Tips for buying a car in a pandemic

The pandemic has brought a lot of firsts – for some people, making bread or going to therapy for the first time. For others, taking up running or starting / ending relationships. For me, it was a material change that is part of a lifestyle change – I bought a car!

My bucket list of things to do with my car is basically almost complete after a mere 2 months:

  • Drive myself to IKEA
  • Go see my cousin and her kiddos, visit my goat friends in CT, drive myself home to see my parents
  • Drive to the beach just to get ice cream
  • Go for hikes
  • Go to the grocery store (thrilling!)
  • Play on inconveniently located sports leagues
  • Visit far-away bakeries and markets
  • Still to come: use it to drive myself canvassing for candidates that matter to me, drive myself to Maine (sad but a tiny 6-seater plane is not where I want to be right now), and drive to see my favorite (yes, only) nephew in NJ plus my sis and brother-in-law

I am honestly loving having a car and the freedom of movement (in a time when so much else is closed off) more than I expected – even if the journey there was a bit time consuming and chaotic. I wrote up these tips to share with a friend and thought others who are considering their first / next car purchase in these weird times could benefit as well!

  1. Consumer Reports has great reviews of cars, including such that you can see the items that might matter most to you (driver side space, mpg, etc.). It’s $60 for a year and it saved me a few thousand dollars! Their website is better than their app but both are useful – and you can use it for way more than just cars.
  2. When you are ready to get a bid (you have picked what car you want), you can actually submit that request through Consumer Reports and people specifically told me they were giving me the CR price which was $2k off immediately. This is under “See Member Price on Local Inventory” on the car page. Highly recommend! This is how I got almost all my bids (and dozens of phone calls). I planned to buy in NH and ended up getting one in MA for a much lower price for the same car.
  3. Everyone is able to negotiate by email right now – and you can and should get offers in writing and keep your options open. I did test drives in the weeks ahead of picking my first choice, and negotiated the price with a few places and only made a final visit to the one where I picked out and bought my car.
  4. In general, inventory is wicked behind due to the supply chain / imports being stalled so there is somewhat of a finite source of new cars at the moment. Be ready to make a quick decision when you find the one you want! I lost the one I wanted in the color I thought I wanted (RIP galactic aqua mica) but love where I ended up with my blue flame.
  5. Be wary of what features are or are not included. I almost got a “better” deal on a version without a spare tire (super common), which sounds fine if you’re never doing distance driving but is less good for road trips of any length.
  6. Go in with a loan in hand from your bank so you can better negotiate. I had one approved, and ended up getting a 3 year loan (as recommended by my financial advisor) with 0% interest and 0% down. Don’t be fooled by seeing the “total monthly charge” – ask and ask and ask about the interest rate vs the principal and do your own math. They didn’t originally want to offer me 0% but I told them I had an offer in hand so they had to make it worth my time. I did have to give up $1000 in “Toyota cash” and get $500 off instead, but I was going to pay much more than that in interest with my bank loan so it still came out as a gain.
  7. Ask lots of questions: for example, how does registration work, what kind of plate options do you have (I got the whale one I wanted!), what other taxes will I have to pay, everything that could be a hassle later.
  8. Make a list of everything else you need to settle once you sign the paperwork. For me, that included insurance, parking permit, EZ Pass, AAA membership, and emergency supplies. I still need to get an almanac, because as much as I love my phone, I never want to go anywhere without a map.
  9. Get your insurance quotes as you’re collecting bids, since you need it to take the car home.  https://www.thezebra.com/ is what my cousin who works in insurance recommended and it’s how I got to my quote.
  10. Per my mom: go in for the final negotiation when you are not in a hurry. This thing takes HOURS and if we were in a rush it would have been miserable. Give yourself time to do it right.

What other advice do you have for a first-time car owner? What’s in your car’s emergency kit? Where should I travel to next??

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