"When you are ready, go ahead and sign on the dotted line." Most of us have been there, buying a car and hoping it's a good decision. The feeling of uncertainty, wondering if this used car is the right choice, can be gut-wrenching. What if the transmission is bad, or the motor falls out on the way home? There are countless things that could go wrong and leave you without transportation. I grew up around "car guys" and, not surprising, I married a "car guy." As a matter of fact, my husband worked as a Car Salesman. Together, we have come up with a list of the top five things to keep in mind when shopping for a used car.

1. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is

If you find the "car of your dreams" for hundreds, or even thousands of dollars cheaper than anywhere else, there is probably a reason. Always be sure to check if the title of the car is "branded" or clean. You'll also want to pay attention to the CarFax report. If the car has been in an accident be sure to know the extent of the damage. Cosmetic problems can always be fixed; structural and mechanical damage should be avoided. Also, remember to drive the car. This may sound obvious, but it would surprise you how many people look at a car, but never drive it until they've signed on it. Get in the car, drive it home, make sure it fits in your garage, make sure the AC works, and make sure everything is in working order. It would be frustrating to buy a car only to find out that it needs more work than it's worth.

2. Buy the car, not the salesman

Just because the salesman you're working with is really nice, good-looking, smart, funny or even honest, doesn't mean that the car he is trying to sell is the right car for you. Make sure it suits your needs and your predetermined qualifications before signing. This includes making sure the car is the kind of car you were prepared to purchase before you arrived at the dealership. If you need something with 7 seat-belts and the 2-door sports car that you had pinned to your wall as a child shows up in your price range, be prepared to let it go and say "no."

3. Pick a budget and stick to it

When you are ready to buy a car, and you know what you can afford - don't stray from that number. Remember, cars are two of three things: cheap, loaded or reliable. You can't have all three. Keep in mind that dealerships (of all sizes) have documentation fees, and depending on what state you live in, sales tax. This can tack on thousands of dollars to the price of the car. Remember that if you have little or no credit, you are far more likely to get approved if you can come into the car with equity such as, a down-payment or a trade-in that you outright own.

4. Patience and timing are key

Set a priority list of the needs for this car. If you have 10 things on the list and something shiny shows up that only meets the bottom 3 of your priorities, you should probably pass on that specific car. Car prices vary throughout the year, and if you can hold off for some of the sales you could save yourself a fair amount of money. If you need something with all-wheel drive, don't wait until your local area has seen its first snow-storm to buy; the prices will be higher.

5. Above all, do your homework

There are very few automotive manufacturers producing a lousy car right now. Even if your best friend sells cars, remember to branch out and try a number of different brands and types of car. This doesn't mean you can't buy the first car you test-drive, but it does mean you should wait until it isn't the only car you've test-driven. Most dealerships will even allow you to take their car to another dealership to compare vehicles side-by-side. If the dealership doesn't allow you to do this, you may want to avoid that car.

Buying a car is an exciting time, and a huge decision. Make sure you are well informed and that you have a set budget and know what you need before you dive in. This will save you time and money and will ensure that you will be a happy car owner in the end.

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