I’ve been sitting on a little secret for the past few weeks as I gathered my thoughts to write this post. Remember when I talked about how much I love the family-friendly spaceship minivans and how I had a budget category in our savings account for it? Well, a couple weeks ago we finally made the purchase and bought a gently used 2015 Honda Odyssey (wahoo!). We got a great vehicle with a low mileage within our budget and, best of all, we paid cash. Today, I’m going to tell you how we chose the perfect vehicle for our family and how you can do the same. Next week, we’ll talk about how to get the best price. Cars are a big purchase and they deserve your time and energy to make the right decision the first time and save yourself the heartache and financial losses of a bad choice. Let’s talk about how to buy a car!
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There’s usually one partner in every marriage that loves this step and one that despises it. In our marriage, I’m the researcher. My husband would rather just take my word for it than have to read all the articles on the entire internet to reach a conclusion like I do. I love it. I will spend my extra hours researching all the things until the decision is finalized, especially when it comes to big expenses or life changes. I did the same thing when I decided to go to PA school, when we planned our wedding, before we chose our adoption consulting group, and before I started a blog. Planning and decision making are my forte. I sometimes get a little too singularly focused during this stage and I read, evaluate, and compare to the point of ridiculousness. I can quote most of the specs on all of the competitive minivans on the market right now. My husband says I flustered the salesman at the Toyota dealership with my interrogation as we toured the vehicle, but at the end of it, I had a good idea of the things I liked and disliked. If you don’t want to obsess over this stage like I do, stick with the following suggestions and you should have plenty of information.
1. Read Reviews
This is where I spent most of my time. I read articles by people who were given a vehicle to drive for a couple weeks so that they could provide thorough reviews of all the pros and cons. They comment on the big topics like safety features and how the car handles, but they also take note of the day-to-day irritations and conveniences that manifested over the days of driving the car. They will address things like ease of installing carseats, the vehicle’s turn radius, the nausea-induced jostling in the back seat on curvy roads, how the door handles pinch your hand, how user-friendly the electronics are, etc. I suggest reading the reviews before you go explore and test drive vehicles because then you can determine whether these little things are deal breakers or not for you. For example, one reviewer of the Honda Odyssey said that the two screens in the dash were a little awkward compared to one screen in the other minivans. Chris and I played with them while test driving different vehicles and found that it really wasn’t a big deal to us either way. Read all you can so you’ll know what to look for when you get there. I read reviews from the following websites:
2. Compare Trim Levels
What kinds of features are you looking for? From a frugal standpoint, please don’t buy the highest trim level unless your financial situation is such that this blog is not relevant to you. The differences between the top trim and the next trim level down (or two) are usually luxury-only details that do not change the function of the vehicle. They are things like a second sun roof, wooden interior details, and an exclusive quality of leather. Aim for the mid-level trims to save money and still get your desired features. You can see a convenient webpage or PDF comparing the trim levels of each vehicle on the manufacturer’s website.
3. Compare Safety Features
Vehicles are tested for safety by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the results are available for comparison on their website. Minivans are pretty much all top safety picks because they’re gigantic tanks. The differences between them are subtle, but some are listed slightly higher than others. Since they are so similar, this was not a major player in our decision making but it did rule out one of the options for us. For other types of vehicles, this may really help you narrow down your choices. Safety on the road is an important feature and unsafe vehicles are deal breakers.
4. Compare Values
Notice I didn’t say “compare prices.” As much as I would love for all makes of similar models to be equal, that’s just not always the case. Comparing price alone will not necessarily be a good indicator of value. Use Consumer Reports, US News and World Report, and other well-known financial resources for this step. You want to read comparisons that detail which vehicles provide the best quality for the money.
5. Check out the vehicles
Take advantage of the opportunity to explore the vehicle at a nearby dealership. Even if it’s a horrendous color or if it’s new instead of used, find the same year and trim level you’re interested in buying and go check it out. Once you decide what you want, you can look for desired prices, colors, and mileage online from your couch. When you test the car, sit in every seat, fold up the stow-and-go seats, play with the air conditioner, turn on the DVD player, adjust the driver’s seat/mirror settings, turn on the radio, drive the car, locate all the LATCH systems and anchors for carseats, and ask as many questions as you want. Leave your kids at home, pack your husband a snack (if yours is like mine, the struggle is real when he starts to get hungry), and allow plenty of time so you don’t feel rushed. Don’t let the salesman intimidate you or make you feel silly for asking your questions. Along those lines, don’t let him sell you a car on your first visit. He will make you feel like this is a once-in-a-lifetime deal and that this vehicle will not be there tomorrow, but, honestly, what are the chances of that being the case on the ONE day you chose to go look at this vehicle (more on that next week)? Write down what you like and dislike after you leave because once you do this in a few different vehicles, you won’t remember which was which.
