Consider your needs
First things first — how are you planning to use it? Do you drive long distances on a regular basis or do you need it for quick errands? Does it need to be children-friendly? Do you haul things often? List your demands and priorities to get a clear vision of the car you need. Once you have a shortlist, take a look at the insurance rates to help you zone in even better.
Consider your budget
The last thing you want to do when talking to a dealership representative is telling them what your budget is. What you want to do instead is get a good picture of your own financial situation and credit score. You can even go to the bank and ask for a document approving your credit score and use it to bargain. Once you have a number in mind, tell the dealership people a smaller number than that. This is because they will usually stretch that number with installments and interest rates. By giving them a lower number, you get to stick to your budget. Keep in mind that a car is not a one-off expense and that you’ll need to set some money aside for gas, repairs, insurance, etc.
After coming up with a shortlist of potential candidates (or car-didates if you’re into dad humor), check those makers and models for reviews. Consumer Reports or Edmunds are a great source for this kind of homework. Check car values on the Kelley Blue Book to make sure your expectations are realistic. Instead of getting a new car (which will drop in value as soon as you get the key), opt for the newest used one within your budget.
Go on a test drive
Don’t even think about paying for a car before you test it. Make the test drive count — take the car on road conditions that are similar to the ones you’re planning on driving in the future. Use every possible knob and button you can get your hands on to be as thorough as possible. If you’re testing a used car, have a mechanic with you. It might cost you a little, but it will save you the money and grief spent on a bad car.