How do you find the car that will exactly suit your needs for years to come? It just takes a little research and planning. When you know the kind of car you want, you can then decide whether you want to buy a new car, lease a new car or buy a used car.
If you have any questions along the way, please reach out to the Edmunds Shopper Advice team for free assistance. We can also pair you with an Edmunds car-shopping advisor who can help you wherever you are in the shopping process. This service also is free from Edmunds. Let's get started.
1. Assess Your Needs
As much as you might like to dream about what you want in a car, it's best to think more about what you need — not just now, but in the future, too. Functionality should trump flash. Here are some practical considerations to keep in mind:
- How many passengers do you need to carry?
- What type of driving do you do: highway, surface streets, off-road?
- Will you drive in ice and snow?
- Do you have a long commute and, because of that, is fuel economy important to you?
- Do you need all-wheel drive?
- What safety features are important to you?
- Do you need a lot of cargo capacity?
- Will you be using children's car seats?
- Will you be doing any towing?
- How much garage or parking space do you have?
2. Set Your Budget
Unless you're paying cash for your car, you'll need to think about financing your purchase or lease. How much can you really afford to allocate toward a car payment each month? The general rule is no more than 20 percent of your monthly take-home pay.
Edmunds has some great tools to help demystify pricing and let you figure out what car you can afford. When you're searching for a car on Edmunds.com (by year, make and model), look for special offers to get an up-front, guaranteed price on a specific car. To see how the price compares to what others are paying for that car, look for what Edmunds calls Average Price Paid — also known as True Market Value (TMV®). Finally, estimate your monthly payment on the car with the Edmunds Car Affordability Calculator.
3. Decide If You Want to Lease or Buy
Leasing and buying each have pros and cons, and how you feel about these may help guide your decision on which route to take.
For example, a lease requires little or no money down and offers lower monthly payments. But when the lease ends, you have no car and will need to go shopping again. On the other hand, buying a car is more expensive initially, and the monthly payments are higher. But when you pay off the loan, you will own a car that you can drive for as long as it runs.
Here are a few more factors to consider while deciding between leasing and buying:
- You can drive a more expensive car for less money.
- You can drive a new car, with the latest technology, every few years.
- There are no trade-in hassles at the end of the lease.
- You have more flexibility to sell the car whenever you want.
- You can modify the car to your tastes.
- There are no mileage penalties if you drive a lot.
- In the long run, your car expenses will be lower.
- If you are still unsure whether to lease or buy, let the numbers help you decide. Use Edmunds' Auto Calculators to compare a monthly auto loan payment to a monthly lease payment.
4. Consider Other Cars in the Class
Do you have your mind (or heart) set on a specific car? Many shoppers do. But in today's ever-changing marketplace, there are always new cars hitting the showrooms, and one that you've never even considered could be right for you. Edmunds lets you easily research and compare similar cars to find the one that truly fits you best.
If you already have a car in mind, you should still review other comparable vehicles in the same class to make sure you haven't overlooked an even better choice. You can do this by choosing the same vehicle type, as listed in our Car Finder tool, and setting the parameters that are important to you. Once you settle on a worthy prospect, you can easily check for detailed information on pricing, specifications and features. You can also compare vehicles you chose to more easily contrast features and specifications. If, on the other hand, you have no idea where to begin, you can consult Edmunds New Car Buying Guides.
5. Weigh the Costs of Ownership
Some cars may be cheaper to buy but more expensive to own. Why? Even if two cars have about the same price, one might depreciate faster or cost more to insure and maintain.
Before you commit to a car, you should estimate its long-term ownership costs. These include depreciation, insurance, maintenance and fuel costs. Edmunds has a great evaluation tool: True Cost to Own® (TCO®), which presents this information in an easy-to-read table. It can help you make a smart decision up front that can save you thousands of dollars over the life of the car.
6. Find Cars for Sale
In the past, you had to visit dealerships in person to see inventory and find out if the cars had the options you wanted. Now, using the car buying tools on Edmunds.com, you can quickly cover more ground and save money. Once you have an idea of what car you want, you can easily see its availability.
Just select a vehicle's make, model and year at the top of the Edmunds home page or any page on Edmunds.com. Then click on any of the results. If you don't find what you want, select a greater distance to search. You also can filter your search to find cars in a specific color, with different options or with Edmunds.com Price Promise® offers.
Next, contact the dealer to confirm the car's availability. To get the dealer's contact info, just click on the car photo, the car's name or the dealer's name.
7. Set Up a Test- Drive
Now that you've found a car that seems like it might be a good fit for you, call or email the dealership's internet department to schedule a day and time for a test-drive. These salespeople are great allies: They cater to informed buyers, and they're very familiar with Price Promise. By making a test-drive appointment, you ensure that the car will be waiting for you when you arrive.
8. What to Look for in a Test-Drive
A car might seem to have all the features you want, but the true test takes place when you are in the driver seat. You should test-drive the car the way you would drive it during your everyday life.
If you commute, drive the car in both stop-and-go traffic and at highway speeds. If you trek to the mountains, find some steep hills to climb. Drive over bumps, take tight corners and test the brakes in a safe location. Get in and out of the car several times and be sure to sit in the backseat, especially if you plan on carrying passengers. Check out the cargo space. If you plan on using children's car seats, bring those along to test for fit and ease of installation.
While you are evaluating the car, don't be distracted. Take your time looking everything over. A good salesperson will respect your need to experience the car and will let you focus on the driving experience. Turn off music so you can listen to the sound of the engine. You can evaluate the sound system when you return to the dealership. If the conversation does turn to questions about whether you'd like to talk about purchasing or leasing, you can say that you're still in the test-drive stage.
9. Pick Your Car
After test-driving several cars, the choice should be clear. If it isn't, sleep on it. In the morning, you might have your answer. If not, you might need to take a few steps back and drive more cars.
While making the right decision is important, it's also good to realize that there isn't one perfect answer. Today's cars are safer than ever before. They get better gas mileage. They have amenities at lower costs than in the past. In short, there could be several good vehicle choices and the final decision is really a matter of individual taste.
10. Time to Buy or Lease
Now that you've done research that (we hope) makes you feel confident that you've found the right car for you, it's time to buy or lease. These articles will take you through the actual car-buying or car-leasing process, including brief refreshers of some steps here: "10 Steps to Leasing a New Car," "8 Steps to Buying a New Car" and "10 Steps to Buying a Used Car."
Also, don't forget that the Edmunds Shopper Advice team is standing by to answer any questions. They'll work hard to make your car-shopping experience the best one yet.
To find a dealership that knows how to treat shoppers right, please visit Edmunds.com's Dealer Ratings and Reviews.