How to Buy a Car and Avoid Lemons

Lemon Car

Besides the purchase of a home, automobiles are the second most significant purchase that consumers make. The wrong car buying decision can cost you thousands of dollars. Here are some tips for buying the right car for you so that the purchase doesn’t interfere with your accomplishing your other financial goals.

Have you heard the jokes about Land Rovers? This is one of my favorites: They say 90% of all Land Rovers manufactured are still on the road. The other 10% have reached their destination. There is truth in this joke. I know of some people who have iffy personal finances, and their Land Rover repairs literally put them in poverty. Unless they do a little research, low to moderate income people should never buy a Land Rover. If they only checked J.D. Powers 2014 Vehicle Dependability Study they would see that Land Rover ranks 3 from the bottom, just ahead of Dodge and Mini out of 31 car manufacturers (in the 2013 Initial Quality study, it ranks 18th, which is a little better).

These are the 6 steps you should take when considering your next car purchase:

Step 1: Review Your Financial Plan.  Before you even think about the purchase of a car, you should look at your entire financial picture, your comprehensive financial plan. The purchase of a car affects not only the amount of money you currently have in savings and any investments you may use to buy the car, but also any differences in payments (such as maintenance, gas, insurance and repairs) that will affect your budget each month and possibly for years to come. Of all your purchases, cars rank second to homes in their affect on your ability to reach your other financial goals.

Start by looking at your financial plan. If you don’t have a financial plan, consider an eFinPLAN financial plan. The decision to purchase a car should not be made in a vacuum. It should take into consideration all of your financial goals and responsibilities. When you purchase a car, you should understand how it will affect your other priorities. If, over time, the car will cost you less than you can afford, then you will be able to get out of debt sooner and perhaps retire sooner than you planned. Proper planning regarding the purchase of a car might mean the difference between being able to afford a vacation or staying home. A poor choice would be to buy a car beyond your means and use a charge card for vacation expenses.

As with all financial decisions, the decision to buy a car should be a component of the overall written plan that you have made for your future. When you do a budget, you will be able to see your gross and net income, and then you can estimate how much you have left over to invest. Most people skip this step when they buy a car, and they don’t even know if they can afford to buy one. I know, because they ask me to counsel them after they purchase the car and discover that they can’t afford it. If it is repossessed, then their credit rating tanks. People with bad credit ratings are taken advantage of all the time at local used car lots, with high payments resulting from high interest rates and car prices much higher than the Kelly Blue Book estimate.

Step 2: Examine Financial Aspects of Car Purchases                     

  • Insurance: Compare how much you are paying for insurance for your current car versus a new one. Discuss the cost to insure potential cars with your insurance agent before purchasing.
  • Fuel: Evaluate how much your fuel budget will be for the new car. Remember, the EPA average miles per gallon for cars prior to 2008 (when they revised the calculation method) are off by approximately 15–20%. Some car makers have been penalized for false estimates on their published window stickers, and we blogged about it in 2012 and tweeted about it in 2014.
  • Hybrids: Gas and electric cars as well as full electric save you a lot of money in gas, so take this into consideration in your budgeting. However, the extra technology makes the cost of the car cost about 20% higher. They might have a tax savings offsetting the additional costs, but remember to account for this additional cost in your plan.
  • Car Payments: Consider the cost of monthly car payments and calculate how much the new payment will reduce the amount of money you have to save or invest, to reduce debt or to be applied toward other priorities in your financial plan. You can easily calculate monthly payments by using free payment calculators available on the internet, such as those at
  • Regular Maintenance: Estimated costs should be available from new car dealers for each model and each year of ownership. However, ask if they have extra expensive tires.
  • Repairs: If you are buying a used car, use the Internet to research approximate costs for repairs for each year you plan to own the car. The repair and parts industries keep this data, and a good repair facility should be able to help you estimate the cost after they inspect the vehicle.
  • Duration of car ownership: Make sure your plans include the length of time you will keep the car. This should help you avoid making rash decisions about new car purchases. For instance, your plan may involve buying a new car when your child is in middle school, paying it off during high school years, being free of car payments during college years, and perhaps purchasing a new car to keep during your retirement.

Once you have all of this data, update your eFinPLAN financial plan. You can use the ‘what-if’ scenarios to see how a car or any other major purchase will affect your overall financial plan both now and in the future. Don’t forget to make changes to your financial plan after purchasing a car.

Step 3: Select an Auto Type that Meets your Specific Needs. In step two you determined the monthly amount you can afford for insurance, gas, maintenance and repair, and how this purchase will affect your overall financial plan. The next step is to decide what type of car you should purchase. This is where most people slip up and make a bad decision. They have a general idea of the car that they want, and they go to the dealer, with little or no research, and buy a car. When the car purchase is emotional, and it often is, bad decisions can happen. They may be impossible to reverse and may affect your overall finances for years to come.

