The good thing about your car being totaled is that it forces you to buy a new one when you have absolutely no idea what you’re doing and couldn’t be more ignorant on the topic, so then you have to educate yourself and embark on a massive learning experience and this whole process really hammers home how you are alone and have no strong male presence in your life to help with these things but that’s ok because you’re just like really focusing on yourself right now and you have your dog even though she lives with your sister and her boyfriend but she’s totally with you in spirit and you FaceTime all the time and she completely recognizes you and acknowledges your presence, she just has a funny way of showing it.
From a former dummy on the topic of car buying, here’s how you buy a car when you don’t know how to buy a car. For me, it has been a pretty satisfying process, not only because I feel empowered and intelligent on a subject I didn’t really think I ever would, but also because every car salesperson I’ve dealt with (all but one of whom have been male) has been surprised at my display of knowledge, and hasn’t been able to answer most of my questions. And there’s really nothing more satisfying than the stunned silence and look of embarrassment on the face of a smug, assuming male as he realizes his stereotypical world has been turned upside down.
Make an Excel spreadsheet to compare the following important factors on all the cars you’re looking at: Please note: I do not make spreadsheets–I’m not the person who makes spreadsheets. But I finally broke and made one in this instance because it made it easier to compare/contrast different makes and models.
- # of doors (i.e. 2, 4)
- whether it’s all-, front-, or rear- wheel drive (aka AWD, FWD, RWD–AWD will cost more to maintain over the long run)
- Transmission (manual or automatic, 5- or 6-speed)
- BHP (brake horsepower–the higher the better/more powerful engine)
- Torque (measured in lb-ft., the higher the better/more powerful engine–you want it to peak and stay consistent at a low RPM)
- MPG (miles per gallon for city, highway, and combined avg)
- Weight (of car, in lbs)
- Engine displacement (measured in liters)
- Cylinders in engine
- BHP/Weight (the horsepower to weight ratio–higher the better/more powerful engine)
- 0-60 mph (how fast it can go from 0 to 60 miles per hour, measured in seconds)
- Where the engine redlines (ideally around 7)
- % weight distribution front/back (want this to be as close to 50/50 as possible, although for example, with a FWD vehicle, that’s going to be impossible–it’ll be more like 60/40)
- Tires (e.g. all-season)
- Gas (e.g. premium only)
- Warranty (standard is 3 yrs/36,000 miles for bumper-bumper (i.e. everything) and 5 yrs/50,000 miles for powertrain)
- Cost to owner (overall, at 1-5 yrs and 1-8 yrs)
- Cost to owner (for repairs, at 1-5 yrs and 1-8 yrs)
- Cost to owner (for fuel, at 1-5 yrs and 1-8 yrs)
- Owner satisfaction (% owners who would buy again)
- Insurance quotes per 6 months (the easiest way to get these is to send sample VIN #s to your insurance co., for either the exact car you’d be buying or a similar one), and how much more or less that is than what you’re currently paying for insurance
- Kelly Blue Book fair market range of prices (this will be before taxes and fees)
- MSRP (Manufacturer’s Suggested Retail Price–can get from dealer)
- True Car Estimate (i.e. the best deal you can get for the car)
- Above Market/”Great”/”Good”/”Unusually Low”/Average prices for the car (can find all of this on Consumer Reports)
- Factory Invoice (what the dealer paid for the car–can get directly from dealer)
*I’ve found the most accurate source for finding technical specs is Car and Driver, the best resource for finding info on reliability, True Car Estimates, owner costs & satisfaction is Consumer Reports, and a good resource for finding fair market prices of new and used cars is Kelly Blue Book.
If you have an AAA or Costco membership, go through their car buying programs to get good discounts.
I’ve heard Costco is the most competitive, but I would go through as many as possible to compare prices–again, you can also get True Car Estimates (from either Consumer Reports or directly from True Car), but a word to the wise about those: True Car Estimates are based largely on theoretical models. I.e. you get to build your ideal car, and the estimate is based on that, when that exact model may not exist in reality. For example, if you build the cheapest model, without any added packages, you’ll get the cheapest theoretical price. But most models don’t come with zero packages (I.e. more standard packages like rubber mats, first aid kits, and roadside assistance, to more specialized options, like lighting and driver assistance packages). However, a lot of dealers will still try to honor the True Car price or as close as possible to it, or if they don’t have the model it’s based on in stock, they’ll try to find you that model or a model that’s as close to it you can get. Remember to bring a printout of the certificate that shows the price quote you get from any of these car buying programs to the dealer.
Test drive a lot
Go into several different dealers to compare prices, and make sure you test drive all the cars you’re thinking about buying. While the information in the above Excel sheet matters, ultimately your choice comes down to your personal taste and how the car feels to drive.
Perhaps the most uncomfortable part of the car buying process, bargaining is a necessary evil. The good news is, bargaining is the dealer’s job. They’re used to it. They do it all day, every day. And they’re going to be way sleazier than you, so don’t worry about coming off in an unsavory way. Every car salesman is pretty much the same: a chubby guy named Bobby who thinks that by slicking back his hair and wearing a button down that is accidentally only partially tucked into slacks that are too long and sagging (HOW HARD IS IT TO USE YOUR BELT CORRECTLY, SIR??), and talking down to people, honestly believing they’re buying what he’s selling, he can fool himself and everyone else into believing he’s a professional. But the hair gel doesn’t disguise who he really is: a middle-aged man who most likely still lives in his mom’s basement and spends his free time alternating between masturbating, eating Jack in the Box, and playing video games, and the stupid way his face moves when he’s talking to customers like they’re preschool children isn’t an endearing quality, and in fact he should probably wipe the stupid smirk right the fuck off his face.
Once you realize this is who you’re dealing with, the bargaining becomes far less intimidating, and way more fun. Basically, you get to fuck with Bobby, and he doesn’t get to fuck with you. He doesn’t want to lose the deal, so no matter what, he’ll keep trying to negotiate with you until you’re both satisfied. The other thing to keep in mind is if you’re worried about pushing him too far, don’t be, because he will tell you when he’s reached his bottom line. But because he wants so badly to gain your business, you may be able to get him pretty far before he can’t go any further. Dealers don’t make their money in car sales–they make it in maintenance–so they’re willing to move on sales prices.
Pull the trigger when it feels right
You can do all this research and bargaining, but ultimately, go with your gut. Personally I don’t believe in “gut feelings”/intuition, but I do think there’s something that sort of clicks when you find the right car for you. Again, this moment will probably happen when you’re test driving it. Your car should be practical and safe and economical and well-built and all that, but, above all, it should be your spirit animal. Things are going to get intimate between the two of you–so you may as well be comfortable. For some of us, this means counteracting our first inclination/urge. Like, apply the same logic that you’ve learned to use re: people you sleep with–historically, those you have jumped into bed with on impulse have turned out to be sociopaths, so maybe use a little more cautious approach. Like, the mustang may be really fun and sexy, but let’s be real–it’s impractical, unreliable, and won’t text you back.
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