5 Insider Secrets to Know Before Buying Your First Car

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My chronic indecision never rears its ugly head more than when it’s time to make a big purchase. (I’ve had $200 worth of beanies sitting in an online shopping basket for the last three hours, so you can imagine the hand-wringing that goes into a real investment.) I was spoiled lucky enough to be given a used car by my parents in high school, but have been car-less since totaling my Jeep after college. Now that my S.O. and I are somewhat settled in Brooklyn, we’ve been dreaming about buying a car for weekend escapes from the city.

But to make that dream a reality, I’m not exactly sure where to start. My boyfriend regularly drools over NASCAR videos and Road & Track magazine, but obviously the cars in our price range are slightly different. And having never bought a car myself, I don’t know much else about what to factor into the decision other than price. So I talked to Sarah Weiman, District Sales Manager for Buick in Austin and San Antonio, who’s been playing professional matchmaker with people and cars for nine years. Below, she shares seven of her top insider tips for young people looking to pick a new pair of wheels.

Don’t Browse Until You Have a Budget.

It might sound obvious, but for the clueless among us (read: me), running some numbers should come well before you start bookmarking your favorite models or heading to the local dealership. “Having the payment and finance terms in mind before beginning the buying process can really help nail down the right car for your lifestyle and budget,” says Weiman. “Generally speaking, a car payment, including principal, interest, and insurance, should total no more than 10 to 15 percent of your individual income. To figure out the right payment and vehicle expense, I tell customers to use an online payment calculator like this one, which can make the process easier.”

Factor in Your Favorite Activities.

If you feel equally comfortable in a sedan or SUV, and aren’t really sure what type of car is right for you from the outset, making a mental list of places you’ll go and things you’ll do in the car can help. “Consider your favorite activities,” says Weiman. “Do you like trying out all the latest tech gadgets? Going to the beach? Taking road trips where gas expenses are a concern and mileage could play a factor? This can help guide you towards the car that’s right for your lifestyle.” For instance, says Weiman, if you’re an avid audiobook listener, you might want to consider a car that offers the functionality where you can download a book or podcast (most models, these days), but also a quiet, comfortable, and noise-canceling interior. If you live in a cold climate, you might want a car that’s super-safe in snow or freezing rain.

MORE: 7 Things to Know Before Buying Your First Home

Talk to People Who Know.

Ask around with friends and family who have bought cars about their experiences and insights. Also see if they can give you recommendations for a good local car dealership. Otherwise, “read consumer and expert reviews online before selecting one,” says Weiman. “When you go in to meet with a dealer, don’t be afraid to prepare questions in advance. Explain the intended use of the vehicle to a trusted sales consultant. Will this be a ‘me’ or ‘we’ vehicle? Are you the kind of person who drives friends and family frequently? Do you travel often and could use a Wi-Fi hotspot in the vehicle? Do you anticipate using car seats? Is there a potential need for a third row, fold-down seats or a need to tow anything? The right sales consultant can share information and product features you hadn’t considered researching.”

Look for Ways to Save.

A car’s a big purchase, and not something you want to cut corners on (and end up with something that ends up falling apart). However, there are some legitimate and safe ways to cut your costs, says Weiman. “Understanding your objectives—meaning what will the car be most used for and what your must-have features are—will immediately help determine where you can start saving costs,” she says. “Pay attention to offers and deals that you can research online before pulling the trigger. There can also be savings benefits once you buy a new car. For example, with all new Buick vehicles, you have the ability to opt in to a service called OnStar Smart Driver, which provides feedback on your driving behavior. It can lead to savings of up to 30 percent on insurance rates.” Insurance companies like Progressive offer similar money-saving programs, but neither will ultimately lower the price of your car.

Finally, don’t forget to consider used cars. “Pre-owned is a great option for the first-time car buyer,” says Weiman. “The right pre-owned car, can offer affordability as well as peace of mind. To save money over time, I encourage customers to wait until they’re in a positive equity position before buying their next car.”

Don’t Commit Until You’re Ready.

Weiman says one of the biggest mistakes she sees buyers make is the impulse purchase. “It’s so important to keep the long-term use of your car in mind. Buy it for the features that will make life better years down the road, not the thing that wows you at the dealership but that you don’t use ever again.” Regular maintenance is required with all cars, so if that’s not something you’re up for financially or logistically, be honest with yourself—otherwise the car will lose value and you’ll lose money down the line.

At absolute least, do two full weeks of research and exploring the market before making a decision, says Weiman. “I always remind friends, family, and customers that test drives are free! Take as many as you need to find the perfect fit. Sometimes you won’t notice a certain feature until you’re out on the road, and you don’t want that to be after you’ve bought the car.”

MORE: 15 Affordable Ways to Make Your Home Fall-Ready

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