Whether you’re a recent graduate or a seasoned adult, buying your first car seems like a nerve-wracking process. If you’ve been putting money aside towards your first car, you want to know that you’re spending your savings wisely. While buying a new car can seem intimidating, doing your research before visiting the lot is the best way to save time and money. Keep reading to learn everything you need to know before buying your first car.

How to Decide on a Car-Buying Budget

Budgeting for a car can be confusing for first-time buyers, as there are multiple different expenses to consider. If you can afford to purchase a car upfront, you’ll save on a significant amount of interest and might secure an additional discount. However, most customers require some level of financing to make the purchase more affordable. To set a car budget, evaluate how much you spend on other necessities, such as rent, groceries, and insurance, and see what remains. The remainder of your budget could be put towards car-related expenses, including costs like car insurance and fuel.

Before financing your vehicle, determine how much you can afford to spend on the down-payment and monthly payments. If you opt for a larger down payment, then your monthly payments will be smaller, and vice versa. Setting a realistic budget is key; purchasing a car that’s outside your means could lengthen your loan and accrue more interest over time. Try using an online tool to help you determine a realistic budget.

Leasing vs. Buying a Car

If setting aside money for a down payment isn’t in your budget, you might want to consider a leased vehicle. Leasing includes renting/borrowing a car for a designated period. You pay a set amount every month to use the car, and then return the car to the dealership at the end of your lease. Drivers can typically afford to lease a more expensive vehicle than they could purchase with an equivalent budget. However, leased cars still belong to the dealer and can’t be sold or traded at the end of your agreement. Also, some dealerships require additional insurance for leased vehicles or limit the number of miles you can drive.

How to buy your first car - young woman with cars

What to Research Before Visiting the Dealership

Once you’ve created your budget, it’s time to start thinking about what you want in a vehicle. Consider the following when identifying which car make, model, and trim options fit your needs.

Daily Transportation Needs

While trendy vehicles might catch your eye, practical models are typically more suitable for everyday transportation needs. Consider the amount of traveling you do on average and what makes the most sense for your daily commute.

Safety Features

The number of safety features available to car buyers is always growing, so it’s important to learn about the different technologies available. There are two different types of safety features—passive and active safety features. Passive safety features protect drivers in the event of an accident and include features like airbags, energy-absorbing crumple zones, seat-belt locks, head protection, and more. Active safety features help the driver stay alert and prevent an accident in the first place. These can include antilock brakes, traction and stability control, lane-keeping assist, lane-departure warnings, and the like.

Expert and Owner Opinions

Reading expert opinions is a great way to perform preliminary research on a car’s performance before taking a test drive. We also recommend visiting the consumer-reviewed section of the manufacturer’s website to see feedback from prior owners.

What to Do at the Dealership

Once you arrive on the lot, don’t forget to take a test drive to see how you feel on the road. Don’t rush the process and make sure you have time to consider important variables, such as how the car rides, comfort, and accessibility, fuel economy, technology, etc. Take at least 30 minutes to parcel out the feel of the car, including driving on the highway and bumpy roads if possible. Many experts recommend setting aside a day for test driving and another day for making the purchase. Fair price tools, credit unions, setting a budget, and sharpening your negotiation skills can help the process go smoothly.

If you’re in the market for your first vehicle, you’re also going to need quality insurance at an affordable price. The General specializes in high-risk insurance, which means we offer policies to drivers with less-than-perfect credit scores and driving records. You can get a quote in under two minutes or read more car-buying tips on our blog.