Quick Tips About What to Know When Car Shopping
- Use a test drive when car shopping to help determine if the vehicle will be comfortable and meets your needs and expectations.
- Remember to factor in fees, taxes, and registration costs when setting your budget for car shopping.
- Ensure the vehicle’s cargo area is sufficient for your gear, and also ensure your parking area is big enough for the vehicle.
Buying a car can be both exciting and overwhelming, especially if it’s your first time making such a big purchase. With so many considerations, from the make and model to the price and financing options, it’s easy to feel lost in the sea of information. Collectively, the Kelley Blue Book team has gone through the car-buying process multiple times over, and there are things we wish we had known beforehand.
This article explores key factors every consumer should consider before buying a car. Let our lessons help you make an informed decision and avoid costly mistakes.
- Test Drive for Comfort
- Shop During the Day
- Prepare for Your Purchase
- Prepare for Repairs
- Understand the Cost to Own
- Cargo Considerations
- Features Matter
- Bonus Tips
Test driving a car before purchase helps you to assess the vehicle’s performance and handling. “It sounds overly simple,” said Andy Bornhop, Senior Vehicle Reviews Editor, “but don’t buy a car without actually sitting in it first.” He says the test drive is your chance to check out the car’s technology and convenience features and make sure the vehicle meets your expectations.
It’s also the time to test how you feel behind the wheel. Kelley Blue Book SEO Content Analyst Trevor Spedden has a key piece of advice for test drives: Make sure the car is comfortable.
“Test drives can be short and sometimes overwhelming when processing a massive amount of information in a short period. Even if you aren’t allowed an extended test drive, simply sitting in the car for more than 10 or 15 minutes will help you better understand how comfortable it will be on longer drives. You might still experience discomfort on longer multi-hour road trips, but how often you will drive hundreds of miles daily is a question you must ask yourself.” – Trevor Spedden
Andy co-signs this recommendation, adding:
“If you don’t fit well in the car, you’ll never be comfortable. You may be tall and find that you need to look down a bit to see out the windshield. You may be short and have a tough time reaching the pedals. And if you can reach the pedals, you might find yourself uncomfortably close to the airbag.” – Andy Bornhop
Trevor explains that you should also consider the comfort and accessibility level of other passengers:
“Regularly having rear-seat passengers in a 2-door car gets old quickly. The same goes for tall trucks and SUVs for short people or kids. If a car has a manual transmission, it might limit the ability of others to drive your car if the need should arise.” – Trevor
Also, think about accessibility for your passengers and their comfort. Senior Advice Editor Chris Hardesty suggests parents check child safety seats even before taking a test drive.
“Make sure the car seats fit in the backseat and that you can easily install and remove them. Adjust the front seats and the seatback to see that the baby seats don’t interfere with your typical driving position. Remember, too, that children grow and will need more legroom in a few years.” – Chris Hardesty
Andy also advises against buying a used car at night or in the rain: “It hides any shoddy paint or bodywork that may have been done on the car,” he explains.
Even if you bring a flashlight or other lighting accessory, you may need more to assess the car’s condition accurately. Avoid nighttime shopping if you’re in the market for a used vehicle. Once the sun sets, pack it up and resume your hunt another day.
While daylight is essential for examining the car’s exterior, Senior Vehicle Reviews Editor Joseph Tralongo says there are some benefits to checking it out in the dark:
“Take the car to a dark spot, like a garage, and see what the dash and instrument panel looks like when lit up. Some people have issues with red or blue backlighting.”- Joseph Tralongo
Jason Allan, Principal Editor of Vehicle Reviews, says virtual shopping can prevent being overwhelmed by in-person browsing. He recommends online shopping to avoid some of the stress of the car-buying process. “Do as much online as possible,” Jason said. “First-time buyers are especially susceptible to getting raked over the coals.”
Trevor has one big purchase tip: Know your budget.
“If you’ve saved $10,000 to buy a used car, you shouldn’t look at cars costing more than $8,000. When purchasing a $10,000 vehicle, the dealer fees, sales tax, vehicle registration, and vehicle inspection can easily be more than $1,000, meaning the $10K vehicle just became $11K before performing any maintenance or repairs. It’s important to leave room in the budget for oil changes, tires, brakes, and other worn items that will inevitably need replacement.” – Trevor
Sean Tucker, Kelley Blue Book’s Senior News Editor, recommends saving money and buying the right size vehicle for your everyday needs.
“If you use no more than four seats 361 days a year but need two more when Mom and Dad visit for the holidays, you don’t need three rows of seats. Save money by buying small and renting something bigger [as needed].” – Sean Tucker
If you plan to apply for a car loan, Jason’s advice is to arrange the financing before you visit the dealer. Additionally, carefully consider every “good deal.”
“Getting a ‘good deal’ on a car with poor resale value or reliability can cost more in the long run than paying even a few thousand more for an established, desirable model that will cost less to operate (especially when buying used, out of warranty). It will be worth much more when you sell it, giving you more money for your next down payment.” – Jason Allan
Insurance and repair expenses usually can’t be avoided, but there are ways to keep the costs down.
