10 Questions to Ask When Buying a Car

Track down the answers to these questions before buying your next car.

By Navy Federal March 31, 2020
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Buying a car is exciting! It’s a big decision, though, so you’ll want to be prepared with all the knowledge up-front to get the right vehicle without making any wrong turns. Get started by finding answers to these 10 questions before buying a car:

  1. What’s my budget?

    Your first step should be to identify your budget based on how much you can comfortably afford to pay for car expenses each month. Check out our car affordability calculator to see how your down payment, trade-in value and loan term can affect your monthly payments. Look at the big picture beyond the purchase price of the vehicle—the total costs of buying a car also include dealer fees, sales tax and auto registration and title fees. Plus, you’ll need to pay for ongoing expenses such as insurance, maintenance and fuel, which can vary widely based on the age and type of vehicle you choose.

  2. Should I buy new or used?

    If you’re on the fence about buying new or used, do some research to compare the benefits and risks of each. One of the perks of buying new is having peace of mind knowing the vehicle history starts fresh with you. Most new vehicles come with warranties, which means you probably won’t have to worry about the cost of repairs—at least, not right away. Plus, if you’re financing the vehicle, you may be able to get a lower rate on a new vehicle loan. However, new cars are more expensive, and their value decreases significantly in the first year of ownership. Buying used tends to be more cost effective, but there’s a greater chance you’ll have to deal with mechanical issues. When buying used, always have the car inspected by an independent, certified mechanic prior to purchase to confirm the condition. Check NADA guides for trade-in and retail values of used cars.

  3. How will I use the car?

    Finding the right car starts with a thorough consideration of your needs. Will you be driving a long commute to work or taking road trips? Will you use the vehicle to shuttle kids to activities or haul sports equipment? Do you need it to fit into tight parking or garage spaces? Do you need four-wheel drive or all-wheel drive options for off-roading or handling difficult terrain or road conditions? Are you considering hybrid or plug-in electric models? Think about the relative importance of features like fuel economy, cargo space, performance and passenger seating options. Giving some thought to how your needs might change can help you choose a vehicle that will fulfill your needs for years to come.

  4. What technology features do you want?

    There’s a lot to love when it comes to the technology available in cars built in recent years. Some of the latest models have self-parking technology and connected mobile apps that allow you to remotely lock doors and check tire pressure from your smartphone. Newer cars have 360-degree cameras and crash avoidance features such as auto-emergency braking, forward collision warning and blind spot monitoring. Make a wish list of features you want and break it down into nonnegotiable items and nice-to-have features.

  5. What’s the vehicle’s history?

    If you’re purchasing a used vehicle, always get a vehicle history report to verify mileage and check for past damage. Using the vehicle identification number (VIN), these reports can tell you whether the car has been damaged in a crash, flood or other manner and what repairs were made. You can search vehicle history reports with CARFAX®.

  6. What’s the warranty coverage?

    A good warranty offers a lot of protection against future repair costs. When making your purchase, find out exactly what’s covered and for how long. A warranty with “bumper to bumper” coverage for a limited time (e.g., 3 years or 36,000 miles) typically covers the parts and labor needed to fix your car. However, not everything is covered, and wear-and-tear parts like tires, wiper blades, brake pads and light bulbs are usually not covered. A powertrain warranty covers the parts that make the car move, including the engine, transmission and drivetrain for a set timeframe or number of miles (e.g., 5 years or 60,000 miles). Some automakers offer extended powertrain warranty coverage for up to 10 years or 100,000 miles.

  7. What will the maintenance costs be?

    Some cars cost more than others to maintain, and it’s not something you’d usually think about until it’s time for regular maintenance. Maintenance costs vary by make, model and even year. And, all the digital components in cars make it increasingly complex for even the smallest tasks (e.g., replacing a taillight). You might want to compare the cost of parts and tire changes for different vehicles so you know what to expect. You can find a lot of this information on automotive websites, by talking to your mechanic or by seeking out other owners of the same vehicle and asking about their experience.

  8. How much will it cost to insure the vehicle?

    Don’t let the cost of auto insurance take you by surprise. A number of factors may influence your auto insurance rates, including your age, marital status, place of residence, driving history, credit score and more. The age and type of car you drive can also affect your rate—the more expensive the car, generally the more it costs to insure. However, other factors such as safety ratings and anti-theft features can bring down the cost. Call your insurance company to find out how much the car you’re considering will cost you in insurance premiums. If you’re in the military, you and your family may qualify for a discount on auto insurance.

  9. How’s your credit score and credit history?

    Your credit score can make a difference in the costs you end up paying for a vehicle. Having a good credit history and excellent credit score can help you get the lowest rates on auto loans and also save money on auto insurance. Before you go shopping for a car, check your credit report—you can get a free score at annualcreditreport.com. You can work on boosting your score by paying bills on time and keeping credit card balances low (so you’re not close to reaching your credit limit). It can also help to keep old credit cards open so it shows you have a longer credit history.

  10. What’s the best option for financing?

    You shouldn’t feel rushed to apply for dealer financing without comparing all your options, including credit union financing. Auto manufacturers sometimes offer low interest rates that can seem pretty attractive. But sometimes that means giving up a rebate that can lower the total cost of the vehicle. Also make sure you’re comparing the total costs of financing the car, not just the monthly payment amount. You can use this auto financing calculator to run the numbers yourself and find out if getting a low-interest-rate car loan from your credit union is a better deal. Doing your research could save you hundreds or even thousands of dollars on auto financing.

This article is intended to provide general information and shouldn't be considered legal, tax or financial advice. It's always a good idea to consult a tax or financial advisor for specific information on how certain laws apply to your situation and about your individual financial situation.