Buying a car can be an exciting adventure, but it can also feel overwhelming, especially if it’s your first purchase. Whether you’re opting for a new or used vehicle, following best practices can help ensure a smooth transaction. Discover what to look for and the questions to ask yourself when buying a car.

Start by answering the most essential questions.

Deciding what you want and how much you can afford is critical before you start shopping. You don’t need to have a specific car picked out or know your budget down to the cent, but having a general idea will point you in the right direction. If you’re unsure of what you’re looking for but need something with four wheels, consider these helpful thought-starters:

  • What do you do on a regular basis?
  • Do you travel locally or long distances?
  • What type of cars usually catch your eye?
  • Do you feel safer in a smaller car or an SUV?
  • How many people do you usually have in the car with you?
  • Are you looking for an eco-friendly option?

Answering these questions will help guide you toward your ideal car. Ultimately, deciding what you can afford is up to you.

If you’re looking to lease or buy new, you can explore car dealerships online or in person. For those interested in buying used, there are several approaches to consider. You can visit a dealership, purchase from a private seller, or browse trusted auto websites and marketplaces. Once you find the car you want, compare prices from different sources. This will be useful during negotiations.

Whether you’re paying in cash or applying for an auto loan, smart financial planning can help expedite the process of closing on your new car. If you’re paying in cash, ensure you set aside money for any additional fees. If you’re taking out a loan, consider getting prequalified. Prequalification doesn’t guarantee a loan, but it indicates that a lender views you as a likely candidate for approval based on your credit history and the loan terms.

If you’re buying a used car from a private seller, it’s wise to get an inspection before handing over your money. While the previous owner may provide a vehicle history report and an honest review of the car’s condition, you don’t want any costly surprises. If you’re serious about buying and the seller is serious about selling, they should allow you to bring the car to a mechanic for a professional inspection. This typically costs a few hundred dollars but can save you thousands in the long run. If you plan to inspect the car thoroughly yourself, with or without a mechanic, here are some things to watch out for:

  • Rust on the wheel wells, undercarriage, or door panels
  • Scratches
  • Dents
  • Cracks or holes in the glass
  • Suspension issues or unevenness in how the car is sitting
  • Functionality of all lights and signals
  • Strange or unusual smells, as unwanted moisture can lead to mold
  • Seatbelt functionality
  • Water stains on or underneath the carpet, which may indicate flood damage if the carpet appears replaced or switched out
  • Illuminated dashboard or warning lights
  • Functionality of the sound system, AC, and heat

Purchasing a car is one of the bigger financial commitments you can make, and as you can tell, there are many questions to ask along the way. Once you’ve covered the basics, it’s time to dive even deeper. To help you during your car shopping journey, you can reference the lists below.

  • Can I comfortably afford this vehicle?
  • Is this the right type of car for me?
  • Do I enjoy how it drives?
  • Am I satisfied with the safety features?
  • Will this car suit my lifestyle in both the near and long term?
  • Are there any features that don’t work properly?
  • Has the car been in any accidents?
  • Do you have vehicle history reports and service records?
  • What is the history of ownership?
  • How did you determine the selling price?
  • Are there any remaining warranties?
  • What is the price of the car including any fees and features?
  • What does the warranty cover?
  • How long is the warranty?
  • What are the accepted payment terms?
  • Is this make and model available for a test drive?

Now that you know what to look for when buying a car, you’re ready to get started. Begin by deciding what you want and what you can afford. Exploring options both online and in person will give you a better sense of the market and can help you negotiate more effectively. Be sure to test drive the car to ensure it’s in good working condition. Asking the right questions now will increase your chances of satisfaction down the road.