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Two back-to-back tours under your belt being driven around in a gutless, noisy, and unbelievably hot MRAP is enough to make anyone yearn for even the most basic of civvie transportation—hello, Mitsubishi Mirage. Hopping back into life stateside and into a new ride can be daunting, though, especially if you’ve never purchased a car or haven’t done it in some time.
Task & Purpose’s editors want to help ensure you don’t get scammed, rooked, swindled, taken to the cleaner, or any other euphemism for getting hoodwinked by ill-reputed car salespeople, and put together this guide of intel you need when looking for a new or used car.
Take a gander, scroll through, and if you still have any questions when you’re done, feel free to comment below and ask us directly. Ready to find your new car? Let’s jump in.
Buying a car right
Time You’re Going to Need: 2-5 hours, not including time spent scrolling through online ads and making wish lists.
So how is buying a car supposed to work?
In a perfect world, it should work like Amazon. You scroll through a selection of available cars, click “Add to Cart,” set up your financing, and wait for it to be delivered in your preferred color and spec. Unfortunately, we don’t live in that world — yet.
How buying a car actually works can be a nightmare for some, but only if you come at it unprepared. What you need to do is ask yourself a few basic questions, answer them honestly, do your research, and, above all else, be prepared to walk away from any potential deal. If you follow those guidelines, buying a car isn’t horrendous. Let’s talk turkey.
Ask yourself these questions before you buy a car after deployment
It’s good to have questions before making the major investment of buying a car. Questions keep you from screwing up your credit and your life. Ask yourself these questions before making the decision to buy a car.
Why do I need a car?
The biggest question is whether or not you actually need a car. If you live in a spot where public transit is great or right on base, then you might not need a car to get around. If you’re out in the sticks and commute to and from your MOS, then a car is probably necessary.
Which car is best for my situation?
What type of car do you need? Is your area’s weather inclement? Do you need AWD, 4WD, or 2WD? Do you need a car, truck, SUV, or do you want something fun like a sports car? Not every car is right for everyone, so make a detailed checklist of what you’ll need your car to do, then pick accordingly.
New or used?
New or used is another one of the big questions in car purchasing. New cars have perks like warranties, scheduled services, and that new car smell but are normally more expensive than used cars. Used cars can shave off thousands of dollars in savings, but they can also have maintenance issues that likely aren’t covered by a warranty, if it even has one. It’s best to weigh your options.
EV or ICE?
A new question concerning car buyers is whether to get a conventional car with an internal combustion engine (ICE) or an electric vehicle (EV) like GM’s Bolt, Porsche’s Taycan, or Ford’s Mustang Mach E.
Traditional ICE cars are more readily available and significantly easier to fill up with fuel for long trips. Yet, they’re harmful to the environment and have far more parts that can break. EVs, on the other hand, are better for the environment, quieter than ICE cars, and have fewer parts that break. However, they often have lower-mileage ranges, are a pain to charge, and cost more than most ICE cars.
Mutually assured protection against car sale scams
You can’t earn a Purple Heart by buying a sus used car—trust us, we’ve tried—so there’s no need to put yourself at risk. Ensure you come out the other side without a lemon and ludicrously large loans by following the directions, taking your time, and understanding the gravity of the situation. Keep your awareness up and you won’t need therapy—maybe.
You likely know how a car should drive. Taking a test drive will clue you into all the quirks, rattles, and potential maintenance calamities that await. And that goes for both new and used cars, as even new cars can be subject to poor manufacturing or build quality. *coughteslacough*
A test drive will also clue you in to how the car drives and whether you like the layout of its infotainment, HVAC controls, dynamics, and general comfort. Never buy a car blindly.
If you’re looking at a used car, it might behoove you to look into a CPO used car, or certified pre-owned. A CPO used car is fancy dealer speak for a car that’s been sold to a dealership, inspected, certified to be in good condition, and comes with a warranty backed by the car’s manufacturer.
Not all used cars are CPO. If you’re unsure if a used car is CPO, just ask the seller.
Having a used car inspected by a certified and trusted mechanic is highly important. They’re trained to see what pitfalls and issues your used car might have, and they’re meant to be done before signing the bill of sale.
If a dealership refuses to let you take the used car to a mechanic, leave immediately. They know there are issues and are trying to pass them off to you.
When we talk about documentation, we’re talking about the car’s service history. Every oil change, maintenance work order, purchase of new tires, etc. That’s the stuff that should be kept with the car for the next owner and gives you a snapshot of the vehicle’s history. More documentation is always better for making an informed used car decision.
There are third-party documentation providers, too, such as CarFax, which combs through vehicle history reports and insurance claims to detail a vehicle’s history.
What you’re going to need to buy a car
Everyone’s situation is going to be different. Make sure you have the right resources at hand before you head off to the dealership and brave the dreaded salespeople. Don’t worry, we’ve made a list.
A driver’s license
Well, you don’t need a driver’s license to purchase a car, but you will need one to drive said recently purchased car. So, we’d start there if you haven’t already.
Whether you’re purchasing the car outright or financing, you’re gonna need cash. Financing generally requires a downpayment and you’ll need a good sum to lower your monthly payments. Buying it outright means you’ll need enough to forgo financing through a bank or financial institution.
