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How do I choose the right vehicle?

Finding the perfect car for you might seem like an insurmountable task. Something fraught with unknowns, potentially pricey mistakes, and lots of time spent with annoying salespeople. Fear not, dear Instamotor reader, we have you covered. We’re here to take the fear out of choosing the right car. If you follow the advice below, we’re 99% sure you’ll find something that both you and your pocketbook will love.

Assess Your Needs

First assess your needs. Take inventory of what you like to do on the weekends, how many people you haul, how much time you spend commuting. Are you going to need room for car seats? What about towing? Think about how much you’d like to spend on gas, diesel, or electricity, (depending on the type of power your car will have) and how often you might need to fill up. Think about what you want to communicate to the world with your automobile. The kind of car you drive communicates a specific set of perspectives. Do you want to be associated with some and not with others? What are they? What are your own stereotypes around specific brands of cars? If a Buick makes your skin crawl but a Porsche makes your jaw drop, take those factors into consideration.

Other things to consider when you’re assessing your needs are the kinds of roads you drive on. Are they mostly surface streets or highways? Rough or smooth? Does it snow or ice where you live? Will you need to travel in extreme weather? Do you need all-wheel or four-wheel drive to get to and from work? Also consider what you want in your car—whether it’s navigation or specific safety features, it’s important to know what you expect your car to be able to do. You’ll be spending a good chunk of your income on a car and a considerable amount of time in it, so be sure to be honest when answering these questions. It will help you make a better decision when it comes time to sign on the dotted line.

Narrow Down Your Options

There are some resources out there that you can use to help you hone down your list of desirable cars. Autobytel has a fun calculator that lets you choose the “kind of car” you’d want for your personality. Once you choose a category you can use the slider at the left to narrow a price range. Another good resource can be found over at Cars.com. Their “Vehicle Recommender” uses the answers you give to basic questions, to help you hone your choices down. If you find you are more interested in getting a car that will be a bit greener, visit CarMax. There they have a good resource for research on alternative fuel vehicles.

Figure Out How Much You Can Afford

Once you have a better idea of what exactly you want, it’s time to do the number crunching. The FTC estimates that the average cost of a new car is around $30,000. That’s a big chunk of cash to spend and you should take as much time as you need to figure out exactly what you want. It is, after all, your hard earned cash. Keep in mind that you can get a used car that could be just as good as a new car and save thousands, according to Autotrader.com. That savings and reliability, all depends on the age, mileage, type, and desirability of the car that you are looking at. The second step in determining the right car for you is to take a close look at your budget. Unless you’re paying cash for your car, you have to really take a good hard look at what you can afford to pay on a monthly basis. The best way to tackle this is to look at what your monthly outlay currently is. Take into consideration costs like housing, transportation, parking, insurance, cell phone bills, grocery shopping and going out, sports or gym memberships etc. Once you’ve collected all of your relevant bills, you can start to get a better idea of what you can afford to spend, per month, on a car. The general rule of thumb is that you don’t want to spend more than 20% of your take home on any car, whether its new-to-you or a brand new car off the lot. Don’t over leverage yourself. It will damage your credit and put you in a financial bind as time progresses. Once you’ve set your budget and set your mind to what kind of car you think you’d like it’s time to start shopping for the right vehicle.

Do You Need Financing?

Once you’ve narrowed your list and determined your budget it’s time to think, at least preliminarily, about financing. Will you lease or buy your new or new-to-you vehicle? According to Edmunds, some cars can be cheaper to buy than to lease. It depends on a number of factors including the interest rates and rate of depreciation of the specific types of vehicles you’re looking at. Some luxury vehicles, for example, take a huge depreciation hit the moment they are driven off the lot. Others maintain or even increase in value once they’ve been bought. Part of determining the right car for you will come down to figuring out the True Cost of Ownership of a specific car. True cost of ownership (or TCO) takes into consideration things like long term depreciation as well as insurance, maintenance and other costs. If you want to learn more about TCO, check out our post, here. These are all the things you’ll need to consider when looking to buy any new car.

