Adulting 101: Car-buying for beginners


Students attend a Q&A-style discussion on the process of purchasing cars at Laurel Hall on April 13th, 2018. Questions included topics such as types of cars to buy, how to read contracts, and other general tips for buying a car. (Judah Shingleton/The Daily Campus)

Students attend a Q&A-style discussion on the process of purchasing cars at Laurel Hall on April 13th, 2018. Questions included topics such as types of cars to buy, how to read contracts, and other general tips for buying a car. (Judah Shingleton/The Daily Campus)

As college students progress through school and life, they often realize that sooner or later, they will need or want to buy a car. Purchasing that first vehicle often raises many questions for students, but Jim MacPherson, a AAA auto reviewer and author of several Auto Guide books, held a question and answer session on Friday to prepare students to make smart choices when buying their first car.

Leasing vs. buying

Millenials are the most likely age group to lease a vehicle. However, leasing is one of the most expensive options in the long-run. You will pay less per month, but at the end of three years when the lease is up, you still won’t own the car. MacPherson noted that leasing is usually easier on your cash flow and this is what makes it seem like a better offer.

“Unless you get a really, really great subvented lease [a lease whose cost is reduced through a subsidy]… you’re almost never better off leasing,” MacPherson said.

Are certain brands better than others?

According to MacPherson, many car brands have made very big strides in terms of safety, quality and longevity of their cars. Japanese, South Korean and American cars are now some of the best on the market.

Although many car brands have improved greatly in many areas, cost for replacement parts varies widely among brands, and this can really impact maintenance costs. MacPherson recommends visiting a dealership’s service department off-hours to ask some of the technicians about any pattern failures in certain cars they’ve seen (really, all cars have them) and to discuss maintenance costs for different vehicles.

Should I wait for a Labor Day or Presidents’ Day sale?

According to MacPherson, these kind of car sales have just become excuses to get people through the dealership doors. MacPherson also discussed how new cars for the next year come out around the time of Labor Day sales. Because of this, if you buy a car from the current year around Labor Day, in four years, insurance companies will view it as a car that you’ve had for four years, even though you have only had it for three. He noted that you would probably be better off buying a used car, possibly even a three-year-old “off-lease” vehicle.

Gas vs. Electric

Again, millenials are the most likely age group to purchase electric vehicles. These cars do come with certain perks:  no exhaust, no oil changes, generally good mileage. But electric cars can be very expensive. If the battery needs to be replaced, batteries for these kinds of cars can be costly. Additionally, some of these cars might take a long time to charge. Also, since many millennials are still pretty young and living in apartments, there might not be infrastructure for them to charge electric cars.

“Where do you plug in? Do you run an extension cord from your bedroom window?” MacPherson joked.

How do I negotiate and seal the deal?

Ah, negotiation. Perhaps the most intimidating yet most important part of buying a car. MacPherson’s first piece of advice is to be informed. Do your research. Use the internet to find the MSRP (manufacturer’s suggested retail price) of your prospective car(s) and compare this to the MSRP of other similar vehicles to see what kind of deal you may be able to broker at the dealership.

“Bear in mind that you have options,” MacPherson said. “The other thing that I strongly suggest is that you never fall in love with a vehicle until you’ve purchased it. Always be willing to walk away. That gives you a tremendous amount of power in the transaction.”

When buying a car, do some comparison shopping. You must look around at a few dealerships for the best deal and to see what the cars that you are considering are being sold for.

Another important aspect of purchasing a car is reading the contract, as once you sign, it is binding for you but not necessarily the dealer. MacPherson explained that the dealer must sign the contract for it to be binding for him (in other words, your salesperson’s signature will not bind the dealership to the contract).

If you don’t understand certain terminology in the contract, MacPherson suggests getting a copy of it before you purchase the car and bringing it to a trusted source who can help you decode the legal-ese.


When is it worth it to put money into an old car?

MacPherson has a simple formula for determining if a car is worth putting money into. Add the amount of money that the car would be worth if you sold it right now and the amount of money that you would need to spend to get the car into better condition. If this sum is more than the amount of money that you could buy a new car for, then it’s not worth it to put money into it.


Stephanie Santillo is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at

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