I bought a car. Here’s what I did wrong.

I’ve taken a lot of pride in not owning a car, as I have intentionally built a lifestyle around transit and walkability over the last several years. It was something that made me happy, something I liked talking about. I sold an inherited 2000 Toyota Camry a year and a half ago and even before then was living without any real reliance on a car.

Then this summer I married SACM, who was using her struggling 2000 Kia Sportage to visit her large and local family. She was ready to replace it, and so we were made our first large purchase as a married couple — since the house we bought together slightly predated our getting married.

We recently bought a pre-owned 2012 Kia Soul with 32,000 miles from a suburban Kia dealership, from which we got extended roadside assistance and warranty coverage to 100,000 miles (from the original 60,000 miles).

She led the research effort and did so thoroughly. I led the on-site negotiation and made some mistakes. Here’s what we learned buying a car from a dealership for the first time in our lives.

First, yes, you should listen to that 2013 episode of This American Life during which they staked out a suburban car dealership. I found lots of amusing similarities. We did go to a dealership at the end of the month (and the year) which perhaps helped modestly, but I wouldn’t get too hung up about timing.

  • Set Expectations: We live in a city, don’t drive far or often, have no private off-street parking and so mostly only use the vehicle for short trips and for moving large or heavy loads. SACM had some style preferences, so we knew we were looking for something like an SUV, pre-owned, with low-mileage and a reputation for longterm dependability.
  • Do your research: SACM led this, though I also roped in my father’s Consumer Reports subscription and some insight from more car-knowledgeable friends. SACM’s father helpfully targeted our sights on 2012 cars that might be coming off three-year leases, a common contract length.
  • Set a Budget: Well, yeah, of course. This took a little effort and a few versions, but ultimately we set a $15,000 overall goal with the aim of keeping any monthly payment to less than $300 a month. To get there, keeping taxes and inevitable extra charges, we were setting a $12,000 sticker price budget. We ended up paying less than $15,000 and with a monthly payment of about $210. The interest rate was 4.9 percent, high enough that we’ll accelerate paying it down.
  • Set a Shortlist: Using that information, SACM set a short list of acceptable vehicles and then went shopping online. Within a short ride, she found several options at a Kia dealership in suburban South Jersey, and she set an appointment for us to visit. We requested to test drive three specific Souls that SACM had identified.
  • Focus on the Overall Price: The dealer was entirely focused on the monthly payment, something I wasn’t interested in talking about. There are too many inputs for that to be manufactured for it to be valuable for me. I insisted on hearing the overall price for every step of the process, rather than how it affected the monthly price until the very end of the process.
  • Don’t get too chummy: I am a friendly person but I try in these circumstances to not develop much of a rapport with the salesman. I am cordial, direct and friendly but I don’t like offering much insight into me as a consumer. It doesn’t help me nearly as much as it helps the dealer.
  • Find something to negotiate on: I had heard dealers try to stay firm on online prices since they’re purposely marketed low enough to get in foot traffic, and I hate quibbling over sticker prices, so I knew I didn’t want to argue there. I did, however, want additional roadside assistance and an extended warranty. From the start of the negotiation, I said I would accept the starting sticker price for concessions on the warranty and we got some of that.

All of that was well played. But here’s what I did wrong:

  • We didn’t test-drive our lowest cost option: We liked the 2012 model (more than the first one we tried) and got stuck there, without making it a point to try the 2010 option we came prepared to look at, which was several thousand dollars cheaper. The dealer made a big show of how involved it was to bring a car around for a test-drive and subtly that likely influenced our decision. I regret that, as I suspect that cheaper option would have been fine. It had more miles and was two years older, so it may have had different problems, but that remains in my mind. If you have a shortlist of cars you’re interested in, test drive them in ascending cost order. We went with descending order, which doesn’t quite make sense. You want to see the cheapest option so you can stay put with the most affordable option you’re interested in owning.
  • I didn’t have a strong understanding of the warranty pricing: I was pushing somewhat arbitrarily on reducing that cost. All I had was the dealer’s (likely) inflated price of those extended offerings, so while we had our roadside assistance and warranty coverage extended, I wasn’t educated enough to do that well.
  • We probably had too -high- a budget: We did do our research, but I think we could have had a lower budget, which would have influenced where we landed. I think we spent more than we needed to get the outcome we wanted.

We left with the Soul four hours after we first arrived at the dealership. Not because of any extended negotiation on our part, but because of the lengthy process, paperwork, the year-end rush and, I imagine, an effort on their part to increase our level of our impatience.

I don’t think I executed the process particularly well, and I’m still a little new to the feeling of putting so much money into a declining asset, but it will get use and was a purely American learning experience. I hope you can do better because of this.

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