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MCU’s Seven-Step Auto-Buying Checklist

Whether you’re ready to upgrade to a new set of wheels or are shopping for your very first car, navigating the process of purchasing a new vehicle can be a confusing one. For many potential buyers, choosing the right car, financing options and even shopping method can leave them feeling overwhelmed.

Not sure where to start? Check out our MCU Auto-Buying Checklist below!

1. Determine your budget and get preapproved.

There’s no point in getting attached to a car that you can’t afford. Before you begin your search, start by reviewing your income, expenses and how a car may fit into your financial circumstances. As you begin to do your research, remember a car isn’t just an initial price tag or even a monthly payment – be sure to consider fees, taxes, the cost of fuel, insurance and repairs down the line.

If you’re planning to finance your car, getting preapproved has its advantages, including reinforcing your budget. While you may have already had an idea of how much you afford, getting preapproved for an auto loan will keep your budget in the black. It will also give you the best idea about what your financing options will be in the near future.

To get preapproved, you’ll likely need to provide employment and salary information as well as any other debts you may have.

2. Research, research, research!

Your car isn’t just a large financial purchase, it’s an investment in your lifestyle.

Extra storage or fuel efficiency? Four-wheel drive or city-friendly features? Taking time to do your homework to figure out which vehicle will meet your needs and compliment your budget will not save you time at the dealer but will also help to avoid disappointment down the road.

Auto buying apps and online resources such as TrueCar, Enterprise and Kelly Blue Book can help you to narrow your search, stay focused and feel confident about pricing when you visit dealerships.

3. Go for a test drive.

You’ve done your homework to narrow down your options and understand your financing options. Now, you’re ready to visit local dealerships and car-buying events to evaluate your top picks in person, make note of their details and take them for a spin.

Test driving vehicles may sound like a lot of fun (it can be!), but shopping in person can be an emotional experience too. As you test drive vehicles, it’s important to keep your excitement from taking over and to avoid distractions – i.e. cars that won’t work for your lifestyle or budget.

Remember, a car may look nice online but you won’t know if there’s a troublesome blind or uncomfortably low headroom until you’ve actually taken it for a test drive. Take careful inventory of the car’s features and how it handles. If something bothers you even slightly early on, it’ll certainly become an annoyance (or even a safety hazard) in the future.

4. Compare pricing and warranties to get the best deal.

Buyers may be surprised to learn that different dealerships will offer varied prices, complimentary service packages and warranties for the make and model you’re interested in purchasing. And while you may be tempted to jump at the opportunity to drive a car off the lot as soon as possible, you could be making an expensive (but common) mistake in your haste.

Before you even start shopping in person, digital car-buying tools like TrueCar can help you to easily compare prices that other customers paid for the same or similar vehicles in your area. You can use this information to get an idea of which dealerships you should work with, and also negotiate the best deal with confidence.

You can also get these details by working directly with dealerships in your area. Be sure to ask about the total sale price, including any additional accessories that may have already been installed on the car; maintenance plans; warranties and any upcoming dealership sales.

5. Decide how you’ll finance your vehicle

Now is the time to compare the financing and loan options offered by the dealership, compared to the auto loan preapproval you received from your credit union or other lender.

To do this, you’ll likely have to let the dealership run a credit report and assess your credit. And while a dealership can sometimes work with you to offer a competitive interest rate, it’s important consider the other aspects of your loan. These include the terms of the agreement, length of the loan and down payment.

This may sound like a lot of back-and-forth between yourself, the dealership and your lender. The good news is that many dealerships have relationships with credit unions, banks and private lenders, which means if you want to go the route of financing through one of these options, the dealership can work with you to secure the financing right onsite.

6. Close the deal.

Most buyers will finalize their purchases at a dealership. Once you've agreed on a deal, the salesperson will take you to the finance and insurance office. This is where you’ll sign the contract and make decisions to add any of the additional products discussed earlier, such as an extended warranty.

Be sure to review the agreement carefully and make sure the pricing matches the itemized expenses. There can be a lot of paperwork so it’s important to be assertive and to ask questions about any discrepancies.

Once you sign on the dotted line, the car is legally yours!

7. Receive your vehicle!

Whether your car is ready and waiting for you on the lot or is delivered from the manufacturer within a few days, receiving your vehicle isn’t just an exciting moment, it’s also an important step.

Be sure the gas tank is full and carefully look for any damage to the interior or exterior of the car. This is includes scratches, dings and scuffmarks. If everything looks to be in order, let the salesperson give you a tour of your new car and walk you through important features and safety devices.

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