car buying checklist: dealership edition

It happened. The car that got you through good days and bad, crazy weather, and everywhere you needed to be for years just bit the dust. Where do you go from here? Well, you have some options.

You could search for something on Craigslist or other sites where people sell their cars. You could try a car auction. Or, you could do what about 17 million other Americans did in 2017, and get a car from a dealer. If you take that route, however, you’re going to want to walk in prepared. That’s why we decided to make a car buying checklist with suggestions and considerations specifically designed to help you evaluate your options in the world of car dealerships.

After all, buying a car can be difficult for first-time car buyers and repeat car-buyers alike. For first-timers, a car is often the biggest purchase to date. And for a repeat buyer, it can be hard to say goodbye to your car (even when we hate them, we all develop an emotional attachment), and it’s often an unexpected expense.

Then there’s deciding which type of car to buy, where to buy it, how to find a good deal, and how to make sense of all those unexpected fees… it’s exhausting just to consider.

This list will give you things to think about whether you’re going to a mainstream dealer or even a bad credit car dealership. Read on to find out how to end up with a new car you’ll love just as much as the old one (or more!).

Starting the Search

First up in the car buying checklist, how to figure out what kind of car to buy. These questions can help to organize your search and filter down to the results that make the most sense for your lifestyle.

For example, you might optimize for comfort, fuel economy, and reliability if you have a long daily commute. Or, if you rarely drive your car or don’t have far to go, you could consider something more fun or lightweight, so you don’t pay for features you don’t need.

It all depends on what role this car is going to play in your life — and it all starts with research:

  • Where does this car need to get you and how often?
  • How many people will typically be riding in this car?
  • Are there things you loved about your old car that you want again?
  • Are there things you hated about your old car that you hope to avoid?
  • What brands and models are known for the type of car that will be most useful to you?
  • Do you need a car that’s good in the snow?
  • Do you need cargo space?

Before You Go to the Dealer

Now that you’ve narrowed your search, next you can arm yourself with some information to ensure a smoother experience when you go to the car dealership:

  • Make a list of 3-5 cars you might be interested in buying and find out what they come with standard and how the Kelley Blue Book prices them out.
  • Make a list of local dealerships that offer the cars you’re interested in and that do so at or below the Kelley Blue Book price.
  • Research the history of the cars you’re interested in to be sure there aren’t any recalls ( can help) and look for the other pros and cons.
  • Set a budget before you go to the dealership.
  • Go to a bank and see what kind of auto loan rates you can get. You don’t have to get a loan that day, but knowing the interest rate you can be approved for helps you avoid financing at the dealership if their rates are higher. You’ll also want to get your credit score in advance, so you know how banks are likely to view you.
  • If you have less-than-perfect credit, find out what dealerships will offer special financing — but read the reviews on the dealerships before you put them on your to-visit list. (You can find reviews at the Better Business Bureau,, Yelp, and sometimes even the dealership’s site. You can also find reviews here, as we’ve been researching car dealerships and reviews of them, like in this list of bad credit car dealerships in Atlanta.)
  • Brush up on some car buying terminology with the help of this glossary at Consumer Reports.

Buying a new car? See if your credit is in good shape with Upturn Credit’s free tool!

At the Dealership

You’ve got your budget, your list of top cars, and you’re ready to roll. Now here are some potential steps to help ensure the shopping experience goes as planned:

    • Test drive the car or cars you’re interested in.
    • Test drive the car.
    • Test drive.
    • Nope, this repetition isn’t a typo. Buying a car without test driving first is like buying a home without an inspection. Sure, it might look nice and new, but you need to see what the kinks are and how it feels to drive. The test drive is the moment of truth.
    • If you’re looking at a used car, research the report on the car’s history on sites like Carfax before you opt to buy.
    • If you’re looking at a used car, examine the inside and outside closely to see if there are any dings or other damage you might not have noticed at first glance.
    • Again for used cars, test drive that car on over to a mechanic you trust to get an inspection done if you can (tell your mechanic ahead of time that you’ll be stopping by that day, so you can be sure there’ll be a slot for you when you need).
    • Beware price creep. Even though you’ve set a budget, a dealer might try to show you that you can “afford” a more expensive car’s monthly payments — likely due to extending the loan. A longer loan, however, will keep you in debt longer and ensure that you’ll pay more for the car than you might think today. When it comes time to deal, run the numbers yourself before you sign anything. This will help you spot hidden fees and other inconsistencies in what the dealer told you.
    • Before you sign, carefully review the paperwork — and be sure that you can take the paperwork home that day, so nothing funny happens to it after the fact. Again, you’re looking for hidden fees, forced warranties, and other things that didn’t turn up in the verbal dealmaking.
    • If you can manage to wait, don’t buy the car the same day. Rather, sleep on it to be sure it’s the deal you want — and even take some time the next day to make sure no other dealer is offering the car for less (or for better terms if you’re financing through the dealer).
    • Remember, everything is negotiable.
    • If you don’t get the deal you want, be prepared to walk out of the dealership.

Empower Yourself to Get the Best Deal Possible

Car buying can feel like a humbling experience. Unless you’re a mechanic or a car buff who knows all the ins and outs of what cars are worth and how they run, going to the dealership could leave you wishing you knew more about everything in the process.

That said, empower yourself with knowledge in part by following the steps outlined above — and be firm in your resolve when making a deal. Do that, and you may improve your chances of walking away with a new car that you’ll love and that you can afford.

Think you might want to try other options instead? Click here to read the Ultimate Car Buying Checklist: Craigslist Edition and here to read the Ultimate Car Buying Checklist: Online Edition.

Before you make a purchase, read up on these facts about buying with credit and make sure your credit is in good shape with Upturn Credit’s free tool!