Purchasing a car doesn't have to be a nerve-wracking experience. Become an informed buyer, then you can step into an auto dealership with confidence.

Wheeling and Dealing

Purchasing a car doesn’t have to be a nerve-wracking experience. Become an informed buyer, then you can step into an auto dealership with confidence.

Figure Out How Much Car You Can Afford

Keeping up with the Joneses is a race few people will ever win, so evaluate what your family can truly afford. Edmunds.com offers a tool that calculates the True Cost to Own, or TCO. It factors in depreciation, interest on financing, taxes and fees, insurance premiums, fuel, maintenance, repair and any federal tax credit that may be available. You are provided an estimated total cost for a five-year period. Go to edmunds.com/tco.html. 

Do Your Research 

If there’s a specific vehicle you’re interested in, compare the price between the new and used models. “Last summer, many used vehicles were selling for almost as much as new vehicles—and without the warranties and benefits you can get when you purchase a new vehicle,” says Brittany Bungert, communications director for the Iowa Automobile Dealers Association. “If you’re buying a car, check online for any sales incentives before heading to the dealership.”

Remember the Golden Rule

When searching for a good salesperson, ask your friends and neighbors for recommendations. Car salespeople often get a bad rap, but many times they will help you find the best fit for your needs, especially if you don’t try to pull one over on them. “The best sales happen when people tell the truth,” says John O’Donnell, used vehicle manager at a Ford dealership in Des Moines, Iowa. “It’s a two-way street: Treat your salesperson with the same fairness and respect you expect in return.”

The V-I-N is Key

Every vehicle has a unique 17-digit vehicle identification number (VIN) filled with important details. For used vehicles, you need to know the VIN to get a CARFAX or similar report, which informs you if the car has ever been in an accident, flood, been reported as a lemon, had an odometer rolled back, failed state emissions inspection or been regularly serviced. CARFAX and competing reports cost $40 or less. When buying a car from a dealer, ask the salesperson to supply a report. If the dealer won’t, shop elsewhere for a car. 

Make The Most of Your Test Drive

A large part of test-driving a car is done before you even turn the key. Sit in the car and ask yourself: Is it a good fit? Is it easy to get in and out? Am I comfortable? Are the controls easy to read and use? How is the visibility? Your test drive should match your driving needs. If you drive into the mountains, find a hill and see how the car climbs. If you have a highway commute, test how the car accelerates into traffic and performs at highway speeds. If possible, when test-driving a used vehicle, take it to a mechanic you trust and ask him or her to inspect it for any red flags.