The Independent Millennial's No-Bullshit Guide To Buying A Car

Illustrated by Abbie Winters.
If you live in L.A. — or any other sprawling city besides New York — you are well aware that a set of wheels is a necessity. But if the latest It bag is the biggest splurge you've ever made, you also know that buying yourself a new whip can be quite daunting. After all, by Kelley Blue Book’s estimation, the average price for a car in the U.S. last month was $33,340 — more than millennial women in this country typically make in a year. Ouch.

As if you needed another obstacle, the selection of vehicle options is practically endless: Millions of new cars roll into American car lots every single year, and car salespeople can seem like intimidating auto overlords behind high dealership doors. But don't fret. The good news is that hopeful car owners have it better than ever before — and it's time to get educated and empowered!

“It used to be that you had to go to the dealer to get any information at all about a car. It was specifically designed that way because once you were there, you could be pressured to buy a car,” says Philip Reed, senior consumer advice editor at Edmunds. But thanks to the web, that's all changed.

“The more research you can do ahead of time, the less pressure you are going to feel when you are in the dealership having to make a decision,” says Eric Lyman, vice president of industry insights at mobile auto marketplace TrueCar. And luckily for you, you've come to the right place for just that.

Ahead, Reed, Lyman, and other car experts provide a bounty of tips to guide you into the right lane.
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Illustrated by Abbie Winters.
“Think of the sticker price as what the car dealer would like you to pay for the car,” advises Reed about the manufacturer's suggested retail price, or MSRP. In reality, cars usually sell for well under. To get a better understanding of what’s actually paid for cars, trying checking out Edmunds’ True Market Value, a figure revealing how much specific makes sold for within certain zip codes, or TrueCar’s approximation of what people are shelling out for cars in given areas.

For example, the former shows that 2014 models of the Prius hatchback are selling for $22,188 in the Beverly Hills zip code 90210, compared to the MSRP of $25,025. That's a huge difference! “This is the price you should be paying,” says Reed. “If you know the numbers, you will become a better negotiator.”
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Illustrated by Abbie Winters.
If the black dresses you’re about to mail back to Rent the Runway are any indication, you realize renting has its perks. And it’s not that different with cars. Whether it's because you tire of a style or your car preferences change, “leasing a car is a great option if you like turning over your car every couple of years,” Lyman says.

Financially, it often makes sense, too. “It is not more expensive to lease today, [even though] it may have been a decade ago. Things have changed, with cheap financing and manufacturers pushing leasing," says David Shapiro, founder and president of car-buying service Cartelligent. In fact, with the rising prices of car maintenance, leasing becomes even more affordable in the grand scheme of it all.
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Illustrated by Abbie Winters.
Out of the 12 months in the year, August is the one with the lowest transaction prices. “That’s when the model year change-over is happening, so you will start to see new 2016 models arrive in dealerships in late June or July, and then by August, there’s a big push to sell the preceding models off the lots,” Lyman says.

Within every month, the end of the month beats the beginning of the month for value. “Toward the end of the month, we start to see a certain sense of urgency among both automakers and dealers to sell cars, and that usually means concession in the prices to hit sales targets,” says Lyman.

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Illustrated by Abbie Winters.
Overlooking brands, makes, or models based on long-held prejudices could be a grave mistake. Lyman points out that cars from Kia and Hyundai trounce their passé reputations. “There’s this historical view of them being very inexpensive, low-quality vehicles. That perception might have been justified 15 years ago, but if you look at the products today, it isn’t true,” he asserts.

Similarly, don’t rule out American cars. “American cars have made enormous strides forward. In some models, they have completely closed the gap,” says Reed. Underneath the silly melodrama of his Lincoln commercials, Matthew McConaughey may be onto something.
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Illustrated by Abbie Winters.
Take advantage of the web to score primo deals. You can solicit quotes from multiple dealerships online and negotiate via email to uncover the dealership that arrives at the best price. “You'll probably get a better deal going through the Internet,” says Reed. Lyman elaborates, “The Internet sales manager has a different approach to the sales process than the traditional showroom person. They tend to be people who are a little younger. They may wear more casual attire. It all supports a lower-pressure environment.”

Another bonus of Internet buying: limited time in the dealership. “The process can be as quick and methodical as you would like it to be,” says Steve Majoros, marketing director for Chevrolet, which launched to facilitate online car orders. “In the world today, people have a set of expectations about how they shop and transact, and good dealers know they need to be flexible.”
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Illustrated by Abbie Winters.
Before you step into a dealer or begin the buying process online, seek out a car-loan pre-approval from your bank. When you are pre-approved, “you are already a proven customer when you get to the dealership,” Reed says. Your pre-approval can also serve as a bargaining chip. “Understand what your scenario with a third party is, and present that information to the dealer when you are purchasing the car," Lyman says. "Most of the time, the dealer will be able to present you a good, and sometimes better, offer.”