Financing is when you go through a bank or financial institution to purchase a vehicle with a loan. The bank will agree to finance the car’s loan as you pay it back in monthly installments. The bank will take interest on your loan until you pay back the total sum.
A trade-in is when you already have a car but no longer want it and try to sell it to the dealership in order to reduce the new car’s price. Generally, a trade-in will only account for a small fraction of the new car’s price.
If you still owe money on your trade-in, depending on the appraised value, that amount may be rolled into your new car’s loan amount. Likewise, do your homework on your car’s value before trading it into the dealership. You might get more for it if you sell it yourself, i.e. on Craigslist.
The car buying brief
Gear up, grunts, here’s how to buy a car.
Find the car you’re looking for
- Pick the type of car you’re looking for, i.e. car, truck, SUV, sports car, motorcycle.
- Compare it to others in its class. For example, see how the Jeep Cherokee compares to the Honda CR-V, or how the Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat compares to the Ford Mustang GT500.
- Check out prices, get quotes, and see who’s ready to make a deal. If possible, schedule a time to go into the dealership to test drive THE EXACT CAR YOU WANT. Nothing else. Salespeople will try to get you into other cars, oftentimes more expensive options that benefit them to sell.
- Check the value of your trade-in, if applicable. KBB is a great resource, use it.
- Once you’ve found the car you want, it’s time to head out!
Head to the dealership
- Arrive at the dealership with the full intention to leave that day. Salespeople can smell desperation and suckers, don’t be one.
- Find the car you wanted to test drive. Again, don’t let the salespeople sway you into driving something else.
Take a test drive
- Take a test drive and listen to the car. Feel how it hugs the road, how it leans in corners, what rattles occur, or whether it feels like things need to be replaced or fixed. Go for a good loop, including both neighborhood and highway roads, to get a real sense of the car. There’s no time limit and the salespeople shouldn’t hurry you along. Don’t be intimidated by them, and ask every single question that comes to mind.
- If it’s used, ask the dealership if you can take it to a trusted mechanic to have it inspected. If they say yes, go and get an inspection. If they say no, WALK AWAY.
- There’s always room to negotiate. Again, be prepared to walk away from the deal. This gives you leverage over the dealership.
- Tell the dealership how much you want to pay, how much you want to put as the down payment, and how many months financing (if applicable) you want to do. They’ll bend over backward to make the deal occur if you stay strong.
- If you’re financing a new car or used car, you’ll have to then sit with the finance person for the dealership. This is a long and arduous period where you give them all your financial information to help underwrite your loan amount.
- Be cautious, finance departments are sometimes predatory and will attempt to throw in a bunch of optional extras that can tack on thousands of extra dollars to your loan amount. Stick with the stuff you already agreed to purchase with the salespeople and don’t budge. Again, don’t let them intimidate you.
Drive off into the sunset
Slap on your aviators and call your crew, you bought a car.
A specialist’s pro tips to buying a car
I bought my first car when I was 16. Since then, eight more cars and three motorcycles have come and gone. I’ve been rooked and I’ve been swindled, but in some cases, I made out like a bandit due to the dealership not knowing what they had. I was also a salesperson for a hot second. Let me drop some of my top tips on you.
- The biggest tip I can think of is don’t buy something you can’t afford. Dealerships don’t care if you go broke trying to pay for a brand new Hellcat or GT500 Mustang. They have your money no matter what. But it’ll negatively affect your life for a long, long time if you default on the loan.
- Shop around. There’s no reason to one-stop-shop when it comes to cars. Yes, it sucks dealing with salespeople, but you’ll end up with a better deal if you shop around.
- Be prepared to walk out, and trust your gut. Nothing is tying you to a dealership or a car until you sign something. If the salespeople and deal aren’t right, walk.
- The end of the month, end of the quarter, and end of the year are when you’ll find the best deals. Salespeople are actively trying to get rid of their stock to meet their quotas and will slash prices to make the sale.
- If you’re trading a car in, the dealership will ask for your keys to appraise your car. Once they return, ask for the keys back immediately. Unscrupulous car dealers will try to hold the keys to hold you longer in the dealership and buy their cars.
A POG’s FAQs about buying a car
More questions? Here’s Task & Purpose’s additional brief.
Q. What’s the deal with horsepower?
A. It’s fun! But if you’d like to know more about horsepower, torque, and how they work and were thought up, head on over to our friends at The Drive who wrote up a detailed explainer on the Horsepower v. Torque debate!
Q. How much does it normally cost to buy a car?
A. Hold onto your butts because the average new car now costs $40,000, according to Edmunds and CNET. There are more expensive cars, as well as less, but most new car transactions fall within the $36,000 to $45,000 range. *gulp
Q. What is APR?
A. APR stands for annual percentage rate and refers to how much interest you pay on a given financed loan amount, i.e. 2.5-percent of $40,000 for (X) years.
Q. Should I avoid add-ons?
Q. What’s the biggest factor in reliability?
A. Go to the bathroom, flip on the light, and look in the mirror. See that scruffy-looking nerf herder staring back at you? Yeah, that’s the biggest factor in a car’s reliability. How you treat your ride, how you take care of its maintenance, and how you drive are the main elements of vehicle reliability. More so than make or model.