A guide to getting over the fear of car buying

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Does car buying give you the shakes?

If it does, you're not alone.

But the real reason you probably feel awful about the process is because you might feel uninformed, unprepared, and apprehensive about going up against a salesperson whom you believe has all the aces going for him or her.

PG On Wheels is here to help.

First, before you even walk out the door, think about what you really need.

Think about how you live. Do you do a lot of highway driving? Or are you mostly an urban commuter? Do you spend more time taking the bus than driving yourself? Are you likely to do mostly night driving? If so, you better get a car that has the best lighting set up and equipment for that. Do you have a plentiful source of emergency cash if the gas prices go higher? If you don't, you better avoid getting that bigger engine even if the extra speed feels great.

Next, is your family as large as it is likely to be for the next five years? You'd be surprised how many people buy a smaller car, and two years later-- bang! There's an addition, expected or unexpected, to the family. With most people going for five and six year loans these days, things can sure change in that time period.

It's wise to plan for an extra seat or two just in case when you buy your next car if there's even a slight possibility that your family will grow.

These are just some of the questions you ought to ask yourself before you head to the dealer, get bowled over by what's on the floor and buy yourself more car or truck than you really need.

Next, how much do you have to spend?

I don't mean how much you may have in six months, or how much you think you might get for your trade in. I'm talking about how much money you have right now, allowing for at least three to six months worth of savings for hard times to be left in the bank, as most financial advisors now say you should do.

That raise you've thought you would get may not arrive after you've already bought a more expensive car thinking you'd get the boost. As for trading in the old wheels, you may not get as much as you think for trade-in, so don't even give those factors a thought.

Doing this will force you to stay within your budget, not become "car-poor," and leave you enough to pay for gas, insurance, parking, repairs, etc., and the trade-in value will be just the cherry on the top, so to speak after you've negotiated a price you can well-afford.

Next: Start doing some research and homework.

Go to your local library and grab some auto magazines, or head to the local book store and check out the auto buff books and consumer guides that are on sale. Most are excellent, and if you're not a car enthusiast to start, the mags should be well worth the effort.

Better still go to the web. There are probably hundreds of web sites for cars and trucks, and if you go to google, you may even be able to find special sites just on individual makes that you are considering. These often are run by owners of those makes, and they may have an ear full for you on any problem areas, advantages and rewards or warnings for the particular model you are considering.

Then look at the general auto web sites. My favorites are www.edmunds.com and www.thecarconnection.com. You'll find a wealth of good stuff including pricing, road tests, forecasts for future cars and trucks so you don't buy a car that will be replaced and greatly improved over the next few months, and a lot of other fun information.

By the way, need I say it? Never, ever buy a car or truck on the Web before testing it. No exceptions. Would you buy a house without seeing it person and giving it a dry run? I didn't think so! Unfortunately, it is possible to order a car via the Web and never see it until you go to a dealer and pick it up, and that's a huge mistake.

Why? How do you know the car works for you? Seating position, ease of operating the controls, braking strengths and acceleration may not even be up to your standards-- or way more than you need.

You may think you're doing yourself a favor by avoiding the dealer, but you're wrong. Today's car dealers know full well that you are likely to hit the web before you even see them, and they expect you to be knowledgeable and have that you have the sense to shop around before making a decision.

And the vast majority are professional. Don't be afraid to tell the nice salesperson, "Sorry, I'm just looking right now, thanks." They will-- if they are professional-- leave you alone. If not, find somebody else to work with, or leave.

So you've made a realistic assessment of how much you have to spend, you've done your homework and you've narrowed things down to a few models.

Okay, it's time to gather your courage and head to the dealership.

First, a question. Got company?

A friend or relative to go along with you is a good idea if you're still queasy about the visit. You can get reality checks that way. You'll also then be reminded of questions you forgot to ask, and just generally have somebody who can act as a sounding board in what still may be a stressful time for you.

The days of the glad-handing guy in the baggy suit and hideous tie who follows you around the showroom floor like a puppy are, for the large part, gone, ifi they ever really existed to start with.

Besides, the "he" may well be a "she" behind the sales desk. Car dealers have become enlightened to diversity issues, and they know that some potential customers may feel discomfort working with some sales staff.

Thus, it is no longer a rarity to find sales people of all genders, ages, races, ethnicities and even sexual orientation working at the dealership. So as soon as you step in the door, feel free to look around the showroom for somebody with whom you suspect you might have more in common.

After all, this is the second most important investment you'll ever make, and you may as well be comfortable with the person on the other end of the sales desk.

