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Key car-buying questions

So many cars. So many questions. So little time. Shopping for a new set of wheels can unsettle many drivers. Here are some tips to help you through it all.

How Do You Get Ready?

In times past, many a prospect dropped into an auto dealership and could be sold a car just on its "shines and lines" alone. Now you can easily get good independent advice on virtually every make and model before you shop. Respected magazines like Car and Driver and Consumer Reports evaluate dozens of new models every year, and Consumer Reports surveys and rates the reliability of hundreds of used cars, both on-line and in print. Doing such "armchair research" can save days of travel time, not to mention gas.

When you're finally ready to negotiate, the Internet (try CarsDirect.com) can even give you any new car's dealer invoice and manufacturer's suggested retail price. The Kelley Blue Book, on-line at kbb.com, offers trade-in values and pricing information for nearly any car under the sun.

Some dealers used to resent car shoppers armed with printouts, calculators and magazines. No more! Dave Jones, general manager of Parsons Kia in Winchester, says well prepared car shoppers are now the rule, not the exception. "The Internet potentially makes every consumer a king," he says. "A well prepared prospect makes our job a lot easier," he says, "but you should still come prepared to negotiate. That's the norm."

One Parsons sales consultant, Susan Legg, spends most of her day fielding Internet inquiries about car availability, features and prices. Many queries come from the dealership's own web page, but the source of others is anybody's guess, says Jones.

Emily Marlow Beck, of Marlow Motors, the Front Royal Chrysler and Jeep dealer, says Internet-savvy shoppers have "changed everything." "We like them," she says, "because their homework makes the whole sales process clearer, simpler and faster."

What are the hidden costs?

The purchase costs many new car shoppers overlook are:

  • Financing

  • Fuel

  • Insurance

  • Maintenance

  • Depreciation

  • Taxes, title and tags

    • A handy "Total Cost to Own" on-line calculator at edmunds.com/tco will get you pretty close to a total five-year cost of ownership for any make and model. For Virginia title, tax and tag costs, carmax.com has a free online calculator.

      A new car or a used one?

      If that "total cost of ownership" calculation you just made seems way more than you can handle, the simplest solution, says Bill Hughes, General Sales Manager at Grubbs Chevrolet in Woodstock, is a good, late-model used car. "New cars lose maybe as much as 40% of their value after the first three years," he says, an expense used-car buyers avoid. Almost every other cost of ownership, from insurance to fees and taxes, is also lower for a used vehicle than for a brand new one.

      The one that isn't, of course, is maintenance, which usually starts to rise markedly after the first few years of ownership. But much-improved factory warranties often protect today's cars, and their second or even third owners, from major repair expenses for several more years than in the past.

      Another downside of buying a used car, of course, is getting a lemon - a car that won't run properly, or that has hidden damage. If you know the vehicle identification number (VIN) of the car, for a small one-time fee, you can check it for a previous reported collision and a few other major pitfalls at carfax.com. By far the best protection is a pre-purchase check on the vehicle by a trusted mechanic. In the Shenandoah Valley, most will charge about $75 for a quick once-over and around $200 for a more thorough checkup.

      All in all, the right used car may well be your best purchase. But Jones says that for many valley drivers, the lure of a brand new car can be irresistible. "Full warranty protection, no scratches, dings or damage, pristine. Hey, that new car smell just can't be beat," he chuckles. Beyond that, you get the latest technology, like Kia's Bluetooth cellular option, which frees drivers from hand-held cell phones and headsets when phoning.

      Finally, only new cars are eligible for dealer and manufacturer incentives and tax breaks. Though not as common as they were during the federal stimulus times a couple of years ago, good incentives are still out there. At last report, Hughes had one model with a $4,500 incentive attached. Always ask dealers what special deals they currently have before making your choice.

      Buy it outright or lease?

      Beck thinks buyers may be may be missing a good bet if they don't consider leasing instead. "If your budget's limited but you still want a nice new car, leasing can be the way to go," she suggests. "Even with today's low interest rates, monthly lease payments are lower than car loan payments for the same make and model, often by a few hundred dollars, "Emily explains. "And you're not locked into the same car for more than two or three years (the term of most leases)," she adds.

      But Jones adds these cautions: Unless your lease so stipulates, you'll never own the car, so you'll lose its resale or trade-in value. And you'll still have to insure it and pay for repairs and maintenance. If there's more than normal wear and tear when you turn the car in, you'll pay for that too. Another drawback is a penalty if you drive more than the specified annual mileage - usually 15,000 miles.

      How do I get rid of the car I currently own?

      Do you trade-in your old wheels on your new vehicle, or should you peddle the thing yourself? Most car buyers go the trade-in route, if only because the trade-in value reduces the sales price of the new car, and thus the state sales tax on it. Trading in your current car is quick, safe and easy - and, if you've got an old clunker, sometimes the only way of getting the thing off your hands. Still, some hold back, hoping to get a better offer by marketing the car themselves.

      It's rarely worth the hassle.

      "The biggest problem is the time you spend at it," says Kevin Gutshall at Grubbs. "You've got to advertise the car, wait - sometimes weeks -- for the phone to ring, then waste time on busted appointments and test drives with strangers."

      One good tip: "Don't put much money into a car you're trading in," advises Jones. "Wash it, vacuum it and bring along any repair records. Don't try to hide any serious damage, because the dealer will probably run Carfax or other check before settling on the trade-in value," he adds.

      I have my dream car: Now where should I have it serviced?

      If you're the second or third owner of an older vehicle, and if there's an independent mechanic you trust just around the corner, then go ahead and trust your car to him. But consider a few facts first.

      The corner garage may be more convenient, have lower labor costs, and less expensive parts (though some may be reclaimed ones.) The same guy may work on your car every time, getting to know it well. Those can all be plusses, when you have an old car you're reluctant to put a lot of money into, or you need something simple, like an oil change.

      But not always. Dealers usually have specialized repair and diagnostic equipment that, say, Ed's Garage won't have. Training too. So today, with more and more service problems involving highly complex electronic systems, you're usually better off taking a late-model vehicle to the dealer. If you car's still under warranty (and some warranties cover you for as long as 10 years), then using the corner garage could void your warranty. Dealer service work itself is usually warranted for longer than an independent, too.

      Lisa Hammons, service manager at Parsons Kia, offers another reason for using the dealer. "If we can't figure out the problem with your Kia, we can hook it up on-line directly to service engineers at the Kia factory, who can always figure out what's wrong. No more trial and error."

      Hughes wishes that customers better appreciated the importance of sticking with the dealer for service. "When you're choosing a car, you're choosing a dealer AND his service department - maybe for over a decade. So before you buy, check with your friends and see how they've been treated."

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