Car Shopping Time

Next is the fun part: locating cars for sale and test driving them. For specific used vehicles visitInstamotor to see what is available in your area. If you have a specific manufacturer in mind you can visit dealerships in the area that carry a stock of used cars. You can check to see if they have the car you want on the lot by visiting their sites and checking their inventory. We’d recommend calling ahead to make sure the specific vehicle you want is on the lot and ready to drive, as it can be a hassle to get to a dealership only to find that the car you want has already been sold or is in the shop for repairs. If you have new cars in mind, you can also visit dealerships and see if they have what you want on the floor. Sometimes dealers don’t have all the options in one car so you may have to look at a few different versions before you find the one you want. There are also times when an option may only be available on a very specific, limited run car. In that case you may have to custom order the car before you can actually experience it. That can take a few weeks or a few months depending on how backlogged a manufacturer may be. Be sure to ask for exactly what you want and find out what the added cost might be if you decide to go down this road. Be sure that you test drive any vehicle before you buy it. If you are buying used or from a private seller be sure to test drive and take the vehicle to a certified mechanic before you plunk down any hard earned cash.

Buying a new or new-to-you car should make you feel great. While it can be a bit stressful getting there, finding the right car should make you feel excited. If you climb into a car and think “blah, this is awful,” then you need to keep looking. The right car is out there, much like your true love. You just have to keep seeking it.

10 Steps to Buying a used Car

If you're looking to buy a used car, you're far from alone. Between private-party and dealership sales, nearly 40 million used cars exchange hands each year.

With so many choices, finding that one right car for you can be a challenge. So we've created a list of steps to help make finding and buying your perfect used car a breeze. If you need more personalized help along the way, reach out to the Edmunds Shopper Advice team for free assistance. You also can be paired with an Edmunds car shopping adviser, who can help you no matter where you are in the process of getting a used car. This service is also free from Edmunds. Let's get started.

Step 1: How Much Car Can You Afford?
A rule of thumb: If you're taking out a loan to pay for your car, your car payment shouldn't be more than 20 percent of your take-home pay. If you're sticking to a tight budget, you may want to spend even less. Used cars will need a little extra attention from time to time: new tires, maintenance and the like. And then there are the other ownership costs shoppers sometimes forget to account for, such as fuel and insurance.

If the car you're planning to buy is out of warranty, it might be a good idea to set aside a "just-in-case" fund to cover any unexpected repairs.

Step 2: Build a Target List of Used Cars 
It's no secret that the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry make for good used cars. But they might cost a few thousand more than a comparable Ford Fusion or Kia Optima, even though these are good cars, too. So if you're looking to save money, consider more than one brand. We suggest making a list of three cars that meet your needs and fall within your budget. Edmunds reviews have great information to guide your choices.

If you're planning to buy a vehicle that is less than 5 years old, consider one that's certified pre-owned (CPO). CPO vehicles have long-term warranties that are backed by the carmakers, not just the dealership selling it to you. Franchised dealerships that sell that same brand new are the only ones who can sell a CPO car of the same brand. So if you wanted a CPO Chevy Cruze, for example, you'd need to buy it from a Chevy dealer. 

Step 3: Check Prices 
Prices are driven in part by where you're shopping. You'll find used cars in used-car sections of new-car dealerships, independent used-car lots, used-car retailers such as CarMax and websites where private-party sellers list their cars. Of the four, private-party cars will usually have the lowest selling price. CPO cars will usually cost the most, but for the reasons we've noted. To see what other people are paying for the models you've picked out, Edmunds offers a quick way to see the average price paid for the car in your area.

Step 4: Locate Used Cars for Sale in Your Area
One easy place to start building your target list is the Edmunds used-car inventory page. To find exactly the car you want, you can filter your search by many factors including the miles on the car's odometer, its price and features, and dealer's distance from you. Use the websites for other used-car marketplaces mentioned to save time.

Step 5: Check the Vehicle History Report
Unless you're buying the car from a close friend or family member who can vouch for its history, plan to get a vehicle history report. This is an essential early step. If the car you're looking at has a bad history report, the sooner you know the better.

AutoCheck and Carfax are the two best-known sources for vehicle history reports, which can reveal vital information about the car, including whether the odometer has been rolled back or if it has a salvage title, which means it has been declared a total loss by the insurance company. You'll use the car's vehicle identification number (VIN) to get this information, and in some cases, all you need is the license plate number.

Step 6: Contact the Seller
Once you find a good prospective car, don't run out to see it. Call the seller first. This is a good way to establish a relationship with the seller and verify the information about the car. You can ask private-party sellers why they're parting with a car, or whether it has any mechanical problems. And if you're buying from a dealership, a phone call (or text) is the best way to ensure the car is still in stock.

