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What to look for when buying a car (and the important questions to ask)

minute read

    Buying a car can be an exciting endeavor. There’s a lot to consider and it can feel a bit daunting — especially if it’s your first car. Whether you’re buying new or used, there are best practices that can help make this purchase go smoothly. Learn what to look for (as well as what to ask yourself) when buying a car.

    What to do before buying a car

    Start by answering the most essential questions.

    What do I want and what can I afford?

    Deciding what you want and how much you can afford is critical to pinpoint before you start shopping. You don’t need to have a specific car picked out or know what you can afford down to the cent, but you’ll need an idea to head in the right direction. If you still have no idea what you’re looking for, but you need something with four wheels, we have some helpful thought-starters here:

    • What do you do on a regular basis?
    • Do you travel locally or long distances?
    • What type of cars usually catch your eye?
    • Do you feel safer in a smaller car or an SUV?
    • How many people do you usually have in the car with you?
    • Are you looking for an eco-friendly option?

    The answer to these questions will help guide you toward your ideal car. Deciding what you can afford is ultimately up to you.

    Where should I buy?

    If you’re looking to lease or buy new, you can look at car dealerships online or in person. If you’re looking to buy used, there are a few different approaches to take. You can visit a dealership, buy from a private seller, or go to trusted auto websites and marketplaces. Once you find the car you want, shop around to identify a price range. This will be helpful during negotiations.

    Plan your financing

    Whether you’re paying in cash or applying for an auto loan, smart financial planning can help expedite the closing on your new car. If you’re paying in cash, make sure to set aside money for any additional fees, as applicable. If you’re taking out a loan, now might be a suitable time to get prequalified. Getting prequalified doesn’t mean you have the loan, but that a lender recognizes your likelihood of approval based on your credit history and the terms of the loan.

    Take it for an inspection

    If you’re buying a used car from a private seller, it’s smart to get an inspection before handing over your money. Although the previous owner may have given you a vehicle history report and an honest review of the car’s condition, you don’t want any costly surprises. If you’re serious about buying the car and the seller is serious about selling it, they’ll let you bring the car to a mechanic for a professional inspection. This usually costs a few hundred dollars but can save you thousands in the long run. If you’re planning to take a thorough look yourself, with or without a mechanic, here are some things to watch out for:

    Things to look out for on a car’s exterior

    • Rust on the wheel wells, undercarriage or door panels
    • Scratches
    • Dents
    • Cracks or holes in glass
    • Check the suspension or evenness of how the car is sitting
    • Test to see if all lights and signals are working

    Things to look out for in a car’s interior

    • Strange or unusual smells: unwanted moisture can lead to mold
    • Check the seatbelt functionality
    • Look for water stains on or underneath the carpet — if it looks like it has been replaced or switched out, this may be a sign of flood damage
    • See if any dashboard or warning lights are illuminated
    • Test sound system, AC and heat

    Additional questions to ask before buying a car

    Purchasing a car is one of the bigger financial commitments you can make and as you can tell, there are a lot of questions to ask along the way. So, once you’ve got the basics covered, drill down even more. If you need something to reference while you're car shopping, you can use the lists below.

    Questions to ask yourself

    • Can I comfortably afford this vehicle?
    • Is this the right type of car for me?
    • Do I enjoy how it drives?
    • Am I satisfied with the safety features?
    • Will this car be conducive to my lifestyle in the near and long term?

    Questions to ask the seller (if buying used)

    • Are there any features that don’t work properly?
    • Has the car been in any accidents?
    • Do you have vehicle history reports and service records?
    • What is the history of ownership?
    • How did you determine the selling price?
    • Are there any remaining warranties?

    Questions to ask the seller (if buying new)

    • What is the price of the car including any fees and features?
    • What does the warranty cover?
    • How long is the warranty?
    • What are the accepted payment terms?
    • Is this make and model available for a test drive?

    The bottom line

    Now that you know what to look for when buying a car, you’re ready to get started. First, decide what you want and what you can afford. Going both online and in person will give you an idea of what’s on the market and can help you negotiate down the line. Test drive the car to ensure it's functioning well. By asking the right questions now, you’re more likely to be satisfied down the road.

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