Buying A Used Car Made Easy (Or Easier Anyway…)

I had to buy my mom a new car last week. No choice, the 2000 Olds Alero she had was giving up the ghost. I mean, when your car is conking out while you’re driving down the road, the writing is on the proverbial wall. I didn’t realize what a jalopy the thing was until I saw it parked beside its replacement, a 2008 Chevrolet Impala.

One of the reasons people drive cars until the wheels fall off is because they say they want to get the most out of it before going in debt for a new one. Which sounds good, but I’m betting a close second on the list would be the fact that nobody but nobody particularly enjoys the process of shopping for a car. Car dealership horror stories are something we all have in common, whether it is high pressure salesmen, cars that fall apart when you drive them off the lot (I have a story on this one), or lousy financing situations that place an undue burden on your family budget.

First of all, you have to determine what kind of car you are going to buy, and unless you just have money to burn, it is always preferable to base your choice on needs as opposed to wants. Ask yourself exactly what you will be using the car for, how many people or what types of cargo you’ll be transporting, and how many miles you’ll be putting on it every day or week.

You also need to determine if you want a manual or automatic transmission, or four wheel drive, tow package, etc. Can it transport everyone and everything you need transported, and will it fit in your garage?

Set your budget. It is crucial to establish a monthly payment that you can handle without putting undue burden on your family finances. Your car payment should never exceed 20% of your monthly take home pay.

My last car was a 2002 Camaro, and while it was a looker and certainly fun to drive, well, that was about it. I had three children at home at the time, which meant once I threw my wife in the mix there was no way we were all going to get in this car. I also do model rocketry as a hobby, which means transporting a lot of gear and equipment to some fairly remote off road places (not a chore the Camaro was built for).

So looking at my needs, I needed something that I could get the whole family into with a relative amount of space and comfort, as well as something that could accommodate everything associated with my hobby, and could be beaten around without much worry. My solution? A 2006 Jeep Grand Cherokee.

Personally, I haven’t bought a new car since 1994, I have found it infinitely preferable to let someone else take the depreciation hit (which occurs the moment you drive the thing off the lot)…..even cars that are only a year old may be a full. You’ll also typically pay less in insurance costs, and many used cars may still be under factory warranty. For those that are not, Certified Used cars will offer some measure of warranty protection.

You need to work with a salesperson that you feel comfortable with, but of course there are no guarantees. I bought a vehicle from a salesman that came highly recommended by my wife’s grandfather, but that didn’t prevent him from selling us a complete lemon. Fortunately, after buying several cars and spending a couple of years myself in the business, I now have a guy that I buy from almost exclusively. The earning of trust can never be underestimated.

I have never bought a car from an individual, but many folks recommend this approach, saying that it is usually less stressful than dealing with a dealership, and the prices may be slightly better.

When you do find a car that you are interested in, a test drive is mandatory. Drive it as you would in everyday scenarios, and above all, ignore the salesperson’s pitch. I like driving with my radio up loud, so that’s how I test drive my cars as well. The car will always sell itself….any vehicle that requires a salesman to sell you on it isn’t worth buying.

Ask for service records as well as Carfax history report. Do not buy any car with a history of serious damage or other major issues; you’ll just be buying someone else’s problems.

Of course the negotiation process can be a harrowing one, and one that takes all the joy out of buying a car (which is a shame, since it is one of the bigger decisions you will make). My negotiation tactic is simple, I tell them upfront what I am willing to put down and what I am willing to pay per month. They have one shot at earning my business. I have no intention of spending a perfectly pleasant day going back and forth with some unseen used car manager. I am not opposed to them making a profit on me, even a good, one….my primary concern is whether or not they can meet my goals. I heartily wish more people would adopt this approach.

Most of all, learn the power of the word “No”. Don’t be afraid to get up and leave if they can’t meet your requirements but insist on putting pressure on you to cough up some more cash, or pay more each month than you know your budget will allow.

I also highly recommend securing your own financing. I have never had a dealer offer the same interest rate as my credit union offered. Oh, yes, they might counter and offer a competitive rate, but the fact that they could offer the rate yet refrained from initially doing so speaks volumes. Go with who you trust. If you are financing the car, use payment calculators to determine the monthly payment for the car you want to buy.

Yes, children, it is possible to navigate through the used car buying world and come out with a minimum of scars.

Now go therefore and buy yourself a new ride…..

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