If you’ve followed along with the entire series, you should now know exactly what car you want to buy, how much you want to pay for it, how you want to pay for it, and you will even have already negotiated an initial price with the dealer through email.
So you’ve done most of the heavy lifting, and now it’s time to get on the lot and take those suckers for a test drive.
Today we’ll talk about some of the important things to keep in mind as you try to evaluate whether the specific car you’re looking at is the one you want to bring home.
Decide which cars to go see
One of the biggest benefits of the email negotiation process I described in last week’s post is that you’ll now have a long list of “best offers” from all of the dealers in your area. Since you also used my Car Cost Comparison worksheet, you also have an apples-to-apples comparison of cost across all of your different options, no matter how new or used each option is. This lets you pick and choose which dealers you actually want to visit based on which ones have best met your criteria, rather than randomly picking a few dealers and simply hoping they have what you want.
You should plan on checking out at least three different vehicles, especially if you’re looking at used cars. There are two reasons for this:
- There’s still room to negotiate the final price and having options will allow you to play one dealer against the other. This will help you drive the price even lower.
- With used cars, the variability in condition and feel when driving can be big, even when you’re talking about the same vehicle from the same year with a similar number of miles. It’s hard to really get a sense of this unless you actually drive a few different cars.
Working with the dealer
To this point, all of your contact with the dealer has been through email. That has kept most of the power in your hands. Now that you’re on the lot you’re on their home turf and you need to be ready for the onslaught.
Here are some things you want to do in this initial visit:
- Show interest in the vehicle. This will let the dealer know you’re serious and will get them in the mood to make a deal. Note that this is different from saying you definitely want the car (see below).
- If you’re looking at a used car, ask for a car fax. Any reputable dealer will have this for you without a fee. The report isn’t perfect, but it gives a decent idea of the car’s history and should alert you to any big red flags, such as a total loss or a theft.
- Again for used cars, ask the dealer about the previous owner(s). Ask them where they lived, how they drove the car, why they sold it to the dealer, etc. They may not have all of this information, but what they do or don’t tell you may be helpful.
- Let them know that you are looking at several different cars from other dealers as well. You want them to know there’s competition. If you can have “another appointment” already scheduled immediately after the one you’re at (whether you actually do or don’t), even better.
Here are some things you don’t want to do:
- Tell the dealer that “this is the car for you”. You want them to know you’re interested but certainly not committed. They still have to work for your business.
- Feel like you have to buy during this visit or the opportunity will be gone.
- Let the dealer talk you into features or other cars you already decided weren’t important to you. If you did the work in Part 3 of this series, you came to the dealer with a crystal clear understanding of what you want. Don’t let them upsell you on something else.
- Talk about price or payment options until the end of the visit, and only then if you’re absolutely sure that this is a car you would be comfortable buying today. Otherwise, tell them you’re interested (or not, if that’s the case), but that you’re still evaluating your options and will be back in touch.
Test all the features in the lot
Remember when you spent all that time deciding on what specific features were important to you? Well now is the time to make sure the car you’re looking at actually fits the bill.
For us and our expanding family, the primary things we cared about were space and ease of use with kids in mind. So we sat in the front seats and made sure everything was comfortable and the important buttons were in reach. We strapped our biggest car seat in to make sure it fit with plenty of room for other people. We played with the levers that moved the seats around, making sure it would be easy to get people and things in and out. We sat in the middle and the back, with the seats adjusted to different positions, to see how much space there really was. We tested the ability to fold down the back seats to create a bigger cargo area. In short, we made sure that it could do all of the things we really cared about it doing.
Once you’ve made sure it has everything you need, make sure the things you don’t need still work. Check the power seats. Turn the radio on and change channels. Try to play a DVD. Whatever the car has, test it out. If you find something that’s broken, it might matter to you. And even if it doesn’t you can ask the dealer to fix it or use it as a bargaining chip to drive the price even lower.
Take it for a real test drive
You have every right to take the car on a real test drive to get a feel how for it drives in different conditions. Take it down some small streets to see how it handles slow speeds with frequent stops and turns. Take it into a parking lot to see how it parks, how it feels in reverse, and how it navigates tighter spaces. Take it on the highway so you can feel it accelerate, change lanes and get up to higher speeds. Basically, you want to test it out in the common kinds of conditions you would be using it for in your daily life.
As you’re driving it you want to basically take note of how the car feels. Does it drive smoothly? Does it brake well? Can you see out of the car alright? Are there any blind spots? Do you feel comfortable working the windshield wipers, AC, turn signals, etc.? Are there any weird noises or rattles, especially as you brake or drive at higher speeds? Does anything at all feel off?
If there’s anything at all that makes you question the vehicle, make sure you note it. I certainly don’t meant to imply that any little rattle means the car is a dud, but you want to follow up on it and make sure you’re comfortable with whatever it is. This is one place where it pays to be a little paranoid.
The salesman may or may not come on the test drive with you. If they do, they’ll probably try to spend most of the time explaining the different features of the vehicle and telling you how great it is. Politely tell them that while you appreciate the input, you’d like to focus on driving the car and would appreciate it if they could hold their thoughts until after the drive. You don’t want to let their talking distract you from the real task of evaluating the feel of the car.
Take it to an expert
If you’re looking at used cars and you find one you really like, I would highly recommend taking it to a trusted mechanic to have them check it out. Even if you know your way around a car it can absolutely be worth a second opinion, and it can be a pretty cheap and quick process. For $40, my mechanic took a car I was looking at for a test drive with me and noticed that the car was rattling just a little bit when we got on the highway, indicating that the tires needed to be balanced. He then did a full inspection and found it to be in good condition. The whole thing took less than an hour.
In my opinion, this was $40 incredibly well spent. Besides needing a tire re-balance (which I then asked the dealer to handle), it gave me peace of mind that I wasn’t buying a lemon. And if he HAD found something seriously wrong with it, I would have been saved potentially hundreds or even thousands of dollars in maintenance costs, or maybe even the cost of replacing the entire vehicle. With that kind of outcome in play, the $40 and one hour were small investments to make.
Trust your gut
A car is a big purchase. Depending on what end of the price spectrum you’re going for, it’s one of the biggest purchases you will make in your lifetime. For my wife and I, it was the biggest purchase we’ve ever made.
With that in mind, you have to make a decision that fits all of your rational reasons for buying a car (e.g. practicality, affordability, etc.), but you also have to make a decision that simply feels good to you. You don’t want to spend thousands of dollars to drive off the lot with something you’re nervous or unsure about, even if it meets your primary criteria. It’s just not worth it.
To give you an example, one of the first cars we looked at was a barely-used Honda Odyssey at a great price. Across all of the different offers we had collected to that point, this was easily the best deal. So we went to check it out and the very first thing we noticed was a big scratch along one of the sides. And then we opened the trunk and there were scratches all along the rear inside paneling. And in the front dashboard one of the electrical sockets was missing. Now, everything else about the car seemed great. It drove fine, the price was good, and those things were objectively pretty cosmetic. But the car only had about 25,000 miles on it and the fact that it had those issues from such a short ownership period made us really question how well the previous owner had taken care of it. In the end, we simply weren’t comfortable with the vehicle and passed it up, even though it was the best deal we had seen.
Do as much as you can to be objective about your decision, but in the end you have to feel good about driving the car off the lot. If you can’t get there with a certain vehicle, you should probably pass on it and look for one where you can.