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Friday, March 7, 2008

Step by Step: The Car Buying Checklist


Many people feel that they know how to buy a car from a dealer. They've bought many cars in their lives and they "don't need no stinkin' advice" to make the best deal they can make.

Before you go into the process of purchasing a vehicle, remember 2 things:

  1. Regardless of how prepared you think you are, there's probably something you missed if you aren't systematic about it.
  2. Most people buy a car every 2-5 years. Most salespeople sell 2-5 cars a week. They have a little more experience than you on "the battlefield".
Here's a step-by-step checklist that briefly describes the process you should use before, during, and after making a car deal.
Research Your Target Vehicles
This one seems like a no-brainer, but it's possibly the most important. Are you looking for something general, like a "low-mile import sedan" or something specific like a "new 2008 Honda Accord EX V6, Red". The internet is loaded with reviews and pricing guides to lead you in the right direction.

For new cars, make sure to visit the manufacturer's site to see what rebates and incentives are available. It can make a difference in your choice if you're considering multiple makes and models.
Secure Your Financing
It is amazing how many people start their loan process at the dealership. It's the lazy way out. FACT: Most dealers can get you a better rate than you can get elsewhere. FACT: Most dealers won't give you the best rate you can get if you don't have a better offer up front. Especially for used cars, get an idea from your bank, credit union, or third party finance provider of what you qualify for based on your target vehicle. If you go in knowing what rate you should get, what term works for you, and what your approximate payment is, you can either negotiate a better rate at the dealer or have financing ready if they can't beat your rate.
Find Vehicle Candidates Online
The vast majority of dealer websites will have their inventory listed online. Use the search engines to find "Los Angeles Honda Dealers" or "Toledo Used Cars" to get a list of local dealerships that should have what you want. Check their inventory, then request a quote or call the dealership to verify availability. NEVER go to the dealership without making sure the vehicle you are considering is physically at the car lot. It also makes sense to get a vehicle history report on used cars as well.

You should also check out classified sites like CraigsList, Autotrader, Used Car Search, Cars.com, and many of the other new and used car listing services. These will help you to sift through the dealer inventories and compare vehicles side by side. Need a new car? Get quotes from multiple dealers through lead services that work with multiple dealers.

Perhaps most importantly on this point, expand your horizons. So many people search in a small radius. You have the internet. You can shop 20 dealer inventories in a couple of hours. Driving 100 miles -- pain in the rear, but hey, how often do you buy a car? Isn't it worth a longer drive to get the right deal?
Prep Your Trade-In
You've found some cars you like. You drive up, pick one out, get ready for the negotiations, and the salesperson asks you for the keys to your car. When he returns, you are one of the majority of people who isn't satisfied with what the dealer offers.

You can help this. It sounds simple, but pay attention. Before you go to the dealership, change your oil, empty the car out, and wash it. A full detail is preferred, but at the very least, make it clean. Make it smell good. Make it appear as close to immaculate as you can. A car that seems well cared for will get a higher trade value than one that does not have that "pampered" feel.

Check the value of your trade before going. You can use sites like Kelley Blue Book or Black Book, but your best bet is to get a real quote from a car buyer. Most areas have buyers like Cash for Cars Orange County and Car Cash New York. Find the one in your area and get a cash bid before heading out.
Price In Mind
Every car you are considering, whether new or used, has a market value. For used cars, it's normally somewhere below the average price listed on the classified sites above for similar vehicles to the one you're considering. For new, it can be anywhere between invoice and $1000 over invoice, depending on the demand of the vehicle. Some can be sold below invoice. More "in demand" vehicles can bring MSRP, though this is very rare.
At The Dealership
There are certain things to remember when you're at the dealership. Several articles can be written about what to do when you're there, how to inspect a preowned vehicle, negotiating techniques, finance office advice, and everything else that happens at the dealership itself. Instead of stuffing details into this article, we'll list a few pointers to remember:
  • Just about everything is negotiable. The price, the trade value, the interest rate, the extended warranty -- most dealerships will work with you on everything that you want to work on.
  • Avoid payment negotiations. If you go in knowing that a $9,000 car with $1,000 warranty on a 48 month loan at 7.9% with no trade or cash down should be a few dollars under $250 per month, then there's no need to freak out when they tell you on the sales floor that your payments will be $270. They are simply padding your payment expectations so the finance manager has room to negotiate interest rate and add-ons. No worries. Everyone has the right to try to make money. They just don't have to make it all on you.
  • Remember, you are in control. You're the buyer. You can walk out on a deal at any time prior to signing the papers and driving away. Don't feel pressured to make a move you don't want to make, but also, don't hesitate on a great deal. If it's great, make the deal.
  • Have fun! Sounds hard when buying a car, but the internet has changed the business for many car dealers. It's ultra-competitive now, so many dealerships are shifting towards a customer service attitude instead of a shark mentality. If you go in with the right attitude, it will probably be a smooth transaction. If things get fishy or turn towards high pressure, remember the advice bullet above. You are in control. You can always find a dealer that will work with you.
After the Deal
Again, this could be a long section, but we'll keep it to one or two paragraphs. File your paperwork in a safe place. You may need it later. Set your online (or, gulp, offline) calendars to the important dates -- payments due, scheduled maintenance, end of warranty, etc. Follow up on anything that is owed to you -- they may not call you when the add-on MP3 player you bought comes in, so be sure to keep in touch.

Get involved with automotive forums, become a member of an auto club, and check out any programs that the manufacturer has for owners. There is normally great information as well as piece of mind that can be gained through these types of services.

Perhaps most importantly, talk about your experience. If it was a bad one, make sure people know (even though if it was a bad experience, you should have walked away before finishing the deal). If it was a good one, make sure EVERYONE you like knows about it. This is the 21st century. There are automotive blogs and review sites that can really get the word out. Whether they were good or bad, make sure to share the information. The more people know about a dealership, the better.

Also, the more people who talk/rate/blog about their experience, the closer we will get as a society to having dealers who are conscious of their customers' needs. It will happen some day. The more that people communicate about the good and bad dealers, the better off all of us will be in the long run.

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