Buying a Car in 21 Steps: Your Detailed Checklist & Timeline


From research to test drives to financing to insurance and beyond – how long does it really take to buy a car?

woman buying a car

Buying a car can be daunting, especially if you’ve never done it before. It’s also a highly personal experience. Car lovers might spend several years admiring a certain model, then spend months or more shopping before taking the plunge. Then again, other folks might stroll into a dealership on a Saturday morning and roll out in the afternoon, their wallets a little lighter and smelling that new car smell. And with the power of the Internet, folks can now buy cars online and skip the in-person experience altogether.

So what is the optimal time frame for researching and buying a car if you want to do your due diligence as a consumer and factor in all the necessary steps? One recent study found that it takes about 14 hours for the average person to buy a car, but average isn’t necessarily ideal, and the number of days can vary considerably based on each buyer’s needs. We decided to tease out the process step by step and compile a straightforward checklist and timeline based on best practices for the average shopper.

driving a new car

Here’s The Zebra’s timeline for how to buy a car in 21 steps:

RESEARCH

Average time: 11 hours for steps 1–10. Spread out your research so you can think about your options as you go. Consider spending 2 hours 3 nights a week for 2 weeks and you’ll easily put in enough time to ensure you’re aware of all your options.

1. Consider your options

Begin by seeing what’s out there: compare car makes and models, prices, trims and color, safety features, reviews, cupholder size – you get the idea. See our shopping guide for more details.

2. Make a list of what features matter to you

  • Determine what’s non-negotiable (safety), what would be a nice-to-have (good gas mileage), and what’s less important (sunroof, moonroof, swivel seats).
  • Consider where and when you’ll use the vehicle and choose features accordingly. Commuting to work is different than using a car for business (like a realtor), and city streets are different than rural country roads.
  • If you want the best of the best, vehicle awards and rankings can help, but be sure you understand exactly what’s being evaluated, and use accolades and rankings as part of the picture, not the whole thing.

3. Determine your total vehicle budget

Before you even scope out different models, you need to have an idea of what you plan to spend – no more than 20 percent of your net monthly income is a good limit, says Kelley Blue Book. U.S. News has a helpful vehicle cost calculator that factors in taxes and loans, too.

Remember to factor in vehicle maintenance, repair costs, gas, and insurance (more on that below). If you’re on a very limited budget, we can help.

4. Determine whether you’ll shop for a new or used car

Once you know your budget and how you plan to pay, you can decide whether new or used is right for you. To help narrow down your options:

5. Decide whether you’ll buy, lease, or finance

  • Buy if you have the cash on hand and want to buy the vehicle outright
  • Lease if you plan to only keep the car for three to four years, travel fewer than 12,000 miles per year, and prefer to be under a manufacturer’s warranty
  • Finance if you want to make a low down payment (usually about 20%) and have affordable monthly costs and if you plan to drive a lot or put a lot of wear and tear on the car

And if you’re not sure, we can help.

6. Decide whether you want to buy privately or from a dealership

Buying a car privately: a how-to, and paperwork you’ll need.

7. Consider your values before buying a car

8. Explore new technology

If you haven’t purchased a new vehicle in a few years, you might be surprised by how far in-vehicle technology and active and passive safety features have become:

  • Find out about new safety tech like lane departure warning, bicycle detection, and hill descent assist.
  • See if any of the latest gadgets and luxuries are for you, like steering wheel tablets and automatic massages.

9. Begin to “window shop” and make a list of your top picks

Look online, visit dealerships, and talk to friends and family. The sooner you see and get real experiences or reviews of cars you’re considering, the better.

Call around to dealerships to see if they’ll start bargaining with you before you visit in person. You might find much more flexibility in price with some dealers than others (particularly if you expand your shopping range geographically).

Once you’ve narrowed your options down, make a final list and begin to look at the details, which follow.

10. Figure out the fair market price for each car on your list

Whether you’re shopping used or new, from a dealership or privately, an appraisal tool will help. Try Kelley Blue Book, Edmunds.com, or NADA.

Most people know they shouldn’t pay a dealer’s sticker price, but say one dealership marks up a certain vehicle by $5,000 and the next dealership marks up the same vehicle by just $2,000. They might each negotiate down to $500 off, but you’d be paying substantially more to the first dealer. Instead, arrive at the lot armed with the fair market price and negotiate from that number instead.

car dealership

INSURANCE Part I: Yes, you have to consider this before buying a car!

