Car buying 101
January 18, 2019 8:54 PM   Subscribe

I am likely going to be getting a new-to-me car in a few months when I graduate medical school and start my residency. I’ve never done this before; all my previous vehicles have been purchased by or from family members. What resources can I use to figure out which car I want, and how can I get the best value for money? How can I figure out which cars have features I like? What’s the deal with leasing—is it ever a good idea?
posted by ocherdraco to Travel & Transportation (19 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
You could do a heck of a lot worse than to start with the Consumer Reports Used Car Buying Guide.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 9:38 PM on January 18, 2019 [1 favorite]

The advice I have had about leasing is that it is good only if you plan to buy the car at the end of your lease--often, if you take it to a mechanic and you get a detailed overview of every possible thing wrong with it for negotiating power, you can get an excellent deal on the car as a used-car purchase, but you will show on the Carfax as the only owner of the car (adding some value) and you will know every single thing about its history.

I like the Wirecutter reports for cars; I have driven the same make and model for three consecutive cars now, so I have some strong opinions, but they are generally pretty good for giving you an idea of what sort of car you'd like to look at and what's currently good in its class. You can move from there to researching older models of that car if you want to buy a car that is old enough that there's been a redesign from the current edition.

What do you need and want in a car? That's probably your first step.
posted by sciatrix at 9:39 PM on January 18, 2019 [1 favorite]

Factors to consider:

1. Commute time and distance
2. What kind of weather you’ll be driving in throughout the year
3. How much driving you do in a typical year
4. Where the car will be parked when you’re not driving it
5. How many people will be riding in the car most of the time
6. How you prefer to entertain yourself while driving
7. Whether you plan to sell the car after a few years, or drive it till it dies

For example, if your commute will be 40 minutes in each direction, you’ll probably want to get one with good gas mileage and a good record for longevity, because you’ll be racking up the miles pretty quickly. If you live somewhere where it snows in the winter and/or in a hilly/mountainous area, you might consider a vehicle with AWD. Will you have a garage? Will you park in a covered ramp at work, or in an open parking lot? Will you be driving alone most of the time, or will you be sharing the car? Do you need to haul a lot of stuff around?

I like for guidelines on how to buy a car.

If there will be an Auto Show in your town soon, that’s a good opportunity to go look at a bunch of cars in one place, to sit in them and get a feel for what you do and don’t want in a car (without being hovered over by the sales team).

But, generally, think about what type of car you’d like (sedan, hatchback, sporty car, SUV/crossover, etc) and then narrow it down from there. See what each automaker offers in that class, go look at them in person, narrow your choices down to 2-3, then take test drives and see what you like the most. Do further research on Edmunds and similar sites to get a good idea of the fair market value for the car you want (contingent on year, mileage, features, etc.) Once you land on a specific make and model, and the features you’d like most for it to have, then you can start cherry-picking dealership and auto sales websites for cars that match.

Then when you find a car that matches your requirements, you’ll know how much you should expect to pay (fair market value) and can negotiate to get as close to that point as you can (or better, ideally). You should also think about how you’ll pay for the car. If you’re going to get a car loan, you can start with your current bank and ask for a pre-approval, or shop around banks and credit unions for good rates on auto loans.

When you’re actually processing the transaction of buying the car, it takes a while. One thing you will typically need before you can drive it off the lot is car insurance. Once you’ve picked the car on which you intend to make an offer, you should contact your insurance agent and give them the information on the car (make and model, mileage, VIN number, etc). They will draw up a policy for you and send a copy that will serve as proof of insurance so that you can drive the car after purchase.

It sounds like a lot of information, but just keep in mind that you don’t need to know everything about all the cars. You probably already have a good idea about the types of cars that you’d consider owning, and you’re just narrowing down from there. Learn about makes and models and trim levels first, then learn about negotiating, financing and insurance when you’ve decided on a make and model to shop for.
posted by Autumnheart at 10:30 PM on January 18, 2019 [2 favorites]

When I shop for a car, and I’m at the point where I know I want a hatchback (for example) and want to comparison-shop, I’ll go over to the dealer and sit in the driver’s seat. I’ll move the seat to where it’s comfortable, see how easy it is to read the dashboard, adjust the mirrors and look at blind spots, and touch the controls for the entertainment system to see how easy it is to reach and figure out. I’ll sit in the seat for a good few minutes to see how comfortable it is, including the seatbelt and headrest.

