Step 1: Do your research
First, head to the web and do your research. Use a tool like Autoblog's Car Finder to help define what's most important to you like safety, fuel economy, performance, or price, and narrow down your choices. Government and nonprofit sites are also very helpful.
Step 2: Set a budget
Figure out your budget, and stick to it! Overpaying could leave you with a car that's worth less than what you owe on your loan. That's called "being underwater," and it's bad news! And if the thought of haggling with a dealer gives you a headache, programs like Autoblog's Smart Buy, or the Costco Auto Program, can provide no-hassle, pre-negotiated pricing based on fair prices that real people are paying in your area.
Step 3: Do some dealer recon
Head to the internet to compare dealer reviews from other buyers, so you can start strong and prevent stress! Look for dealers that participate in car-buying programs. They tend to have better customer service.
Step 4: Reach out beforehand
Email the dealership before you visit, so you can ask and record your questions digitally. Then, follow up with a call. To save time, make sure they have the car you're looking for on the lot. And if you want to test drive more than one car, plan your visits so that you can drive them back to back.
Step 5: Visit the dealer
Armed with your research, you're ready to walk through the door! If you've been in contact with a salesperson, ask for them when you arrive. When you are ready to take a test drive, prepare a short checklist of things to pay attention to, for example: Is it quiet inside? Can you maneuver it easily in a parking lot? How's visibility all around? Do you feel confident on the freeway? The dealer will almost always ride along with you, and you can ask them questions like: Do you offer free maintenance for a time period? What safety features does this car have? Can we demo the entertainment system?
Step 6: After the test drive
Be prepared for the dealer to ask you, "How can I convince you to buy this car today?" or apply other high-pressure tactics. But you need to visit other dealers to make sure you've compared all the cars on your list before you buy. So remember: The car will still be there tomorrow, and it's OK to politely leave. Leave your contact information with the salesperson and take their business card so you can follow up easily.
Step 7: Pulling the trigger
When you're ready to pull the trigger, call the dealer and make an appointment. When you sign all the paperwork, you'll probably be offered services like extended warranties or undercoating. Plan on saying no to all of it. It's almost never a good deal. When buying a car, knowing what to expect can relieve stress and give you confidence in the deal you make.
Enjoy your new car!