How to Buy a Car: Auto Buying Basics

Buying a car is not only a major purchase but it can also be a complicated and stressful process. This is why we pulled together a step-by-step car buying guide to help save you time and simplify the process of buying a vehicle. Think of this purchase as an investment in yourself and an investment in your ability to get where you need to go each day. This information, along with SDCCU’s top rated auto loan services, will make the car buying process less stressful.

Step 1 – Determine What You Can Afford

Knowing how much you can afford to spend is the first critical step in finding the right vehicle for you. Start by figuring out your down payment. A larger down payment will help keep your monthly payments lower for the duration of your loan. Additionally, a higher credit score can help you get a lower interest rate on the auto loan, further saving you money over the life of the loan. Next, review your monthly budget and be honest about what you can afford each month. However, don’t just think about the minimum monthly payment. Be sure to factor in other expenses that come with owning a car such as gas, maintenance, insurance, registration, etc. Check out our free auto loan calculator to see how much you can afford, and how varying down payment amounts or auto loan rates will affect your monthly payment.

Step 2 – Find the Right Vehicle

After you have determined the amount you can spend, it’s time to find the right vehicle. There are hundreds of makes and models of vehicles available on the market and the best way to narrow down your list is to analyze your lifestyle and determine what type of vehicle is right for you. Do you have kids and need extra room? Will the vehicle be used solely for commuting to and from work? Are you an avid camper who needs all-wheel drive? Looking for something sporty? These questions are important as they will help you determine the type of vehicle you should consider. Buying a sports car for a family of six isn’t practical and is an example of why this step is very important. Use sites like and to view vehicles with your desired features and compare the listed value with the available vehicles in your area.

Step 3 – Secure Financing for Your Vehicle

We recommend securing your financing before you ever set foot in a dealership. It’s one of the most important things you can do as a consumer since securing financing first helps ensure you get a preferable rate. To secure your financing, visit to browse auto loans that can fit your needs. Apply for pre-approval online or through Internet Branch online banking. With an easy and secure online application process, you can cross another step off your car buying checklist without leaving the house.

Step 4 – Negotiate the Price

The negotiation process is what many people dread and what can make the car buying experience stressful. However, skipping the “haggle” may result with you paying more than you could have for your vehicle. Dealerships will usually come down from an initial price with a little bit of work. Use the information you gathered when researching your vehicle to help give you an estimate of comparable prices of similar vehicles in your area. Use this info along with offers from other dealerships to negotiate the price. Remember, you don’t have to settle for the first offer. If the dealer isn’t offering a price you like, be willing to walk away. You can continue your search for the right vehicle.

Step 5 – Sign and Drive

Now that you’ve expertly negotiated your way to a price you’re comfortable with, you’re ready to sign the paperwork and take your new car home. Make sure to read everything you’re signing and ensure you understand the terms of your purchase. While completing the final paperwork, be aware of any add-ons or extras the dealer might try to include. Some add-ons might be worth it but it could also mean changes to the final sale amount. These include:

  • Extended warranties

  • Gap insurance

  • All season floor mats

  • Splash guards

  • Supplemental car alarms

  • Paint and upholstery sealer

Be sure to research these products to know if you want them included or not. These additions can increase the final price of the car significantly. If you don’t want these products, sternly but politely, decline and be aware that they will often ask you about them more than once. Lastly, ask the dealer to go through the car one last time. Make sure you know how to connect to Bluetooth, what control does what, etc., all the basics to ensure you know how to operate it safely.  

Buying a vehicle doesn’t have to be stressful. Of course there’s a lot to look out for but being prepared and doing your homework will help make the auto buying process a seamless experience. The feeling of purchasing your own car and driving it for the first time should feel special. Follow the above steps to make sure it is. SDCCU is here to help so make sure to visit for more information on how we can make the car buying process easier for you. Happy car shopping!

Does the whole car buying process seem overwhelming? Check out SDCCU’s Signature Auto Buying Service if you are in the market for a new car. You provide the details of the car you want and SDCCU auto experts will locate it, negotiate the price and coordinate delivery to a SDCCU branch closest to you.  Save yourself the time and stress and let our professional Auto Buying team handle the buying for you. The process couldn’t be easier!

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