If you're shopping for just about anything these days, you should start your research online. Whether you’re shopping new or used and whether you know which model you want or not, the Internet can arm you with loads of useful information about specific automakers, models, and dealerships, not to mention financing, negotiation, and insurance. But after you’ve taken the time to do your online research, you’ll still have to visit dealerships that have a car or cars you want to test-drive. To make sure you can learn as much as possible while you’re out, we suggest you bring the items we'll list below.
But 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.
One last thing: Be sure to bring your driver’s license, proof of insurance, and the title or pink slip for the car you intend to trade in, if that’s your plan.
1. A smartphone
A smartphone can be a fantastic help when you’re shopping for pretty much anything. Being able to compare the price of an individual car you’re considering to those for similar cars in your area will help you avoid over-paying. Car shoppers can use the CarGurus app or a web browser pointed at Craigslist or an automaker’s site to check the price and details of a car against similar listings in the same area. And if you’re shopping new, the Monroney sticker in a car’s window includes a QR code your smartphone can read to visit a web page that will allow you to enter information about your driving habits to get an estimated annual fuel cost specific to you and that car.
If you use the CarGurus app, you can get a clear idea how the details and price of a car you’re looking at compare to those for similar listings in your area, but that’s not the only way our app can be helpful. You can also find tons of user reviews of individual cars as well as dealerships, so you can get owners’ insights on the vehicles you’re considering, as well as other shoppers’ opinions on the dealerships in your area. You can also read Test Drive Reviews from expert auto writers and inspect the Questions section to find out what questions owners have had about a model you want to test-drive.
2. Tape measure
Depending on the kind of vehicle you want, how you’ll use it, your size, and the parking space, driveway, or garage where it’ll cool its heels while you’re not driving it, a tape measure will be good to have on hand when you head out to test-drive a potential purchase. Whether you need to figure out if your extra-tall uncle Abe can fit in the back seat or your bike will fit in the trunk, we’ve all got our own particular things to worry about fitting into a vehicle. Some of us have oddly shaped spaces to store cars, too. Make sure you’ve carefully measured any peculiarities your car will need to accommodate before you leave home, and take the time to measure the vehicle inside and out to figure out if it will fit your needs.
3. 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.
4. 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 a used car with a damaged tire can hide the damage by flipping the tire.
5. Your mechanic's phone number
This last item is also specific to used cars. Cars are expensive and complex enough that, once you’ve done your measuring, magneting, and selfie-stick-inspecting, you should take the time and spend the money to get an expert’s opinion on the roadworthiness and remaining lifespan of any car you’re considering buying. This should come from a professional mechanic independent of the dealership you’re visiting. If you’re a DIY sort of person and handle your own maintenance, you’ll be more comfortable checking a car out yourself, but either way, spending $100 or so to have a professional mechanic give a potential purchase a close look could save you money, headaches, or even prevent you from buying a disaster in the making. Similarly, that mechanic could alert you to upcoming trouble or expensive maintenance that the dealer might drop the price to help cover. Either way, you win.
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.