The Jolly Librarian recently found myself in the market for a new car. The last time I bought a car was a decade ago when I wrecked mine in Pennsylvania and had to buy one within walking distance of my apartment. In the intervening years, I hoped that cars would be stocked at Wal-mart and Target where I could go pick one out, pay for it with my credit card, and have to do little or no dealing. Since this most-practical method of car buying has still not caught on with the masses, I have been forced to go out car shopping.
My experience has taught me the importance of both being prepared and thinking critically while looking for just the right car. Here is what I learned:
- Know what you’re looking for. Know what you want and what you can live without. Once you get on the lot, it can be easy to think that it’s no big deal to add another $400 here and $1000 there for a few more bells and whistles. So know what you want on the front end, and ask only to see those cars. Also, know what you can afford. Don’t let yourself be talked into a car payment that makes it hard to meet all your bills each month.
- Research. Research. Research. I read the Consumer Reports car issue from cover to cover and narrowed down my search from their top picks. Car & Driver and Motortrend are other good sources. I also looked at some websites including edmunds.com. On many of these sites, you can get both expert and consumer reviews. Also, ask your friends, coworkers, people you meet on the street about their experiences with certain cars and dealerships. I stopped a complete stranger in the Target lot since she had the exact model car I was considering and obtained some good information. One note though: Analyze the information carefully. On many consumer review sites, I found that most people posted after having the car for only a few weeks; therefore, it was impossible to tell if the car had any long-term reliability issues. Also, one thing you do notice pretty quickly is that the very happy and the very dissatisfied seem to post the most, which may give a distorted view of the car.
- You can now get quotations in advance over the internet, although I discovered that most salespeople still want to call you. A lot. (And I also discovered that sometimes getting the “great internet price” means you’re not eligible for other deals, such as low interest rates, etc. I don’t know why.)
- Once you have all your information, you’re ready to test drive. Don’t test drive a car with lots of bells and whistles that you don’t need. You’re just going to start thinking that maybe you do need them, and then paying more than you want.
- Although I told every dealer that I was not ready to buy a car yet and just wanted to see how it drove, each one still tried to “motivate” me in buying a car that day. If you’re wimpy, like me, you might want to take a tougher soul with you.
- When you test drive the car you love, don’t let your heart rule your head. Because now you have the hardest, most distasteful part of the deal to endure: meeting the finance manager. No offense to my readers who may be finance managers or related to one, but almost every person I know hates this part of car buying. When I bought my car, even though I made it clear how much I wanted to put down and how many years I wanted to make car payments, I was presented with numbers that totally ignored what I’d said, presenting options where I’d pay much more in interest. He cheerfully ran the numbers again with what I’d originally told him, but I’m not sure why he simply wouldn’t do that the first time. He was not the only finance manager to do that.
- Listen carefully and critically when they start talking that extended warranty talk! I was presented with 5 options, all of which significantly increased my monthly car payment. When I asked, they said that I didn’t have to take any of them, but that was certainly not the impression that was given on the charts. (At this point, the evil part of me always wants to ask, “Are you pushing these extended warranties because you are selling awful cars?”)
In the end, I bought a new car, which I like, and, yes, it does have some bells and whistles that I probably didn’t really need, but am enjoying. And the experience reminded me that critical thinking is not something that can be safely left in the classroom, but needs to a part of your everyday survival kit!