What To Bring When Buying a Car

by Steve Halloran

If you're shopping for just about anything these days, you should start your research online. Whether you’re shopping for a new car or you're shopping for a used car, and whether you know which model you want or not, CarGurus can arm you with loads of useful car-buying information about specific automakers, models, and dealerships, not to mention financing, negotiation, and insurance.

But if you plan on test-driving your next purchase, after you’ve taken the time to do your online research, you’ll still have to visit dealerships. To make sure you can learn as much as possible while you’re out, we suggest you bring the items we'll list below.

Before you leave home, speak with your bank or credit union to find out how much you can borrow to buy a car and what your interest rate and term would be for that loan. Many dealerships offer financing themselves or through partners, and they might offer you a great deal, but any smart shopper should consider the whole range of options available before buying. If your research helps you get a better rate on a loan from the dealership, you'll be happier every day you’re paying off that car.

And if you know what model you plan to purchase, touch base with your insurance company to get an idea how much you'll have to pay to insure your new car. Finding out you can't afford your new car's insurance after you've signed all the paperwork would be an unfortunate mistake. And don't forget to ask how and when your insurance company will need to hear about your purchase.

What Smart Car Shoppers Should Bring to a Dealership

Necessary Documents
Important Research Information
Helpful Tools for Inspecting a Car

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Necessary Documents

Driver’s License

The most basic requirement is a valid driver’s license, which you’ll need as both identification and proof that you can actually drive any car you might purchase off the dealer lot.

Proof of Car Insurance

Just as a driver’s license is needed to prove you are qualified to drive a car, proof of car insurance is needed to show that you are qualified to own one. Auto insurance is mandatory for motor vehicles registered for road use in the U.S., so you’ll need to show the dealer that you have a valid insurance policy by bringing an insurance card or other documentation.

Preferred Payment Method

It’s best to have a preferred form of payment set before heading to the dealership. If you plan to finance your car purchase, getting pre-approved for a car loan from lenders ahead of time can save a lot of hassle and time at the dealership. There are plenty of financing options out there, so shopping around in advance can also get you the best deal. Have your down payment ready, and double check with the dealership ahead of time to confirm that it accepts your preferred payment method, including whether cash or credit cards are accepted for the down payment.

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Important Research Information

The Original Listing

Car dealers may try to backtrack from advertised vehicle listings, so it’s important to bring the original listing for the specific car you found while car shopping for as a starting point for negotiations over the price of the car. Let the salesperson know that this is what you want, and don’t be surprised if they try to shift focus to another car in a different spec, or claim a different asking price.

Any Email Correspondence with the Dealer

If you’ve been corresponding or negotiating with the dealer via email, bringing this correspondence to an in-person dealership visit can further guard against any chicanery. This is especially important if there was any negotiation on purchase price, trade-in value for your current vehicle, or any factors via email. If the dealer tries to walk back these terms, having the relevant email correspondence in hand can help hold the dealer to what was originally discussed during the car-buying process.

Your Finance Information

If you’ve gotten pre-approved for a loan and plan to go that route, bring all of the accompanying documentation. You’ll have to check your credit score to get loan pre-approval from an outside lender, but even if you plan on setting up an auto loan through the dealership, it’s a good idea to check it anyway (these types of credit report checks won’t affect your credit score). If you have poor credit, the dealership may ask for a list of references or recent pay stubs. Proof of residence (such as a utility bill with your address) or proof of income (like recent pay stubs) may also be required.

Incentives Information

Both dealerships and automakers offer incentives and rebates, as well as special discounts for people like members of the military or employees of the automaker and associated suppliers. While some incentive information isn’t advertised directly to the public, much of it is, and you’ll need to provide documentation if you want to take advantage of a specific incentive.

Helpful Tools for Inspecting a Car

The Stuff You Keep in Your Car

We’re not talking about loose change and hand sanitizer. If there’s anything big, like a dog carrier or infant car seat, that you normally drive around with, make sure to bring it and check that it all fits in a potential new vehicle. If you’ve got a car seat, see what it’s like to strap in and remove. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) publishes ratings for child-seat anchor ease of use, but there’s no substitute for real-world experience.

A Refrigerator Magnet

Non-magnetic materials like aluminum and carbon fiber play bigger roles than ever in car construction these days, but most of the exterior of most cars should still be steel. If you bring a small magnet covered with or wrapped in plastic wrap (to avoid damaging paint), you can check whether any of the low, susceptible-to-salt parts of a used car have been repaired or replaced with Bondo or another non-magnetic repair compound. Take a careful look at the whole exterior to check alignment and exact placement of panels first, then ask the seller before touching any part of his or her car with your magnet. Once you’ve gotten the seller’s okay, use your magnet to check any body panel that looks suspicious or badly aligned. A well-done repair may not be reason enough to cross a car off your list, but pointing out and asking about repairs might convince that seller to adjust the price.

A Selfie Stick

Most cars are not stored on a lift at the dealership, so you won’t be able to see their undersides. Happily, the popularity of smartphones and social media means that anyone with a smartphone can purchase a selfie stick for short money and use it to get a much better look at the bottom of a vehicle sitting on the ground. The overall condition of a used vehicle’s bottom can tell you at least a little bit about how well it’s been cared for and whether it’s been through any traumatic events. But beware any used car that seems too clean underneath, as that may indicate the owner was worried and spent extra time and attention cleaning up down there. The inside of each tire and each wheel well is also worth a look – anyone selling an old vehicle with a damaged tire can hide the damage by flipping the tire.

Good luck shopping, and be careful out there. We enjoy seeing drivers with big grins on their faces and hope you’ll become one soon—if you’re not one already.

Related Topics

What to Look for When Buying a Used Car
5 Things to Do When Test-Driving a Used Car
Why Every Used-Car Shopper Should Check Vehicle History Reports

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Stephen is a freelance automotive journalist covering everything on four wheels. Whether it's a new EV or a full-size pickup truck, he's eager to drive it and tell you all about it in a CarGurus Test Drive Review. Besides contributing to CarGurus, Stephen currently has bylines at Digital Trends, Green Car Reports, and Motor Authority.

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