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What Car Should I Buy? 5 Questions to Ask Yourself

Editorial Note: The content of this article is based on the author’s opinions and recommendations alone. It has not been previewed, commissioned or otherwise endorsed by any of our network partners.

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Have you ever seen a piece of furniture you really wanted to buy and then realized, dang, that won’t fit in my car? Have you ever stood at the pump watching the numbers go up and wished you had a car that was better on gas? Vehicles have different purposes and strengths — but while it may be an enticing idea to have a different vehicle for every function, few people can afford it, so getting one vehicle that’ll accomplish most of what you need is the goal.

Whether you spend your weekends transporting construction lumber or half a soccer team, or you want a vehicle that’ll haul butt down the road, we list the major vehicle types and their primary objectives, plus the questions you’ll need to ask yourself when looking for a new car.

What car should I buy?

What kind of driver are you?

Vehicle type

Example

Prioritizes transporting people over things

Hyundai Sonata, Audi S3

Needs to haul large things

Ford F-150, Toyota Tacoma

Only needs to transport self and one other adult

Honda Civic Coupe, Ford Mustang

Needs room for multiple adults and some stuff

Subaru Outback, Volkswagen Golf

Transports multiple adults and is eco-conscious

Toyota Prius, Chevy Volt

Keeps vehicles for a long time and drives a lot

Land Rover Discovery, BMW 328d

May face bad weather and needs room for five adults

Nissan Rogue, Infiniti QX50

Needs room for five adults and some stuff

Audi Q7, Chevy Tahoe

Transports seven people or large things

Chrysler Town & Country, Nissan Quest

Likes to feel the wind in their hair

Mazda Miata, Fiat 214 Spider

Transports multiple adults

Kia Soul, Honda Fit

Wants sporty looks and performance to match

Acura NSX, Ferrari Portofino

Wants to impress people with a smooth ride

Cadillac Escalade, Porsche Cayenne

Eco-conscious

Tesla Model 3, Nissan Leaf

Before you choose a car, ask these five questions:

When you step on the car lot and see all those glittering vehicles, you’re probably asking two questions: what looks the coolest and what can I afford? While these are perfectly legitimate questions, you don’t necessarily want to end up with a 12-year-old Maserati; there are other things to take into account.

How do you intend to use the vehicle?

What do you transport — people, pizzas, packages or just your awesome self? If you only need to transport yourself (and maybe some pizza) for short commutes in the suburbs, then a small, zippy car might suit you best. If you help take the whole team to a game or have a bunch of stuff for work, a minivan or truck would work better. But if your job involves impressing clients with your ride’s smoothness, power or price tag, a luxury vehicle might be your style.

Distance. If you travel for work, or even just for pleasure, you may want a larger vehicle with room to stretch. You’ll probably also want a gasoline-powered vehicle, as gas stations don’t always sell diesel and electric vehicle charging stations are relatively sparse. And if you’re planning to travel at high speeds, make sure that the car is well-insulated for sound — especially if you’re looking at a convertible — so you won’t hear the wind and the road.

Passengers. If you need to take five kids to sports practice every other day, a coupe is obviously not going to cut it. But if you don’t anticipate transporting lots of people (or animals) very often, going small could not only be convenient, but also economical — smaller cars generally cost less and usually have better fuel mileage.

Young passengers will need safety seats no matter the type of car; larger cars make it easier to not only install them, but to take the child in and out without gymnastic contortions. And if you’re transporting teenagers, adults or large animals in the backseat, a larger vehicle might be more comfortable for all involved.

Stuff. Real estate agents who need to transport yard signs, contractors who need to transport tools and artists who need to transport supplies may need vehicles to fit not only the amount of stuff they have, but the size and weight of it. A framed painting canvas might not be voluminous, but it may be 6 feet long.

Awe factor. Impressing others can be a legitimate vehicle purpose. You may want to impress (prospective) clients when you pick them up from the airport in a luxury car, or impress (upon) your friends (and frenemies) by leaving them in the dust in a performance car or a jacked-up truck.

