How to buy your first car (and save money)

Unless your parents are rich, willing to finance it or you just have won the lottery, then you are like most of us: little money but in dire need of a car. Having bought two cars from private sellers while saving thousands, here are my three easy steps to purchasing your first car.

1) Search, search, search

The trick to obtain a long lasting automobile is to search endlessly. Prepare yourself to search for 2-3 weeks for that ideal car. When in search mode, I use the Auto Trader website (or app); an easy-to-use online marketplace for new, used and certified cars. Set alerts for the make and models you are interested in. This website allows you to compare prices from different cars at the same time. 

Do an advanced search and place importance to these filters:

Condition: click on the used box – unless you have saved more than $10,000 for a brand new car then ‘used’ is your best option.

Sellers: select the “private seller” box – the biggest way to save money in this whole process is by directly negotiating with a person in their house rather than a car salesman in their dealership.

Price: if your budget is $7,000 for a car then set the maximum price to $7,500 because 9 out of 10 times, a private seller will knock down the price. I’ll show you how below.

Mileage: select the ‘under 100,000’ option.

Year: from- 2012 to- 2019. Your car should not be more than seven years old. Anything older than seven years is more prone to having mechanical issues.

Style, Make, Model: it is up to you as to what type of car you want but keep in mind the sedan style is the most economic.

2) Check out the car. Literally.

Once you have identified 4-5 ideal cars that you are interested in, make appointments to see the cars for yourself in a span of 1-2 days. Unless you are a car expert, bring your dad or a friend who has experience in buying used cars. I highly recommend paying the family mechanic or any trusted car mechanic $20-$30 to come along; he will be saving you way more than that. 

When you arrive at the site, take out the car for a five-minute test drive. Then, look out for these key things:

Tires – make sure they aren’t worn out. Buying a set of four new tires is as expensive as $400.

A/C – you may not think this isn’t important but a damaged A/C on the long run means less money in your pocket.

Engine – if the engine sounds weird (not smooth), don’t be shy and ask the seller why. 

Electronics – anything from the car dashboard to the brake lights to the windows car buttons, check everything is working as it should be. 

If you brought a mechanic, ask him to plug his car computer code reader to the car to check for any mechanical issues. Ask all type of questions to the seller like the car’s history, how many years has the seller owned it or if the car has been in an accident.

Write a list of the things that are not fully functional in the car or that need repair.

At this point, do not make an offer no matter how perfect you think the car is. If the buyer says something along the lines of, “you better act quick, I have someone else interested in the car”, don’t fall into that trap. Remember, this isn’t about the seller selling the car, it is about you buying your car. Go home, compare and contrast all the vehicles you inspected. Weigh out the pros and cons. Trust your gut.

3) Buying the car

Once you have decided which car is the best out of all the ones you have seen already, it’s time for the fun part: negotiating aka saving money.

Lower the price – this is the time to take out that list you wrote of the things that weren’t fully functional. Explain to the seller how much money you will spend out of your own pocket to fix these things if you buy their car. This move will easily save you hundreds of dollars.

Bring cash – ask your parents for a loan, phone your rich aunt to spare you a couple hundreds of dollars, take out all the money you have saved and above all, bring cash. Any human being will drool at the sight of the cold, hard green.

Both of my cars have been bought with cash. The first one was $4,500 originally and I lowered it to $3,500. My second car was priced at $8,000 but I ended up paying $6,500. All because I had the cash with me. 

Make your offer – The seller will probably reject it. Then, stand firm with your initial and final offer or you are a ‘walk out’. Being a good or bad negotiator is not a factor at this point. What matters is that you have the power in your hands (cash). It’s only a matter of time before you get what you want at the price you are asking for. When the seller gives in (cause he/she will), congratulations are in order. You just saved a lot of money (not by switching to Geico necessarily).

It is an exciting feeling to save thousands of dollars on big purchases so why shouldn’t the steps to buying your first car it be any different? 

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