How to Shop for a Car


The What, When, and How of Car-Buying

Vertical car lot
7 min read

The search for a new car can feel overwhelming in the beginning—where to start, which services to use and trust, how much research to do… yikes. You’ve probably heard about the big names in car comparison shopping–for example Edmunds and Kelley Blue Book. Although both offer comprehensive, trusted comparison of features and prices of new and used vehicles, using more than one resource is the best way to ensure you’re getting the vehicle you want (and need) for the best price. We’ve explored the best resources for those wondering how to shop for a car in this day and age. Our findings below:

What Car Is Right for You?

Maybe you have an idea in your head—or even a make and model—before you begin your search, which is great. But if you need help narrowing your options, publications like Car and Driver can be a good place to start, as can auto manufacturers’ sites.

It’s critical to ask yourself what’s most important to you in a vehicle. Maybe your primary concern is safety, or perhaps you want to reduce your environmental impact. Or maybe you just need something to get you from A to B and want to spend as little cash as possible. There is a vehicle for every driver, and considering some of the following might aid your decision:

  • Think about what you’ll use the car for, and how much wear and tear you will put it through. For example: will you be just commuting to and from work, picking up a few shifts as a rideshare driver, or taking the occasional cross-country road trip?
  • Where will you drive most? Crowded city streets, rocky backcountry roads, and snowy, sandy or flood-prone climates each have different vehicle needs.
  • How much will you drive? Driving well over (or under) the average of 12,000 miles per year could have a big impact on what vehicle is right for you.
  • Who will ride in the car? If it’s just you and the occasional passenger or two you won’t need the same type of vehicle as someone who regularly transports half a soccer team plus the family mutt.
  • How important is safety? You should scope out the safety of a particular car and read up on the latest in new car safety technology.
  • How much can you afford to pay? Remember to factor in the down payment, financing, gas, and insurance.

Vehicle awards, rankings, and other types of recognition always sound impressive—and they can be—just make sure you understand exactly what’s being praised, and don’t base your decision only on what awards a particular vehicle did (or didn’t) receive.

For more help narrowing your options, check out more of our Quoted resources:

Man driving Mercedes

When Should You Shop for a Car?

Every national holiday ushers in a new round of car ads which all promise the best deals of the year–and sometimes they sound too good to be true. While some might ask how you can have a sale on a negotiable price, special-event deals do exist — you just have to shop smart. As we’ve previously reported, Matt DeLorenzo, managing editor for Kelley Blue Book’s KBB.com, notes that holiday sales can be a good time to capitalize on dealers’ incentives from manufacturers. Often, dealers are offered bonuses for selling on-sale vehicles, so you might be able to negotiate a lower price than at other times of the year. Visiting a few dealerships (and sharing other dealerships’ prices) can yield even bigger discounts.

Shoppers can often get better deals at the end of the month because salespeople are looking to fill quotas. And former salesman Sam Carter told us that the best times of year to shop are in December, and from July through October, because the previous year’s models will be discounted.

When shopping, always visit (or call) at least three or four different dealerships and have the salesperson write down his or her best price for the car you’re considering. You can show the next dealership the price and see if they can beat it. Arriving at the dealership armed with fair price values (from places like TrueCar, or with calculators like those found at Kelley Blue Book) will also help you get the best price.

How Do You Negotiate a Car Sale?

If you’ve got all the money in the world and don’t mind spending it, deciding how to purchase your new vehicle probably isn’t an issue. But for most of us, the differences between financing options, buying outright, and leasing are important. Know what you can afford to spend now, and at regular intervals, and consider other determining factors.

Negotiating is always part of the transaction–you never want to walk onto a lot and pay the full MSRP–and that can make some people uncomfortable. Most experts recommend figuring out a fair price for both new and used vehicles before even setting foot on a showroom floor. But no matter how much research you do, it can be difficult not to feel like you overpaid, even if you worked hard to negotiate a good deal. So research smart. TrueCar compiles information from millions of transactions and offers the range of what customers paid for a particular vehicle, then connects you with certified local dealers, so you can ensure you’re getting a good price. And some companies, like From Car to Finish, will actually do the negotiating for you.

Black sedan driving in blurred country

More Helpful and High-Tech Car-Buying Resources:

  • Have the paperwork and tips for buying a car privately.
  • Buy a car from your phone with Beepi, which handles the paperwork and inspections on used cars for you, or Shift, which helps sellers and shoppers connect, and brings cars to you for test drives.
  • Instamotor helps shoppers buy used cars directly from sellers in their area, complete with inspection certifications and loan application help.

And the resources you know – gone mobile:

Buying a new vehicle is a great time to assess your auto insurance needs–you may find you can get a better rate, or better coverage, with a different carrier. For easy searching, check out The Zebra.