What’s the weather?

The type of weather you face should have a large input on the type of vehicle you get. However, it shouldn’t make you overly confident in adverse conditions. Just because you have all-wheel drive, doesn’t mean you should go down an icy freeway without caution.

Rain

If you expect slippery roads, consider a vehicle that’s more physically balanced, like a sedan or an SUV. A coupe, which is heavy in the front from the engine and light in the back, could make you more prone to loose steering control on turns or curves and have you fishtailing across the lanes. “Fishtailing” is when your back wheels have little to no traction and the rear of the vehicle swings uncontrollably, either side-to-side or to an extreme on one side. The same thing can happen with a performance car or a pickup (with an empty bed) for the same reasons.

Snow and ice

Colder climates probably mean your car will be exposed to snow, ice and all of the downsides that come with them — slippery and bumpier roads due to expanding and contracting pavement creating potholes. You might consider a vehicle with all-wheel drive (AWD) or four-wheel drive (4WD).

  • Four-wheel drive (4WD): This is also called 4×4 and is usually offered on SUVs, trucks and wagons. It is the best type of drivetrain to handle the worst conditions, on- and off-road through deep snow, water or mud. The Jeeps you may see in videos climbing near vertical cliffs have 4WD, although we don’t recommend you getting one and trying it out immediately. The driver usually turns the 4WD on and off, according to road conditions.
  • All-wheel drive (AWD): This is usually found on crossovers and luxury vehicles. It is designed to help the vehicle keep traction in light to moderate conditions without the driver turning it off and on.

In addition, consider getting a car that’s not white or gray, especially if you have to park on the street at home or for work instead of in a driveway or parking lot. The color might make your car blend into the wintery environment, so it’s harder for other drivers, including snowplow drivers, to see it. The ice from the salty roads will also be harder for you to see on your vehicle. And if you can’t see it, you might be less inclined to wash your vehicle as often, leaving the salt to eat away at the car’s clear coat and paint.

Hot and cold

If the summer heat is considerable in your area, look at cars with colors that reflect heat (mostly light colors) instead of absorb it (mostly dark colors).

But it doesn’t necessarily have to snow and ice for it to be cold where you live — if temperatures often drop, you might not want a cloth-top convertible or select trims of Jeep Wranglers, as they may not be well insulated to keep you warm in the winter.

What’s the geography?

Where will you use the vehicle? The type of landscape in your town can help determine the type of vehicle you want. Whether you live in the mountains, the jungle or even just a concrete jungle, you’ll want a vehicle that can best handle the terrain you face daily.

City. If you often drive in a city, you may want a compact sedan, a coupe, a Mini or a small electric vehicle — you’ll be better able to squeeze into parking spots, navigate sharp city corners and save on gas with all of the stop-and-go driving you’ll probably do. Most cities manage their urban roads with infrastructure to handle rain and snow, so you might not need a large AWD or 4WD vehicle to help you plow through the weather.

Country. If you have to go long distances to get anywhere, you probably want to be able to take all of your stuff with you, and the roads you face may be less well maintained. A larger vehicle with AWD or 4WD might be the most useful.

Mountains. A lot of cars can handle going up, down and around mountain roads. However, it especially takes a toll on electric vehicles. Using power to climb a mountain, to brake descending a mountain and to brake and accelerate on twists and turns drains a battery, greatly reducing your expected driving range.

What is most important to you?

People value different things depending on their lifestyle. Maybe you just totaled your car and you’re really interested in safety features for your next one; perhaps you go on long trips and a cushy seat and top-notch sound system are important. We broke out some categories to help guide you when you’re asking yourself what you care about in a vehicle.

Safety. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety crash tests vehicles each year to see which brands are the safest. Kia had the most 2018 award winners with nine models — 32 models were named as “top picks” over the last five years. Volvo and Lexus do well in the luxury categories, having won 23 and 20 top picks, respectively, over the past five years.