Dealers may also throw in incentives — i.e., $500 cash back or free oil changes — if you secure a loan through the financial association linked with their auto brand. Translation: Make 'em fight for you.
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Illustrated by Abbie Winters.
“Especially if you are a first-time car buyer, you should see the car, sit in it, and drive it,” says Majoros. “You shouldn’t be saddled with something you thought would meet your needs, but it doesn’t.” If you’re in a pickle about what car to buy, Reed suggests narrowing down your list of favorites to the top three and test driving them all in one morning. “The differences will become apparent,” he says. “There’s a little bit of a trend toward people thinking they don’t have to test drive a car. Well, cars are about feeling. How do you feel in the car? Don’t ignore the test drive.”
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Illustrated by Abbie Winters.
The auto market is flooded with enticements to get you into a new car. If you know what to look for, you can find one that will be to your advantage. Carmakers tend to tailor incentives to first-time car buyers, students, or members of the military. Various car-selling platforms proffer deals tied to individual brands. TrueCar, for instance, is currently running a promotion with Fiat. At dealerships, manufacturers use incentives to move cars out that aren’t selling briskly. So if you are willing to pony up for a car that’s not the most popular, you may be able to line your pockets as you drive it off the lot.
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Illustrated by Abbie Winters.
Shapiro tells car shoppers to imagine factoring car expenses into their budget — approximately $405 a month, according to Experian Automotive's most recent survey — to determine what they can afford. “How does the car payment or payment plus upkeep fit into your budget? Don’t entirely focus on the total price of the car,” he says.

If car shoppers are evaluating used cars, Shapiro cautions, they should be aware that they might have to tack on another $50 to $100 per month in maintenance costs. Resale also plays a role in the complete picture of a car’s cost. “You don’t consume a car like you would consume food or an iPad. It’s not like you pay for it, and it’s over,” says Shapiro. “If you buy it for $30,000 and you sell it three years later for $15,000, then it really cost you $15,000.” All of these things make up the actual price of the car.
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Illustrated by Abbie Winters.
Electric shades may be great for your wardrobe, but when it comes to a car, it’s better to lean towards a standard palette. “It’s not that it makes the car ugly, it just makes it harder to find someone else who is willing to pay for it,” says Lyman. “All else equal, it hurts your resale value.” Reed singles out silver as a safe color, and it saves trips to the car wash. “It doesn’t show the dirt,” he notes. For the interior, Reed recommends avoiding lighter colors because they tend to wear faster. “The more neutral colors are very effective. Gray is good,” he offers.
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Illustrated by Abbie Winters.
If you believe you’re a pushover, ask a steelier friend or relative to join you at the dealership for a dose of support. “Depending upon your confidence level, bringing another person can be a good idea,” says Lyman. “You want to bring someone who will tell you, ‘Hang on a second, talk about this rather than jumping in with both feet.’”

If you’ve heard stories about women getting the shaft at dealerships and are anxious about negotiating with a hard-charging salesman, you may be more comfortable going the Internet route. “Most Internet departments are generally made up of men and women, whereas the conventional sales force on the floor is at least 90 percent male,” says Reed.

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Illustrated by Abbie Winters.
Did you know that Costco is the second biggest seller of new cars in the country and could soon zoom up to number one? The warehouse retailer is responsible for some 400,000 cars sold per year. As with its other merchandise, Costco provides its customers good values on cars. By some estimates, buying a car at Costco could save you $1,000. An extra advantage is that you won’t be guided to a specific brand by sales associates dedicated to that brand. “You are dealing with somebody who doesn’t have a vested interest in selling you one particular brand or maximizing the price,” says Lyman. “You have somebody who is pretty much on your side, and in a lot of cases, you can ask them which is better, a Honda or Ford, and they are pretty well-informed about all the cars.” Apparently, membership has its benefits.

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Illustrated by Abbie Winters. is a phenomenal resource for information on car efficiency and fuel costs. In general, cars have increasingly become more efficient and reliable. For consumers to gain insight into fuel efficiency, carmakers disclose average city and highway miles per gallon. Reed urges car shoppers to combine the averages to land on what the car will ultimately register. On this site, the most fuel-efficient cars, excluding electric vehicles, have combined numbers ranging from 36 to 50.

Have your eye on a car with lower fuel efficiency? “Don’t necessarily get a car you can barely afford to fill up week-to-week now, because if gas prices go up, you will be over your tipping price," Lyman says. "Gas prices have trended up historically.”
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Illustrated by Abbie Winters.
Reliability isn’t the issue it used to be in car shopping, because cars have gotten remarkably reliable. Still, there can be discrepancies between cars, and J.D. Power’s car-reliability ratings can assist in delineating those differences. Rather than focus on reliability, Reed instructs car shoppers to think about the expense of maintaining a car. “When I say maintain, it’s not oil changes, maybe tires, windshield wipers, brakes, and things every car is going to need,” he points out. “Some makes are much more expensive to maintain than others. The German car companies are quite expensive to maintain, Japanese and American cars less so.” You might not want to be stuck with a maintenance bill when your rent is due.

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Illustrated by Abbie Winters.
A car can be a part of your life for years, so you shouldn’t take a short-term perspective. “If you are going to keep your car for eight or 10 years, buying your car is the best approach,” says Lyman, adding simply, “because after you pay off that vehicle, you have no payments.” Given that long-term horizon, purchasing a two-seater isn’t going to make sense if you foresee yourself having a couple of kids or a job that requires lugging a ton of gear around.

Keeping in mind your family and career plans, securing a car loan can pay off. “You can get better terms down the road buying a bigger item when you have established credit,” says Shapiro. “A way to establish credit is to have a car loan or lease, and pay your bills on time. It is a stepping stone to a better financial situation in the future.”