What do you want in a vehicle? Consider the following:

  • Safety: Is safety a key concern, such as collision or airbags and size of the vehicle?
  • Cargo capacity: Do you need a large trunk or cargo space?
  • Interior space: Are you a large person, or do you have a large family?
  • Miles-per-gallon: Do you want a high mileage or hybrid car to cut down on vehicle emissions, or to save on gas?
  • Domestic or foreign: Do you prefer a domestic manufacturer? If not, is it important whether the manufacturer is European or Asian?
  • Luxury level: Do you prefer regular or luxury? Are those preferences for car interior, exterior, or both?
  • Four-wheel drive: Do you live in an area where the roads and weather make having a four-wheel drive vehicle beneficial?
  • Business: Are you in business where the type of car you drive makes a difference? For example, realtors often find it important to have a nice large upscale car to take clients around in.
  • Car people: Are you a car/truck guy or gal, and just love driving a particular brand or type of car? I am asking this question as a man who receives a phone call from my wife each month when the current issue of ‘Car and Driver’ is delivered. I understand the thrill of driving a great car and the agony of driving a rust bucket. If you are a car nut like me, and you have a limited budget, you may be more vulnerable to making a mistake. You may need to read this article several times to put financial planning issues above your emotions.
  • SUVs: Some consumers purchase an SUV without fully educating themselves about possible additional costs. These vehicles are extremely popular because of perceived prestige, and they provide safety, great visibility, cargo capacity, and comfort. However, cars sometimes surpass the crash test standards of SUVs, and SUVs are more difficult to maneuver in emergencies because of their high center of gravity (which sometimes results in rollover crashes). SUVs can cause more severe injuries to others driving sedans. These luxury vehicles are more costly to buy, to operate (gas and maintenance), and to insure; yet poor people buy used high mileage SUVs all the time. Make sure that you do your research before buying.
  • Environment: Many people buy hybrids and electric cars because they are good for the environment. However, that may not always be the case. Consider that electric cars probably get their energy from fossil fuel powered electric plants. Also, the process of making high-tech batteries can be hard on their environment. Interesting article at this link.
  • Size: So what do you need and want–a sedan (size and number of doors), station wagon or hatchback (great for young people with who move a lot), van, truck, or SUV (they come in many sizes)? If you a sports buyer or if you buy a specific brand due to image or past satisfaction, you will probably skip thinking about many of these things when you purchase, but it may cost you.

Now that you have reviewed your financial plan, thought through the financial aspects of a car purchase and your specific needs without emotion, you are ready to identify the car that will best meet your needs.

Step 4: Identifying Potential Vehicle Choices. Steps number 2 and 3 should help you narrow the type of car that you will own in terms of price range, vehicle type, and domestic versus foreign nameplate. Now you are ready to select the best vehicle in terms of the following factors:

  • Description: Compile a description based on Step 3.
  • Price: Narrow your search based on your optimal price range (Steps 1 & 2).
  • Research: Gather research information. Use the internet, car magazines (such as Car and Driver [the library usually has back issues; pay special attention to the comparison article to similar car types in a certain price range]), trips to dealerships, and some of the links in this article.
  • Cost of Ownership: Now that you have your list narrowed down to 2–4 types of vehicles, you probably want to compare the costs of ownership. Obtain the following information:
    • Routine Maintenance
    • Gas mileage estimate
    • Repair estimates
    • Cost to insure
  • Hybrid Vehicles: Many car buyers choose hybrid vehicles to save money on gas or to emit fewer toxins into the environment. If your decision is based on gas mileage, make sure that you do the math calculations. Hybrids usually cost more than similar cars or SUVs and may take 50,000 to 100,000 miles for the gasoline savings to surpass the additional price of the car.
  • Safety: Last and surely not least, examine the safety ratings for each type of car. It’s important to consider:
    • Brakes: Compare the distance it takes to stop from 60 miles per hour. The difference in stopping distance can range dozens of feet—which can make all the difference in an emergency stopping situation. Also look for anti-lock brakes.
    • Crash ratings: Look up the vehicle crash rating on the NHTSA website.
    • Safety features: Look for other safety features, such as passive restraint and airbag systems.
    • Handling: This is important to know, because the better a car is at handling and communicating to the driver what is happening between the tires and the road (feedback), the better the car’s ability to assist with accident avoidance and poor weather. Car magazines usually provide this type of information.
  • Test Drive: Aol reports that 1 in 6 people don’t test drive a car before buying it. You may want to drive it a few times, to get a true idea of how it feels. Your list should now be narrowed down to a few vehicles. Go take them for a test drive, but before you do, go to step number 5. Remember, having done all this research you will know more about the car than 75% of car salespeople. You will be better able to spot exaggerated claims about the car the salesperson might make (this happens every time I talk to an automobile salesperson).