Average time: 15-30 minutes total.

11. Price and compare auto insurance rates for your top picks

Insurance is the second biggest vehicle expense (after purchasing or financing the car itself), and prices can vary a lot based on which type of car you choose, so make sure you price out your options before making a purchase–you can’t drive your new car away without insurance coverage!

Using The Zebra, you can get quotes in just minutes and compare. Make sure you know important rating information such as your driving history, general credit score range, and preferred coverage levels so you can ensure your quote is as accurate as possible.

Because auto insurance is our expertise, we created a car insurance buying guide to help you understand what you need and what you can afford. The steps, in a nutshell:

Other helpful insurance-buying guides:

If you’re stuck, you can ask The Zebra’s licensed insurance agent (and resident insurance advisor) Neil Richardson: he offers auto insurance advice on demand.

 

FINANCING

Average time: At least 30 minutes per appointment (if you’ve made an appointment ahead of time)

12. Get your ducks in a row if you plan to finance

When you know what car you want to purchase, look into private financing. Before visiting any dealerships, which usually offer financing, consider seeing what rates your personal bank or a credit union can offer you. Get an offer in writing, and then when you’re at the dealership, see if they can beat your private financing offer.

Even if you go with the dealer for financing, you can use your quote to ensure you get the best price.

 

SHOPPING

Average time: 2 hours per dealership for steps 13–17, for a total of about 6 hours. If you can visit during the week – say, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday – you might have better luck with smaller crowds. Or, spend a weekend making your visits. Either way, you might not want to spread your visits out too much because many offers are time-sensitive.

13. Choose a good date to make your purchase

If you have the luxury of time, both the day of the week and the date on the calendar can have a lot to do with what price you’ll get–for both new and used vehicles.

  • The best shopping months are December and July through October.
  • The end of the month tends to yield more sales.
  • Holiday sales can be a good way to save, too. Think President’s Day, Memorial Day, Thanksgiving, and more.

More about when to shop here.

14. Consider potential shopping complications

Buying an electric car at a dealership can be somewhat challenging because dealers are sometimes not as knowledgable about them as they are more traditional vehicles.

If you’re buying used, make sure you verify reports from independent sources about the vehicle’s history (from places like Carfax) and don’t buy a car you can’t test drive. (Even if you’re buying online–more on that below–there should be a risk-free period of driving).

15. Make dealership visits and ask for price quotes

If you’re planning to buy from a dealership, visit at least three (more if you’re able). Even if you’re pretty sure you’re going to choose private financing, getting a quote from the dealership isn’t a bad idea. Likewise with trade-in price: even if you think you might sell privately, having each dealership quote you a trade-in price will ensure you’re making the best choice.

Check out make and model varieties, inquire about any and all features, and take a few rides for a test drive. Make sure to bring up any questions or potential concerns with dealers. If they can’t give you answers or address issues that give you pause, move on. There are plenty of other options.

16. Find your fit? It’s time to negotiate.

Some of us love the thrill, while others of us simply wilt. But if you’re buying from a dealer, you must engage in negotiations to save big bucks.

Have each dealership write down the price you settle on, and show other dealers to see if they can beat the price. Sometimes dealers will only guarantee a price for a short time, so you may need to move quickly.

If you need help negotiating, we have some tips (and companies that’ll actually negotiate for you – a relief to those among us who hate to haggle).

17. If you have a trade-in, ask the dealership to make you an offer.

Get the most for your ride with these tips. You can also sell your car privately and almost always ask for more money this way, but the process is more personal and labor-intensive. And depending on where you live, tax advantages might actually make a lower dealership price a better deal, so consider all your options.

woman researching buying a car

18. OR…skip all that ^ and shop online instead

Average time: Many sites say you can complete the process in under 30 minutes. Be sure to check business hours because you may not be able to call at night or on the weekend.

For a haggle-free, streamlined experience, check out these companies selling used cars completely online. Most even handle trade-ins, too.

As of now, you can only purchase a used car completely online (as in, shopping, financing, paying, and receiving) because, essentially, dealerships have exclusive rights to new cars in the U.S. If you know you want to go used, and you’re comfortable trying something new, many of the companies in the link above offer excellent prices and good no-questions-asked return policies.

