How to Choose the Best Car to Buy: 9 Research Steps

Choosing the best car to buy for you can be a challenge! The number of options available can be overwhelming, and it can be stressful to sort through all of them without a clear game plan. Here are nine clear steps that you can take to make your car-buying research process feel significantly more manageable.

1. Create a Google Spreadsheet

Create a new Google Spreadsheet. Add the following column headers:

  • Manufacturer
  • Model
  • Body Style
  • Notable Features
  • Other Comments

Then, somewhere between two of those columns, create N columns whose headers are named after years, starting with the earliest year before which you wouldn’t even look at a car. For example, you might create one column for each year between 2009 and 2019. In Step (4) below, when you are filling out rows, you’ll be putting the Kelley Blue Book prices for those models in those years’ cells. (Don’t worry about that for now.)

2. Write down some preferences

Write down your preferences on various aspects of the vehicle you are looking for:

  • Figure out what body styles of vehicle you would be willing to purchase. Common styles are:
    • Sedan
    • Wagon/Hatchback
    • SUV
    • Crossover
    • Truck
  • Figure out how much you’d be willing to pay for a car, maximum. This is a tough step! This site offers three rules for determining how much you “should” pay for a car:
    1. “One-size-fits-all rule” rule: 35% of annual income
    2. “Frugal rule”: 10% of annual income
    3. “Compromise rule”: 20% of annual income.
  • Figure out what kind of drivetrain that you want in a car. Here are the most common options, along with some personal commentary:
    1. RWD (Rear-Wheel Drive): Terrible in the snow without snow tires; Super fun; Usually employed by sports cars or trucks.
    2. FWD (Front-Wheel Drive): Pretty standard. With separate snow tires, can be great in the snow.
    3. AWD/4WD (All-Wheel/Four-Wheel Drive): Can be good in the snow, but may still require separate snow tires. Lower gas mileage than FWD/RWD.
  • Figure out the minimum gas mileage number that you’re willing to accept. 15MPG? 20MPG? 35MPG? Consider that older cars may get lower gas mileage unless you perform some repairs.
  • Figure out the minimum power output number (horsepower/HP) that you’re willing to accept. 90HP? 150HP? You may not care about this.
  • Figure out how far you’re willing to travel to look at and pick up the car you select. You may or may not be OK traveling to Ohio to get a car that you really care about!
  • Figure out what kind of vehicle features you cannot do without: Air conditioning? Power windows? Keyless entry?

Write all of these criteria down somewhere – either as a cell in your Google Sheet or in some separate text document.

3. Find Makes and Models

Use one of the following websites to search for used cars, using filters as much as possible to limit your search to the criteria you’ve defined above. NOTE that, during this step, you are NOT searching for specific cars to buy. You are only trying to search for makes and models that fit your criteria. You will come back to these sites (and maybe more) after you figure out what cars even exist that fit your defined criteria:

4. Add Makes and Models to Spreadsheet

Add cars that you find in your search above to your Google Sheet. Again, you’re not adding links to specific entries to the spreadsheet. Just fill in a new row for every combination of model/body style you find, adding comments to the “Comments” column as you see fit. You might want to make notes of the various trim levels of the cars you find in the “Comments” column for research later.

5. Add Market Prices to Spreadsheet

Once you fill in several rows in your spreadsheet, use Kelley Blue Book to fill in the prices for N year columns for a row’s used car. You’re doing this so that you can see which model/body style/year combinations you might be able to afford when you do your specific searches later.

6 (Optional, but highly recommended).

Pay $35 for one year of access to Consumer Reports’ “Digital” plan. Consumer Reports has the best reviews of used cars that I’ve ever read. They’re organized by vehicle model year. They look kinda like this.

7. Start Eliminating!

Based on reviews for each car’s year (from Consumer Reports and/or elsewhere), methodically eliminate model/body style/year combinations that seem like they’d be poor choices (bad reliability; poor driver satisfaction). “Eliminate” them from your sheet however you see fit – I usually mark those cells with a red background.

8. Specific Vehicle Research

You should now have a manageable number of model/body style/year combination choices that seem like they’d be good fits for you. At this point, use Google to research the features of each of those choices. Eliminate model/body style/year combinations that don’t fit all of your criteria, making notes of combinations that only fit your criteria if the car is sold with a certain trim level.

9. Look for Specific Listings!

At this point, you might only have a handful of choices remaining. If you have a bunch of choices remaining, you’re lucky! That means you’ll have an easier time finding a good fit 😊.

Now it’s time to return to the list of websites from (2) and do specific searches for all of those remaining model/body style/year selections.

You might be able to eliminate more combination selections based on your search results. For example, if there are 0 results in your area across all websites for a 2002 Ford Focus sedan, you might need to eliminate that choice from contention, unless you are willing to wait for more results.

Bookmark/save URLs to specific car listings that you find. Once you have URLs/listings for every selection in your spreadsheet, it will likely become clear to you which listings to investigate or inquire about further. There’s a whole other set of advice one could give another regarding how to weed out used car lemons, or how to get the best deal, but that is outside the scope of this advice 😊.

Good luck!

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