The Bottom Line
Buying a car is a major investment. To get the best deal, military servicemembers and their families need to be well prepared buyers, learn how to avoid scams and shady sales practices, and take advantage of the special offers and protections available to military buyers.
Make a Budget
Getting a new car is exciting. Sometimes, the desire to get your dream car can lead you into paying more for a car than you should. Be sure that a car expense fits into your household budget. Account for all the costs that go into buying a car, including what you'll pay for maintenance, insurance, gas, and registration.
When negotiating the price of a car – don't focus just on the monthly payment. Of course you need to commit a monthly payment you can afford, but using that number as your negotiating point will get you into trouble. A dealer will simply extend the terms of the loan to lower the monthly, effectively keeping the total cost of the car the same or higher. In the worst-case scenario, you could be stuck making payments on a car that no longer runs.
Pay Attention to Credit
Most vehicle purchases are financed. The most important factor affecting your ability to secure a low interest rate on this loan is your credit score. Don't wait until you're ready to buy a car to pay attention to your credit. Check your credit regularly so you can take the right steps to improve your credit score. If you have bad credit, it may be wise to put off buying a car, or buying a cheap, used car as a stop gap. Don't commit to a high-interest loan, such as the ones offered by "buy here, pay here" car lots.
Shop for Financing
Decide on your vehicle-financing plan before you visit the dealer. Shop around for financing options before you arrive at the car lot so you can compare what the dealer offers with other offers you have received. Be sure to check with a local credit union or a lender that specializes in military car financing. And don't just get a quoted rate – you should also ask to see your credit score from anyone who pulls your credit. When you know your credit score before you visit the dealer, it helps you negotiate the best financing terms. Dealers confronted with a knowledgeable buyer will be less likely to take advantage of them.
Read more about Military car loans here.
Price Shop in Advance
There is so much information available online today that there is no excuse for being ill prepared when you first visit the car lot. You can find specific pricing information, including the Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price and the dealer's invoice price, listed online at sites like www.kbb.com. It is immediately obvious to a car salesperson if you are an informed buyer or not. The more up-to-date you are on prices, the harder it is for a salesperson to overcharge you.
Shop for Insurance
It is not only the price of the car and the car loan interest rate that you need to shop for. Make sure to comparison shop for your car insurance, too. There can be a wide price difference between one insurer and the next. Also, pay attention to the amount of coverage you obtain - don't buy more than you need. Inquire about any discount that could lower your premiums. Insurance companies commonly have discounts for drivers with clean accident records and for current customers for other types of insurance with the company. Military servicemembers may be eligible for discounts, too.
Be sure to read consumer reviews available online. Reviews can help you:
- Find the right car. You can read about the features of cars that interest you and see satisfaction ratings from car owners.
- Find the right car dealer. Check out the reputation of any car dealer you're considering at sites like the Better Business Bureau. You can also do a search for the name of the dealer and the word "complaint."
Special Factors for Military Car Buyers
Military car-buyers must be extra cautious when securing an auto loan. Their special circumstances make them a prime target for both good and predatory lenders. Fortunately, there are also special resources for military servicemembers and their families. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau recently opened the Office of Servicemembers Affairs (OSA). The OSA is an important tool to help you stay informed about your financial rights and to protect you from abusive practices.
When buying a car, the OSA says it is important to understand that:
- Lenders realize that your military service requires you to keep your finances in order.
- You're easy to locate, so it is easy to collect from you.
- You have steady, reliable income that can be garnished if you don't pay as agreed.
- Many military car-buyers are first time buyers with little experience making big financial decisions.
Further, the OSA recommends that you consider the unique risks that you face as military personnel when taking on a car loan:
- An overseas deployments or a change of duty stations can create financial stress and unique financial difficulties when you may lack the adequate resources to resolve them.
- Your loyalty to your service can make you a target for predatory lenders that emphasize their ties to the military.
Use the Special Resources Available
As a member of the military, you may have access to some help that is not available to the general public. Take advantage of it. Speak with an on-base financial advisor or see if you are eligible for any of the resources available through Military OneSource. Before you sign it, see if an expert can review any sales contract a dealer presents you to ensure that you're not being taken advantage of or sold unnecessary extras.
- Check your credit. Improve it, if needed. Use your knowledge to show you're an educated borrower.
- Comparison shop, not only for the car itself but also for the other products you'll need, including insurance and car financing.
- Read reviews so you find the right car at the right price and to avoid dealers with a bad reputation.
- Take advantage of any special offers for military members, as well as the resources available to you so that you understand your rights and how to protect yourself.