Saturday, March 12, 2011

Researching a New Car

Jenna Hecker is the Technology Librarian at the Morrill Memorial Library and also works as a Reference Librarian. Read her column in the Norwood Transcript and Bulletin this week.

This was a challenging winter for commuters. The bitterly cold wind threw my little Volkswagon Golf around. I got a flat tire driving over a pothole. There was a point in January when I was convinced it would never stop snowing. But my little car fought hard, making it through the treacherous weeks. The day the weather won came in late February. My nearly ten-year-old car slipped on a patch of ice on the highway, lost control, and hit a barrier. I knew the minute my front end slammed into the concrete that I would be looking for a new car. Luckily, the only thing I hurt was my pocketbook, and personal schedule.

Even for someone who researches professionally, a car search can seem daunting. Should I look for used cars or new cars? Where would I find pricing information? What was the best balance between safety and gas mileage? How small is too small? The anxiety of negotiating with dealers brought me to tears – after filling out an online form requesting free car quotes, I received three to thirteen voicemails daily and innumerable e-mails from dealers all over eastern New England. I was drowning in car information. I had to develop a system.

I began my information gathering at – one of the first auto information websites ever launched. Edmunds has two really good car pricing resources – a tool to determine True Market Value of a car (basically, what you should be paying for a car), and True Cost to Own (how much a car will cost you over five years, considering typical maintenance, miles per gallon of gasoline, etc…). It offers clear, easy-to-follow reviews, and good tools for price comparison. After collecting information from Edmund’s, I narrowed my search to four small hatchback cars with good safety ratings. Next, I used my library card to log in to Consumer Reports through to check what they recommended for subcompact hatchback cars. I read Car and Driver magazine in our reading room, and looked through NADA guides in our reference area.

Luckily the library has been a source of comfort. It offers a place to hang out when you are without a ride, and there are plenty of books here to inform your car search. Consumer Report’s New Car Buying Guide proved useful to a first time new car buyer like me. It includes ratings, reviews, and buying advice for over 200 new cars. Since this was my first car purchased in Massachusetts I checked out Car Smart: A Consumer’s Guide to Buying and Owning a Car in Massachusetts, by the Massachusetts Consumers Coalition, which proved helpful for learning the ins and outs of state-specific rules. For instance, my car will cost me 7% sales tax as a Rhode Islander buying a car in Massachusetts. If I had crashed my car in Rhode Island, part of that would be reimbursed, but since the crash was in Massachusetts that reimbursement was factored into my insurance payout. It is all enough to make one’s head spin, and to nearly convince me to make a move to the Bay State.

I was especially worried about going into a car dealership – a single girl alone in a sea of experienced car-selling older men. I had been duped and scared into unnecessary warranties, or into buying cars that leaked water from their sunroofs, or randomly caught on fire in the past. I just wanted to get this purchase right so I checked out In the Driver’s Seat: A Girl’s Guide to Her First Car by Erika Stalder. Stalder’s brightly colored guide focuses on the basics of car maintenance, but also gives great diagrams of things like rotors and calipers. The book is meant to empower female drivers and help teach them how to identify and fix basic car issues themselves.

When I felt confident enough to begin test driving, I had decided on one Ford model car based solely on my research. Based on test driving (and, of course, interior gadgets), I liked a Honda and a Hyundai better. After requesting quotes from area dealers – which fueled the already rampant e-mail and voicemail-based attack, I found the right car for what seemed like the right price. I wasn’t done dealing with the woes of car buying – my former lien holder sent my car title to the wrong address, I wrote the wrong amount on my down payment check and had to stand in line first thing in the morning at a bank to get a cashier’s check. I came in to the library one morning to my car dealer standing at the circulation desk– waiting for me to arrive to retrieve more papers. It seems the job of a car buyer is never done.

In the end I found a car that I liked that fulfilled all of my safety and fuel-efficiency needs, and for a fair price. All of the research I had done made me feel empowered at the dealerships – and helped me stand up for myself. If you are thinking of buying a new car, come to the library. We have lots of resources for both people who are clueless like me, and for car experts. Plus, we are in a pedestrian-friendly location!