So you want to buy a car

A step-by-step guide to budgeting, researching, and purchasing a new vehicle

Each year, roughly 17 million cars are purchased in the United States. While car dealerships would love it if you purchased every three years, most people keep their cars almost 11 years

With so much time in between purchases, a lot changes in the automotive industry that consumers may not be aware of. If you're just starting out your car-buying journey, we're here to help. 

We'll break your journey down into four distinct categories: 

  1. Budgeting
  2. Research
  3. Test driving
  4. Decision-making

We'll also offer links and resources along the way to help you even more. 

If you're reading this farther along in your journey, feel free to skip ahead using the above links. Don't worry, there's no test at the end! 

1. Budgeting

It might go without saying, but you need to know how much you want to spend on your purchase before you start shopping. It's truer in car buying than in any other purchase, because it's easy to get lost in the features of what you want and forget the dollar signs that accompany those features. 

How much money do you intend to spend? Are you willing to shell out a little more for certain features? 

budget

Most people spend about 11% of their monthly income on their car loans, but you could decide to spend more or less, depending on your situation. DMV.org says you should pay no more than 15% of your total monthly income on your car loan (and admits that may be a stretch for some people).

It’s important to consider what you’ll pay each month, and also keep an eye on what you’ll pay over the length of the loan (including interest).

And while we're on the subject of interest - don't forget to include that in your budget. DMV.org provides a handy Auto Loan Calculator for help with this.

Here are a few other sources for budgeting information: 

 2. Research

Once you know how much you want to spend, you'll have to make decisions about what kind of vehicle you want. 

First thing's first: do you want something new, or used? 

There are a lot of pros and cons to both sides. Some people prefer the peace of mind that comes with a new car covered under warranty, and they love the new car smell (who doesn't?). Others prefer the cheaper price of a used car, and the fact that it won't depreciate as much. Plus, if you choose a used car, you can get more features for the price. 

Expedition headrest entertainment

If you're on the fence, take a look at the posts we've compiled on why to buy a new car and why to buy a used car

Once you've nailed down that choice, the next choice is on what size vehicle. Most people probably have a good idea of whether they want a car, SUV, or truck. 

If you need help, consider the following resources: 

Once you have that nailed down, it's a matter of choosing a few brands and models that you'll consider. Consider visiting Autotrader, Cars.com, or Consumer Reports to look at specifics that matter to you, such as safety ratings. 

3. Test driving

Now for the fun part: getting behind the wheel! 

Although most of your research will be done online, nothing can replace the experience of actually driving the car. Make sure you feel comfortable behind the wheel, and if not, ask to see another model.

Mike showing car

It’s important to take time on this step, even if you’re in a hurry for new wheels. You’ll probably have this vehicle for a while, and you don’t want to make a snap decision because you’re without a car.

If you’re having trouble finding a car that fits your needs, a good salesman will be able to listen to your wish list and guide you to a better match.

It’s important to allow enough time so that you don’t feel rushed during the process. After all, this is a big purchase!

You need to allow time to test drive a vehicle. Depending on how you like the car, you could be on a test drive for ten minutes or twenty. You need to make sure you feel comfortable in the car. Test out all the buttons; make sure you’re comfortable with the blind spots, etc. Don’t skip these steps.

For more insight on test drives, check out this:

If you're ready to schedule an appointment, click below! 

Speak to an Expert!

4. Decision making

At this point in your journey, you should have all the information you need to decide. 

Once you know what car you want to buy, and where, it's a good time to brush up on the financing part of the deal. Do you know your credit score? Is the manufacturer running any financing specials? 

Check out our finance office secrets post to learn more about these details. 

bragging

It's also very important at this stage to choose the dealership that you feel comfortable with. Check out online reviews and see how others have liked the sales process. Also, check out the service department. Is this a place you'd feel comfortable doing your oil changes? Do they have convenient hours? These can all factor into your final decision. 

There are many places for consumers to leave a review, including Google, Cars.com, Autotrader, and more. Take advantage of these resources to help you in your decision.

The rest, as they say, is history. Sign your paperwork and drive off in your brand-new wheels. You did it! 

Did you find this helpful? Download it for your records by clicking below. 

Download New Car Buying Guide