Luxury. If you want your car to feel like a 5-star hotel room on wheels, you’ve got plenty of choices, from BMW to Rolls Royce. Many luxury cars also cross into other categories with extremely good safety ratings (Volvo), performance (Porsche) and off-roading (Land Rover).

Speed. Enzo Ferrari once said that he designed engines; the rest of the car just happened to be attached. If you like to do autocross on the weekends to get your blood pumping, or you just like to know you’ve got the ability to go faster than anyone and everyone on the street, performance cars will cost you a pretty penny, but some people believe they’re worth every cent.

Off-roading. If the thrill of crashing through brush in the backwoods, carefully gunning up a sheer cliff face or getting neck-deep in muddy water interests you, off-roading might be your thing. Serious off-roading requires 4WD (not just AWD) and some vehicles have special off-road designations. Jeep has Trailhawk trims and “trail rated” badges, and some Land Rover models have specific settings for sand, mud, rocks, gravel, snow/ice and wading through water.

Technology. You can still get a brand new Kia Rio with windows you have to roll up and down by hand, but you could also get a Tesla that can largely drive itself and has a touchscreen that takes up the whole center of the dashboard — most people, though, get something in between. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration takes particular interest in crash avoidance technology, such as automatic braking and blind spot sensor warnings, and says this type of technology may offer significant promise for increasing safety.

Reliability and value. Kelley Blue Book, Consumer Reports, J.D. Power and Edmunds are some of the top industry experts on the subject. Spoiler alert: Toyota consistently ranks at or near the top of the rankings across these four sites.

How much can you afford?

When comparing cars to your budget, the easiest thing to look at is the price of the car. But don’t forget that taxes will add to that monthly payment, plus you’ll also be paying for fuel, insurance and maintenance, and parking if you live in a big city.

Figure out your budget before looking at cars. Most people know how much they make each month, but fewer know how much they spend. Do not head straight to a dealership — you don’t want to fall in love with a car that’s way out of your budget and then become disappointed, or worse, find out after the purchase that you can only really afford it if you lived under a bridge.

Look at how much you spend versus how much you make. Do this to figure out how much you can afford. If you spend everything except that $5 needed to keep your bank account open, then you’re going to have to take a closer look at your spending. You’ll have to decide if getting a car is worth giving up something, such as going out for food and drinks often. If you don’t spend everything, how much do you have left over? And out of that amount, how much do you want to spend each month on everything that a car costs?

Determine how much of your car budget will go to the car. So now you’ve got your monthly budget amount of what you can spend on having a car — but how much of that is for the car versus the car insurance versus taxes and everything else? Admittedly, this is trickier to answer. However, here’s a handy rule of thumb: the more expensive the car, the more expensive everything else will be, taking a bigger the bite out of your budget and leaving less for the car payment itself. The reverse is generally true, too: the cheaper the car, the cheaper everything else will be.

  • See what car insurance will cost. If you’ve never had car insurance before — or if you have a long history of speeding — your insurance will be more expensive. Ask the insurance company for quotes on different cars to get an idea if auto insurance will cost you $50 a month, or $200, so you can plan accordingly.
  • Think about taxes and fees. Depending on your state and the dealership you go to, taxes and fees can vary. According to Nicolas Ortiz, a San Antonio-based insurance professional who formerly worked as a dealership finance manager, the total of most taxes and fees for almost every state range between 8% and 10% of the car’s price tag.
  • Maintenance and gas cost. Be aware gas prices are on the rise and you’ll need to change your car’s oil about every four months, which can cost $20 (regular oil for a low-mileage, mass market car) to $300 (top synthetic oil for a luxury car). 4WD vehicles also require extra maintenance.
  • APR loan cost. The APR on a loan is how much it costs you to borrow money. If you would have to take out a payday loan with 200% APR in order to get a car, don’t do it. That means you’ll pay double the price of the car. Most states limit car loan APRs to below 25% — and that’s still considered high. To see what type of APR you qualify for, you could fill out an online form at LendingTree and potentially get up to five auto loan preapprovals, including APR offers.

