure to bring your proof of insurance card to the dealer, too.
  • Confirm the title/registration process. If you’re buying from an individual, you’ll have to make sure you get the title signed over to you.  Most dealerships will handle registration for you.

8. Sign paperwork. Review any fees, needed repairs and the condition of the vehicle. Don’t take ownership if the car is missing a floor mat or needs repairs until the seller makes a commitment in writing to fix, replace or discount it.

9. Meet your car. Have the sales person take you through its power features, (4-wheel drive, overdrive, hazard lights, mirror adjustments) and learn how to program your in-car garage door opener, Bluetooth and navigation.

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Related Topics: On The Road , Car Buying , Car Maintenance