How to Find Your First Car

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Finding the perfect first car is important for a new driver. You want one that fits your personality but also falls within a budget you can afford. Read on for some crucial steps in your search for your first car, including creating a budget, choosing from vehicle types and features, and visiting local dealerships.

Part 1 of 3: Make a budget and get pre-approved for financing

Your first step before purchasing a vehicle is to make a budget. Most often, when you are purchasing your first car, you don't have a lot of money. So, make sure that you develop a budget and get pre-approved for financing before even heading out to the dealership.

Step 1: Develop a budget. The first step toward successfully buying and owning a car is to determine what you can afford it.

When coming up with a budget, keep in mind additional fees, such as taxes and financing charges, that you have to pay when buying a vehicle.

person about to sign a document

Step 2: Get pre-approved for financing. Approach financial institutions to get pre-approved for financing before you start looking for a vehicle.

This allows you to car shop only for the vehicles you can afford.

The available financing options include a bank or credit union, online lenders, or the dealership. Make sure to shop around for the best financing, including looking for lower interest rates.

If your credit is not good enough, you may have to find a co-signer. Remember, a co-signer is responsible for the loan amount if you fail to pay. They also usually need a credit score of 700 or higher to qualify.

  • Tip: Know your credit score when going to get financing. This should let you know what kind of Annual Percentage Rate (APR) that you can expect. A credit score of 700 is a good credit score, though you can still get financing with a lower score, but at a higher interest rate.

Part 2 of 3: Decide which type of vehicle you want

Deciding on a budget is only part of the process of buying a car. Once you know how much you can afford, you need to decide on the type of vehicle that you want and then seek out models within your price range. This process includes looking up the fair market value of the vehicle you are interested in, taking it for a test drive, and having it checked by an expert mechanic.

Step 1: Research the vehicle you want. First, you need to research the vehicle you want and decide which vehicle make and model are right for you.

When searching, keep in mind how many passengers you expect to transport, if any, on a regular basis.

Cargo space is also important, especially if you plan on hauling anything.

Other considerations include vehicle quality, gas mileage, and typical maintenance costs.

  • Tip: When researching vehicles, pay attention to reviews online. Vehicle reviews can alert you to any potential problems that a vehicle might have, including poor safety ratings, gas mileage, and reliability.
honda civic kbb value
Image: Kelley Blue Book

Step 2: Find the fair market value. Next, after deciding on the vehicle make and model that you want, look up the fair market value.

Some sites where you can find the fair market value of a vehicle include Kelley Blue Book, Edmunds.com, and AuroTrader.com.

If the car you are interested in is outside your price range, search for another make and model of vehicle. Another option is to look for an older model-year version of the vehicle you want, if one is available.

Step 3: Search for cars. After you find out how much a car is worth and if you can afford it, start searching dealerships in your area for the vehicle.

You can do this online through the dealer site or in your local paper among the used car want ads.

  • Tip: In addition, you need to write down what other dealerships are asking for the car you are interested in. This can be used as a bargaining chip when negotiating a lower price for the car you want to buy if other dealers are selling it for less.
carfax for 2005 honda civic
Image: Carfax

Step 4: Run a vehicle history. The next step involves performing a vehicle history search on the cars you have an interest in.

Luckily, many car dealerships offer a free car history report online for all of their vehicles.

If for some reason you have to perform the car history search yourself, visit sites such as Carfax or AutoCheck. While there is a fee, you are better off making sure that you know everything about a vehicle before buying it.

Part 3 of 3: Visit the dealerships

Once you have found a few vehicles that you have an interest in buying, it's time to visit the dealerships to take a look at the vehicles, take them for a test drive, and have them checked out by a mechanic. Just be prepared for the usual sales tactics that dealership salespeople use, and keep in mind you do not have to buy and can always look elsewhere.

Step 1: Inspect the vehicle. Take a long look at the vehicle, inspecting it for any damage or obvious issues that you need to deal with if you buy it, such as putting on new tires.

Check the exterior looking for dents or other signs of damage from an accident. Make sure all of the windows are in good shape. Also, look for any rust spots.

Check out the interior of the vehicle. Look at the condition of the carpeting and seats, making sure there is no signs of water damage.