What’s left over is the amount of your budget that can go toward paying for the car itself. For an example, let’s say you have a total of $340 to spend on a car each month. You did your research and found out auto insurance will be about $80 a month, taxes are 9%, maintenance/gas costs average out to $30 a month and you have an auto loan preapproval with 5% APR. That means you’ll probably spend about $140 to pay for the things you need for the car, which leaves about $200 for your monthly car payment.

How to get a total price based on monthly budget. This is the easy part! There are tons of auto loan calculators that help you figure this out. This LendingTree auto affordability calculator lets you put in your monthly payment, APR and how long the loan is, and tells you the car price you can afford. This will be the car price tag you should be seeking.

If you want to learn more about budgeting for the car that suits you best, you can check out other MagnifyMoney stories: How Much Car Can I Afford, The 20/4/10 Rule and The Best Auto Loans: 2018 New & Used Car Loan Rates.

Disclaimer: This article may contain links to LendingTree, which is the parent company of MagnifyMoney.

Advertiser Disclosure: The products that appear on this site may be from companies from which MagnifyMoney receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where products appear on this site (including, for example, the order in which they appear). MagnifyMoney does not include all financial institutions or all products offered available in the marketplace.

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Auto Loan, Reviews

LightStream Auto Loan Review

Editorial Note: The content of this article is based on the author’s opinions and recommendations alone. It has not been previewed, commissioned or otherwise endorsed by any of our network partners.

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If you’re in the market for a quick, affordable and hassle-free way to finance your next car, a LightStream auto loan should definitely be on your radar. It’s particularly well-suited for deal-seekers with good credit who don’t mind working with an online company when it comes to financing their cars. If you’d rather work with a local company that can offer in-person support, however, you might want to skip this lender.

How LightStream auto loans work

LightStream offers a wide range of options for financing your next ride, including:

  • Purchase of a new or used car, either from a dealer or an individual
  • Auto loan refinance (except it does not refinance its own loans)
  • Auto lease buyouts
  • Loans for motorcycles, as well as boats and RVs
  • Classic car loans

Auto loans at a glance:

  • Starting APR range: 3.49%–9.49%
  • Fees: None
  • Loan amounts: $5,000–$100,000
  • Terms: 24–84 months
  • Credit requirements: Minimum 660 credit score
  • Mileage or vehicle restrictions: None

LightStream offers the same starting rate whether you’re buying a new or used car from a dealer, something you don’t see at other lenders. But keep in mind that the lowest rates go to those with the best credit who opt for the shortest loan terms possible and use autopay to make their car payments.

Satisfaction guarantee

If you see a lower rate elsewhere, LightStream will beat any verified offer with a rate that is .10 percentage points lower. It also promises a $100 guarantee within 30 days if you aren’t satisfied with your loan experience.

How to apply for a LightStream auto loan

The only way you can apply for a LightStream auto loan is through its online form. It is an online lender, after all, so you should be comfortable with handling your business details — including the loan application — online. You’ll need to:

  1. Acknowledge receipt of LightStream’s statement on the use of electronic records.
  2. Agree to receive electronic records.
  3. Agree to use electronic signatures to sign your loan documents.

You’ll also need to have a Visa or Mastercard credit card to apply, which LightStream uses during the verification process.

You will be asked to provide:

  • The purpose, term and amount of desired loan
  • Your name
  • Your address
  • Phone number
  • Social Security number
  • Employment information
  • Annual income
  • Total amount of assets and equity in your home

From there, LightStream may contact you for more details and documentation. If approved, you’ll need to sign your loan documents electronically and provide LightStream with your bank account details. The money will then be deposited into your bank account, which means you’ll need to pass it along to the seller, whether that’s a dealer or private seller. LightStream will not send the money to the seller directly.

It’s important to note that LightStream doesn’t offer any preapproval options, but if you apply and are approved for a loan, you are under no obligation to accept the loan.

