Your cheat sheet for car shopping

Looking for a car – new or used – can be complicated.

Especially if you’re not sure how to narrow down the choices that are available to you.

Among the complications is the fact that there are approximately 2,700 used models from the last 10 years from which to choose – a daunting number – and 270 this year if you’re looking for a new vehicle.

Then there are all the sources in print and online from which to obtain potentially useful news and information for your search. And no shortage of vehicle-buying, consumer and financial “experts” willing to give you shopping advice – present company included.

Our infographic (below) provides a quick study – a cheat sheet for car shopping – of how you may narrow the choices to a more manageable list, and then to identify the vehicle that best fits your lifestyle.

cheat sheet car shopping

Step 1

Determine how much you can afford to spend on a car. Financial experts recommend using the 20/4/10 rule, which means making a 20 percent down payment, getting a four-year loan, and making monthly payments no more than 10 percent of your annual gross income. If your annual income is different than our example, then, obviously, other figures will change. But we based our calculations on approximately the median household income in the United States, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Step 2

Decide on the age range you would consider. For example, three-, four- and five-year-old models are old enough so that the bulk of depreciation already has occurred but they still are current enough to be reliable and contain most of the recent developments in safety and driving technologies. Of course, as you increase the range of years from which you may consider buying, then your choices increase.

Step 3

Identify the type of vehicle that best fits your lifestyle – car, pickup, crossover, SUV or minivan. For our example, we chose a crossover, currently the most popular vehicle type. But this cheat sheet would work the same way with some other vehicle types, although some of the specific numbers may change. You may see nearly as many car options as crossover options, but fewer truck, SUV and minivan options.

Step 4

Narrow the used-car choices to a manageable number using online tools such as and AutoTrader to define the number of crossovers, the brands and models available within shopping range – we used a 50-mile radius in our example to ensure we identified enough vehicles. We also filtered the search tools for vehicles costing exactly $16,000, so the number of vehicle options you find would change if, you used a price range of $15,000 to $16,000.

Step 5

Consult expert picks for the models and model years you are considering. If you’re careful with this step, you can go a long way toward identifying appropriate models. In our example, we used Kelley Blue Book, J.D. Power, Consumer Reports, Edmunds and U.S. News & World Report top choices. We winnowed our field of candidates from 24 vehicles to 12 and then eight models to 3 finalists.

Step 6 is your reality check – taking your 3-5 finalists for test drives, which may include criteria such as exterior looks and color, body construction, ride comfort, interior space, electronics, driving noise, power/acceleration, braking and handling. Chances are you will eliminate several of your finalists in this step, leaving you with one or two to consider for your purchase.

Step 7 is making the purchase and driving home your prize with the confidence that comes from following a process such as the cheat sheet to identify the vehicle.

Some of the numbers will change if you’re shopping for a new car, but the idea is the same.

For example, instead of 2,700 used models to consider, the new-car universe is about 270 each year.

Instead of 800 total models over the last 10 years, you’ll have about crossover 85 models in one year.

And if you’re sticking to the $16,000 price tag, well, we found 53 new vehicles within our 50-mile radius on The models were Chevrolet Trax, Kia Soul and Buick Encore. All vehicles except the Soul models were marked down from more than $16,000 – in the case of the Encore, a lot more.

That brings you full circle to considering a pre-owned vehicle for your next car – and that’s OK because our infographic shows there are several very good recent-model used cars to consider.

Finally, in all steps, keep an open mind to other possibilities, such as a dealership having a great deal on a newer vehicle than you were considering. Or finding an opportunity to purchase a higher-end, though slightly older vehicle than you planned. Or you simply wanting to try out a model other than the ones that came from the cheat sheet, which, after all, is just another tool.

Take care when making your purchase and you can be confident that the vehicle you choose will take care of you for years to come.

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