In my family, we have some great “new car oops" stories. Like the time my dad came home with a brand new stick shift sedan—only to discover that he was the only one in our family who knew how to drive a stick shift! Then there was the time he traded in my mom's prized two-seater Mustang for a four-door yellow sedan with an air conditioning unit that promptly failed…and kept failing (and, of course, this was right after we moved to Texas). Luckily, today's car buying resources are much more reliable! Read on to find out what you need to know to pick the best car for your family's needs.
1. Ask the right questions
To get the right answers about what vehicle will work best for your family, you first need to be sure that you’re asking the right questions.
- How many kids do you have—and what are their ages?
- Do you plan to add to your family soon?
- Will any of your kids be driving soon?
- How many passengers will you regularly be transporting?
- What kind of storage space needs do you have?
- What kind of terrain do you regularly drive through (flat, urban, mountainous, rural, etc.)?
- Do you plan to take many road trips?
- How important is gas mileage?
- How important is maneuverability and ease of parking?
- Do bigger cars make you feel safer?
Bonus tip: Take the Parents.com quiz to find out what model car may work best for your family.
2. Separate “needs” from “wants”
If you see a car as a way to get from point A to point B, this will likely be easy to do. But if you love cars, expect this exercise to be more challenging. Make a list to find out what is absolutely necessary for you.
- Needs: Features you must have (example: a 5-star crash test rating).
- Wants: Features you would like to have (example: a sunroof).
3. Set your budget
Once you have answered the basic questions about fuel efficiency, passenger capacity, safety and storage space—you can now move on to setting your budget. With all the pre-work you’ve done, you can also decide at this stage whether to shop new or pre-owned (or both).
Keep in mind:
- Experts caution against spending more than 20% of your net monthly income on auto loans (this includes all auto loans you’re paying for your family).
- To keep your loan payments reasonable, try to put down at least 20% for a down payment.
- Remember to calculate the total price of the car before determining if you can afford it (including tax, title, license and registration, loan payments, fuel, insurance, etc.).
Bonus Tip: Cars.com has a great car payment calculator that gives you multiple ways to look at your options, including buy versus lease, incentives versus interest rate and how trade-in value can change your final price.
4. Extra self-help
Finding out in advance which cars have the highest safety ratings, the best fuel efficiency and other needs can narrow down your search considerably—saving you time and money.
- Resource: Insurance Institute for Highway Safety Top Safety Picks by Year
- Resource: U.S. Dept. of Energy Fuel Economy Guide
- Resource: Edmunds' Car Reviews & Road Tests