How to qualify for the best rates

LightStream requires good credit at a minimum, but looks for excellent credit when giving the best rates. It defines excellent credit as:

  • Five or more years of significant credit history.
  • A credit history with a variety of account types such as major credit cards (for example, Visa, MasterCard, Amex), installment debt (vehicle loans) and mortgage debt if applicable.
  • An excellent payment history with no delinquencies or other problems repaying debt obligations.
  • A proven ability to save as shown by some or all of the following: liquid assets (stocks, bonds, bank deposits, etc.), cash down payments on real estate, retirement savings and little, if any, revolving credit card debt.
  • Stable and sufficient income and assets to easily repay current debt obligations and any new loan with LightStream.

Pros and cons of LightStream auto loans

LightStream offers the convenience of an online lender with the backing of a brick-and-mortar bank as the online arm of Truist, the bank created by the merger of  SunTrust Bank and BB&T. But it’s important to weigh all of your options carefully when choosing an auto loan. It’s one of the biggest purchases you’ll make, after all.

Pros

  • Wide variety of loans: New, used, refinance and lease buyouts loans are available on a wide range of vehicles. Unlike other lenders, LightStream doesn’t place restrictions on your vehicle’s age, make, model or mileage.
  • Decent rates: We’ve seen lower starting rates at credit unions, but you’ll have to meet membership requirements. LightStream has no membership requirements and provides the same starting rates for new and used vehicles as well as refinance loans.
  • No down payment required: LightStream finances up to 100% of the car’s cost. Of course, it’s always best to put down as much as you can afford on an auto loan. This will help you save money over the life of your loan and avoid becoming underwater on that loan.
  • Quick funding: If you complete the application process and are approved by 2:30 p.m. EST, you could receive funds the same day.
  • Good reviews: LightStream auto loan reviews are generally positive.

Cons

  • Good credit required: To qualify for a LightStream auto loan you’ll need a credit score of at least 660 or better.
  • No preapproval process: Unlike many lenders, you’ll have to complete a full application in order to see your rates and terms. Still, the process is fast, and if you complete your rate shopping within a certain time period, multiple applications should not impact your credit any more than a single application.
  • No face-to-face service: If you’re the type of person who likes to seal the deal with a handshake after signing the documents, you’ll want to stick with some place local.

LightStream vs. Capital One

If you’d like a bit more of a guided approach to the car-buying process,  Capital One’s Auto Navigator loan options might be better for you. Rather than sending you cash directly that you can use on whatever car you want to buy, Capital One’s Auto Navigator service lets you first get prequalified for financing, and then shows you which dealers in your area may offer based on the type of car you want to buy and the financing you can afford.

If any of the offerings pique your interest, you can then finish the application and buy the car. It’s still a good idea to compare the offer with other new and used car loan rates.

LightStream vs. Carvana

Carvana works similarly to Capital One Auto Navigator in that you can prequalify for financing and browse real cars in your area that you may then be able to buy. It’s important to remember that Carvana only sells used cars and its financing is only available on Carvana cars. But it is possible to finance here with poor credit — Carvana requires borrowers to be 18 years old, have no active bankruptcies on their credit report and earn at least $4,000 per year.

Advertiser Disclosure: The products that appear on this site may be from companies from which MagnifyMoney receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where products appear on this site (including, for example, the order in which they appear). MagnifyMoney does not include all financial institutions or all products offered available in the marketplace.

Advertiser Disclosure

Auto Loan

How to Buy a Car Online — from Start to Finish

Editorial Note: The content of this article is based on the author’s opinions and recommendations alone. It has not been previewed, commissioned or otherwise endorsed by any of our network partners.

Written By

Visiting a car dealership lot can sometimes feel like walking on a knife-edge. Salespeople could pressure you into spur-of-the-moment decisions that could leave you buried up to your eyeballs in debt for the next several years.

