3 questions before buying a 2009 car

Tara Baukus MelloAlmost all the 2010 models are now widely available at dealerships now, and that means manufacturers are anxious to clear out any 2009 models. Many of these cars have thousands of dollars of incentives available, resulting in some incredible savings off the sticker price.

But the fact of the matter is that buying a 2009 model means you are effectively buying a car that is already one model year old, and thus has one year's depreciation before you drive it off the lot. So when is buying last year's model a smart move, and when is it a costly mistake?

Here are three key questions to consider.

1. How long do you keep your cars?

Because last year's model already basically has one year of depreciation, your resale value drops immediately. But this matters only when you go to sell the car or trade it in. If you are someone who keeps his cars for a long time -- five years or more -- then the amount of money you save will likely offset any depreciation, because cars depreciate more in their early years than they do as they age.

If you are like the average American who gets a new car every three years, then it's not likely to be worth the money you save initially. Most likely, you'd be better off buying the 2010 model. However, look at your answers to the next two questions and then crunch the numbers to be sure of your decision.

2. How many miles do you drive annually?

Mileage is one of the key factors that affect resale value. The identical car will be worth more if it has fewer miles than the average number of miles driven annually, and it will be worth less if it has more miles than the average, with 12,000 miles annually considered the average. If you drive your car substantially fewer miles than the average -- say 6,000 miles a year -- you are a good candidate to buy last year's model because you'll be adding miles around half the typical rate.

This means that if you buy a 2009 model now, in two years from now when the 2012 models are new, your car will have about the same number of miles as the average person who bought a 2011 model. In other words, you'll have a very low mileage car for the model year and this will negate a substantial amount of depreciation, assuming you keep the car in good condition. In this scenario, the longer you keep the car, the more your "below average" miles works in your favor.

Even if you drive a bit more than the average number of miles -- say 15,000 annually -- then buying last year's model can also be a good idea, assuming you take good care of the car. Using the earlier example, in two years your car would have 30,000 miles. Because, however, it would be considered three model years old, you'd still have lower miles than the 36,000 miles that would be considered average for a car that age.

3. Is the 'great deal' really a good value?

Ideally, the money you save on buying a 2009 model instead of a 2010 car now should offset the depreciation from the start, but finding a deal that good can be a challenge. Be sure that you are aware of all the incentives that are available on the car and for you personally, such as a military or student discount.

Don't forget to use a vehicle information source like Kelley Blue Book or to see what incentives are being offered to dealers to sell those models. Often automakers will offer dealers $1,000 or more to sell last year's models, and this money can also be used to discount the car if the customer knows to ask for it.

Before you make the commitment to buy, do the math on the separate costs of the 2009 and 2010 models. Or, if you are considering a 2009 model and a different make that's a 2010 model, compare those. Using a vehicle information Web site, research the specific cars you are considering down to options and colors, and then follow the links to see the resale values for each car. Look at the difference between the car's value after one year and the price you are going to pay with discounts to see what kind of a "great deal" you are really getting.

Read more Driving for Dollars columns and Bankrate auto stories. Tara Baukus Mello is a freelance writer who has written about automotive topics of interest to consumers since 1995. If you have a car question, e-mail it to us at Driving for Dollars.

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