A person is shown doing used car dealership research on a laptop.

Your First Car: Red Car, Blue Car? Help!

Hey, you! Yeah, you. Before you go looking for used car dealerships, there’s something you should know. If this is the first time you’re shopping for a vehicle, then hold your horses; it’s better to learn about the most effective ways to shop than jump into the first deal that you see.

Some advice may seem trivial, but learning about the red flags you need to look out for is the most powerful tool for car hunting success. How hard can it be, right? Well, you aren’t wrong—shopping for a vehicle isn’t the hardest task in the world, but anybody who says the process is straightforward is lying.

So, if you’re shopping for your first vehicle, I want to discuss what you can expect—and, more importantly, I’ll give you tips on how you should choose your first vehicle. I’ll be discussing the financial side of things in addition to the vehicles themselves. Ultimately, I’ll help you differentiate between a deal that’s too good to be true and a very compelling offer with no strings attached. Ready? Good, let’s go.

The Pre-Shopping Checklist

Window shopping is harmless; that much is clear. What is harmful to your shopping experience, however, is making drastic decisions before you’ve had the chance to think things through. So, my advice to you would be to first create a realistic goal and simply follow through with it. This goal can be as simple as coming up with $10,000 for your used vehicle—which may take time, but nothing good is free.

All right, let’s say $10,000 is your goal and you’ve met that threshold. So now we’ll consider this the budget. It’s important to not stray far from your budget, especially if you find yourself purchasing a vehicle that costs over $1,000 more. With that said, if you can legitimately afford to spend a little extra on a vehicle, then feel free to do so; just make sure that extra money is going to good use.

Of course, keep in mind that you can finance beyond what you can afford to put down up-front. I’d recommend this calculator to help you understand monthly costs, the duration of a loan, and your overall financing budget.

Now that you’ve got your budget in mind, it’s time to brainstorm some of your wants and needs. Do you need your vehicle to get to and from school—or your job? Are you looking to purchase a pickup truck because you have ambitions of towing? Or, are you going to be responsible for helping siblings and relatives get to and from soccer practice—and therefore need a fuel-efficient commuter?

It’s important to consider why you need a vehicle, beyond the obvious answer: “for transportation.” Needs first and wants second; this is the way most things in life should be.

However, don’t omit your wants entirely, because this is crucial to purchasing a vehicle that you will genuinely enjoy driving. Realistically blending your budget with your wants and needs is arguably the hardest part of the shopping experience—and we haven’t even gotten started yet.

A couple is shown talking to a salesperson at a used car dealership.

Time for Research

Now that you’ve got your budget down, and you’ve conceptualized some of your wants and needs, the next step is to track down the vehicle you’d like to examine more closely. Of course, there are a couple of ways to go about purchasing a used vehicle, but between private sellers and dealerships, you’re almost always better off sticking with a dealership (I’ll discuss why momentarily).

Based on your wants and needs, you may have narrowed your choices down to a specific body type such as an SUV, sedan, pickup truck, etc. With this in mind, you can begin doing some online searching for vehicles in your preferred body style and budget. Or, if you’re feeling more adventurous, you can head down to a dealership.

When you’ve found a vehicle that piques your interest, you mustn’t immediately message the seller or contact the dealership. Instead, begin cross-checking the pricing you’ve found with similar offers on the market. Without doing so, you’re running the risk of grossly overpaying for a vehicle. Although price-matching isn’t something that you’ll find at most dealerships, it should at the very least give you a general average of what other drivers are paying for the same kind of vehicle.

If you do manage to find a vehicle that appears to be in working order and is at a far lower price than you expected, this is a giant red flag. There’s no trusting whether or not the vehicle you’re purchasing is going to withstand going ten miles down the road—that is, without inquiring about a CarFax report. Maybe you’ve seen the commercials, but if you don’t know what a CarFax report is, it’ll tell you every aspect of the vehicle’s history, from past owners to a portfolio of the service work it has gone through. In this day and age, if there’s no CarFax report, then you should keep looking. This is why shopping at a dealership is better, because more often than not they can produce a CarFax report by request, whereas a private seller may be hesitant.

Work with Your Dealership

There are no better people to ask about vehicles than the people whose job it is to match customers with their next automobile. Even if you don’t have an intention of buying a vehicle upon a particular visit, taking a trip down to a dealership will not only give you the perfect opportunity to ask questions regarding the shopping experience, but a chance to see some of the vehicles you’ve researched up-close and personal.

When you do show up to a dealership to formally begin shopping, it’s a great idea to speak to a sales representative about what you’re looking for—and what your options are. If you like something you see, request to take it for a test drive! There’s usually no problem with allowing the customer to take a vehicle for a test drive—and a member of the dealership’s sales team will even accompany you to answer questions, should they crop up.

Most importantly, never feel rushed when you’re shopping at a dealership. Fortunately, many dealerships have gotten far better at making the customer feel comfortable with their purchase (thanks to less vicious sales tactics), but don’t expect much comfort when shopping through a private seller.

However, some private sellers might legitimately give you time to ask questions, look up pricing elsewhere, and will even produce the aforementioned CarFax report. These are the private sellers you should work with, if any, because it’s abundantly obvious when somebody is trying desperately to offload a broken vehicle with a low price tag slapped onto it.

A person is shown holding a key at a used car dealership.

You’re Off to the Races

There’s no easy way to slice it: Shopping for a vehicle may be unlike anything you’ve ever experienced. Now that may sound daunting, but I assure you the process isn’t as painful or intimidating as it used to be. If anything, expect this opportunity of shopping for your first vehicle to be filled with intrigue and pure excitement.

However, keep in mind that you shouldn’t feel rushed to make your purchase, and the very best way to get an idea of what your first vehicle should be is to ask yourself some simple questions. What do I need my car to do? What do I want my car to do? And, what can I realistically afford? Nobody knows you better than yourself, and these tips should at least help you get your foot in the door.

Next stop, shopping. Good luck and drive safe!