Turn on the engine and listen to how it sounds. You are trying to see if the engine starts and runs smoothly.

Pop the hood and take a look at the engine. Note its condition, seeking any signs of leaks.

Step 2: Take it for a test drive. While the car is running, take it for a test drive.

Observe how it handles turns and hills, as well as stop and go traffic.

Make sure that all of the signals work properly, as well as the headlights and taillights.

  • Tip: While out on your test drive, contact an expert mechanic to come and take a look at the vehicle to make sure everything is in proper working order.

person filling out their bill of sale

Step 3: Finalize the paperwork. Now that you have test driven the vehicle and are satisfied with it, it's time to agree on a price, get the financing set up, and sign the necessary paperwork.

You should also ask about any extended warranties to protect your investment.

If you got pre-approved for financing, you still need the lender's approval before you can purchase the vehicle. Some lenders have restrictions on the mileage or age of any vehicle they finance.

If you are buying the vehicle outright, make sure the dealer has your home address to have the title mailed to you. Otherwise, the title goes to the lender until the vehicle is paid off.

Last, but not least, you need to read through and sign the bill of sale. Then, once the dealer has made you some temporary tags and given you the keys, the vehicle is all yours.

Buying that first car is a special occasion. That's why it is important to get the right car for your needs, whether you plan on hauling a car full of people or drive mainly by yourself. You can find the right car for the right price if you know what to look for. Before buying any vehicle, though, ask one of our expert mechanics to perform a pre-purchase car inspection.


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Chris

21 years of experience
1719 reviews
Chris
21 years of experience
Lexus ES300 - Pre-purchase Car Inspection - Garden Grove, California
Very professional, but although cool in a sense. On time actually arrived at site earlier than expected that was a plus. Also very thorough, and gave recommendations. Thanks alot Chriss.
Jaguar F-Type - Pre-purchase Car Inspection - Mission Viejo, California
If I could give Chris 100 stars I would. Above and beyond in every way. He's super knowledgeable, informative, responsive and above all patient. He doesn't hesitate to make sure all your questions are answered and that you feel comfortable taking the plunge buying a car sight unseen. He was our eyes when we couldn't be there to inspect the car, and informed us of any red flags regarding how the car operates now and what to look for in the future. Ask for Chris, he's fantastic, an expert in automotive knowledge, and a first class professional.

Willie

23 years of experience
28 reviews
Willie
23 years of experience
Hyundai Elantra - Pre-purchase Car Inspection - Stanton, California
Had Will inspected two Hyundai Elantra SE at different dealers. He was prompt and provided great feedback on the cars. Really value his experience and recommendation. We're highly satisfy with Will and his service.
Dodge Avenger - Pre-purchase Car Inspection - Long Beach, California
Willie is a hard and reliable worker. Fixed the problem. 3rd experience with him I think. Very satisfied

Raymond

36 years of experience
155 reviews
Raymond
36 years of experience
Ford Explorer - Pre-purchase Car Inspection - Las Vegas, Nevada
Very happy with the pre-inspection service. He was in contact from when he left to when he arrived at dealership to a FULL Sheet of info right after the inspection. Raymond helped make me feel at ease buying the car after having his professional opinion that everything was good. The one thing he did recommend I mentioned to the dealership and they took care of it before I even bought the car. :) Thanks so much for your expertise. I would definitely use this website again for any future services I may need.
Subaru Baja - Pre-purchase Car Inspection - Las Vegas, Nevada
Raymond was early, Very Professional, & very thorough. Answered all my questions and was very informative. Did an Excellent job !

David

12 years of experience
287 reviews
David
12 years of experience
Honda CR-V - Pre-purchase Car Inspection - Marietta, Georgia
Prompt and knowledgeable. David arrived early to do our pre-purchase car inspection and completed it in a timely fashion. He communicated his findings, recommendations by phone and text message, which was nice. I appreciated the information and details he provided.
Mercedes-Benz E400 - Pre-purchase Car Inspection - Kennesaw, Georgia
David called when he arrived and called shortly after he finished inspecting the vehicle. Unfortunately, due to the inefficiency of the sales representative at the dealership, David was not able to drive the vehicle as the final phase of the inspection.

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