Step 5: New or Used? Cars depreciate pretty quickly, so it makes a lot of sense to buy a good used car instead of a new car. This is especially true if the car has low mileage and can be purchased from someone you trust, such as a friend or a family member, or from a “certified used car” program. However, be careful of the latter since they may charge a premium for the certification.

Before you begin to look for your dream car, you should do your research (e.g., with Kelley Blue Book) to find the approximate fair price range. Also consider using services like Experian and Carfax to research the title on your car to see if has been in a flood or an accident.

Avoid the extra add-on charges, such as gap insurance (your insurance agent should provide this), rust proofing, and extra warranties. These are usually a bad deal at best, if not simply a rip-off.

Now that you have the price range and have narrowed down the type of car you’re looking for, go to two or three dealers for each car and negotiate your lowest price. I once spent an entire Saturday afternoon driving back and forth between dealerships on opposite ends of town relaying the latest deal from one salesperson to the other. I spent a Saturday, but I ended up with a great car at a great price from the furthest dealership. I used the service department from the closer one.

If you are purchasing a used car, always have the car inspected by an excellent mechanic.

I have known too many people that were lured to sexy used European automobiles but were not ready for the larger regular maintenance and repair bills that may come with them. Unless you can afford the higher expense, stay away from buying high mileage European cars. Asian and some American used vehicles will generally give you fewer headaches.

There are two other very good articles on this website to read before making a decision; “Used car cautions,” and “How to buy a good used car for less than $5,000.”

Step 6: How to Pay for It? Cash, Financing and Leasing. If after you have you have reviewed your financial plan and have determined that you have sufficient reserves to purchase a car with money you have in savings or investments, you now have a choice to make: use your money or someone else’s.  If you can borrow against your home, chances are you can deduct the interest.  If this is the case, the net cost to borrow may be less than what your investments are earning. This assumes that your investments’ rate of return is very good and your income tax rate is medium to high.  However many people are more comfortable owning things outright, regardless of the financial advantages. Be very careful. Many people use their home’s equity and never pay it back in full.

If you decide to finance the car, know your financing options before buying. Talk to your bank or credit union, and look on the Internet for options. Read the fine print.

Most financial advisers probably advise against leasing; however, I think leasing deserves a second look but only in certain very rare instances. This is when manufacturers offer extremely low lease plans from time to time, with little or no money down. These are very attractive.  Do not be swayed by flashy advertisements. Read the fine print and make sure you know the details, such as mileage charges and down payments. Before signing, compare the actual costs for the next two leases, or to lease then buy it out. Do not use leasing to purchase a car that you normally could not afford.

For example, let’s say someone earning $50,000 can afford a payment on a $20,000 car ($522 for 48 months at 8%). However, a car manufacturer might offer a no-money-down lease on a nice mid-size car with a great warranty for $199 per month for 36 months. The lease would be a better overall deal for short-term cash flow. However, the purchaser would never have equity and would need to continue making car payments of some kind after the lease expires. For a single person who always wants to have a safer newer car (let’s call him or her “Pat”), this might be okay. But let’s say Pat sees an advertisement to lease a 3-series BMW for $359 per month with $2,500 down. Pat would certainly enjoy having a beautiful car and might be able to afford the down-payment and make the monthly lease payments. In the long run, though, could Pat afford to purchase the $35,000 car? Probably not. Now Pat has spent $2,500 from savings for a down-payment, and the insurance premiums are higher.

For calculating whether it is better to borrow or lease, and to determine whether borrowing from a home equity loan is advantageous, there are easy to use calculators in the “Auto Calculators” section of

Other sources of Information. The Federal Trade Commission website provides a lot of useful information about the car buying process in general. Consumer Reports ( provides good data about dependability ratings, but you have to pay for it. (Our local library has free online search and view capability, so check with yours.) If you are buying a new car, check the Internet for used car inspection checklists.


How to buy a great used car? Planning to buy a low-cost used car? If so, read How to Buy a Good Used Car for Less than $5,000, this helpful still gets a lot of web-traffic.

Used cars to avoid: Many people spend more on repairs than they do for the car itself. Read Used Car Cautions for a list of used cars to avoid.

Summary. You work hard for your money, and although this process is work, it’s worth your time and energy to make educated automobile purchase decisions in line with your financial plan. In the long run, you’ll be glad that you did, since your overall financial health will be affected by these decisions. Making a wise decision will give you greater satisfaction every time you get behind the wheel.