The 13-Step Program for Buying the Best Car

Getting something that is very big and very new is generally regarded as a positive experience. And while most of us humans will acknowledge the previous statement is true, one then has to wonder why many people approach the experience of buying a new car with the same degree of anticipation they usually reserve for accompanying their third-graders on a field trip to the local sewage treatment plant.

Frankly, it doesn't have to be that way. You can make choosing a new vehicle a rational and (dare I say it?) even pleasurable process. As the former editor of a magazine written for car dealers, a former J.D. Power and Associates director of publications and a former editor of Motor Trend (my, you must be saying to yourself, this guy can't hold a job), here are a series of steps that will turn your quest for new wheels from a quagmire to a walk in the park (and I don't mean Central Park at midnight either).


Best Car Buying Tips

Step One: Take a few moments to assess your current vehicle. Determine what you like about it and what you don't. (And we don't mean stuff like the Milky Way bar that melted in your ashtray.) This will give you a good jumping off point to choose your next vehicle.

Step Two: Once you've made a list of the good and bad points of your current vehicle, make a wish list for your next vehicle. Do you want more passenger space? A bigger trunk? More prestige? Lower monthly payments? Something that will attract the chicks? The dudes? Both? Neither?

Step Three: Write down key items of importance to you. Side airbags? CD stacker-changer? Enough luggage space for a set of golf clubs or a dead body? Hey, only you can determine what you really need. This will help you in your decision-making process and aid salespeople at dealerships in understanding what you want when the time comes to visit the showroom.

Step Four: Examine your finances. (Hopefully, without shuddering.) Most cars are purchased with a certain percentage of the price as a down payment and the rest paid monthly over a period of two to five years. Determine how much cash you can afford to spend as a down payment or how much your current car is worth if you're planning to trade it in and use the proceeds as your down payment. Then determine what you can afford as a monthly payment. Finally determine how long you plan to keep the vehicle. The term of your repayment should never exceed the length of time you plan to own the car.

By looking at your finances and the current loan rates, you'll be able to determine how much you can afford to pay for a vehicle. For example, if you plan to buy a $20,000 vehicle, place $4,000 down (or trade in a car worth $4,000) you'll have to be willing to pay something like $700 a month for two years, $500 a month for three years, $400 a month for four years and $300 a month for five years. Okay, so the bus doesn't seem all that bad now, does it?

Step Five: Using your list of key criteria, settle on the type of vehicle that you'd like to acquire. This is a key step, because it is easy to be dazzled and confused by the more than 250 models on the market. When you pick a vehicle type, say, sport utility or luxury sedan, you can compare apples to apples rather than grapefruit to tangerines.

Step Six: To help you in this winnowing process, pick up one or more of the buying guides published by magazines like Car and Driver, Motor Trend, Road & Track, Automobile and Popular Mechanics. These guides do little more than give you a thumbnail sketch on each car, but they do list the specifications and the Manufacturers Suggested List Price. The car magazines in this country aren't very critical, so if a report gives you the impression that the reviewers are only lukewarm about it, that means they probably actively dislike it. A glance at the buying guides and, in particular, at the MSRPs will help you narrow your shopping list to the vehicles within your budget.

Step Seven: Consult the J.D. Power and Associates Initial Quality and Customer Satisfaction Index StudiesSM. J.D. Power now operates its own consumer-accessible Web site, which contains highlights of the studies. While virtually all carmakers have made giant quality strides over the last fifteen years, the relative quality of various makes and models still varies, but not nearly as widely as in days gone by. Accessing this information will allow you separate the good from the not-so-good.

Step Eight: Once your list is down to two or three models, go to the showrooms, not to buy, but simply to look. Make a pact with yourself that you're not going to purchase (no, really!) and then examine the models you're interested in. Sit behind the wheel and in the back seat. Check out the trunk space. Take a test drive. But don't kick any tires. (After all, what have those poor tires done to you?) This round of eyeballing will help you to decide which vehicle you will be happy driving for the next several years of your life.

Step Nine: As with marriage, be careful what you fall in love with but don't be afraid to fall in love. You're likely to have your new vehicle for several years. Why not spend that time with something you really like?

Step Ten: Once you've picked the make, model and equipment you want, you're almost home free, but you still have to make a deal with a dealer. Though not necessarily as pleasurable as a full body massage, this is certainly less onerous a task than it was 20 years ago, because the dealer community as a whole has made great strides in providing higher levels of service and customer satisfaction.

Step Eleven: A simple tip for dealing with the dealer is this: if you find you aren't being treated as you'd like, walk out. You'll find that same make and model at another dealer, most often nearby. And the deal will be just as good, if not better. Remember this: as a consumer with the financial ability and the desire to buy a new vehicle, you are like gold to the car dealer and his salespeople. And unlike in marriage, you do have the power to say yes or no. Feel free to use it.

Step Twelve: As to price, you'll find that most stories of "giant discounts" and "steals" are just that -- stories. It isn't hard to obtain so-called "dealer invoice" pricing these days, a close approximation of what the dealer paid the factory for the vehicle. Obviously, the dealer has to get more than that for each vehicle sold simply to stay in business. If you shop around at two or three dealerships asking about the cash price for the model you want equipped the way you want it, you'll find the prices various dealers quote you will be very similar. For most models most of the time, a middle ground between the sticker price and the dealer invoice is fair for both you and the dealer.

Step Thirteen: The goal is to buy a vehicle that's perfect for you, not a perfect vehicle because no perfect vehicle exists. (With the exception of my 1962 Corvette, of course.) Acquiring a car that suits your needs, doesn't break down and doesn't make you cry when you write the payment check each month is the goal. Follow these steps, and you'll give yourself a better than even chance to drive away happy.


-- Jack Nerad

Since he couldn't hold a regular job, Jack R. Nerad wrote The Complete Idiot's Guide to Buying or Leasing a Car and now co-hosts the nationally syndicated radio show "America on the Road."