Changing from vroomy to roomy: Tips for buying a family car

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Nothing can make a sports car go faster than a baby. Go away, that is.

You can’t fit a baby seat into that sleek two-seater. And with money being gobbled up by all those baby expenses, that stylish but oh-so-impractical dream car is one of the first things to go.

The sooner the better, say consumer experts, who urge couples to purchase their first family car well before the baby arrives — preferably when both parents are still working full-time.

“They have to decide to do it when they’re both working so they can pay it off fast,” says Marilyn Steinmetz, a certified financial planner in West Hartford, Conn.

Pay it off ASAP
It will be much easier to make those car payments before baby arrives than after, especially if one parent chooses to stay home with the baby. Because car payments can be a stretch for young families, the best bet is to pay off a car loan as quickly as possible.

“Finance the car for the least months you can rather than the most,” says Remar Sutton, president of the Consumer Task Force for Automotive Issues.

Make sure there’s plenty of room in the back seat for a car seat. And be sure to select a car that meets your family’s driving needs for the long haul. Do you plan on having more children? Is there room for another car seat?

“Trade down to a more practical car that you can drive for 200,000 miles that also has room for a car seat,” says M. Eileen Dorsey, a certified financial planner in St. Louis. “We also encourage people to hold cars a long time, to keep them for 10 or 12 years, to really get their money’s worth.”

One way for a couple to drum up some additional cash is to sell the old car themselves rather than trade it in at the dealership.

“When having a baby, money matters more than ever,” Sutton says. “You should probably try to sell your car yourself.”

Sutton admits that there may only be a fifty-fifty chance of selling the car privately, but such a sale would bring in $1,000 to $2,000 more than the trade-in value offered by a dealer.

Parents should prefer pre-owned
Buying a used car is also a good way to get more bang for your buck. That way the first driver takes the big depreciation hit when a car’s value nosedives in the first two years. Experts estimate that people can save as much as $2,000 a year by buying a car used rather than new. And interest rates for used cars are generally a mere 1 percent to 2 percent higher than those for new cars.

While savvy car shoppers may make out well in a private sale, buying cars coming off lease from an auto dealer is a good bet for less sophisticated shoppers.

Many cars bought after a typical two-year lease will still be covered by the manufacturer’s warranty. In addition, dealers for most major manufacturers sell certified previously driven vehicles, which have been subjected to extensive inspections and reconditioning aimed at bringing them up to new car standards.

Couples set on bringing home baby in a brand-new car should be on the lookout for rebates and other manufacturer incentives.

Detailed listings of manufacturers’ rebates and discount financing can be found on several automotive-related Web sites, including Edmund’s Automobile Buyers Guide, AutoSite, Autopedia and MSN’s Carpoint. You also have to analyze the numbers when choosing between a rebate and a low, low interest rate to see which offers a better deal.

Get your financing first
Consumer experts urge people to car shop with pre-approved financing from a bank or credit union and then challenge the dealer to make a better offer. A good place to start looking for the best car loan is the search engine of auto loans from institutions surveyed by Be sure to check your own bank or credit union as well, because sometimes your own institution will offer a sweeter deal.

When talking and negotiating with car salesman, giddy, would-be parents would be wise to keep their excitement to themselves. Dealers often prey on overenthusiastic buyers.

“If they see you’re enthused or excited, they’re going to turn that against you,” Sutton says. “They’re going to try to make more money off you.”

One tactic is to encourage young families to lease rather than buy. While leasing may get you into more car for that monthly payment, it’s not for everyone.

“Leasing is a simpler way but definitely not a cheaper way to drive a car,” Sutton says.

Don’t get locked into leasing
The biggest downfall to leasing is perpetual monthly payments. With a loan, at the end of the term, the car is yours free and clear. When a lease ends, you have the option of turning the car back in or buying out the lease, which means another round of monthly payments. Often people get caught in a cycle of leasing. They turn one car in to lease another — never freeing themselves of a monthly car payment.

Because of this, leasing makes the best sense for young families who can afford to shell out $300 or so a month for a car, who are stable in their jobs, and who take good care of their vehicles, Sutton says.

It’s important to have a handle on all the ins and outs of leasing before setting foot on a dealer’s lot. Getting a good deal takes some homework.

Many people end up paying more than they should on a lease simply because they don’t understand the terminology. A consumer brochure on leasing is available from the Federal Reserve Board.

Before choosing an auto, be sure to do several scouting trips to dealerships and take plenty of test drives. Young families can choose from traditional people-movers such as station wagons and passenger cars to roomy minivans and sport utility vehicles. Many minivans and sports utility vehicles come with flip-down seats and extra storage space to meet the changing needs of growing families.

Consider safety
For car-shopping new parents, the safety of a vehicle rises in priority. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety both offer a variety of car-safety information, including how cars fared in crashes. The NHTSA also offers a brochure called Buying a Safer Car for Child Passengers, which deals with a variety of safety issues, including how to shop wisely for a child car seat.

“Surprisingly, a $50 car seat can be just as safe as a $200 one,” says Alan Fields, co-author of Baby Bargains. “A $50 car seat will basically do the same job as long as it’s installed properly. Some minivans come with integrated child safety seats. These seats are a bit pricier, typically costing $200 or more.

“The key advantage is they’re built in the car, designed for the car and generally considered safe,” Field says.

Once again, the best bet is to shop around. Keep in mind that not all car seats fit all cars.

“Whenever you buy a car seat, keep the receipt and check the store’s return policy,” Fields says. “It’s a lot of trial and error.”

— Updated: Aug. 1, 2003