The Car Shopping Checklist

By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist

The main thing about buying a new car is not the stress (that will pass) but avoiding a rip-off or just not getting the best deal possible (which you’ll have to live with if you don’t.)

Here are some tips to balance the process in your favor:

1) Shop when you don’t have to.

The best way to get a great deal on a new vehicle is to avoid being in the position of having to replace the one you’ve got because it just broke down and it’s beyond fixing. Or because you just don’t want to put any more money into it. Desperation rarely results in a good deal — for the buyer, anyhow. Smart shoppers anticipate the need for a new vehicle and begin looking at what’s available long before they actually need a new car.

2) Shop for money before you shop for the car.

Unless you are buying outright (cash purchase) you should think about financing (and interest rates) before you think about what color to get. Many buyers forget that the cost of money is just as important to the bottom line as the purchase price of the car itself. If you end up with a less-than-favorable loan, whatever you saved “up front” on the sticker price can easily be lost over the course of the loan period if you sign up for a loan that’s got a higher rate than you could have/should have paid. To avoid that, check with several potential lenders — including credit unions, banks and the automakers’ captive financing arms (GMAC, Ford Credit, etc.) — and then shop for the car. This way, you can focus on one thing at a time instead of two things at once — and will know you got the best deal you could have gotten on at least one of them.

3) Compare incentives.

To jump-start sales, many automakers will offer various incentives (cash back, “customer loyalty” discounts, special financing deals, etc.) that can be worth as much as several thousand dollars off the purchase price of a new vehicle. If you’re considering two otherwise similar (but different brand) vehicles, the availability of better incentives on one of them could be all the incentive you need to make the choice between them. You can also use incentives on one brand as a negotiating point on the purchase of another. Point out to the salesman that you could buy brand “x” for $2,000 off the sticker because of the incentives being offered by the manufacturer or dealer and ask him if there’s anything he can do to make his car more appealing, such as tossing in a no-cost extended warranty or free oil changes for two years, etc.

4) Know what you’re buying before you buy it.

Most models of new vehicle come in several trim levels — with your choice of such things as engines, transmissions, safety equipment and other features. You should always know as much about your next car as the salesman does — so you don’t get pushed into buying things you don’t really need or end up with one that lacks some things you end up wishing you had bought. And also so you can talk about the car knowledgeably with the salesman, which will make him less inclined to try to mislead you.

Information is readily available (see the automakers’ web sites and read as many expert reviews as you can find.) You should also take a thorough test drive of at least 30 minutes (ideally an hour or more) before buying — to make sure the vehicle is comfortable for you and there are no design problems (such as excessive blind spots, noisy engine/hard to shift transmission, etc.) that you might hate to have to live with if you actually owned the car. You may save yourself a big headache this way.

5) Know how much your old car’s worth.

One of the biggest mistakes made by many buyers is to focus on the new car (and its price ) while forgetting to know what their old one’s worth. It doesn’t do you much good if you save $2,000 on the new one but lose an equivalent amount on your trade-in. While the exact value of every used car is vehicle-specific (because unlike a brand-new car, there are almost always significant differences in condition, equipment, mileage and so on when it comes to used vehicles) you can still get a very solid “ballpark” idea by checking current trade-in/re-sale prices for cars like yours in the classified ads section of your local paper and trade guides such as Kelley Blue Book and the National Automobile Dealer Association’s (NADA) used car price books. You can adjust the value up or down for things like higher-than-normal mileage, excellent (or just average) condition — and so on.

Be aware that there is a difference of about 10 percent in retail vs. wholesale prices. “Retail” refers to what the used car would be advertised for by a private seller or dealer; “wholesale” refers to the offer the dealer would make you for the car as a trade — with the difference reflecting his profit margin as well as the costs involved in cleaning up and otherwise “prepping” the vehicle for re-sale.

And finally…

6) Don’t wear your heart on your sleeve.

Getting emotional about a new car or truck is fine, once you get home. But while you’re shopping, you’ll almost certainly do better if you can remain as aloof and detached as Mr. Spock. Never betray more than casual interest in a car; salesmen react to emotional buyers like sharks react to blood in the water. If you feel your heart might get ahead of your head, bring a spouse (or a good friend) along to keep you out of trouble. You should convey an ambivalent “take it or leave” it impression — and the more convincing your performance, the more likely you’ll drive home a deal instead of paying more than you probably should have.


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