Then I’ll get out and sit in the back seat and see how the leg room is back there, cup holders, environmental controls, etc. because I care if passengers are comfortable even if I don’t have them very often. And although this wasn’t the case for me, if you have (or will have) babies or children to ferry around and need to consider factors like car seats, or if you have a bike and want to install a bike rack, then that’s the time to get an idea about how that car would work for you.

Even without test-driving the cars, it was pretty easy to rule out some makes and models because the seats were uncomfortable, or I didn’t like the dashboard layout, or there were too many blind spots, or whatever. I was left with my top choices, and that was when I would start arranging to take test drives, to see how the cars handled and whether I enjoyed driving them.
posted by Autumnheart at 10:52 PM on January 18, 2019

Your request is pretty non specific so here’s some generalities. First - Resources:
  • As previously noted consumer reports is still tops on reliability ratings and is available free through your library or just spring for the special car edition. This is where you’ll find out something like Chevy Cruz is well rated.
  • Safety: check on data from the fed’s crash tests and look at data from insurance companies. Car and Driver has an explanation but for me it’s either top marks or fail- just google a video of ‘marginal’ or poor crash results if you need convincing. Roll overs are a big issue for any sort of suv or cuv or other tall vehicle, so pay special care to that category.
  • NCAP is Europe’s test and it includes simulating running over a pedestrian. It should NOT be surprising that SUV's are much more deadly in accidents with pedestrians, so if you plan on living near people that is another reason to avoid taller vehicles.
Best value is more difficult and I would start with True Car to start research on pricing and I know folks who have pleased with going through Costco for hassle free deals. Right now I would look for best values with Volvo and Mazda which have both moved upmarket to higher quality builds but their prices have not kept pace. Ford and Chevy exiting the sedan market has cast a shadow over those cars which are totally fine cars for the most part.

I would expect these to be where you could find a decent bargain, and anywhere there is a disconnect between the actual quality and the perceived quality of the good. This is why Honda and Toyotas are only a good value for the money but not the best value, because you aren’t going to get a deal on those. In fact this why I encourage folk to seek out the Acura and Lexus in the used market because you’ll find the luxury brands will have had greater depreciation. Mefi fav Subaru is over priced for something that isn’t particularly reliable or notably safer than comparable cars, but folk luv em, just like ads suggest they should. And again you won’t get the best value but a subi will still be a fine choice.

Features? Just ask the folks you know what they like who do stuff in their cars that you plan on doing in yours. Mostly features are just marketing, in general if the car has a decent reputation they are all fast enough to get around, keep you warm or cold and dry on your journey. So focus on your use, narrow to a manageable list and then follow Autumnheart’s guide for picking something you can actually live with. I have mini van to haul kids and stuff and it is the best at that. Love it.

Leasing is a different value proposition that I think greatly simplifies paying to use a car, but for most people at an additional cost. If you are accident prone or will put a lot of miles on it then leasing could even be a better financial decision. Leasing removes many of the hassles of car ownership and should be thought of as a service that make’s having the car more stress free. So don’t let all the self appointed financial experts convince that owning the metal box is the only sensible way. If I was interested in an Audi, BMW and especially Mercedes I would likely lease. Leasing also buys your future self options, you buy out the lease and keep it or just get something different.
posted by zenon at 11:22 PM on January 18, 2019 [1 favorite]

I think when you’ve primarily been driving cars that are a few years old it is very easy to be completely unaware of the newer features in newer cars. A lot of that may feel like it’s under the heading of ‚non-essentials‘ and as a Young, possibly cash poor person, you may not have paid attention to these things. But a lot of it is also safety features, that started as ‘extras’ you had to pay for and often make their way into legally required features in new cars. Not having them will affect resale values in a few years.

So spend a bit of time in newer cars and looking at buying new cars. That doesn’t mean you’ll buy one but it gives you a chance to learn about features you may not know and lets you work out if they are things you or the market down the line would value.

