You've done a ton of online research and you know the car you want (and need) for carpooling, grocery shopping and weekend family fun. Now you're just about ready to head over to the dealership to test-drive — and possibly buy — that perfect car. Before you hand over your hard-earned money, we have 25 quick shopping tips to make family car-buying easier than you could have imagined.
Before Heading Out to the Dealership
1. Yes, it's exciting to be on the verge of buying a new car. But don't just rush off to the dealership expecting the vehicle you saw online will be in stock, ready for a test-drive and purchase. It might not be there, even if the dealership's website says it is. That's because online inventories can lag behind what's actually on the lot. Call the dealership first to make sure the vehicle is indeed still for sale.
2. Will you have your kids with you? If so, tell the salesperson when you plan to arrive, and ask him to have the car up front ready for a demonstration and test-drive. Some dealerships have massive inventory lots, and they are often off-site. You don't want to wait a half-hour to have the right vehicle pulled up from one of these lots, especially if you have bored kids in tow.
3. If your schedule allows, do your in-person shopping on a weekday. It's not as busy and you'll get more personal time with the vehicle to check out the features, from engine to infotainment system. When you're buying a car for the whole family to enjoy, it's worth taking extra time to look things over.
4. If possible, have the whole crew come along. You'll want them to try out the car in which they'll spend hours over the next few years. Maybe it's the one that will become their first car.
5. Remember to bring along your research, whether on paper or on your smartphone. And just in case you do buy that very day, remember to bring your driver's license, proof of insurance and approved car loan from your bank or credit union. (Pre-approval is a good idea. If the dealer can improve on the terms, so much the better.)
At the Dealership
6. Some people buy cars purely online, as though they were washing machines or refrigerators. They come to the dealership only to handle final paperwork and drive off. Don't be that shopper. Do check out the new car in person, even if it's a model you've owned before. Cars change, and the features in a previous car might not be the same in the new one. Have your salesperson give you a thorough demonstration and then take the family-mobile out for a test-drive. Put it through its paces. Make sure it's right for everyone, not just you.
7. Do a fit test. Check out the cargo area with seating positions set the way you'd expect them to be during daily driving. Will everybody fit? What about the dog? Is there room in the back to carry sports and school gear while all the kids are aboard?
8. While you're checking out your potential new family vehicle, consider what it will take to get your crew in and out, especially if you plan to move youngsters or grandparents. Not everybody can easily climb in the back of a tall SUV.
9. If you're buying a vehicle with three rows of seating, pay close attention to seating position of the second row, and how it affects the one behind it. That third row can be a challenge to get into, depending on how the seats are set up in the second row.
10. Speaking of the third row and its passengers, ensure that the last row has adequate ventilation. Do the rear occupants have control of their own temperature and airflow? If during the test-drive you hear reports of discomfort or claustrophobia, pay attention. Better to know now than in mile 100 of a road trip. This might also be a good time to check out how many rear USB ports the vehicle has. And don't forget to count the cupholders.
11. Know that your new car might not have a spare tire. Many vehicles come only with tire repair and inflator kits. (Carmakers do this to save space and weight.) If the car you've chosen doesn't have a spare tire, have a plan ahead of time for how you'll deal with a flat in the middle of nowhere. If that idea fills you with dread, consider buying a spare in the parts department. Ask your salesperson.
12. How easy is it to install a car seat? Bring yours along to confirm an easy and appropriate fit. Will you be using more than one car seat? Bring them both. When you're checking out the rear seats, be sure to check the LATCH attachments and positions.
13. If you're getting an SUV or minivan, take a moment to open the rear hatch and check the load height. When you're moving lots of heavy or bulky items — like a double stroller — having a lower load height can make life a lot easier on you and your back.
14. Sit in all seats, and have your family do the same thing. Make sure they have the features, comfort and adjustments you expect them to.
15. Once you've completely checked out the new car and you've decided to make it yours, tell your salesperson you want to finish your deal quickly — unless hanging out at the dealership is your thing. If you take our advice and shop on a weekday, a relatively fast wrap-up really is possible. On a Saturday afternoon, it could take a lot longer.
In the Finance Office
16. The finance and insurance office (F&I for short) is where you sign your purchase documents. This process can take a while. Don't go in with the expectation you'll be out of the office in 10 minutes. It rarely happens. Expect to spend about 30 minutes going over documents. Remember that this is your time, your money and your new ride. Don't be bashful about asking questions if some of the paperwork doesn't make sense to you.
17. The F&I office also is where you'll be offered add-ons to your purchase. The products you'll hear about include extended warranties, paint and fabric protection, theft deterrent or alarm systems and wheel or tire products. Think about your car ownership experiences and the car's built-in features and you'll have a good idea of whether these products will be worth your money.
18. If you're planning to drive your new family car until its wheels fall off, an extended warranty might be a good idea — if you get it at a good price. You can do some comparison shopping in advance, so you'll be better able to gauge the deal. And you can buy an extended warranty later, although if you intend to wrap its cost into your car loan, you'll need to do it on the day you buy. If you do decide you want an extended warranty, it's best to get one that is backed by the manufacturer of the car you're buying.
19. Some paint and fabric protection products that the finance manager offers may be worth considering. From my experience, these protection packages do a good job of resisting stains. Many of the companies warranty their products and will replace upholstery or leather if a stain manages to get through the barrier.
20. Before you wrap things up with the finance manager, ask to go over the paperwork one last time, just to make sure everything was done correctly. You don't want to be called back to the dealership because of a paperwork error. Believe me, it happens
After the Deal Is Done
21. Get a full explanation of the vehicle's options and features. Ask your salesperson to pair your Bluetooth phone to the new car if you don't know how. Also have him tell you how to use all the bells and whistles. These may include the entertainment and navigation systems and the safety features, such as blind-spot monitors, automatic emergency braking and adaptive cruise control, to name just a few.
22. Do a thorough walkaround of the car, looking for nicks and scratches. Sure, it's a family vehicle that is absolutely going to pick up a couple of dings and dents in the line of duty. But those first dings should come from you and yours, not the dealer's storage lot. If you're taking delivery after dark, find a well-lit place to inspect the car.
23. Make sure you get the owner's manual. Take a look at the quick-start guide that most of them have.
24. Be on the lookout for a dealership follow-up survey. You can expect to get one within a month of buying the car. The surveys are usually pretty easy to fill out.
25. Write a review for your salesperson and dealership on Edmunds.com. You rate restaurants and online stores, so why not a dealership? This is your opportunity to share your knowledge with other family-car shoppers. Between your savvy and these tips, we hope it will be a five-star experience.
To find a dealership that knows how to treat shoppers right, please visit Edmunds.com's Dealer Ratings and Reviews.