Simple 10-Point Buying a Car Checklist (Feel Confident!)

buying a car checklist for new or used, great for beginners buying from the dealer, things to consider before

This free buying a car checklist will ease your mind, help you avoid mistakes, and get you a better deal.

Is buying a car one of your least favorite things to do? It can be for me too. Much of the dread comes from feeling intimidated by the process. Let’s fix that today with a simple car buying checklist that covers:

  • A step-by-step guide
  • What to bring
  • Best deal-making tips

Being well prepared will turn your wariness into confidence. All you need to do is start!

10 Point Buying a Car Checklist

1. Determine Your Budget

Determine your car buying budget before searching for a car. Open up your bank accounts, review your income and expenses, and figure out what you can afford.

A solid downpayment isn’t mandatory. But the more cash you have now, the less you’ll be paying in interest fees later.

2. Figure Out How You Will Pay

If you have a downpayment or are paying in cash: Determine how you’ll make your money available when you need it.

Related: Hidden Benefits of Saving

If you need a loan: You can lend directly through banks and credit unions, or do dealership financing.

*Check your credit at this stage. If it’s lower than you’d like, do what you can to improve it before heading to the dealership.

Get preapproved for a loan BEFORE going into the dealership. Ideally, do it with multiple lenders. Getting pre-approved is fast, and it gives you negotiating power. It shows the dealership that you have other options if you don’t like their loan terms.

Most preapproval letters are valid between 30 and 60 days.

3. Decide What You Want

This is the fun part! Make a list of features, color, models, size, and anything else that is important to you. After, prioritize your “must haves” and “nice to haves.”

woman holding keys

Buyer Beware: Building a car on a manufacturer’s site can be fun and help you narrow down what you want. But after we did this, multiple dealers called and texted for up to 6 months. It was a major pain!

4. See what’s out on the market

Next, go online and find out what is available in your area.

Write down the stock number or vehicle identification number (VIN) of the cars you find.

5. Research the fair market price

To get a good price for the car you want, you need to know the going rate. Kelley Blue Book is an excellent resource for determining the fair value of each car you look at.

6. Factor in the Hidden Things

Next, take into account the following “little things” that can make a big difference in your final cost.

hidden factor for buying a car checklist pdf template

Things like:

  • timing: buy a car at the end of a month. December (end of year) is also the best time of year.
  • insurance rates
  • for electric cars, there might be a tax credit offered.
  • maintenance, gas, insurance, registration, taxes, and fees.

7. Test Drive Different Options

At this stage, test drive your top 3 options to narrow it down.

What do you check for?

  • Examine the car. And drive without the radio on so that you can hear. Listen for vibrations or noises.
things to look for buying a car checklist, from inspection to test drive
  • Take the car on the highway. And a stop light. And a hill. See how it drives in all types of everyday environments.
  • Compare the car to your list from #3. Double-check that this vehicle aligns with what you want.

8. Gather Quotes & Run the Numbers

Crunch the numbers of the car or cars you like best. If you are taking out a loan, evaluate your options with a free auto loan calculator.

9. Evaluate a trade-in offer

Find out what your old car is worth. You can use Kelley Blue Book and/or what people are selling similar cars for in your area.

Pro Tip: See if it’s worth selling your car privately. We started selling our old cars on Facebook Marketplace instead of trading in. We got more money for our cars this way.

10. Buy Your Car & Finalize Your Insurance

It’s time! You’ve done your homework. You know what to do. Buy your car with confidence.

Related: Year End Financial Planning Checklist

How to Not Waste Your Time

One of my all-time pet peeves is sitting around at the dealers while they try to sell you a car (over and over).

You don’t have to! Once you know what car you want, negotiate over the phone instead of going in. Often, they’ll call you back instead of making you wait on the phone (like they would at the dealership).

And if you’re at the dealers? You can also walk around the lot instead of waiting in the office.

What to Bring: Buying a Car Checklist


  • Preapproved loan information.
  • Driver’s license.
  • Proof of insurance.
  • Funds for your down payment.

If You are Financing Through the Dealership:

  • Proof of employment
  • Income
  • Residence

If You Are Trading in an Old Car:

  • Current title
  • Registration
  • Loan information

Related: Debt Tracker to Pay Off Your Car

buying a car checklist tips and process, what to bring

Best Deal-Making Tips For Buying a Car

Next, these tips will get you the best price possible for your car!

Check for deals. Dealers could have special pricing depending on the time of year. Search for discounts beforehand. Things like:

  • Holiday weekends deals
  • Special rebates or cash-back offers
  • Low-interest financing
  • Student or veteran discounts

Don’t tell them your budget. As soon as you do, they’ll likely try to stretch it.

Negotiate the price, not the payment. Dealers will try to make your monthly payments look good. But always remember that it’s the final price you pay that counts.

Don’t talk trade-in. It’s best to negotiate your purchase price before talking about your old car. That way the dealership won’t try to use a trade-in price for leverage.

Ask the dealer how long they’ve had the car. Often, dealers don’t want to keep a car on their lot for more than 60 days. If they’ve had it for a while, they might be more likely to negotiate.

Negotiate smartly. Come prepared in your mind by having a good idea of the best price for your car. Use the Kelley Blue Book number to guide your counteroffers. And always be ready to walk out if you aren’t happy with the deal.

Pro Tip: Keep emotion out of it! You’ll get a better deal if you view it as a business deal, not an emotional one.

best steps to buying a car for the first time

Watch out for fees. We tried to buy a car recently, only to find that the dealership tacked on an extra $2,000 in dealership fees at the last minute!

Before your final signing, read your contract. Make sure you know exactly what you are paying in total. And break down the numbers to see what is going where.

Pro Tip: Many of these fees can be waived by the dealer. In our case, the dealership only waived some of the fees. So, we went elsewhere and saved $1,000.

Get pre-approved. If you are getting a car loan, apply for preapproval so that you know your interest rate before negotiating the car. If the dealership financing is better, you can still use it to save money too.

Get it in writing. Make sure anything they promise about missing keys, cleaning, or work on the car is put into writing.

Check the gas gauge before leaving. New cars should be sold with a full tank of gas.

Car Buying Checklist Free Printable

buying a car checklist for new or used, great for beginners buying from the dealer, things to consider before

What’s Next?

Check out the free Investing checklist too!


Simple Car Buying Checklist for Beginners

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