Buying a car online can be a much smoother and well-informed experience compared with traditional car buying, but it does require a bit more legwork on your part. Before you dive in, you’ll want to make sure you’re well-informed on how to buy a car online.

Part I: Traditional vs. online car buying

Curious about buying a car online but unsure of how the experience compares to traditional car buying? The processes are similar in a lot of ways, but skipping the dealership can actually give you a leg up as a buyer.

The troubles of traditional car buying

Before the internet revolutionized everything, there really was only one way most people bought a car: They’d visit car lots, find a car they liked and then sit down with a car salesman to work out an agreement. This led to the dreaded negotiation process.

“There’s all this back-and-forth and, ‘Oh, I’ve got to go talk to my manager,’” said Jack Gillis, executive director of the Consumer Federation of America and author of “The Car Book.” “Well, the guy goes back and has a cup of coffee and lets you sit there and steam for a while, then he comes back and gives you some song and dance about why they can or can’t do something.”

Because most people treated car dealerships as one-stop shops for buying a car, they often wouldn’t be informed about the full range of cars, financing options or trade-in choices available to them. Without these bargaining chips, consumers are at the mercy of the car salesmen.

How buying a car online empowers the buyer

With online car buying, it’s possible to complete every phase of the car-buying experience — from finding the right car to negotiating — entirely online.

Perhaps the biggest benefit of buying a car online is that it puts you in greater control of the car-buying process and no longer at the mercy of the salesmen at one dealership. You can expand your options for cars, financing and trade-ins, and then use your findings to negotiate for your best price possible.

“The whole digital part really is empowering for the buyer because there’s so much information that you can use to make an informed decision,” said Matt DeLorenzo, managing editor of KelleyBlueBook.com.

The downside of all this power is that it requires a bit more legwork on your part to bring all the pieces together. On the bright side, doing your homework can save you thousands of dollars and ensure you get the best car possible.

Part II: 7 steps to buying cars online

Step 1. Choose the right car

It’s important to choose a type of car that will best fit your needs. Do you want a fuel-efficient vehicle for short commutes? Do you need to haul around large amounts of cargo? Do you have a large family or a small one? Thinking about questions like these can help you zero in on what kind of body style (truck? SUV? compact car?) will suit your needs.

Once you narrow down a body style, it’s time to research what specific makes and models of cars might be best for you. Good research websites include Edmunds, Car and Driver and Kelley Blue Book.

If you’re buying a new car, you might be offered certain options and add-ons from the dealer, such as VIN window etching or rust-proofing. Before you go signing up for every option offered (and sign away your whole paycheck in the process), it’s important to research these options. You can face big markups and can easily get these add-ons yourself if you decide you need them down the road.

Step 2. Determine the price you want to pay

Next up is determining how much car you can actually afford. The more conservative rule of thumb is the 20/4/10 rule, but if that’s not possible for your budget, make a concerted effort to try to meet the 10/5/20 rule. Here’s how the two rules break down:

Rules of Thumb for Transportation Costs
20/4/10 Rule10/5/20 Rule
Minimum down paymentMake a minimum 20% down paymentMake a minimum 10% down payment
Loan termFinance for no more than four yearsFinance for no more than five years
Monthly transportation expenses, including insurance, gas, etc.Total expenses shouldn’t exceed 10% of your monthly incomeTotal expenses shouldn’t exceed 20% of your monthly income

These rules could help you set a cap on your car-shopping budget. For example, if you have $3,000 saved, it might be a good idea to avoid buying a car for more than $15,000 ($15,000 x 0.20 down = $3,000). From there, you can assess any financing offers to make sure that you’re not spending more than 10% of your income on the car and that your financing doesn’t stretch beyond the four-year mark.

You can narrow your car search down even further using these budget caps. If a car’s MSRP is far outside of your budget, weed it out of consideration. You can use websites like Kelley Blue Book or the National Automobile Dealers Association to research the current prices for new and used cars in your area.

