Once you take those first steps on their turf, a salesperson will greet you quickly and ask what you’re looking for. This typically includes your budget, car type, car features, etc. It’s so easy to get lost in those fantasy questions (“you’re right, that new car smell really is something I could get used to” or “that trunk pull-out would be ideal for tailgating”). If you don’t prepare yourself beforehand and prioritize, you could easily be persuaded to jump into something that isn’t necessarily what you’re looking for.  

To get started in the process, we’ve outlined some initial questions you should ask yourself before you get too far down the car-purchasing journey.  After all, the average American buys 9.4 cars in their lifetime - a number that continues to go down due to economic conditions, extended financing terms and better quality of cars.(1) Therefore it’s important you set yourself up for success for this major purchase sooner rather than later in the process.

What are you starting with?
This may seem obvious, but what car are you currently driving? Are you planning to keep it? If you are getting rid of it, then you have two options – either selling the car yourself or trading it in. If you decide to sell it yourself, you may make more money off of it; however, it can take time and patience to find a buyer. Do you have that luxury right now? On the other hand, if you decide to trade it in, then you will get it off your hands quickly (and usually in any car condition); however, you could be sacrificing some of your payout.

TIP: check your cars value quickly and easily through NADA. This will give you a starting point of what to expect to get back from your current car, and then you can decide if it’s more important to get it off your hands quickly or try to find a better price.

How much are you working with?
In other words, how much can you realistically afford on your next car? As a general rule of thumb, you should spend no more than 20% of your take home pay. But that doesn’t just include your monthly car payment, it should also factor in other auto-related expenses like gas, maintenance, insurance and registration fees. Keeping this in mind, ISU Credit Union has a payment calculator available online to estimate your monthly payments – you just put in factors like your credit score, the target car price, how much down payment or trade-in value you have, interest rate and the number of months it will be financed. Once you have a good idea of how much of a monthly payment you can afford, then you’re prepared to look into financing options

What are you financing with?
Unless you’re buying your next car with a big stack of cash, you’re likely going to need financing. There are two options for your auto loan – either you can get a direct loan through ISU Credit Union, or you can go through the car dealership for financing. (ISU Credit Union offers indirect financing through most southeast Idaho reputable auto dealerships.) There are pros and cons for each, but as with any loan, it depends on the market conditions, interest rates, your credit score and how much down payment you have.

A direct loan may be beneficial for those who already have a relationship with a ISU Credit Union, and as a result, it already has good insight into your financial history. This option also allows the flexibility for you to discuss all of the details of the loan, without the pressure of a car salesperson breathing down your neck. On the other hand, getting financing directly from the dealer can be convenient because it’s a one-shop stop (plus they are usually open late, on holidays, etc). Some dealerships will even throw in some additional perks, such as an extended warranty or a free maintenance period with their financing. It’s possible to request an ISU Credit Union funded loan while at the dealership as well. However, you certainly can feel the pressure when you’re sitting in the hot seat at a car dealership, so it’s important to do your homework beforehand to know what you’re working with.

TIP: even if you use dealer financing, you can still get a quote from ISU Credit Union use as a benchmark or negotiating point with the dealer. This is often as quick as filling out an online application to get prequalified. This can really come in handy when the car salesperson asks what your budget is.

What are your priorities?
Now that you have a gauge on how much you can afford with your car purchase, you can start to prioritize what your dream car looks like (and by dream, we mean one that’s actually in your price range). Some initial questions to get you started include:

  • Are you looking to buy a new or used car?
  • Do you plan to buy or lease?
  • Does weather play a factor? Do you need 4-wheel drive or any other features for weather, terrain, etc?
  • What size car do you need? (sedan, minivan, truck)
  • How are you going to use the car this year? Next year? In 5 years?
  • How long do you intend to keep this car?
  • What are your top priorities in a car? (safety, reliability, luxury, power, etc.)
  • What accessories are mandatory? What features would be nice to have?    

Although it’s great to have an idea of what you’re looking to buy before you go to a dealer, don’t feel like you need to have all the answers. Since buying a car is a major purchase, you have the ability to go test drive the car and figure out what you like. Oftentimes you’ll show up thinking you know exactly what you want, only to learn new features you haven’t previously considered are actually more aligned with the priorities you laid out.

TIP: write down the answers to the above questions or other important criteria for your car purchase. In addition to writing it down, share what you’re looking for with a spouse, parent or friend (and even better if that person can go car shopping with you to serve as a sounding board). Although your top criteria can change as you get further down in your car-purchasing journey, the important part is that you don’t make an impulse decision or jump into something you don’t really need.  

What next?
Now that you’ve laid the thinking groundwork for yourself, then you can get out there and start researching, test driving, talking to people, anything to help make the most informed and best decision for your next car purchase. Click here for a list of ISU Credit Union branches.

Keep in mind that you don’t need to rush into anything – whether you’re feeling the pressure from a car salesperson, you think you just hit the jackpot on a used car deal, or you’re completely in love with that new car model – you can always sleep on it and cross-reference your priority list. And at the end of the day, when you do land that perfect car, you’ll know that you made the right decision.