Once you’ve narrowed down choices consider renting the car of choice for a few days, live with it. See if it really works for your needs.

As to what features you should be looking for. Of course a car should get you from A to B safely, reliably, economically. But that is the equivalent of saying drinking water should be wet and not make you sick. There are many other characteristics that affect the driving experience. And it sounds as if you’re looking for a car to hang on to for a good few years.

At the risk of sounding old, you seem to be at a point in life where priorities regarding non-essentials that nevertheless are nice to have/creature comforts can change quite drastically - disposable income goes up and free time goes down, you’ll also be working long hrs and be exhausted more. And a ‚feature’ may make a commute at the end of long shifts a bit more bearable. So consider that as well. And that kind of thing is highly personal, I like a lot of things my car can do, that I‘d have considered gimmicky at one point.
posted by koahiatamadl at 3:04 AM on January 19, 2019 [3 favorites]

As someone who just bought their first car at 32, new cars have a crazy number of what I would have called "fancy extras" as standard these days. Backup cameras, for example, just became mandatory in all new cars in Canada.
posted by quaking fajita at 5:04 AM on January 19, 2019 [1 favorite]

What resources can I use to figure out which car I want, and how can I get the best value for money?

The best way is to test drive, test drive, test drive. It's a pain and you can get fed up with it but it's The Only Way. I did a lot of research on my last car and the one thing it taught me is that you can do all the research in the world, but seeing the stats on paper and someone else's thoughts are no replacement for my own experience driving the car, and my own assessment.

Having said that, it's good to listen to what auto journalists think of certain makes/models. I particularly like Alex on Autos, Redline Reviews, and Kelley Blue Book. Your local public library probably has car magazines like MotorTrend and Car and Driver, these are worth checking out as well.

How can I figure out which cars have features I like?

My experience: you can't, to a degree. For instance, I never had a car with cruise control before, and my current car has this feature; I was excited and happily anticipated being able to use it on the freeway. Do I? Nope. I used it the most the first month of car ownership when I was experimenting with the features, haven't used it since.

Conversely, the features that I considered gimmicks and kind of scoffed at: brake hold button, capless fuel, and a backup camera. Guess what? I REALLY like these features and would've never predicted how much I use them. (I still turn my head when backing up of course but it's nice to also have the backup camera.) Every car should have brake hold and capless fuel IMHO. Once you go capless, you never go back!

I didn't get a much-coveted sunroof. Do I miss it? Not as much as I thought, surprisingly.

So, you can do research and anticipate how useful some new-fangled features may be for you, but how it shakes out in your lived car ownership experience may be another thing altogether.

People have given good advice above. The only other thing I would add is that car-buying can be overwhelming with all the different factors you need to consider (mpgs, crash test ratings, price, features, reviews, reliability, maintenance, insurance, etc.). At the end of the day, no car is 100% what you want or 100% perfect, you have to just throw in the towel and make a decision. (I spent many weekends test driving, and finally got to a point where I didn't want to spend any more of my weekends on car lots with salespeople - that's when I pulled the trigger. Also: I liked the person I bought from, that can be a final thing that makes you want to purchase.)

(I know you didn't ask for brand recommendations, but I will say that the number one thing you should consider is reliability: it's a pain taking your car in for repairs. For this reason, I would strongly suggest you consider either Toyota or Honda. In addition to reliability, the parts are cheap so they are inexpensive to maintain.)
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 8:37 AM on January 19, 2019 [1 favorite]

When I bought my first car in 2014, I spent $10 on the Consumer Reports car guide, which was well worth it from the perspective of seeing what was out there in terms of features and prices. It was also helpful to know which cars were new designs and which were just an update of the previous model year (which meant Consumer Reports might have an opinion on reliability). It did lead me to consider cars I'd never even heard of (not that I could actually locate a Mitsubishi dealer, but that's a separate issue). Your public library will almost certainly get you access to the same information online for free, but reading the tiny blurbs in the magazine first helped me know what to research online.

