4 Steps to Simplify Car Shopping in the New Year


The new year can be an opportune time to start looking for a new, or new-to-you car, as dealerships look to clear out previous model years. But shopping for a car isn't always as simple as showing up on the lot. There are a lot of decisions to be made between now and walking into the dealership: make and model, new or used, preferred features, type of financing to use, and the list goes on. 

Before making that type of significant purchase, it's best to have a plan. Here are four steps to keep you focused and protect your financial health as you prepare to make your next vehicle purchase.

Step 1: Set a budget

Before you even begin to browse cars, it's vital to set a budget. One of the best ways to do this is to create a list that differentiates between your wants and needs in a car. If you're a commuter, you likely need fuel-efficiency, and while you may want the latest technology, like Bluetooth, it's not a necessity. Outlining your "must haves" can give you more control as you begin looking at costs, as you already know which items you're willing to forgo if it saves money. 

As you look at different models, stick to cars your budget can handle, even if there was a sudden change in your financial situation, such as a job loss. The average new vehicle loan amount was $32,480 in the third quarter of 2019, according to Experian, while the average new car payment was $550. These amounts can give you a baseline as you look at your own budget to identify the total amount you feel comfortable borrowing, as well as how much of a monthly payment you can handle. (See also: 7 Easy Ways to Calculate Your New Car Budget)

Step 2: Ensure your credit is in good shape 

About three to six months before you start seriously shopping for cars, make sure your credit is in good shape. Continue to pay your bills on time, and request a free credit report through Experian or by visiting annualcreditreport.com to check for fraudulent activity and to ensure all information is accurate. 

Additionally, use the tools available to improve your credit, like Experian Boost before you hit the car lots. Experian Boost can increase your credit score instantly, and it gives lenders a more complete picture of your financial history, and your ability to pay off debt by looking at your on-time utility and telecom payments. (See also: 6 Money Moves to Make the Moment You Decide to Buy a Car)

Step 3: Shop around for the best loan options

More than 85 percent of new vehicles and 55 percent of used vehicles are financed. But financing isn't limited to a single type of lender. In addition to loan options offered at a dealership, it's a good idea to shop around for loans to see who has the best terms and rates available. Just because you put in an inquiry at one bank doesn't mean you can't look at another, but also consider looking at credit unions and traditional finance companies to find the best deal for your situation. 

This is one area where your credit score can make a significant difference in what rates you're offered — the average interest rate for new vehicles for consumers who are in the "prime" credit tier is 4.21 percent, whereas for consumers in the "subprime" credit tier, it is 14.06 percent. 

You can shop for a car loan without worrying about your credit score. Inquiries for auto loans are either counted as only one inquiry when they occur within a 30-day period, or may be excluded entirely from the calculation. 

Step 4: If shopping for a used vehicle, get a vehicle history report

It's not surprising that buying a used car can be a significant cost savings. In fact, at $20,446, the average used vehicle loan last quarter was about $12,000 less than financing a new vehicle. When financing, that can mean significant savings in the amount of interest you'll pay over the term of your loan. 

However, it's important to go into a used car purchase fully informed, so be sure to request a vehicle history report, like an AutoCheck report, before committing to the purchase. These reports include how many previous owners the vehicle had, or if there were any reported accidents. This can help you avoid surprises and give you a better idea of the value of the car. (See also: 8 Questions to Ask When Buying a Used Car)

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