Couple sitting in car with a salesman talking to them through the window.

Whether you're cruising down the highway of independence or shifting gears into adulthood, buying your first car is an exciting milestone. It's a journey that takes a bit of planning and decision-making, and here at Rivermark Credit Union, we're all about helping you navigate through this process.

Let's explore the different avenues you can take to find that perfect set of wheels that aligns with your budget and lifestyle.

Research cars in your price range, their features, and reliability ratings

Before diving into the car-buying process, it's essential to do your research. Start by identifying your price range, taking into consideration your budget, and any financing options you may have.

Websites like Kelley Blue Book (KBB) and Edmunds provide valuable information on new and used car prices, as well as the true market value of vehicles. Additionally, you can check out Autoblog and for expert and consumer reviews that can help you make an informed decision.

Set a budget for what you can afford to spend on a car

Once you have a clear idea of your price range, it's crucial to establish a budget to ensure you stay within your means. Consider not only the purchase price of the car but also other expenses such as insurance, maintenance, and fuel costs.

Once you have a budget breakdown to account for the cost of your car, as well as all additional expenses, you'll be able to know your realistic limit for what you can afford. To make sure you're getting the best deal, be sure to compare prices for similar models at different dealerships - do this before you walk into any showrooms.

Start searching for used cars over buying new ones

Buying a used car can often be a more cost-effective option, especially for first-time buyers. It allows you to maximize your budget and potentially get more features for your money. Websites like TrueCar and J.D. Power offer extensive listings of both new and used cars, allowing you to compare prices, read reviews, and even negotiate deals. Don't forget to consider certified pre-owned vehicles, which often come with warranties and additional benefits.

Visit several dealerships to compare prices, quality of service, and financing options

Taking the time to visit multiple dealerships is essential to get a comprehensive understanding of what's available in the market. It gives you the opportunity to compare prices, test drive different models, and evaluate the quality of service provided by each dealership. Additionally, inquire about financing options, as some dealerships may offer competitive rates or special financing programs for first-time buyers.

Go online and check out websites that provide reviews of local dealerships

Before making any final decisions, it's helpful to check out online platforms that provide reviews of local dealerships. Websites like,, and Consumer Reports offer insights from other car buyers regarding their experiences with specific dealerships. This information can be valuable in helping you choose a dealership that not only offers fair prices but also delivers excellent customer service.

Read up on the safety measures each car has so you know what to expect when driving it

Prioritize your safety on the road by thoroughly researching the safety features of the cars you're interested in. Look for information on crash test ratings, driver-assistance technologies, and overall reliability. Sources like the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) provide comprehensive safety ratings and reports that can guide your decision-making process.

Tips & Tricks

Walking onto a Lot

  • Tell the salesman your search parameters. That will save you both a lot of time. Don’t get sidetracked by other vehicles. If the salesman introduces you to a car you hadn’t previously thought of, do your homework and consider adding it to your search.
  • Don’t give too much weight to any initial price listed on the window or quoted by the salesman. In general, these “starting prices” are inflated. Remember, the price you pay should always be based on your own homework.

Test Drives

If you see a car that fits exactly what you’re looking for, do give it a test drive. You’ll need proof of insurance and your driver's license.

Important Tip! When you find a used car you’re truly interested in and that you have taken on a satisfactory test drive, do arrange to take it to a mechanic to be checked out. In fact, before you start car shopping, have your mechanic lined up and find out how much they will charge for a diagnostic check.

A test drive does not obligate you to make an offer. Do not make an offer before you’ve had a chance to do your homework. Once you test-drive a car, some salesmen will want to pressure you into making an offer. Don’t be pressured! It’s your money. Even if that car ends up being sold, chances are there’s another very similar—if not identical—car available in your area.

What About Financing?

Many people get financing at a dealership because it is convenient. Of course, financing is a profit-maker for dealers. That doesn’t mean you can’t get a good deal, but it is important to negotiate your price before talking about financing.

Important Tip! Negotiating the price on the car you’re buying should always be done first—and separately—from any negotiations on your trade or financing. Our Express Auto Loan helps you be able to negotiate as a cash buyer, giving you a leg up! Get pre-approved, and we’ll provide you with a “blank check” to empower your negotiations with the dealership. Then it's as simple as writing in the agreed price up to your pre-approved limit.

Make an Offer

There are as many tactics of negotiation as there are cars. You may want to start by making an offer that’s slightly below what you’re willing to pay. No matter what you offer, the seller will almost always come back with a counteroffer. In fact, the offer and counteroffer process can sometimes last well over an hour.

Important Tip! Unless you’re absolutely certain that the negotiated deal is right for you, do not sign the paperwork and do not take the car home to “think about it”! That’s called “taking delivery” of the vehicle. Once you do that, you just might find yourself locked in to the deal you’re just “thinking about”.

Beware of the Monthly Payment!

A good car loan starts with the right purchase price. Salesmen may try to ask you about the monthly payment you can afford. Tell the dealer you are financing with your credit union and that you’re more concerned about the purchase price than the payment.

What About Dealer Add-Ons and Extras?

Rust proofing, Undercoating, Security systems, additional warranties… You will probably be offered several extra options that can be added on to the purchase price of your car. These items can also be good profit generators for dealerships. Should you take them? When it comes to “paint-protection” items, probably not.

What about that warranty? Some warranties are good—some are not. Your credit union can give you a good idea of what a reasonable amount and coverage would be—or they may be able to offer you a similar product for less. Check it out before you sign!

What if you Have a Trade-In?

Know the value of your trade by researching the wholesale/trade-in values at Kelley Blue Book or Edmunds. The dealer does incur expenses by taking your car, so you shouldn’t expect retail value for it.

If you have a trade, be sure to negotiate the price of the car you’re purchasing first. Otherwise, the dealer may say you’re getting $5000 for your car that’s worth $2000. That extra $3000 will likely be added right onto your purchase price.

Sometimes dealers will work the numbers this way because you owe more on your trade than the trade-in value. If this is the case, you should consider waiting to purchase your new car.


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