Buying a car can be intimidating, not just because you’re plunking down a bunch of savings, but also because you’re picking something that will become an integral part of life and where you’ll spend a lot of time. That means that if you choose right, you’ll enjoy (or at least be less unhappy) commuting, doing errands or carpooling, whereas if you pick the wrong vehicle, it could be an uncomfortable, unpleasant and — at worse — unsafe experience.
In order to make the car-buying process a little easier, I asked seasoned experts at GM for insider intel. Sarah Weiman, Buick district sales manager in Austin and San Antonio, Texas, shares ways to narrow your options and save money, while Tricia E. Morrow, who works in global vehicle safety, offers tips on how to shop with safety in mind.
Don’t browse until you have a budget
It might sound obvious, but for the clueless among us (read: me), running some numbers should come well before you start bookmarking your favorite models or heading to the local dealership. “Having the payment and finance terms in mind before beginning the buying process can really help nail down the right car for your lifestyle and budget,” says Weiman. “Generally speaking, a car payment, including principal, interest and insurance, should total no more than 10 to 15 percent of your individual income. To figure out the right payment and vehicle expense, I tell customers to use an online payment calculator like this one, which can make the process easier.”
Look for special safety features
When car shopping, don’t forget to keep in mind tech that can keep you and your family safe. “Newer vehicles may come equipped with up-to-date options, including active safety features,” says Morrow. “For example, many new vehicles have automatic emergency braking, which can alert drivers to take corrective action to avoid front-end collisions and can apply brakes if needed to prevent the collision.” Morrow also recommends consulting resources like MyCarDoesWhat.org, an information site about car safety features hosted by the National Safety Council, or the National Highway for Traffic Administration and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which allow customers to compare the safety of vehicles using consumer metric ratings. “There are a number of resources for parents to compare the safety records of various types of vehicles,” she says. “One good resource is the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s Choosing the Best Vehicle for Your Teen website.”
If you have kids, know your options
Having little ones in the back (or teens in the driver’s seat) should definitely affect what you look for when you’re shopping. “Popular vehicle choices for families with new drivers include midsize cars and crossovers that have a wide range of modern safety technologies available,” says Morrow. If you have small kids, make sure there are enough seating positions for your needs — child seats come in different sizes, and you need to physically check to ensure your kids fit in the car you want to buy. Some cars also include teen safety devices that give parents peace of mind by muting the car’s audio when seat belts aren’t plugged in and giving visual and audible warnings when the car is speeding.
Factor in your favorite activities
If you feel equally comfortable in a sedan or SUV and aren’t really sure what type of car is right for you from the outset, making a mental list of places you’ll go and things you’ll do in the car can help. “Consider your favorite activities,” says Weiman. “Do you like trying out all the latest tech gadgets? Going to the beach? Taking road trips where gas expenses are a concern and mileage could play a factor? This can help guide you towards the car that’s right for your lifestyle.” For instance, says Weiman, if you’re an avid audiobook listener, you might want to consider a car with technology that allows you to download a book or podcast (most models, these days), but also a quiet, comfortable and noise-canceling interior. If you live in a cold climate, you might want a car that’s super-safe in snow or freezing rain.
Talk to people who know
Ask friends and family who have bought cars about their experiences and insights. Also see if they can give you recommendations for a good local car dealership. Otherwise, “read consumer and expert reviews online before selecting one,” says Weiman. “When you go in to meet with a dealer, don’t be afraid to prepare questions in advance. Explain the intended use of the vehicle to a trusted sales consultant. Will this be a ‘me’ or ‘we’ vehicle? Are you the kind of person who drives friends and family frequently? Do you travel often and could use a Wi-Fi hotspot in the vehicle? Do you anticipate using car seats? Is there a potential need for a third row, fold-down seats or a need to tow anything? The right sales consultant can share information and product features you hadn’t considered researching.”
Look for ways to save
A car’s a big purchase, and not something you want to cut corners on (and end up with something that ends up falling apart). However, there are some legitimate and safe ways to cut your costs, says Weiman. “Understanding your objectives — meaning what will the car be most used for and what your must-have features are — will immediately help determine where you can start saving costs,” she says. “Pay attention to offers and deals that you can research online before pulling the trigger. There can also be savings benefits once you buy a new car. For example, with all new Buick vehicles, you have the ability to opt into a service called OnStar Smart Driver, which provides feedback on your driving behavior. It can lead to savings of up to 30 percent on insurance rates.” Insurance companies like Progressive offer similar money-saving programs, but neither will ultimately lower the price of your car.
Finally, don’t forget to consider used cars. “Pre-owned is a great option for the first-time car buyer,” says Weiman. “The right pre-owned car can offer affordability as well as peace of mind. To save money over time, I encourage customers to wait until they’re in a positive equity position before buying their next car.”
Don’t commit until you’re ready
Weiman says one of the biggest mistakes she sees buyers make is the impulse purchase. “It’s so important to keep the long-term use of your car in mind. Buy it for the features that will make life better years down the road, not the thing that wows you at the dealership but that you don’t use ever again.” Regular maintenance is required with all cars, so if that’s not something you’re up for financially or logistically, be honest with yourself — otherwise the car will lose value and you’ll lose money down the line.
At absolute least, do two full weeks of research and exploring the market before making a decision, says Weiman. “I always remind friends, family and customers that test drives are free! Take as many as you need to find the perfect fit. Sometimes you won’t notice a certain feature until you’re out on the road, and you don’t want that to be after you’ve bought the car.”