By Suzanne Kane

What vehicle makes the most sense for you? What is the one vehicle that’s really just right, given your particular circumstances? Here’s how you can wade through the variety of choices out there.

1. Figure out what you need – If you already have a vehicle and are happy with it, maybe you want to replace it with one exactly like it – just newer. Your particular circumstance may influence the type of vehicle you’re now going for. This includes family size (and increase due to children, in-laws, etc., or decrease due to marriage, divorce, kids off at college, etc.), what you’ll use the vehicle for (hauling people and groceries, doubling as a work vehicle, hauling or towing boats, trailers, etc.), whether you need off-road capability, and other considerations.

2. Figure out what you want – Maybe you’re looking to move up to a luxury vehicle. Perhaps you need to economize with one that costs less to own and operate, or you just want to be more environmentally conscious. Whatever your motivation, pay close attention to what type of vehicle it is you really want. If you don’t wind up with a close approximation, you probably won’t be very happy with it – no matter what it costs.

3. Know your spending limit – Everyone has a budget, and a car payment is usually the second largest monthly hit behind a mortgage loan. Know exactly how much you have to spend in total on your new vehicle, and break it down into monthly payments that you can easily afford. This may dictate the type of vehicle that’s right for you – or you may have to make modifications based on the amount of the car.

4. Factor in the cost of insurance – In your calculations, make sure you factor in the cost to insure that new vehicle (or used, if that’s what you’re going for). Type of vehicle — car, truck, SUV; brand, fuel economy, vehicle size, engine size, luxury, economy, hybrid, alternate fuel, etc., are some of the considerations. New cars, luxury makes, cars loaded with high-priced options – all are more expensive to insure.  See the top 10 most and least expensive cars to insure.

5. Check your credit report – You can’t buy anything on credit without a good credit record. Know what your score is and clean up any negatives on your report before you begin shopping for your new vehicle. This step can really improve both the rate you’ll pay in interest as well as the willingness of a bank, credit union or finance company to take you on as a client.  See how you can get a free credit report courtesy of the U.S. government.

6. Check with your friends – Maybe you have your eye on the snappy coupe or all-purpose midsize SUV one of your friends owns. See how happy they are with their brand and make of vehicle. The recommendation (or lack of) that you get can go a long way in helping you determine if this is the right type of vehicle for you. If they love the brand, get great customer service, have no vehicle complaints, it’s even more ammunition for you to check out this brand among your other considerations.
7. Research – Cut photos of ads from magazines or write down brands and makes that really catch your eye from TV. This gives you a starting point, along with recommendations from friends, from which to perform your nest step: research. Go to independent websites like Edmunds (www.edmunds.com) and Kelley Blue Book (www.kbb.com) for independent reviews of every type of vehicle available. These sites also offer great tips on how to buy cars as well as other informative articles. Also check out the websites for the various manufacturers of the brands/makes you like.

8. Compare vehicle features – In this step, you’ll compare what each vehicle on your list has in terms of features. Things to consider are standard and optional equipment, safety equipment, technology, legroom, interior room, luggage capacity, towing capability, horsepower and torque, etc. Make a spreadsheet and check off items pertaining to each category. Make bold the ones that are critical to you. This may be high miles per gallon, low carbon footprint, low operating costs, included scheduled maintenance, etc.

9. Narrow down your list – At this stage, you should have one or two vehicles on your short list. Concentrate on them and really do your homework. Learn everything you can about the vehicles, checking their reliability, customer satisfaction (go to www.jdpa.com to check customer satisfaction with various brands and makes, along with reviews of vehicles). Have all this information in front of you so you’re well educated – before you go to a dealer.

10. Take a test drive – Whether you’ve finalized your list to one or two vehicles, it’s important to make sure you get a thorough walk-around and complete list of the vehicle’s selling points from the dealership salesperson. Most important, before you sign the dotted line is to insist on a test drive. This is especially important if you’ve never been in the vehicle before, but it’s equally important if it’s a newer model of one you’re already familiar with. The selling features of this new vehicle most likely mean there’s lots of new standard equipment, new gadgets that work differently, or new technology you need familiarization with.

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