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Got New Car Fever? Read This First

By Lisa E. Stafford
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Nov. 17, 1998 – You've just arrived at your new duty station and you can't wait to start exploring the local area. All you need is a car.

For some people, getting a car as soon as possible is a major priority. You'd think buying a new or used car, truck or van would be fun, but it can be time consuming and frustrating if you're unprepared. Vehicles are so expensive these days it's worth planning and researching to get the right one -- at the right price.

According to David Van Sickle, director of automotive and consumer information for the American Automobile Association, there are many factors in deciding which type of vehicle you want:

  • Shop for your car loan first and get pre-approval. Any bank or credit union will tell you what it's willing to loan. If your installation has the program, a family services center financial counselor can also help you determine what you can afford.
  • How many adults and children will you normally carry? If you are carrying more than two children, does the back seat have a center shoulder strap? Many cars have only two.
  • How will you use the vehicle -- long trips, mostly commuting or recreation?
  • What kind and size of cargo will you carry?
  • What features are most important to you? V-8 power engine? Automatic transmission or manual? Seating comfort? A smooth, quiet ride? Fuel economy? Music systems?
  • What will your insurance rates be? Get a quote before you buy. Insurance premiums and monthly payments combined may be more than you can afford.
  • Do you understand your warranty?

Once you have a loan and know the general type of vehicle you want, you can narrow your choices to a few makes and models that fit your needs and budget. Whether you decide on new or used wheels, the next thing to do is figure out the best price. Your tools are the same ones sellers use.

Virtually every dealer offers rebates or super-low interest rates at some time in the year, but many also trumpet special promotions just for service members. Some sales are real and others aren't, but they're all bait -- know the deal before you bite.

"You can find vehicle price lists at local libraries," said Van Sickle. "The prices are listed in the Kelley Blue Books or the Red Books. These books provide the average price for each make and model for a particular year." Many credit unions and banks also keep these references.

The World Wide Web is an ideal resource for information on buying cars. Any Web search engine can pinpoint countless helpful sites. For example, you'll find tips, shopping strategies and other articles at the Consumers Union site, www.consumersunion.org. Other examples include Auto Trader at http://vision.traderonline.com and the Center for Auto Safety at www.autosafety.org. Edmund's Consumer Information, http://www.edmund.com, is an example of a commercial site that provides auto pricing information free.

If you don't like haggling, consider using an auto buying service. Your installation credit union or bank may be affiliated with one, or you may find one in the phone book or by searching the Web. For a fee, these services shop and bargain for you and guide you through the sale. You are still entitled to any manufacturer rebates, discounts and special offers available. The service may waive its fee if you get your loan from its affiliated financial institution.

"Another good price source is the classified car section of your local newspaper," Van Sickle said. Note the asking prices and compare them with the highs and lows of the Kelley Blue Book.

"Automobile sellers' magazines are another good source of information. Most include pictures of vehicles as well as short descriptions. This will save time by helping you narrow the list yet again. After seeing a picture, you may decide the vehicle is not what you need," he said.

You can also go to used car lots to see vehicles and check prices. Exercise caution. If you don't know cars, take along someone who does.

Whether you want to buy a used car from a dealer or an individual, ask to take the vehicle to "your" mechanic before you buy -- then find a good one and do it. A $50 inspection fee could save you hundreds or thousands of dollars. If the seller says no, be prepared to walk away from the deal.

If you're buying from an individual, Van Sickle suggests asking the following questions:

  • Why are you selling the car, and are you the original owner?
  • How long have you owned the car and where did you buy it?
  • Was the car serviced regularly, and who did the work? Ask to see the receipts.
  • How often did you change the oil?
  • When did you take the car in for its last inspection? This is important in states where the car must pass inspection before the title is transferred.
  • Has the car passed an emissions test or had emissions repairs? This is also important because emission system repairs are expensive. If you're buying an older model car, the cost of emissions repairs can be more than the car is worth.
  • Was the car driven mostly on highways, local trips or long distance trips?
  • Was the car ever recalled? If so, ask for verification that the problem was corrected. If none is available, take the vehicle ID number and check it by calling the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration at (800) 424-9393. The number is on the title and upper left side of the dashboard. They should match.
  • Has the car ever been in an accident? The NHTSA would have information on a car's title history, such as if there had been any tampering with the title, and whether the car had been in an accident or wrecked.
  • How much mileage is currently on the odometer? If the odometer reading on an older model car seems low, it may be damaged or tampered with.

Van Sickle offered other shopping tactics as well:

  • Never go car shopping alone.
  • Don't shop at night or in wet weather -- the dark hides flaws, and vehicle finishes always look better in the dark or when wet.
  • Always test drive the car you intend to buy. Cars may look alike, but handle differently.
  • No matter what anyone says, never take "spot delivery" and drive the car home before you have your loan check in hand. If you take the car, you owe the money. It's too bad for you if the loan you were trying to get falls through. You might have to take a loan you don't want to make good on your debt.
  • Always do the math. Dealers make mistakes in computing taxes and the like.
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