Step 3. Get approved for financing online

It’s important to get preapproved for an auto loan before you actually go shopping. Getting preapproved for a loan does not mean you have to take the financing; rather, it helps you stay within your budget and gives you a bargaining chip in negotiations.

You can easily get preapproved for an auto loan online through websites like LendingTree, which is the parent company of MagnifyMoney. Using our auto loan marketplace, you can fill out one online form and potentially get offers from several auto lenders at once, depending on your creditworthiness. It’s also a good idea to check around with local banks and credit unions, which may offer deals locally.

You’ll generally need a high credit score to qualify for the best auto financing offers. If you don’t have a high credit score, you will likely be preapproved for a loan, but it may come with higher interest rates. If you’re outright denied for a preapproved loan, you may need to consider shopping elsewhere or waiting a little while so you can take steps to increase your credit score.

If you are qualified for preapproval, the lender will give you a preapproval letter. Make sure to keep a copy of this letter, and bring it with you when it comes time to negotiate a price on the car you’ve chosen.

Step 4. Choose the right source

Once you get to this point in the process, it’s time to cast your net and see what cars are out there.

One place to look is AutoTempest, a comprehensive website that searches several websites, including Craigslist, for specific makes and models. If you’re looking for one particular brand, don’t overlook your local dealership’s website. Other possible websites to go to scope out cars include:

We also made a list of the best online car-buying sites that you can check out to help you in your search.

With the power of the internet, the whole world (or at least the whole country) can be your virtual car lot. If you’re able to travel to pick up your new vehicle, you might be able to save a trunkful of cash by broadening your search.

For example, if you live in a snowy climate and are looking for an all-wheel drive car, you might try looking in a warmer area. “There might be better incentives on all-wheel drive cars in, say, Arizona than in the Northeast where they got a lot of snow,” said DeLorenzo.

Step 5. Get quotes

Once you’ve identified your targets, the next step is to find out how much they’ll cost. You’ll negotiate your final price in the next step, but this step sets a starting point.

Contact the dealership directly and ask for a quote for each vehicle you’re interested in. It’s important to do this as the price may have changed or the vehicle may have been sold. But perhaps the main reason this is crucial to do is so dealers will be motivated to give you a better price than what’s online, and it puts the starting line for negotiations much closer to the finish line.

Email or call the dealership and ask for their internet sales manager, as this is the person you’ll work with through the negotiation process. Give them the VIN or stock number of the vehicle you’re interested in and ask for a quote. Then, ask them to email it to you so you have it in writing.

It sometimes can be difficult to get a dealership to quote a price, but it’s important to insist that dealers give a price estimate for the make, model and year. If quote collecting isn’t your thing, you also can hire a service to do this for you, such as CarBargains. For $250 and a detailed description of what you’re looking for, CarBargains will collect at least five different dealership quotes for you.

Collecting these quotes gives you the bargaining power you need to negotiate prices down as low as possible in the next step.

Step 6. Time to negotiate

Ah, the dreaded negotiation. Since you’ve already gone through all of the steps to be an informed consumer, negotiating your price will be a much smoother process. Specifically, you’ll be negotiating the price of three separate items: vehicle price, financing cost and trade-in value.

Vehicle price

This is the most important piece. You can — and should — present the offers you’ve received in the prior step. Did someone offer $12,500? Show that emailed quote to another dealer and ask if they can lower their price to $12,000. Car dealerships are usually very easy to negotiate with online.

“If you think about it from an efficiency point of view, an online salesperson can be working more deals at one time than somebody on the floor who’s physically with one person,” said DeLorenzo. “Sometimes it’s actually more cost-effective for the dealer to sell it through or do a lot of the negotiation online.”

Car salespeople will often try to upsell you on add-ons when negotiating the price for a car. “They may say, ‘Well this will only cost you 10 bucks more a month.’ Well, yeah, and that’s $120 over a year. Over five years that’s $600, $700. You can’t let bells and whistles cloud your judgment,” said DeLorenzo.

Stick to the basic total numbers, not the monthly payment, and don’t let yourself get distracted.

