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A step-by-step guide to your new wheels

Follow these handy tips to navigate the process of buying your first car

Published April 23, 2014
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The Toronto Star for Wheels.ca

Emily Atkins Special to the Star

The decision to buy a new car is a big moment. And your very first car? That one will always have a special place in your heart. You want it to be a good one.

But where to start?

Buying a car can be a challenge, even for those who love them. New models seem to pop up every day, and negotiating a price is new territory for many people. If you are buying used, there’s the added mystery of the car’s background.

But don’t let the unknown slow you down. If you follow this step-by-step approach, chances are you’ll end up a happy auto owner, cruising into the spring weather.

What do you need? Your first step is to figure out what you need the car to do for you. What is its job description?

Is it cheap city transport? Highway cruising with the family? Do you need to carry cargo, travel long distances, haul children or older folks?

Those answers will determine the attributes of the vehicle you should be considering, so spend some time thinking about this. Make a list of essentials and nice-to-haves.

Set your budget. Knowing your spending ceiling can save you a lot of time by eliminating vehicles you cannot afford. Don’t forget to figure in taxes, freight charges, financing, insurance and maintenance costs.

Do your research. There are many resources available to help you with this step, both online and in print. Since you’re already reading the Toronto Star, you know how much great info you can find in the Wheels section.

You will need to decide which style of car you are looking for (sedan, wagon, SUV, pickup), then read everything you can find about cars in that class.

Compile a list of possibilities and then narrow it down to three or four. Unless you have a lot of spare time on your hands, winnowing the list down early will make the decision-making simpler.

Go for a drive. The next step is to go out and test drive all of your top choices.

Before you go, make a checklist that includes your key criteria, as well as the basics such as looks, drivability, cargo space, ease of operation and comfort.

Make notes (your phone’s voice recorder is great for this) about each car as soon as you finish driving it, because they’ll start to blur together. Note what’s great and what’s annoying.

Being systematic about testing will make the comparisons easier and help you know what’s important.

Once you’ve driven all the cars on your list, you will likely have a favourite. It’s a good idea to drive that one again, just to be sure you remember it clearly.

Now to the negotiations. According to Robert Burgess of Downtown Porsche, buying a car is “exactly like buying real estate: you have to make an offer.”

Make that offer on a specific vehicle, preferably one that’s on the dealer’s lot, ready to go. You’ll get a better discount that way.

Knowing that the average profit margin on a new car is 8 per cent means your offer should be aggressive, Burgess says — about 5 per cent below the asking price.

Then expect a counter-offer. “There’s no way to avoid the back and forth,” he says. “But it never takes more than five minutes.”

Finalize the deal. Once you settle on a price with the salesperson, the business manager takes over.

This is where you should expect high-pressure selling of such extras as extended warranty, rust proofing and chip protection.

Burgess suggests it is worth listening to the pitch: “There is some value to all the products they offer you.” But don’t be afraid to say, “No, thanks.”

Finally, the manager will arrange for delivery of the car, look after the paperwork and arrange for licensing.

Second-hand cars

If you are navigating your way to a used car, homework is essential, warns Brian Leuty of Welland Honda.

Organize your own CarProof report, or Carfax if the car has U.S. history. And avoid cars coming from areas prone to flooding.

If you are buying privately or from a used-car lot, arrange for an independent mechanic to check the car over. It should cost you an hour’s labour, at a rate somewhere between $70 and $110.

Once you’re satisfied with the car and reach a deal, you will need to go to a ServiceOntario centre to finalize the paperwork, including paying sales tax.

Researching online

Online research is essential for car shoppers.

For a new car, almost everything you need to know about specifications and prices is on the manufacturers’ sites. For reviews, road tests and background info, look to Wheels.ca.

If you are buying used, Wheels.ca also has thousands of second-hand listings from dealers and private sellers. You can also check eBay Motors or Kijiji to see what’s available and to track prices of cars like the one you want.

Ontario’s Ministry of Transportation website has good resources on buying used cars, at www.mto.gov.on.ca. The Canadian Black Book (canadianblackbook.com) will help with values, and the CarProof and Carfax sites will help find the history of specific vehicles.

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