Shopping For Your Vehicle

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If you’ve followed the steps we’ve described in the previous sections you have a pretty good idea at this point about the type of car you’re interested in, what you can afford to pay and whether you want to buy new or used. You may even have a preference in terms of the manufacturer having test-driven new versions of the cars you’ve researched. The next step in the process is finding and evaluating the car or cars you want to look consider.  The following sections describe the process we think makes sense for actually finding the car that’s right for you.


Step 1- Look For Vehicles In Your Budget Rangethe most important thing you need to do, once you’ve chosen the type of car and the manufacturer you want is to find out what cars in your local market match what you are looking for and are in your budget range. 

We’ll go into the details of different financing options in the Financing Your Vehicle section, but the key thing is that if you’ve followed our Golden Rule – don’t buy a car that costs more than 25% of what you earn each year, you should be all set to start shopping for the vehicle you’ve chosen. Unless you are planning to buy a new car, the next step in the process is to find the make, model and year of the vehicle you are looking for that matches your budget.

The easiest way to find the vehicle that matches your budget is to use a site like KBB that collects sales data on cars in every market in the US. These sites get the actual price for most makes, models and years sold in every market and publish them in a way that lest you search by year to find the car that matches your budget.

When you get to the site, select the car type and configuration you want to look at and start by looking at cars that are 5 years old, which is when most vehicle values reflect the initial depreciation from new car purchases and their prices. KBB will show you the “Fair Market Range” and estimated cost in your market (KBB will ask you to enter your zip code). If the cost is too high, then you need to look at cars that older, say 10 years old. Based on the 5-10 year range you should be able to go up or down by a year or two to zero in on the year that matches your budget fairly easily. KKB’s prices reflect average cars in good condition with average miles for that year, so you’ll need to compare pricing and mileage in the real world when you start your search.

Once you’ve identified the year and model(s) that fit your budget you need to get your financing.  

Step 2 – Use The Right Tools  – The easiest way to find out what’s available in your market is to search for the make/model in your market on Google. Typically you’ll get back a mix of dealers, and 3d party sites like AutoTrader, Car Gurus etc that list cars at dealerships. Most of these sites will let you sort by price, model types etc and it’s usually easier to just enter the make and model of the car in Google, click through to the sites that list them and begin looking at cars that meet what you are looking for in terms of price, mileage and so on. As you find vehicles that meet some or all of your criteria, build a list using the attached worksheet. Once you’ve identified 10-15 vehicles that you are most interested in rank order them and then focus on the first five. You probably won’t look at more than 5 cars total, so be really careful about those first five.

Step 3 – Take Your Time  – The good news is that almost all sites you’ll visit have detailed information, specs and pictures about the cars they’re selling which makes window shopping easy. Take your time and study them. Be choosey, since you will probably only look and test drive 3-5 cars out of dozens in your market.  Once you start to narrow your search pay close attention to the car history data if it’s available. You’ll usually find top level car history links from the two big players *(CarFax and AutoCheck) next to most listings and most dealers will have at least the number of owners in the listing. As a rule look for cars with 1-2 owners. As you narrow your choices you should ask the dealer for the full carFax or AutoCheck report which will show any accidents or other issues with the car since it was manufactured.   

The average time it takes someone to research a car before they buy it is somewhere  between 16-20 hours. This may seem kind of surprising, but a lot of people just need to have a car now, for a variety of reasons. 60% of that time is spent on research which leaves somewhere between 5-8 hours of actually looking, driving and deciding. The paperwork takes 1.5 hours on average, so basically you are left with 3-6 hours which means that your final list will ultimately have 3-5 cars on it assuming you spend an hour on each car. That’s why we say to be really choosy when you make your list. Pick the cars within your price range you really want to see and drive. Don’t waste your time on the others unless you have the time, or you don’t like the first 3-5 cars, in which case you should shop around. 

Researching the dealer is often as important as researching the car. Not all dealers are created equal and you want to do a little checking on each of the dealers you are thinking of visiting. This is particularly true if you are buying a used car. The good news is that sites like, and others have millions of user reviews on dealers between them. Review sites typically cover service and sales and will give you a good idea of how the dealer has treated other buyers.

Step 4 -Kick The Tires – After you make your shortlist its time to go kick the tires. We encourage people to ask someone they trust along for the trip to inspect cars and go along for the test drive. It’s an added plus if they know cars, but if you follow our checklist you should be fine. It’s just good to have two sets of eyes and experiences. To make inspecting and driving cars more efficient, download the NHAA Used Car Inspection List and fill out an entry for each car you think you might be interested in and intend to look at.

When you get to the dealer take your time and inspect the exterior of the car first. Look for subtle differences in paint colors between doors and body panels. Look for uneven gaps between doors, panels, trunk etc that might indicate poor bodywork after an accident. Open and close the doors, looking for any sag in the doors. Finally, look under the car and in the wheel wells for any sign of rust. 

Once you’re done on the outside make sure to check out the condition of the interior of the car paying special attention to the upholstery, carpets and so on.  Pay particular attention to high friction areas like the edged of seats. As part of your evaluation ask the dealer to provide you with a list of anything they did to the car when they got it. Finally, make sure that everything works; things like the windshield wipers, turn signals, heated seats, really anything that has a switch or button. Usually, they will have a report on any things they fixed and will be happy to tell you all about them. 

How the car drives and how its features work usually determines what you buy, all things being equal. You will know pretty quickly if there something doesn’t feel right and this is a time when you should listen to your gut. Take a friend or partner along on the test ride. Two guts are better than one: Assuming the car is in reasonable shape you should focus your attention on the following 5 areas:

  • Acceleration – Does the car downshift quickly and smoothly? Is there enough power to pass on the highway or to go up hills?
  • Engine and road noise – How does the car sound when you strongly accelerate? Is there a lot of noise from the tires? Is the cabin quiet?
  • Braking – How does the pedal feel? Do the brakes “grab” suddenly?
  • Steering and handling –  Is the car responsive? Can you feel the road through the steering wheel?
  • Suspension – Is it stiff or soft? Does the car ride comfortably on a rough road?

For each car you drive use the 1-5 point scale in the evaluation sheet to score the car so you can compare them when you are finished visiting dealers.

Step 5 – Make Your Short List – Once you’ve looked at and driven 3-5 cars you should sit down with your checklists and compare the cars. If you brought along a friend or partner get them to do the evaluation with you. You’ll usually have a favorite by the time you’ve looked at and driven 3-5 cars, but it’s important to be methodical rank order the list. Because you still have to go through the financing and negotiation stages and you may not get the deal you want you should pay particular attention to comparing your second and third choices just to be safe. At this point you have to go with your gut. Trust it, it’s usually right.

The next stage in the buying process is financing and while the financing discussion may happen at the same time you actually start to negotiate price, it needs to be kept separate because there are a lot of factors you need to consider.