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Car buying checklist

Driving a new car home from the dealership can be pretty complicated. By the time you get to that point, you might have engaged in weeks or months of research, test drives, negotiating, and maybe even changing your mind a few times.

But taking the time to be fully prepared for your car search can make the buying process significantly easier. Here’s a car buying checklist to take with you when you begin to shop for a new car:

Do your research

Narrow down the kinds of cars you’d be interested in. A compact car for city driving and parking? An SUV or larger sedan for transporting your family? A truck for towing? What features are must-haves? Which ones would be nice to have? And, most importantly, what is your budget? Knowing this information can help you narrow down which car dealerships to visit based on what types of cars they have available.

Before you become really attached to a certain make and model of car, check with your auto insurance provider to see how much that new car costs in insure. You might hit the top of your car-buying budget, only to blow that budget on dramatically higher car insurance payments.

Get pre-approved for a loan

If you plan to finance your car purchase, you might not get the best loan terms from the dealer. Banks and credit unions offer competitive interest rates and are worth exploring.

While it does temporarily lower your credit score when you make loan inquiries, you can reduce your risk of this by submitting loan applications within a two-week period. This way, all inquiries count as one.1

Prepare your car for trade-in

If you’re trading in a car to buy a new one, take some time to prepare that car for trade-in. First, clean all your personal items out of the car (don’t forget to look under the seats!).

You should have the car title on-hand so the dealer knows that you own the car and can therefore sell it. You also need the car’s registration, owner’s manual, and all sets of keys. If you’re still making loan payments on that car, have a recent loan statement available as well.

List of dealerships you want to visit

If there are specific cars you’d like to test drive, make appointments at those dealerships. But don’t forget to look up reviews or ask around about friends’ or coworkers’ experiences at different dealerships. No car is worth subjecting yourself to hours of poor customer service.

Create a plan for negotiating

Ask the dealerships you plan to visit for a copy of the official invoice from when they purchased the car to sell. This is because you want to negotiate using the invoice price as a starting price—not the Manufacturer’s Suggested Retail Price (MSRP). Some dealers will refuse to give this to you, but you can assume a fair price based on information some dealers will provide.

Negotiating with a car salesperson is tough, but stay strong, avoid features and add-on fees you don’t want to pay for, and be prepared to walk away and visit a different dealer. If you give yourself time to shop around, you won’t give in to a less-than-ideal purchase price out of desperation.

Don’t forget: A personal check, your driver’s license, and proof of insurance

When you’re ready to buy, bring a checkbook with you. Few dealers let you put the full down payment on your credit card. You’ll need your driver’s license to even be able to test drive a car, let alone buy it. You also have to prove that you have a car insurance policy. You can call your insurance provider ahead of time for information on how to get your new car onto your existing policy.

Printable car buying checklist