It was love at first sight. We went everywhere together until the day I got the call … “The rack and pinion is shot, the strut is about to break, the fan is burned out …” The mechanic’s voice faded as I faced the horrible truth. The relationship between me and my car was over.
Buying a car is often stressful, especially for a single person like myself who’s not automotively inclined. Oh sure, I listen to Car Talk and watch Top Gear (the British version) but that’s just entertainment. When it comes to actually putting money on the table, things get serious. In the end, though, I drove away happy—and you can, too. Here are a few things I learned that may help when you have to buy a new (or new-to-you) vehicle.
First Things First: Take Stock
What do you need? Think about your driving habits and lifestyle. Do you need a car small enough to fit in tight parking spaces or a vehicle large enough to haul large loads? A functional back seat? A trunk that will hold golf clubs? Manual or automatic? New or pre-owned? You’ll want to narrow the field. In my case, I wanted a car that was fun, reliable, and road-trip worthy.
What do you want? Sure, you need to be practical, but if you’re going to spend that much money it ought to be on something you at least like. It will make writing the check much less painful. (For me, this meant four-door matron-mobiles were out.)
- What can you afford? It’s vital to figure this out before you go shopping. No shiny automotive masterpiece is worth getting in over your head. Car salespeople are masters of persuasion—you have to know your limits before you start talking to them. Edmunds.com (among others) offers a free “affordability calculator” that may help your calculations at http://www.edmunds.com/calculators/affordability.html. If you’ll be financing, know your credit score and the going interest rates on auto loans.
Next: Explore Your Options
In this electronic age you can do a lot of hassle-free info-gathering online, but I didn’t really know what I wanted … so I enlisted two friends for a fact-finding mission. In my fair city, dealerships line both sides of our major highway—so we started at one end, worked our way up one side and back down again. We cruised through lots with our noses pressed to the windows and if one looked promising, we’d pull in for a visit. I then informed the salesman (they were all men), “I’m looking for something with personality that’s reasonably practical and will comfortably hold the three of us plus luggage.”
This worked beautifully: my friends tried out the backseats, distracted the salespeople so I could concentrate on the cars, and talked me down when I wanted to throw common sense to the wind and buy the most adorable (but completely impractical) convertible. Plus, we didn’t take my car so when one eager beaver wanted to appraise my trade-in I could honestly say, “My car’s at home.” Once we’d seen and discussed all the options, I went home for further research, thought, and prayer.
Do Your Research
Once I decided on a make and model, I spent the next week doing online and phone research to see what was available and what they cost, reading reviews, and determining my current car’s potential trade in value. My PT Cruiser, meanwhile, was gushing fluids, making horrible noises, and showing an alarming antipathy to shifting to second gear. As much as I wanted to wait until the end of the month (when the best deals are often to be had), I wasn’t sure she’d last that long. So I gathered my paperwork, collected a friend for moral support, and called my favorite salesman. This is where things can get sticky—but they don’t have to.
How to Stay Calm, Hang on to Your Religion, and Drive Away Happy
Allow plenty of time. If you’re rushed, you’ll be more likely to make a bad decision. Make sure you understand everything, from the options to the service plan to the interest rate and length of your loan (if applicable). Take a book or something to do during those long stretches where the salesman goes off to “discuss” your deal with some invisible colleague.
Eat before you go. It may sound silly, but if you’re not hungry you’ll be better able to concentrate and you’ll be more inclined to stick to your guns through the negotiating process. You might even want to take a little snack in case things drag on longer than expected.
Pray. Naturally, you discussed your options with Him during the research phase, but now that you’re in battle you’ll want an open line. I had quiet (but intense) convos with God before every offer/counter offer and several times in between.
Stick to your budget. At this point you’ve done your research. You know the going rate for the car. You know how much you are comfortable paying, which should be a reasonable offer for your desired vehicle. They’ll throw out a number. You’ll counter with something like, “I’m just not comfortable with that. I’d be comfortable with…” Be nice but firm. Repeat as needed. You can start low and leave wiggle room or begin with your final offer, but whatever you do, do not go past your comfort zone. It’s just a car. It’s not worth ruining your financial future over.
- Be prepared to walk away. Yes, you may love that particular vehicle with all your heart—but don’t let your heart rule your head. There are always more cars out there; manufacturers make these things in bulk. This dealership is not the only game in town. You are not obligated to buy from them, no matter how nice your salesperson may be. (And they almost always are very nice indeed; getting people to like them is their job.)
“You have to work with us here” the finance guy said. “No,” I sweetly replied, “I really don’t. You’re certainly under no obligation to sell me the car for that price, but I don’t have to do anything. It’s my money and my budget and that’s as far as I’m willing to go.” He left for a “consultation.” I pondered where to shop next. Then he returned with those magic words, “We have a deal.”
To Learn More …
There’s a lot more to buying a car than I could fit in this space, so below are the online sources I found most helpful. Happy driving!
Susan Ellingburg is a natural-born Texan who sings at every opportunity, reads as much as possible, and cherishes every day she gets to spend with friends. She's a serious foodie and not-so-serious gardener who is determined not to let being single stand in the way of living an amazing life. Read Susan's blog at TastingGod.wordpress.com.