Buying a car is a daunting prospect, for many — more daunting than it needs to be. And it would be a lot less so if people would prepare ahead for the process, rather than going to the dealership and ad-libbing. We’ve compiled a list of common mistakes people make when shopping for a car. The experience of shopping for a car will be less stressful, less punishing and more fulfilling if you pay attention to avoiding them:
- Failing to do proper research ahead. Don’t walk into a dealership without information. You multiply your chances of stumbling into a car and a transaction that is not right for you, and you leave yourself vulnerable to a salesperson who is equipped to take advantage of you. Online resources, including ALEC's Auto Buying Service, abound that show you car makes and models, pricing, reviews, rebates and incentives. Some can also tip you off to negotiating techniques.
- Failing to line up financing before shopping. If you settle for dealer financing without first checking with your own credit union or other institution, you run the risk of, first, having to pay higher interest rates and, second, being manipulated by someone skilled at writing up an agreement more advantageous to the dealership. For example, you could wind up paying more interest than you qualify for — a technique called “interest-rate bumping.” If, in the end, a dealership’s loan is the most attractive, you can choose it. But scour the entire menu before choosing the entrée.
- Using the monthly payment as the only yardstick. If you’re thinking only of that monthly payment, you could give the salesperson the opportunity to tie you to a longer loan-repayment period, which will cost you more in interest. The dealer could also meld other ingredients, such as new-vehicle price, trade-in value and financing or leasing terms to distort any of them just to get the monthly payment where you want it. Each of these ingredients should be negotiated independently.
- Shopping at only one dealership. Look around for the car and the deal best suited to your needs. If the dealer senses your business belongs to only him or her, you are forfeiting some of the range to negotiate. The size of your community affects this, to some extent. If you have your heart set on a Buick, say, and you have only one Buick dealership in the area, your options are limited. Try to open your mind to competitive brands, or at least browse online to find typical deals on Buicks elsewhere so you can negotiate with your local dealer from a more informed perspective.
- Waiving the test drive. About 20 percent of buyers skip this critical step. Despite what you’ve seen in ads, the car you have in mind might have features you don’t like or want or might not have features you do like or want. Experts advise first-time buyers to drive seven different cars and four cars for buyers who have owned before. And, they urge, spend at least half an hour in the test drive. Find out what it has and doesn’t have and, objectively, whether it truly fits your needs.
- Giving in too easily to infatuation with a particular model. Emotion should not rule the transaction; what should are reviews, proven reliability, published ratings, safety and price. Do your research and put more emphasis on meeting your specific needs than on fulfilling your fantasies.
- Not insisting that the vehicle satisfy important needs. Don’t fall victim to a flashy ad campaign or an engaging salesperson. Consider what you truly need out of a car, and don’t be distracted from those components. Do you travel long distances and thus need good mileage? Do you need a lot of interior space because you have a big family? Do you need a lot of trunk space to haul the kids’ sports gear? Make a list of the priorities dictated by your lifestyle and don’t stray from satisfying them.
- Focusing more on the deal than the vehicle. These days, automakers announce special “deals” every season, every holiday and, sometimes, it seems, every week. They offer special financing and rebates, as well as amounts off the sticker price. By shopping around, you can certainly find an offer that sounds appealing. But be careful not to be enticed exclusively by the kind of deal you may have dangling before you. It is the car, after all, on which you will be relying over the next several years. Focus at least as much on ratings, reviews and accessories as on the components of the deal. And, even with special incentives in place, don’t abandon the notion of negotiating. Rebates and special financing are offered by the manufacturer, not the dealer. Assume that the dealer may also have some room to negotiate. You may be able to collect on the incentive and get a better price, too.
- Buying unnecessary extras. Typical among them are rustproofing, fabric protection and coating to guard the paint. The bodies of new vehicles are already protected. An extra step only enriches the dealer. Etching of the vehicle identification number (VIN) into the window is another. It is touted as a means to deter thieves. If you want this feature, kits are sold to do it yourself for less than the dealers will charge. Read the contract carefully before signing it, and, if it contains unwanted extras, have them removed.
- Not researching the value of your current car for trade-in or, if you’re willing to expend the effort, by selling it yourself. (You typically get more by selling it yourself.) Kelley Blue Book values are accessible on the Internet.
- Not having a used car being considered for purchase inspected by a mechanic of your choosing. The advantages of insisting on this strategy are obvious, as are the disadvantages of not. Crafty used-car dealers are well aware of methods of veiling engine or transmission defects or damage from the unschooled.
- Accepting financing from the dealer without consulting your credit union. It may seem more convenient to handle the entire transaction at one site, but establishing the payment process is too important to complete without going first to a trusted, experienced professional in the auto-loan business. The savings over the life of the loan could be significant.
Avoid these common mistakes car buyers make, and you’ll have a much better chance of enjoying your new car free of the nagging knowledge that you could have done better — and are now paying the price.