“If the repair is slightly higher than your insurance deductible, pay it out of pocket. Don’t use your ‘accident forgiveness’ on a minor claim because a major accident could be around the corner. Only use insurance for significant losses. Otherwise, you might find yourself paying more for coverage or, in extreme circumstances, having your coverage canceled.” -Trevor
“Some repairs aren’t hard to learn. You’ll need a shop you trust for the big stuff. But, if you want to set your horizons low, learning to change your own oil can save you a few hundred dollars a year. If you want to shoot just a little higher, learning to change brake pads can save you more, and probably takes fewer tools and less time than you’d expect. My 18-year-old daughter did her own brakes a few weeks back and passed an inspection. This is in reach for many people.” – Sean
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The team has a few key tips regarding ownership costs. Danielle Rohe, Senior Data Program Manager for Kelley Blue Book, reminds buyers to be aware of registration and tax requirements. “As a Kentucky resident,” Danielle said, “I wish I was better prepared for vehicle property taxes.” Different states have different annual property and use tax rates. This can make a big difference in how much you pay over the life of the car.
Proper maintenance is crucial for a long vehicle life and must consider the costs of various required services:
“Although some carmakers cover these costs for a couple of years, many don’t. And often what amounts to a simple oil change and a multi-point visual inspection can cost several hundred dollars. Some carmakers offer prepaid maintenance plans at a discount. Smart if you can afford them.” – Andy
Don’t forget about insurance premiums:
“Insurance rates can vary widely on different models. Get quotes ahead of time, especially if considering sporty or specialty models like a Ford Mustang or Jeep Wrangler.” – Jason
Inflation can be sneaky but influential:
“Gas prices have risen almost 30% since 2022, and many drivers feel the squeeze at the pump. When gas prices rise, so does the cost of engine oil. The cost to change my Volkswagen GTI’s oil has increased 20% over five years. A DIY oil change used to cost $58.89 in 2018 and now costs $70.95 in 2023. My car now costs $492.75 more to operate per year just from gas and oil price increases. This increased operating cost doesn’t factor in the higher cost of tires, which has also likely increased in price. Maintaining a vehicle rarely becomes less expensive.” – Trevor
MORE: Lowest 5-Year Cost to Own: Top Cars, Trucks and SUVs of 2023
Adequate storage space is essential whether you plan to take frequent road trips, haul equipment, or simply transport groceries.
“Everyone needs a truck, or a friend with a truck. If you’re young and shopping for your first car, consider not getting a car. Get the smallest reliable pickup you can get your hands on. People move often in their 20s. A solid Tacoma is a great way to meet people and be indispensable.” – Sean
If you’re buying a vehicle big enough to haul larger loads, ensure it fits in your parking space at home.
“If you park in a garage, there might be a chance that your new vehicle doesn’t fit. Pickup trucks can be more than 22 feet long, and garages are typically 20-24 feet deep. Midsize trucks are approaching the size of full-size trucks from a decade or two ago. On the opposite end of ‘will my vehicle fit?’ are sports cars. Ensure your driveway or neighborhood is accessible with only a few inches of ground clearance. Having to use ramps to get in and out of the driveway to avoid vehicle damage gets old pretty quickly, especially on a daily basis.” – Trevor
Russ Heaps, Senior Advice Editor, offers guidance on the second- and third-row storage:
“In cars with a second row (third row in SUVs), does the seat back fold flat? Just because the second- or third-row split seat folds, doesn’t mean it folds flat. The difference can be huge, not only for general cargo capacity but also in the shape of the cargo you can load.” – Russ Heaps
The little details can make a big difference. Renee Valdes, Lead Advice Editor, recommends buyers look for easy connectivity:
“Know how your car connects to Apple CarPlay or Android Auto. Is a cord necessary? Play with the buttons. Remember to test out all the controls. Are they accessible, easy to use, etc.? Can you get to them in a pinch? Can you reach the controls you need most often quickly while driving? – Renee Valdes
Additionally, Russ calls out some driver-assist and safety features:
“All adaptive cruise controls (ACC) aren’t created equal. Many ACC systems will bring a vehicle to a complete stop, but some don’t. Furthermore, some will start the car rolling again after a full stop, but many don’t. Know how the ACC system operates.
Does the forward collision control and automatic emergency braking detect pedestrians and cyclists? Some do and some don’t. If this extra layer of protection is important to you, ask before buying.” – Russ
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Sean has a fun piece of advice: Don’t be afraid to buy something weird that delights you.
“I once bought a bright orange car with a thick black stripe, not because I wanted it, but because it was the only thing on the lot with a stick and a great stereo. I wanted those. I thought I’d live with the weird color. A year in, you know what I loved best about that car? The weird color. Kids point and smile. Other people in bright orange cars with stripes honk and wave. I never got confused about where I had parked. Buy the weird one. The world has enough gray RAV4s, and your gray RAV4 won’t cheer you up the same way.” – Sean
Finally, when it’s time to sell or trade the vehicle in at the dealer, set yourself up for success:
“Keep your receipts. Keep a thorough record of all car repairs, maintenance, and modifications. Whether you need to prove a vehicle was maintained for warranty work or to help get top dollar when selling your car, having a record of the vehicle’s history can be invaluable. An expensive repair covered under warranty or improving buyer confidence in your used car could make a difference of thousands of dollars or more.” – Trevor