But after all that, if you end up working with somebody who's a real pill-- and yes, there are still a few of those around---- you should politely, but firmly ask for somebody else to work with. Don't be embarrassed. You don't need to work with someone who behaves like an idiot if you don't wish to do so. If that doesn't work, leave. There are too many other dealers around to ride this miserable situation out.

The next step likely will be a test drive. And please note that I used the word "drive," not "ride."

This part of the transaction is one that both dealers and customers blow. On the dealer's end, the first thing some want to do is rush you through a five minute drive around the block-- on smooth roads.

Maybe they do this in a hurry to close the deal, but they rob customers of a chance to get to know the car. These same salespeople have only themselves to blame when angry customers buy that car based on a short ride and realize, after taking delivery, that they didn't get a true picture of what they were buying.

On the customer's end, there may be a tendency to think that if you take a longer drive and don't buy the car, you're wasting the salesperson's time. Nothing could be further from the truth. You have every right to know what you are buying, and test drives are part of the sales staff person's job.

You should try all kinds of roads-- smooth, rough, pot-holed, curved, straight, narrow and wide. Staying only on well-traveled smooth roads may conceal a ride that's rough as nails later on bad roads.

While you're sitting there, don't just admire the color scheme and the upholstery. Ask yourself some tough questions. How do you feel in the car? Can you reach controls easily? Are the controls where you expect them to be? Is the driving position appropriate? If you have a special situation-- a health limitation, stature, weight or physical challenge--- does this car or truck make things easier or tougher for you?

If you like the car, the next step is to get down to business. Hopefully you have gone to edmunds.com or some other site and gotten an idea of what others who bought your prospective car are paying for it at dealerships. This will give you a leg up, and maybe keep you from paying to o much for the car.

Now you need to ask about rebates, special marketing money for the dealer, or other incentives that will save you money-- but that you don't get unless you ask about them.

Unless the car or truck is in strong demand and short supply, you should never pay the price listed on the sticker as the manufacturer's suggested retail price.

So which ones will you almost always have to pay sticker price? Almost any Honda product, but especially the Honda Fit and Honda Civic, both of which have waiting lists. Toyota products also generally sell for list, as do Chevy Corvettes, Mini Coopers, Chrysler 300s, Infiniti M345 and M45, Nissan 350 Z and others.

Now that you've established the price which the dealer is expecting for the car, the next step is to talk trade-in.

If you've taken fairly good care of your car, the Kelley Blue Book prices will be a good reflection of the car's worth. But if you've got scratches, have a beaten up look, obviously worn out parts and other problems, your trade-in value will plummet.

On the other hand, if you have low mileage-- that is, less than 12,000 miles or so per year of ownership-- you can expect to get a bit more money for your trade in than others with higher mileage might receive.

Now is the time to think of financing. Although terms of up to 72 months, or six years, are now available, I would make every effort not to get financing for longer than four years, tops.

Why? You don't want to end up "upside down" in the transaction. That happens when, after four years or so, the car wears out, you've tired of it, or some other reason has arisen why you now have to get rid of it. But hold on. If you've financed for five or six years, you will now owe more on that car than the car is worth.

That extra cost that you owe on the loan could be added to the new car loan, but that will make it much more expensive, prohibitively so in most cases. So unless you want to end up paying $600 or $700 a month, including the costs of your old loan, for a tiny compact car that should cost no more than $300 a month, avoid overly long loan terms.

Now on to the paperwork. Check it to make sure that all of the equipment you want is included, and that no unwanted extras have been built in for fabric protection, undercoating, extra insurance or other similar charges. The only extra you might consider is the extended warranty, particularly if your new car has a reputation for unpredictable mechanical behavior.

For Japanese cars, this isn't much of a deal, because most of them have outstanding reputations for quality. The Korean brands have long warranties to start with so they already have protection here.

Most American brands have long since improved their quality, so the extended warranty may not be such a good idea for these either. But the ballgame changes if you're buying a European brand. Every last one of them have fallen rather sharply in quality over the last few years, and thus, an extended warranty covering what almost surely will be expensive repairs is a much better bet.

If there are any terms or fees in the paper work that are incomprehensible, now's a good time to ask for clarifications. And before you drive home, check your car out carefully, looking for any bad alignment of doors and windows, dings, or non-functioning equipment.

If you find something, ask for a "Due Bill" that puts into writing exactly what you expect to have done to bring the car up to snuff before you take final delivery on it.


All that's left is the best part of all: Enjoying your new set of wheels!

-- Originally published June 21, 2006


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