Sometimes the seller will mention something that wasn't in the ad that might change your decision to buy the car. If you want to go deeper, our used car questionnaire is a good reminder of what to ask. You will notice that the last question on our list is the asking price of the car. Although many people are tempted to negotiate even before they have laid eyes on the car, it's better to wait. Once you see the car, you can tie your offer to its condition.

If things are going well, set up an appointment to test-drive the car. If possible, make it for daylight hours. That makes it easier to see the car's condition.

Step 7: Test-Drive the Car
Test-driving a used car is the best way to know if this is the right car make and model for you. It's also a good way to assess this particular car's condition. So tune out distractions and focus on the car. Here are some things to check:

  • Is it easy to get in and out of the car without stooping or banging your head?
  • Is there enough headroom, hiproom and legroom? Remember to see how these feel in the backseat, too.
  • Is the driving position comfortable? Do you sit too low, too high or just right in the car? Can you tilt or telescope the steering wheel for a better fit?
  • Are the seats comfortable? Are they easily adjustable? Is there a lumbar support adjustment for the driver? How about the front-seat passenger?
  • Do you see a lit "check engine" light? If so, get that problem checked out before buying.
  • How is the visibility? Check the rearview mirror and the side mirrors. Look for potential blind spots.
  • Use your nose. Do you smell gas, burning oil, or anything amiss?
  • Check out the tires. How old are they? Is there enough tread left?
  • How are the brakes? Are they doing the job of stopping the car? Do they squeak?
  • Pop the hood. You don't have to know a lot about cars to see if something looks wrong. If something is leaking, steaming or covered in oil, it's time to ask questions.
  • Does the air-conditioning blow cold? Do headlights, brake lights and turn indicators work? Test them to be sure.

After the test drive, ask the owner or dealer if you can see the service records. These will show you if the car has had the scheduled maintenance performed on time.

Step 8: Have the Car Inspected
If you like the car, consider having it inspected by a mechanic before you buy it. If you don't have a mechanic, Google and Yelp are good places to read local shops' reviews. A pre-purchase inspection costs about $100 and can alert you to problems you may not find yourself. It's a smart investment.

A private-party seller will probably allow you to do this without much resistance. Most dealerships will let you borrow a car to take to be inspected by an outside mechanic. You'll be paying the inspection, of course. If it is a CPO car, there's already been an inspection and a warranty is in place, so there is little reason to take it to a mechanic.

Step 9: Negotiate a Good Deal
Does the idea of "talking numbers" fill you with dread? It shouldn't. Negotiating doesn't have to be a drawn-out, traumatic experience. If you are reasonable and have a plan, chances are you can make a deal pretty quickly and easily:

  • Decide ahead of time how much you're willing to spend to get the car. But don't start with this number in your discussion.
  • Make an opening offer that is lower than your maximum price, but in the ballpark based on your average price paid research in Step 3. Explain that you've done research on Edmunds or wherever else, so you have facts to support your offer.
  • If you and the seller arrive at a price that sounds good to you and is near the average price paid, you're probably in good shape.
  • And remember, the people on the other side probably hate negotiating too (even if it's their job).

Step 10: Get the Paperwork Done
If you are at a dealership, you'll sign the contract in the finance and insurance office. There, you will likely be offered additional items, such as a warranty, anti-theft devices, prepaid service plans or fabric protection.

Some people want the peace of mind that comes with extended warranties, so this is something you might want to consider (unless the car is still under the manufacturer's warranty or is a CPO vehicle). Review the dealership sales contract thoroughly. In most states, it lists the cost of the vehicle, a documentation fee, possibly a small charge for a smog certificate, sales tax and license fees.

If you are buying a car from an individual owner, make sure the seller properly transfers the title and registration to you. It's important to close the deal correctly to avoid after-sale hassles. Before money changes hands, ask for the title (which is sometimes called the pink slip) and have the seller sign it over to you. Rules governing vehicle registration and licensing vary from state to state. If possible, check with your local department of motor vehicles to make sure there are no past-due registration fees you'd be responsible for should you buy the car. Whether you buy from a dealer or a private party, make sure you have insurance for the car before you drive it away.

Once you've done the paperwork, it's time to celebrate your new purchase ? maybe with a drive-through dinner. You deserve it!