The other thing I found was that when you asked people for advice, a lot of people just said "small, used, low mileage and Japanese". I would have liked to follow that advice, but such cars simply did not exist in my price range where I was. Honestly, I found the whole thing ridiculously stressful and bought a manual Jetta (one up from the base model--it had a radio!) new basically because it was a) cheap (no one wants a manual Jetta at the end of the model year) and b) I learned to drive in a VW, so the clutch felt the same. When I moved away, I sold it to a coworker's in-laws for their teenager to drive. I think I did get lucky there.
posted by hoyland at 9:34 AM on January 19, 2019

I have purchased all of my cars, new and used, using guidance from Consumer Reports, and never been sorry. We keep our cars 6-18 years. Then they get stolen for their parts or we upgrade to something more modern.

So, yeah, CR has great guidance.
posted by SLC Mom at 9:56 AM on January 19, 2019

Lots of great suggestions here. One thing I personally found very helpful once I had narrowed my choices was to read the consumer reviews (not expert ones) on for the several models I was looking at. Any individual review is not necessarily useful, but in the aggregate I could get a feel for what were common problems with that car, or conversely things that people loved about it.

Also, there is a ton of information out there (i.e. online) about the common negotiating tactics car dealers use to make you pay more than you planned. Read up on some of it so you are prepared when the sales person asks you how much you want to pay per month, or looks at you dubiously and says they will need to take your counteroffer to their manager, or tries to sell you the extended warranty.
posted by Preserver at 10:32 AM on January 19, 2019

I want to second what several people have said about the safety features in newer cars, and about some conventional wisdom being no longer applicable.

Safety features - if you're doing a residency, you'll be driving a lot when you're tired. Another reason to get a car that has lane-departure warning, forward collision detection, automatic braking, lane-keeping assist. There's a useful website that describes what kind of features are now available and what they are: "My Car Does What?"

Used vs new - in the past, it generally made sense to get a used car that was 3-4 years old from a reliable brand, that would end up being the most economical. These days, the 3-4 year old cars from popular brands (Honda/Toyota/Subaru) are still pretty darn expensive. The conventional wisdom doesn't apply as much. When we recently bought a car, we got a new one from a somewhat less popular brand, but which still has a good record (Hyundai) and good warranty etc. The brand new car with all the safety features and everything under warranty was about as expensive as a 2-3 year old Honda or Toyota. So, don't rule out buying new.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:36 AM on January 19, 2019

It's worthwhile to seek out a loan pre-approval before you go shopping. You can shop around at banks or credit unions, and then take the time to compare the terms of the loans instead of having the fine print quickly shoved in front of you by the dealer. This helps keep you within a desired budget as you shop for the car.

Dealers are experts at separating people from their money. One of their favorite tricks is to get people to discuss what they want their monthly payment to be, and then negotiating on the amount of the monthly payment rather than the price of the car. This is how they get people into longer term loans and make buckets of interest money. Only negotiate on the total price of the automobile.

When negotiating with the dealer, don't tell them how you are paying for the car until you have agreed upon the price. If they get pushy about this or won't negotiate until you tell them whether you're borrowing from them or paying cash, find another dealership.
posted by TrialByMedia at 11:13 AM on January 19, 2019 [1 favorite]

Buying a used car from a car rental company is a good way to know that the car you're buying has been well maintained and is low milage for its age. Cars that rental companies sell generally have about 12K miles for each year, so a 3 year old car would be about 36K, which isn't much for a modern car.

Leasing is something that I really think only makes sense if having something very much in the range of "new" and being willing to exchange that regularly for the next model, like one might a cell phone. Leasing a car doesn't mean you own it when the lease is up. It means you get a new lease on a newer model at that point, and the leasing company will then sell the car you've already paid to use as a used car. Don't lease unless you really like having a car payment every month forever.

Also, Hyundais are excellent cars. My parents have owned a series of them across many years, I have owned two, they are solid and very good. Alternately, I hear the Camry is the best value for money, but I don't have any data to back that up
posted by hippybear at 11:20 AM on January 19, 2019

One thing we did before we bought our last car was to go to CarMax and sit inside cars. It's good because they don't really bug you. We figured out which cars were too big for us and which were too small, and did we need a minivan. For example, I was really big on the Prius until I tried to get in and out of one.

