Based on my recent experience buying a car, I’ve created a car-buying series that will take you through the lessons I learned. Today is Part 3 in that series.
In this post we’ll talk about the process of picking a car that fits your needs. There are a lot of cars out there and the last thing you want is the dealer picking one out for you. You don’t even want to talk to a dealer about purchasing until you’ve taken the time to research the options on your own and found the model that fits your specific priorities. But with the huge selection out there this isn’t always an easy process. Below are some of the things my wife and I found helpful when trying to narrow down our options to the one or two cars we really wanted.
Where are you now and where are you going?
When done right, a car purchase is a long-term decision. Though there are exceptions (generally people who buy very used cars), people who replace their cars every few years are typically spending more money than people who keep their cars for the long-term. So if you’re looking to maximize the financial side of your car-buying decision, you should be trying to purchase a car that will last a long time.
With that in mind, it’s important to consider not only what you want from your car immediately, but what you might want from it a few years down the road. You don’t want to buy something that fits your needs now but needs to be replaced in a couple of years. That still might happen simply because life is unpredictable, but if you can reasonably project a different need within the next few years then it only makes sense to plan for it.
It’s important here to distinguish between changes that might happen from those that will probably happen. As an example, it probably doesn’t make a lot of sense to plan for a growing family just because you like your current boyfriend or girlfriend a lot. Maybe you don’t get the two-seater, but you probably shouldn’t run out and spend the extra money on a minivan either. On the other hand, if you’re newly married and either have a child on the way or have serious plans for them, then it makes more sense to plan around that reality. There’s a balance to strike between prudently planning for the future and needlessly spending more for something you may never end up needing.
What features do you want and how do they fit within your budget?
The list of available features when it comes to cars, especially new ones, is almost endless. You’re going to have to sort through these and determine which ones are truly important to you.
At the very top of the list for my wife and I were practicality, reliability and safety. In other words, could it fulfill our primary reasons for wanting a car (for us this was space and convenience with little kids in mind), could it do so with minimum ongoing maintenance, and could it keep our family safe? For us, these were really the only features we cared about. Sure a built-in DVD player, a rear-view camera or Bluetooth would be nice, but are they really necessary? For us they weren’t.
Depending on your needs and/or wants, the features you care about might be different. You might want something that’s better off-road. Or maybe you really do care about the rear-view camera or Bluetooth. Maybe you don’t need space and you really want something with a lot of horsepower. Or maybe you really want something that needs a lot of work because you just like fixing up old cars.
Each person’s priorities are different, but in any case it’s important to prioritize the features that are important to you and then understand the cost of each one. One way to do this is to compare similar models of different vehicles. How does the cost of a base-level sedan from one company compare to a base-level SUV from that same company? That can give you some sense of the cost difference for cars with different purposes. Then you can compare different levels of the same vehicle to get a sense of the price involved when you start adding on some of the luxury features. You can also compare similar models across companies with different reputations for reliability to understand the extra up-front cost there. With this last one though, keep in mind that the long-term cost of a reliable vehicle may actually be less even if the up front cost is more.
The point here is to prioritize and then evaluate. Back in Part 1 of our series you set a budget for your purchase and you need to make sure you let that budget, and not a never-ending quest for additional features, be your guide. One thought here, courtesy of Jake from iHeartBudgets, is that if features are important to you, consider looking at older, more used vehicles. You may be able to get a car with many of the features you want at a discounted price simply because it’s an older model.
Ask the internet
My wife and I had some initial ideas on the kind of car we wanted, but one of the best things we did was take our situation to the internet. There are countless forums and other venues online where you can pose questions and get some really valuable feedback. I posed our situation on my blog here and got a lot of great responses, but you don’t have to have a blog to do this.
Honestly, the most helpful input I got was from the Bogleheads forum. This is a site I primarily love for investment advice, but they also have a personal finance forum and it was there that I created a post summarizing our situation and what we were looking for and asked for advice on the kinds of cars we should consider. Not only did I get some great feedback on specific models to look at with detailed pros and cons of each one, but I received some advice that ended up changing our minds as to the type of car we wanted. We went into this process thinking one way and ended up going a different, and I think better, route because of the input we received here.
Edmunds is another site I used heavily as I researched our different options. They have detailed reviews and specifications for almost every car you can imagine, as well as numerous articles with advice for almost any car-purchasing decision you might face.
Another online resource I was able to use was Consumer Reports. Though you typically have to pay a subscription fee, my library membership actually allowed me to access Consumer Reports online for free. This was an incredibly helpful resource to evaluate reliability across different models. Even if you can’t access it for free it may be worth paying the subscription fee. The subscription cost is very low (as of this writing it’s $30 for an annual subscription or $6.95 per month), especially when compared to the hundreds or thousands of dollars it could save you on your car purchase.
How we decided on the car for us
As I mentioned above, our main priorities with our car purchase were space and convenience with a second child on the way, safety and long-term reliability. Initially this had us thinking about a hybrid SUV like the Honda CR-V or the Toyota RAV-4. Our thinking was that we’ll likely have to replace my wife’s car in the near future as well and at that point if we expand past two children as we’re planning then we could go the minivan route. In the meantime the extra space of the hybrid SUV would serve our needs.
But the advice I got from the Bogleheads forum ended up changing our minds. I had multiple people reason that if we’re really serious about adding a third child in the near future and a fourth not long after (and we are), then the best route would be to get a minivan right now. That way we’d give ourselves flexibility to handle my wife’s car on our own timeline and budget. Rather than being forced to replace it with a minivan in a few years, we could choose to replace my wife’s car when it’s convenient for us. And we could also choose to replace it with something more cost-effective, like a sedan. A sedan-minivan combination would be a lower long-term cost than our originally planned SUV-minivan combination. That flexibility is what ultimately convinced us that a minivan was the way to go.
Once we decided to get a minivan, it was a matter of finding one that met our desires for safety, reliability and space. We looked at a number of models but in the end our decision came down to just two: the Honda Odyssey and the Toyota Sienna. Every other model we looked at failed either our test for reliability or space. Once we had our options narrowed down, our search became much more focused and easier to handle.
With all of the car options out there, it can be easy to feel overwhelmed. The most important step here is really thinking about the main things you want your car to be able to do. What primary functions will this car be performing, both today and for the next several years? If you can identify those key things, you can start your search with those in mind and quickly narrow your options to the specific models that best fit those needs.