 

INSURANCE Part II: Lock it down before you drive off the lot

Average time: 10-15 minutes, if you’ve gotten your quote and selected the right insurer for you (from step 11)

19. Once you know what vehicle you plan to purchase*, finalize your auto insurance policy

Don’t drive off the lot without coverage, and don’t be afraid to plan ahead – in fact, the earlier you buy your policy, the more you’ll save.

*This step assumes you have quoted insurance rates for the car you plan to buy.

If you haven’t already provided the insurer with your VIN, driver’s license information, and social security number, do so now. Your insurance company will have to verify your information and run reports on your driving history and credit, so this may take some time.

If you’re planning to finance your vehicle, it’s important to include your lien holder (the bank issuing your loan) on all insurance paperwork. You can’t take your car home without complete insurance paperwork (which can often take days) so plan ahead!

If you have provided all this information already, it should take fewer than 15 minutes to finalize and activate your policy.

 

GO TIME

Average time: 1-2 hours if you already have your financing, insurance, trade-in deal, and vehicle specs picked out. We’re assuming you’re purchasing at the dealership here (buying from a private party or online will take varying amounts of time). Visit the dealer on a weekday if you can – weekends are mobbed.

20. Avoid last-minute “impulse buys”

You just want to zoom off in your sweet new ride, but don’t let last-minute questions disrupt the well-researched and thoughtful process you’ve completed thus far. The clearer you are about what you want, the faster you’ll get through the process. Beware last minute add-ons that can negate your careful negotiating. Rustproofing? Paint sealant? Fabric protection? VIN etching? Extended warranties? These can quickly add up or undo any savings you’ve negotiated, and many are unnecessary. You’ve done the research. Stick to your guns.

21. Make your purchase!

When you’re ready, g’head and sign. Enjoy your hard-earned new car!

handing over car keys after buying a car

 

The Final Tally: How Long Does It Take to Buy a Car?

  • 11 hours of research: 2 hours 3 nights a week for 2 weeks
  • 15-30 minutes of initial insurance shopping (Tip: Gather initial quotes Sunday evening and make phone calls Monday during lunch.)
  • 30 minutes visiting at least one private financing option (Tip: Set up an appointment for Tuesday during lunch, or after work.)
  • 6 hours visiting at least 3 dealerships (Tip: Set aside 3 evenings during the week after work or the following weekend for your visits. Many offers are time-sensitive so it’s important to get them all in a short window.)
  • 15 minutes finalizing insurance on the phone (Tip: Check your insurer’s business hours–you may not be able to accomplish this in the evening or on a weekend.)
  • 2 hours making your actual purchase (Tip: You may need less time, you may need more, but you aren’t likely to finish the car-buying process over lunch during a workweek. If you can carve out a couple of hours during the week – an evening after work or during the day if your schedule is flexible – it’s better. Dealerships are mobbed on weekends.)

= It takes 20 hours across 3 weeks (2 weeks of prep + 1 week to purchase) for the average person to buy a car.

 

PLUS: A Post-Purchase Timeline

What you do after you buy can go a long way toward protecting your investment and ensuring you don’t find yourself in the breakdown lane. How often you need to do the following varies, so check your owner’s manual.

1. Perform regular maintenance:

  • Oil changed based on manufacturer’s specifications:
    • Engines using synthetic oil: up to 10,000 miles
    • Engines using traditional oil: every 3,000 miles
  • Tire rotation and alignment checks: every 6 months or 6,000 to 8,000 miles
  • Cabin air filter changed: every 2 years

2. Compare insurance rates on a regular basis

Compare auto insurance rates from all applicable companies every six months to a year, or whenever you have a major life change like graduation, marriage, or buying a home.

3. Stay on top of your finances

If you’ve financed your car, you need to make every monthly payment or risk losing your car and ruining your credit. If you find you can’t make your payments, refinance or sell as soon as you can to avoid getting even deeper in debt.

And look for help if you get into trouble with your payments: we have lots of advice for people who are underwater on their car loans.

 

#BOOKMARK THIS! And share your car buying tips in the comments.

  • Julie you are SOOO good. I’m so professionally crushing on you!! Thank you, once again!!!