That being said, the standard advice I got was if I had no idea what kind of car I should get, I should just get a Prius: they've been driven to death by cabbies, so you know they're reliable, and because they're so popular as cabs, there are a lot of places to fix them.

My understanding is that internet/Costco/truecar pricing on new cars is pretty good, but the same is not true of used cars because new cars are fairly interchangable while dealerships have asymmetric knowledge about used cars.
posted by Comrade_robot at 11:43 AM on January 19, 2019

Do you already have a mechanic who you trust? For ~$200 or less (depending on your location), a mechanic can perform a pre-purchase inspection. I'm confident I will never buy a used car without taking this step.

When I last shopped for a used car, I paid for four pre-purchase inspections (and ultimately bought that fourth car). This felt expensive, but was absolutely worthwhile. The first three inspections uncovered severe issues that were undetectable from a test drive, present despite regular documented maintenance, and in one case, the mechanic stated the car was unsafe to drive (issue with the tie rod ball joint). I had driven it the night before, and thought it drove great.

You can also decide whether to shop for used cars from dealerships/brokers, or individuals. Both have pros and cons. In either case, make sure you get an independent assessment of the vehicle.
posted by reeddavid at 2:48 PM on January 20, 2019

Do you already have a mechanic who you trust? For ~$200 or less (depending on your location), a mechanic can perform a pre-purchase inspection. I'm confident I will never buy a used car without taking this step.

Note that we did this when purchasing a used car approximately a month ago, and we very narrowly avoided purchasing a car with undisclosed frame damage and a leaky CVT transmission at prices that... did not reflect these realities by taking it by a mechanic. And the dealership tried to talk us out of doing this, too. (The car had clearly been in an accident that was not reflected on its Carfax; the previous owner had apparently simply stopped paying on it rather than deal with insurance and it had been subsequently repossessed and sold at auction.)

The mechanic who got it up on a hoist and looked it over was very indignant on our behalf, and it was well worth the $70 to have avoided buying a car that needed a substantial amount of work (~$4000-7000) and would never be worth as much as a car without that damage even after repair. And this was the case even for a mechanic in a strange city!

Add that mechanic check into your estimation for any used car you are considering buying, and make sure the mechanic is one you pay. Best case scenario, the mechanic can give you ammunition for negotiating the price of the car down; worst case scenario, the mechanic can help you avoid taking on a colossal headache.

Our mechanic check for the car we eventually did buy came back clean as a whistle, and they even looked it over for free later on when we noticed a weird noise in the brakes in the first few weeks of driving it. (Turned out that a pebble had worn a little groove at some point like a track on a record player, which will go away on its own when we change out brake pads and won't affect the car other than sometimes making a strange noise.) Worth every penny.
posted by sciatrix at 3:41 PM on January 20, 2019 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: So much good information here! Thank you all!
posted by ocherdraco at 11:36 PM on January 20, 2019 [2 favorites]

I bought my first brand-new car (a Mazda 3 – I've been quite happy with it) at the end of 2017.

I really didn't overthink it. My needs were pretty straightforward – I just wanted something affordable and reliable, but just a liiittle more stylish than a Civic or a Prius. So here's what I did:

1. I did some cursory Googling for "best sedans for the money" and similar search terms. The articles that came up had a pretty clear consensus in terms of brands and specific models. (The same would probably be true for other categories, such as "best inexpensive hatchbacks" or "best cars for commuters".)

2. I posted on Facebook and said "hey, I'm gonna buy a car, what do y'all think about these brands and models?"

3. People offered feedback, as well as a couple of models that I hadn't considered. One such model was the Mazda 3 hatchback.

4. I went to a local dealership, and test-drove a Mazda 3. I liked the way it drove. I liked the way it looked.

5. I did a bit more Googling to make sure that the Mazda 3 was considered reliable and such. (It is.)

6. I bought a Mazda 3.

I could've spent months researching and comparing, but I didn't want to do that. The Mazda 3 felt right, the price was right, it got good reviews, and the local dealership had one in my favorite color. Done and done. I've been happy with the decision.

Your mileage (heh) may vary.
posted by escape from the potato planet at 1:30 PM on January 28, 2019

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