Skip to main content

How to Buy a Car

Feel good buying a new car.

Buying a car can be confusing. Are you getting the best deal? Is the car right for you? Let us help you drive away from a car-buying experience with the confidence of someone who knew what they were doing with these helpful tips.

Before you buy, here are some items you should consider.

You can buy a car either from a dealership or from a “private party”, which means a person selling you their car directly. There are pros and cons to each type of seller depending on what you are looking for. Perhaps the most important first step is determining the value of the vehicle you want. You can find this information at and/or Additionally, checking into the ratings on the car’s year, make, and model through Google searches, or paid services such as Consumer Reports, can be helpful to ensure you know if the car will meet your needs for drivability and reliability.

Regardless of who you choose to purchase from, it is recommended that you take the car to a certified mechanic if the vehicle is not brand-new. This is often less than $100 and many private sellers will agree to pay for this. They may say no, but you can always ask. When buying a car you may want to consider a vehicle history report to know the history of the vehicle. The most common provider of these reports is Carfax, but there are other options available. Your NWCU lending officer or member service specialist would be happy to obtain a report for you. Some dealerships may do this for you for free if you ask. Vehicle history reports provide a wide array of useful knowledge, such as how many owners the vehicle has had and the history of insurance claims or major repairs.

Some tips to buying a car from a dealership

Before deciding which dealership to go to, you should determine if they are a member of our dealership network. We partner with almost 200 dealerships across the state of Oregon. At a dealership they will run your credit report and try to get you the best rate they can from many different lenders, but if you are at one of our dealer-partners you can always request they use NWCU specifically. Consider getting pre-approved at NWCU before you go in and sometimes that can make this process a little easier as well as help eliminate any surprises that may be uncovered on your credit. You can call our loan center team, apply online, or come in to a branch to get the application process started. Once approved, we can generate a pre-approval letter for you to show the dealership.

Dealerships may offer you extended warranties and GAP coverage. Guaranteed asset protection (GAP) as well as major mechanical protection (MMP) – also called a service contract by many dealerships – are valuable forms of protection that we believe every member should take advantage of. Make sure to ask your NWCU representative, or someone at the dealership, about how you can use these products to get the most out of your vehicle ownership experience. Additionally, dealerships will often offer other services or bundles that will add to the cost of your loan. These can include paint or fabric treatments, window or tire add-ons, etc. It is important that you take the time to fully understand all of these add-ons before agreeing to purchase them. If you need to, step away and research these services yourself for a few minutes before deciding if you really want to pay for them.

When car shopping, make sure you know what you want and don't settle for less

Make a checklist of features that are important to you. Define if they are “must haves” or “nice to haves”. When looking at a vehicle check for each of these so that you don’t miss one and end up purchasing a car that doesn’t meet your needs. A good example is making sure your child’s car seat will fit.

Sometimes you can get better deals on features that are important to some, but not to you. For example, if the color of your car is not important, look for the colors that don’t sell as well and you may find that the dealer or seller may be having difficulties selling it. Other examples include lacking cruise control, power windows/locks, or 4-wheel drive on a truck.

You should always take the car for a test drive, or a few test-drives if you would like. It is always good to try different test drives with different passengers, roads, or weather conditions. Don’t worry about these test-drives being inconvenient for the salesperson or the private party seller, they want you to buy the car and feeling secure in your purchase is good for all parties involved.

It is also important to keep in mind that the market value will continue to drop the longer you own a vehicle. If you trade in a car too quickly, you may end up in a situation where you owe more than you can get from the car on trade in, or even potentially with a private party sale. Be cautious of vehicles with deep discounts and sale prices that seem too good to be true, this could mean the vehicle is poised to drop in value, which over time could vastly outpace any initial discount you received.

Additional helpful tips

Car dealerships have monthly and annual sales goals. Often at the end of a month or year you can often negotiate for a better price to help them achieve these goals. Keep an eye out for new vehicles right before a new model year is released. There will be less selection but much better value available through factory or dealer incentives and rebates to purchase.

If you are buying from a traditional car dealership or a private-party, you can negotiate your price. They may not budge, but you can make offers or counter what they are asking for. Always be prepared to walk away. Don’t let yourself get so attached to a car, that you will accept whatever price they ask. If you have found your dream car, but the deal turns sour, know that you will find a comparable car again. Often if you show that you are willing to walk away, the seller will be more willing to work with you to close the sale. On the other hand, if you dislike or are uncomfortable with the negotiating aspect of purchasing a vehicle, you can always go through a wholesaler where the prices are set firm and are often competitive with the final price you could negotiate at a traditional dealership.

When you go to sign the paperwork at a dealership, review the contract carefully and make sure that the price is what you agreed to. Don’t agree to take the car before financing is secure. Generally speaking, you should avoid signing a purchase contract unless you are sure about every aspect of the transaction. This is a legally binding document that states you are taking ownership of the vehicle. For example, make sure that the contract you sign has the financial institution listed and isn’t somewhere you don’t want your business. You may think you are financing through NWCU and could be surprised later to learn that wasn’t the case.

After you buy a car, there are a few more things to do

The dealership will handle the DMV steps for you, like getting your license plates, a temporary registration, etc. This will often come with a small fee.

A private-party sale means you will need to handle the DMV issues yourself after the seller signs the title over to you. Make sure that they release the title to you so that you are not responsible for any of their driving actions. It is important to have all listed owners sign off on the title.

If you want special or personalized license plates you will have to go to the DMV yourself to purchase those. You will need to make sure you have insurance; full coverage is required for any vehicle that is financed. Your insurance can be added over the phone usually.

Once you have found the car, sorted the financing, covered yourself with the appropriate options and insurance, you are good to go! You can now set up your payments. Remember that using auto-pay or bill pay are great options to not have to think about making your bills on time.

After that, you are set and can drive off into the sunset with your new car with the comfort of knowing you’ve done everything to get the best deal for your money. That is a good feeling.