We've compiled this list as a Top Ten, more than a little like Dave Letterman would compile it if, of course, Dave cared about what you drive. Here are a few tips on what to buy, how to buy it and – not incidentally – where to buy it.
10) ESTABLISH A REALISTIC BUDGET
Your budget is generally based on what you can afford per month. The ideal is to pay cash, but in most instances the purchase price often requires the leverage of financing. So, look at your cost of living in all the most important areas, like shelter, food, and health insurance. Once those are calculated, the remainder could be spent on a car payment, fuel, car insurance and - for cars without a warranty - mechanical repairs.
9) KNOW WHAT YOU CAN SPEND MONTHLY
While this may look similar to #10, your level of indebtedness is different from your monthly commitment. Neither one - for a first-time buyer - should be out of balance relative to your assets or income. If financing, figure $25/month for every thousand dollars that you borrow for 48 months, and $20/month on a 60-month term. It follows that every $10K borrowed is $250/month for four years, and $200/month for five. Again, this is the base obligation; insurance, fuel and periodic maintenance (both in warranty and when you're out of warranty) are above and beyond this.
8) ESTABLISH YOUR TRANSPORTATION NEEDS
Despite our cautionary tone, you have short-term enthusiasm UP TO HERE. And with the economy approaching normal, there is – and will continue to be – a slew of new product coming your way. A Camaro convertible or Colorado pickup may be the car or truck of the moment, but is it going to work for you as a day-in/day-out piece of transportation? Conversely, you may think you need a minivan or pickup for your stuff, but on those occasions when you're moving to a new apartment (or moving home), you can rent that pickup or panel van. Given the cost of fuel, insurance and - in many cities - monthly parking, don't buy what you don't need. Instead, consider renting what you need, only when you need it.
7) IDENTIFY AND PRIORITIZE YOUR WANTS
The first-time purchase doesn't need to be your be-all/end-all acquisition, but you should still pay attention to your want list, as this isn't a process you should repeat every 18 months. Better to stretch a bit for those things in a car that satisfy you than to be hit over the head – and pocketbook – with buyer's remorse before you've emptied the first tank of gas. If getting what you want costs $40/month more, spend it.
6) DO YOUR RESEARCH - IT'S NEVER BEEN EASIER
There is, at this point, an amazing amount of both information and perspective on new cars and their late-model alternatives. There are listings devoted to cars for teenagers, cars for students and cars for first-time buyers. Expert reviews, owner reviews and consumer guides should all be referenced. Once you've digested those, balance it with your gut instincts – or those instincts of someone whose gut you can trust. And be proactive; if you see someone with a car you have an interest in, stop and ask them about their ownership experience.
5) LOCATE A CONVENIENT DEALER
For most of automotive history, buying a car for the first time has run akin to getting a colonoscopy for the first time: Come in, lay down, you're not gonna' feel a thing. Despite our inherent misgivings, the salesman on the showroom is closer to a normal person than you might think. And while new and late-model cars have never been more reliable, they still need attention and that attention should be easy to access. When weighing a few choices – let's say Mazda3, Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic – compare dealer locations and, if all other things are equal, showroom environments. We stay away from dealerships where two-thirds of the sales staff are sitting or standing at the front entrance.
4) TAKE A TEST DRIVE
With all of the online sources available for your basic research, the importance of the test drive has been marginalized. Virtually nothing is more important in your decision process than how you feel behind the wheel. With so many variables, be it seat height, wheel adjustment, steering feel, throttle tip-in, outward visibility, control layout, connectivity, etc., you simply must spend a reasonable amount of time driving the car. And that time should be more than five minutes on someone's idea of a stop-and-go test route. Take at least half an hour, while trying stop-and-go, freeway merging and freeway speeds. And if your sales rep – you know, the normal guy or gal trying to make a living – doesn't have the 30 minutes, find a time when he or she does, or find another dealership.
3. DETERMINE THE PROPER PURCHASE PRICE
Once you've decided what you like (and have already established what you can afford) it's time to arrive at a purchase price. This, too, has been made easier by online sites such as this one. Obtain – via the Autoblog tools – an accurate idea of what people have paid in your area for the car you have an interest in. A credit union should also be able to provide you with perspective, and may have a contact on the showroom floor. An important note regarding referrals: Get the referral before taking another salesman's time for a walkaround and demo. Most of these people work on commission, and commissions are notoriously small. Finally, when discussing what you want to pay, don't reveal a 'per month' number; that's the oldest pitfall in the book. If you're thinking you can budget $20K – and looking at a $25K car – tell 'em $20K. You can always work up...while it's much harder to back up.
2) SECURE FINANCING, OR KNOW YOUR OPTIONS
Financing issues are somewhat like the purchase price; there has been an exponential growth in the number of resources, and this site offers several. That, however, is mitigated by your lack of credit history or, in an increasing number of instances, marginal credit history. The last thing you want, however, is to be in a room with an F&I (Finance and Insurance) rep, and he or she is holding all the cards; that deck is stacked against you. Better to consult your credit union, bank or insurance provider (many have the capability and desire to finance your purchase), and line up your financing in advance. You can always go with the dealer option if it's competitive, but never approach it as if the dealer is the only money game in town.
1) ENJOY THE PROCESS
The above advice makes buying a car seem like an ordeal, but even those with no interest or passion in a car or truck can – if the process is given half a chance – be stimulated by the sheer variety of options available, and the genuine creativity that goes into an automotive menu. With financing rates low, the American industry on firm financial footing, a growing number of Japanese, Korean and German plants up and running in the U.S. and the Koreans growing like gangbusters, your options have never been better (especially in the entry-level category) and car ownership never more rewarding. Take your time in the process, and you'll be delighted with the outcome for at least the first 48 (or 60) monthlies.