Avoid These Common Car Shopping Mistakes

So you're ready for a new car for the new year. You've saved money for a down payment, or maybe you're super thrifty and have enough to pay cash. You'll have plenty of great choices; many familiar vehicles are either all-new or significantly redesigned for 2013, and some 2014 models are already available.

But you don't want to misspend or overpay. Here are five common mistakes shoppers make that you should avoid if you want to get the best deal on your ideal car:

  1. Just showing up: If you want the best deal and the car that's right for you, do not just show up at your local dealership and expect to stumble upon the best car at the lowest price. There's a time and place for visiting in person, but it isn't at the beginning of the shopping process. Instead, do research online, look at photos/videos and figure out what specific car, or at least what kind of car, you really want. When you've narrowed down your choices, call or send an email to a salesperson at a dealership to discuss what's available. When you're ready to check out the vehicles in person, make an appointment like you would for any professional financial transaction.

  • Being too specific: It's good to know that you really want a specific car like a Honda Odyssey or Ford Focus, but if you're inflexible about the color and options, you won't get the best deal. When you go to a new car dealership, the cars you see are owned by that dealer, who bought them from the automaker and now has to sell them at a profit. The dealership has to finance the purchase of all those cars and if a vehicle stays too long, it starts to cost the dealership money. This means they're motivated to sell you a car they already have. If you're flexible about the specific options or color you want, that makes it more likely they can offer you a car from their existing inventory at a better price.
  • Taking a short test drive: When you're ready to buy a car, the salesperson may want you to take a short test drive on a pre-planned route. Insist on taking the car for a longer period of time. A 10 minute drive on unfamiliar roads is not enough time to make a30,000 decision. Instead, drive on roads you choose, get on the freeway so you can listen for excess noise, take extra time so you can see if the seats are comfortable. In total, you should be willing to take 45 minutes to an hour for a test drive in a car you're serious about buying.
  • Buying on the first visit: When you've narrowed your search down to three or four vehicles, you might be ready to make an appointment and take a test drive. But remember, you're still shopping. You don't want to buy a car on your first visit to the dealership. Once you see a car you like and you take a test drive, go home. Once you've seen and perhaps driven several other cars, you'll know the right one when it comes along. Still, don't rush into buying it on the spot, your desire to get that car may cloud your judgment and cause you to spend too much. A good rule is to sleep on your decision for at least one night.
  • Going alone: When it comes time to visit your local auto mall, bring a friend. Sometimes a person with nothing at stake can make more honest observations about a car you might be considering. If you're shopping for a family car, bring them, along with booster seats, strollers, diaper bags and anything else you use on a regular basis. Make sure everything -- and everyone -- fits comfortably. Kids can actually offer a unique perspective; I once took my 7-year-old son in a car I was reviewing and he kept asking me to turn the radio up. When asked why, he said "In this car, all I can hear is the road." That's a deal-breaker for me. Remember, you don't have to fit into the right car, the right car should fit into your life seamlessly.