Trade-in price

Chances are that you already have a car that you want to trade in to help defray your costs. Most dealerships will accept trade-ins, but be warned: You will probably get much less than if you shop around for trade-in prices on your own.

Websites like Kelley Blue Book allow you to find a fair trade-in price for your vehicle. In addition, you can use a tool on Kelley Blue Book’s website called “Instant Cash Offer” to get bids from dealers on your car.

“The beauty of having something like that is that it sets a floor for what your car is worth,” said DeLorenzo. “You’ll know you’ll get at least that much in trade or in an outright purchase, and that’s important leverage to have when you’re negotiating a new car deal.”

Additionally, you can try selling your car yourself through sites like Craigslist. Generally, going this route will net you your best price for your old car, although this may take more time and energy than simply driving onto a car lot with your old car and driving off with a new one. Here’s more on what to know before you trade in your car.

Financing cost

The final piece of the puzzle is how you’re going to pay for your new car. Since you’ve already taken the time to be preapproved for an auto loan, this step should be simple.

Show the dealer your preapproval letter and ask them if they can beat it. If so, great. If not, then you know you’ve already secured the best auto financing deal possible.

Step 7. Making the final purchase online

Once you’ve lined up the three pieces of the puzzle — the lowest car price, the lowest financing price and the highest trade-in value — it’s time to make your decision. Most dealerships still require you to physically come in to complete the final paperwork signing. However, that’s beginning to change.

“Savvy dealers are beginning to digitize as much of that kind of paperwork [as possible], to just make it easier to buy a car from them,” said DeLorenzo. “It works out better for them, too. I mean, if they’re able to get you in and out quicker, they can sell more cars quicker.”

But as far as completing the entire purchase process online? “I think there are dealers who are willing to do that,” DeLorenzo said. “The question is, do you want to do that?”

For now, you’ll likely still need to do some of the physical aspects of buying a car, such as taking it for a test-drive, in person. Perhaps someone will invent a virtual test-drive machine in the future!

Part III: Staying safe while shopping for cars online

Luckily, outright scams aren’t too common when it comes to buying cars online, according to Gillis. Many car dealers are subject to consumer-friendly regulation by the Federal Trade Commission. Still, there are some things to be aware of when shopping for cars online.

Beware the bait-and-switch

One situation that Gillis has seen involves a bait-and-switch technique when consumers arrive at the dealership to complete the purchase after negotiating everything online.

“You’ve got it all squared away. You get to the dealership to close the deal, and all of a sudden, ‘Oh my gosh. I can’t believe it, someone just came in and bought that car, but we have another one here that actually has a few better features on it, and it’s just the color you wanted, and it’s only gonna cost you $20 more per month,’” Gillis said.

If this happens to you, be prepared to walk away from the dealership as they’re likely just trying to weasel more money out of you.

Get an inspection from an independent mechanic

If you’re buying a used car, whether at a dealership or from someone you found on Craigslist, you should absolutely get an inspection first. Everyone has heard horror stories about buying a lemon (or worse, being the person who bought the faulty car). The seller will surely tell you that the car is in perfect shape, but how do you really know? Getting an auto inspection by an independent mechanic is perhaps one of the best ways to protect yourself.

If you’re unable to take the car to your own mechanic, DeLorenzo recommends a service from AiM Certify. For as little as $129, you can book an independent mechanic anywhere in the country to travel to the dealership and perform an inspection for you. You’ll get back a full mechanical report complete with actual photos of the car.

Try before you buy

If you’re not happy with your choice, you may have wasted tens of thousands of dollars. That’s why it’s crucial to take a test drive before you commit.

“Most of the problems that consumers end up not liking about their vehicles could have been determined in a test-drive,” said Gillis. “For example, it’s hard to park, or the back seat really isn’t that comfortable, or the trunk really doesn’t hold that much, or when changing lanes, there’s a big blind spot in the back.”

Jenn Jones contributed to this article.

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