NOTE: The Car Mama blog (mamascar.blogspot.com) is written by a mom who has was once voted “Most Likely to be Editor of a Major Automobile Periodical.” Car Mama (a.k.a. Erika Fish) writes car reviews from a mom’s perspective with generous input from her husband and children. When she isn’t driving or writing, Car Mama is usually reading online versions of several automobile periodicals and posting witty tweets from @car_mama.
My family was recently in the market for a new family vehicle, and we spent days discussing and debating which car was best for us. While the buying experience is still fresh in my mind, I thought it would be nice to share a few suggestions that may help you with the buying process — a process that can take a long time, or a short time: it’s up to you.
After years of observation, I think that people fall into several categories when it comes to cars: Car Buyers, Car Shoppers, Car Dreamers, and Car Enthusiasts. I consider Shoppers to be those who research and like to hang out at car dealerships for recreation, but are not really in the market to buy. (No judgment here, I love driving new cars whether I’m in the market or not.) Buyers are really in the market to buy or lease and have hopefully done their homework and know what they need. Dreamers are like me: drooling over new and classic cars that are way too expensive; reading car sites and magazines; talking cars to anyone who will listen. Dreamers may or may not keep their cars for decades, and leasing has certainly made the Dreamer’s life easier: getting a new vehicle every 3-4 years is awesome! Enthusiasts are similar to Dreamers, but Enthusiasts likely own classic cars, work on vehicles in their garages, and know more about the ins and outs of cars after years of re-building engines and such.
I think there are at least two types of Buyers: 1) people who lease or buy a new car every three years; and 2) people who keep their cars for at least ten years and spend up to one year researching the next one. The first type of Buyer has an easier time with this whole process — there isn’t as much pressure to find the perfect vehicle if you know you can turn it in after three years. Most people can live with a little annoyance for a few years. But for those of us who keep cars for at least a decade, the pressure is on to find the “Golden Egg” vehicle that will last at least 100,000 miles. Research and test drives are key to make sure everything is in the right place and that it truly fits our lifestyle.
When I started reviewing cars for my blog, I made a checklist of all the features I think are important for family cars. Performance is an important feature, but so are the number of LATCH-equipped seats. After owning a car with horrible cup holders, I now check out every vehicle’s cup holders: can they hold a Starbucks Extra Large? Narrow water bottles? Sippy Cups? I even take these items with me when I test vehicles (more-or-less empty). One can assume the Venti cup won’t spill, but it’s better to know for sure. Checklists and props are essential when testing vehicles.
To get started, I suggest the following steps as you embark on your car search:
Step #1: Make at least three lists.
- What are your priorities? Determine the most important factors and list them: price, number of seats, cargo space, etc.
- What are your favorite vehicles out there?
- What can you afford? Consider the buy or lease price; cost of repairs; and cost of monthly maintenance, including gas or diesel consumption.
Step #2: Cross-reference your lists.
This will help you see which vehicles in your price range have the features you need and want.
Step #3: Gather your props.
As you prepare for your test drive, gather any props that will help you determine if the vehicle works for you and your family. Props could be water bottles, car seats, two or three booster seats, the dog (well, maybe not), the tallest member of your family, and maybe your pickiest friend (if you care about their opinion).
Step #4: Go for a test drive.
Take your props and a checklist of the highest priority features based on your fist list, and add in any nice-to-have and can-we-really-afford-that features. Leave space to write down first impressions and questions. After a day of driving three or more vehicles, you may forget your impressions of the vehicle your drove at 10AM.
Step #5: Find the best price for the features you want.
Finding the best price can be a real challenge — especially if the vehicle you desire is in high demand. We found when searching for our latest car that prices were better 100-400 miles away from our hometown, so don’t shy away from widening your search. We also used CarWoo! to get in contact with local dealers. Using such a service, I felt more confident that the prices quoted were within reason, and I had contact information for a sales person at the dealer. Knowing who to talk to when you walk into a dealership is usually better than just showing up. (That said, I often find very knowledgeable and helpful sales people when I show up unannounced at a dealership.)
Good luck with your car searching and buying. Most people don’t purchase a vehicle without a lot of thought and research. I hope these steps will help minimize some of the agony and time it takes to get you into the right vehicle for your needs. Car buying is definitely not a one-size-fits-all process, so tailor it to you.