Car ownership 101: Tips on finding the right vehicle

Read this before buying a new one
by Ferman Lao | Jun 15, 2015

Car-shopping tips

One day, you wake up and realize it's time to get a new car. Now, "new" doesn't necessarily mean "brand-spanking-out-of-the-showroom new." It could be a preloved vehicle that's going to be your parking slot's long-term resident for the next several years or so.

If you're an old-timer, then you already know the spiel. But if this will be your first or second time to buy a car, read on. Heck, even if you've done this many times before, go ahead and read on. You might pick up something new. It's always good to hear it from someone else as well.

* First things first: Realize that buying a car is an investment and a losing proposition all at the same time. Choose right, and it leads to many meaningful experiences ahead. Pick wrong, and it leads to a road to perdition as it becomes an endless money pit of regret. All cars depreciate; the rare few will become desirable classics (the very, very rare few).

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* Ask yourself why you're buying that new car. If your answer is, "Because I'm filthy stinking loaded with more money than I know what to do with and I just want to!" then I want in on your gig. On the other hand, if you're like the rest of the real world, then you need to identify why you're buying an automobile. Ask yourself these 10 questions:

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1. Is it for practicality or pleasure?

2. Will it be a heavy-duty workhorse?

3. Will it be driven daily as a miserly urban commuter?

4. Will it be a people-mover or a precious pumpkin transporter?

5. Am I looking for a compact sporty car, an impractical phallic symbol, a tarmac terminal velocity-topper or a mud-slinging weekender?

6. Will it be a long-distance remote hauler or a civilization-loving short-distance fun runner? Or will it be a low-key multifunction one-size-fits-many vehicle?

7. Should it be comfortable?

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8. Will it be about all-out capability?

9. Should I opt for two-wheel drive or all-wheel drive?

10. Should I go for a gasoline guzzler or a diesel burner?

* Each choice comes with its own set of capabilities and compromises. A checklist of needs and wants is useful--as is a maximum cash-out limit.

* Remember that keeping an open mind will allow you to expand your options significantly to your long-term benefit. At the very core of it all, knowing what you need will help you in buying what's right for you. You might just be surprised what you end up with. Unless you've got a very clear-cut concept in mind, what you need and what you want will often be poles apart from each other. One car for the next 10 years is the mantra. Cars are so adeptly built now that 10- and 15-year ownership periods with a modicum of maintenance are easily achievable. If you end up parting sooner with no regrets, knowing that you've made a good decision helps in making an even better one next time.

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* Just how much cash should you shell out? This decision will either limit or free up your choices. Too little and you may end up with regret. Be realistic! Too much? There's no such thing! From a practical point of view, shop around for the least expensive car within your budget that you'd be willing to be seen in and which will serve you best. Yes, even if your budget is bigger than a PDAF-endowed congressman's. You'll give yourself a pat on the back when you've got that much more spare change left for other toys. Remember, too, that top-of-the-line variants tend to depreciate more than their entry- or mid-level versions.

* Go out and test-drive! Walk away from dealerships that won't allow you to test-drive, and go to the next one that does. While you're there, check out the service department's receiving area and observe how they treat customers. Buying a car also means buying into the future dealership experience. It's your money and if they aren't treating existing clients well, chances are they won't treat you any better no matter how nice the sales agent is. Getting into the showroom would also be a good time to ask about service and maintenance costs. Upkeep is part of the car-ownership equation; paying a small fortune for it is as appealing as a weekly dental appointment.

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* A practical tip or three: When you make your short list, always include a couple of competing models of similar trim or pricing. Also include cars that are a class size bigger and smaller in the same price range as your initial choice. It could be a mid- or entry-level variant of the bigger car. It could be the fully loaded version of the smaller car with all the bells and whistles or even an entirely different vehicle type. However it goes, it's good exercise to help affirm or reevaluate your choice.

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