1. Know your budget and stay within it, even if you’re “just looking.” Why not dare to dream? Because when you look around at cars that are out of your price range the ones that you can afford may seem to pale in comparison. This puts you at risk of buying a car that looks great but runs terribly (a.k.a. a lemon) because it gets you in an aesthetic frame of mind rather than a functional one.
2. View at least 15 cars that are in your price range before making a decision. Test drive each car with someone who knows about cars. Your parents may or may not fit the bill on this one. If they do, great, take them along, but if your Mom or Dad is an auto mechanical novice make sure you take somebody who knows cars. Take Mom or Dad as well, but a person who is truly knowledgeable about cars is invaluable on a test drive.
3. Do your research. Some people think that research stops with knowing the Blue Book value of the car you’re interested in. It doesn’t. You need to know about common problems to look for in the year and model of car you’re interested in, you need to know that the car is in good mechanical condition, you need to know that the body is in good shape and if possible get a report of any accidents it’s been in and copies of all service records.
4. Based on your test drive, your research and your preferences narrow the field to 3 choices and test drive them again. Ask questions specific to each car, don’t be afraid to ask anything that is relevant to the car’s performance and value even if it sounds silly or stupid. Things like the number of previous owners (1 owner is always ideal), how many accidents it’s been in and how serious the damage was, which major parts that have been replaced or rebuilt, whether or not anyone has smoked in the vehicle, if it was used in regular carpooling, and if it has been driven in extreme climates are all fair questions.
5. With input from your parents and your mechanical expert pick your prize, choose which car you want...