Illustration by Francesca Mahaney of a person buying a car
Follow these tips and you'll be just fine. (Illustration by Francesca Mahaney, Pratt Institute)
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Illustration by Francesca Mahaney of a person buying a car

You don’t want to rely on the Geico gecko or the General to bail you out.

Every car I’ve ever owned has been both a savior and a curse. They’ve taken me where I needed to go and broken down at extremely inopportune times. Sometimes, I call myself a Black Widow because, no matter what I do, all the cars I own can’t last past two years.

It all started in 2015 when I enrolled as a freshman at Rivier University in Nashua, New Hampshire. I did quite a bit of driving in my brother’s old Jeep Grand Cherokee. Every weekend, I drove home to go work at my part-time job since a transfer wasn’t possible. Campus was about an hour away if there wasn’t any traffic on the highway.

One Friday, I was driving on the highway to go home when the steering rod snapped in half. I pulled the car over and shut it off to stop the vibrations. When I tried to start it up again, it wouldn’t turn. I waited for 45 minutes for AAA to tow me to the closest mechanic and my parents came to pay for the repairs.

From that point to now, I’ve owned four different cars. And each one came with their own long list of problems that ranged from a flat tire to a broken alternator and timing belt. About a month ago, my 2004 Nissan Pathfinder had its battery die in the parking lot of Dollar Tree when I went in for snacks. Once I fixed that problem, I found out it also had alternator and suspension issues, which aren’t cheap fixes.

I’ve been on the hunt for a new used car once Massachusetts reopens ever since. It’s one of the longest and hardest life decisions I’ve had to go through. But, after all my experiences, I’ve created a list to be sure I find the right car for the right price.

Price Range

Cars aren’t cheap to buy or own. Expenses, like repairs and gas, can really add up. And, let’s be honest, being a broke college student really makes it even more difficult. Studying for classes and exams is a time-consuming process. Adding a part-time job to that can make it feel impossible to even have a sliver of a social life. I remember that I used most of the money I made every week to buy midnight snacks for  overnight study sessions because I waited until the last minute. However, I always set some money aside for a rainy day fund in case of an emergency, especially car repairs.

Understanding your budget is the first step in the search for a car. You must calculate your earnings and consider the expenses of buying a car, registering it and getting insurance. Insurance policies are higher for younger drivers due to their inexperience, which makes them a higher risk for getting into an accident. Registration fees vary from state to state but they aren’t too expensive. However, cars do succumb to excise tax based on its listed address every year. And there’s upkeep like oil changes and tire rotations that need to be done at certain mileage milestones.

A lot of thinking and calculating comes along with the first step. But it does help restrict the selection of available cars, which relieves the overwhelming stress of searching for the right one.

Car Usage and Research

Once you establish a price range, then it’s time to start researching cars.

Every car is different, just like people; no two are alike. They are created for certain purposes, whether it’s taking the kids to soccer practice or moving heavy objects from one location to the next.

You must understand what purpose your car serves. Do you prefer SUVs, trucks or sedans? Is it to drive to work? How far do you drive a week? Answering these questions can help to narrow your search so you won’t be looking at thousands of different cars. From there, you’ll be able to dive further into the specifics of each car without feeling overwhelmed by the options.

It’s important to conduct thorough research on a car before buying. Some cars are more reliable than others based on their manufacturer and their constituent parts. It’ll also make you aware of common issues that happen at certain mileage milestones, as well as cost for repairs.

Based on what I’ve learned, Toyota and Honda produce extremely reliable cars, and they’re known to last even past 100,000 miles. Avoid luxury brand cars like Audi, BMW and Chrysler because it’s more expensive to fix, and they’re more fragile.

Private Party or Dealer

When looking at cars online, you’ll find yourself bouncing back and forth between private parties and dealers. It can be confusing on who has the better deal.

I tend to lean toward private parties as opposed to a dealer when buying a car. Prices, when compared, are vastly different. Dealers tend to list cars at about two to four times the amount they actually paid for it. Always look up the price range of the vehicle being sold.

Inspecting and Test Driving

How a cars seems in a picture online can be completely different when driving it. I’ve seen cars that look to be in perfect condition until someone drives it and finds out the car needs a new suspension.

When going to look at a car, try to bring a mechanic or someone with a knowledge of cars that you trust to help you inspect it. They can help ascertain problems by looking at parts that an average person wouldn’t know as well.

If you don’t have that, buy a simple car scanner online. They aren’t too expensive and can be a big help.

The first thing I look at on a car is the body. Look at the physical condition of the car by finding damage like dents, scratches or cracks in the glass. And don’t be afraid to go underneath to look at the undercarriage to find any traces of rust or rot. If you find rot, don’t buy the car.

If everything looks good physically, ask the owner or dealer to open the hood. Survey the physical condition of the engine and other parts like you did with the body. Make sure to find the dipstick to inspect the oil. If it’s blackened, that says the car hasn’t been taken care of and could harbor more hidden issues.

Ask about past owners, if applicable. Ask to take a glance at the title or look it up on CarFax. If you see the terms “salvaged” or “reconstructed,” that implies the car has been in a major accident.

Then start the car up. Listen closely for any rattling or excessive shaking from the engine. Hook up the car scanner and have it read any codes that pop up. Every code scanner comes with a booklet that decodes issues a car has. The more codes that arise mean there is more to fix, and more money will be spent to do it. If any codes relate to the transmission or engine, don’t buy it.

The final test that should be conducted is taking it for a little drive. Make sure to drive locally and on the highway for at least 20 minutes. High speed driving can uncover any issues with an engine overheating or a bad wheel bearing. If the car shakes excessively, there could be a problem with the suspension. If you must apply more pressure on the gas to move, there could be a problem with the alternator. Both require a lot of work and money to fix.

It’s a Long Process

Finding the right car is stressful, no matter who is doing it. Buying a car is an investment of both time and money. And it’s more difficult to find a reliable car at the right price with no knowledge about them. Trust me because I’ve been there many times.

Don’t expect to be an expert overnight or find the perfect car within a week. Knowledge comes with time and experience. There’s blogs or videos of mechanics sharing stories about cars they or someone they know dealt with. Take their advice into account when looking into the perfect car.

You should also assess your car options thoroughly before making a final decision. Take your safety into higher account than the mileage and costs of repairs. If a car isn’t safe to drive, it shouldn’t be on the road in the first place. Don’t ever jeopardize the lives of others or yourself to save a couple of bucks; a price can never be placed on a human life.

When you find the right car, make sure to take care of it. The better care means the more use you’ll get out of it. Problems won’t arise as frequently. You’ll be able to travel at ease. It’s one stressful thing you can cross off your list. Then, you’ll be able to focus all your stress on completing the assignments you forgot about.

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