Information can be completely overwhelming and while I clearly am a proponent of knowledge, we need to reign it in for the decision making process. My job requires me to make hundreds of weighty decisions daily, but I feel like it’s harder to apply the same decision making process to other things. I think it’s because I’m not as comfortable or knowledgeable in these decisions and they make me more nervous. The other difference is that it’s not just my decision when it’s for our entire family. This is a big purchase for us and it’s one with which I need my spouse to be on board. My husband and I had to sit down and decide the following criteria to help us move forward with finalizing our decision and finding the right vehicle to meet our needs.
1. How long do you plan to keep the vehicle?
Our current car is eleven years old and it’s still in great condition. My husband says it “runs like a Deer.” (This is what happens when you let your spouse edit your blog). We purchased it when it was already five years old and we hope it has a couple more years in it. I’ve spoken before about the importance of car maintenance, and I stand by that belief. Cars are expensive and maintenance is a heck of a lot cheaper than early replacement. Our new-to-us van is one we intend to drive for the next 8-10 years. With that in mind, we were looking for brands with a reputation for longevity. We also purchased a slightly larger vehicle than we need right now in anticipation of growing our family in the coming years (although if the baby doesn’t stop teething soon, that future family might begin to shrink).
If you are merely looking for a cheap vehicle that you can purchase with cash to get you through the next few years of debt-paying and emergency-fund-saving, your ideal vehicle is one that’s old, well-loved, and has just enough life left to meet your goals. This question is a biggie to guide your decision making.
2. What kind of vehicle do you need?
How many kids are you hauling? How many carseats have to be installed and does the vehicle of interest have the LATCH hooks and anchors in the right seats? Do you need a truck? Do you need killer gas mileage for a long commute (I’ve been there and the Corolla was a lifesaver)? Do you need leather seats for protection against upside-down juice cups and diaper explosions? Are you newly married with no immediate desire to start a family and you could be happy with a cheap, efficient little car for several years? Write out your family’s needs and determine which vehicle models will best suit them.
3. When will you need to purchase the vehicle?
Chris and I knew a couple years ago that we would need to replace one of the vehicles about this time. We re-evaluated our situation last year when our baby was born and decided to stay the course with our savings and purchase in early 2017. Our goal was to pay cash and we budgeted our savings accordingly. We now have a 2006 Corolla and a 2015 Odyssey. We know that the clock is ticking for the Corolla and we’ll either outgrow it or run it to death in the next few years. With that in mind, we’re saving appropriately for its replacement. Figure out when you’ll need to replace your current vehicle, agree upon a budget, and develop a savings plan to get there. I really, really want you to ditch the pattern of eternal car payments and redeem that money to use however you want.
4. What are your “must haves?”
What are the things that you really want to have in your next vehicle? Be reasonable and choose things that are affordable for you. Sure, I would have loved the Honda Odyssey with the installed vacuum in the trunk, but that was outside my price range and as convenient as it is, I don’t need it. Leather seats, on the other hand, were important to us as were some of the safety features only available with the mid-to-upper trim levels. Rear entertainment was on the list because we do a lot of traveling (don’t all parents really just want peace in the car?). After doing a little research, I found that you can have DVD players installed for as little as $300 and the range goes as high as a few thousand. When we discovered this, finding a van with a rear entertainment system was no longer a priority.
Start by writing down everything you want. Then compare it with the available trim levels and choose the most affordable one that has almost all your desired features. You may have to do a little compromising to stay within your budget. And that leads me to the final criteria…
5. What is your budget?
I listed this one last, but it’s arguably the most important. Buying more car than you can afford can be so detrimental to your financial situation. In a previous post, I wrote about being “car poor” and how a vehicle is really an expense and not an investment. Don’t buy a car for a status symbol. As Dave Ramsey says,
“We buy things we don’t need with money we don’t have to impress people we don’t like.”
The primary goal of your vehicle is function and that’s the most important thing. You need to get from point A to point B safely and with all your family members. You do not want to have a car payment for the rest of your life just so you can have the luxuries of the new car smell, heated seats, and a navigation system. Choose something you can afford. Hopefully, you have followed the above tip to budget your savings appropriately and you now have a reasonable chunk of change to work with. If not, try to squeeze some more life out of your current vehicle until you can get there.
The Final Decision
Combining all this research and decision-making criteria should narrow your vehicle selection down to one or two choices. From there, you can start the price comparisons and try to find the perfect car to meet your needs. Don’t forget to check out the second part of this series: Negotiating Car Prices. Happy car hunting!
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