If you're buying a car for your personal use, you can often afford to be a bit frivolous and self-centered, but when you buy a vehicle for family use, the stakes are much higher. For one thing, what is more important than the safety and well-being of your family? This aspect lends a seriousness to the family car quest that simply doesn't exist if you're shopping for a sports or luxury vehicle.
We at Kelley Blue Book take car shopping and car buying very seriously. Our mission is to help consumers make good choices and, equally important, avoid disastrous ones. This is amplified when it comes to family cars. Several members of our editorial staff have families with children. I have three daughters myself, and they have gone from newborns in rear-facing car seats to teenagers—one with a driver's license and a second who is taking her license exam next week. I think I hold the record for installing the most child safety seats in cars, since I often did that several times a week in the various vehicles I've tested through the years. I have driven carpools, transported softball teams and even dropped my daughters and their surfboards off at the beach. Here are family buying tips based on both my broad experience with cars and my 18-year experience as a dad.
1. Safety First
Nothing is more important than the safety of your family, so your research for a new family vehicle should make safety a priority. And this means more than looking at NHTSA and IIHS crash safety ratings. These are important, but we at KBB believe it's equally important to be able to avoid a crash. These days vehicles can be equipped with a wide variety of electronic driving aids that foster safety, such as lane departure warning, blind spot warning and adaptive cruise control with auto brake. Look for them and invest in them.
2. How big is your brood?
If you're a young family, you should consider "overbuying"—but not overspending—to allow for family expansion. If you have one infant child, your needs are very different from parents who have several children. Older children need and want different transportation accommodations than young children. That may seem obvious, but many seem to forget that your family will typically change markedly while you own the family car you are about to buy. Not only will your children age and get bigger, but you might also add to your family with more children and pets. If you don't plan for these changes, they could catch you by surprise and result in inconvenience at best and accrue major additional expenses at worst.
3. Where do you live?
What environment does your family live in? Are you in the snowbelt where every winter is an endurance test? Do you live where it seems you have as many rainy days as sunny ones? Do you live in the desert where heat and dust are the major features of the climate? If you deal with rain or snow frequently, a vehicle with all-wheel-drive or four-wheel-drive is a good investment. If dirt and gravel roads are a staple of your environment, vehicles with additional ground clearance and suitable tires are needed. It's also wise to figure out what will actually fit in your garage or driveway, too.
4. What do you like to do?
Do you plan to tow a boat or a horse trailer? Do you frequently head up into the mountains to hike or ski? Are you a coach who frequently transports members of your team to events? These all affect what you'll want to buy. Remember a family car isn't just for everyday use. It's also the vehicle of choice for those less common events like softball tournaments and family road trips.
5. How much can you afford?
It's critical to your family's financial health that you understand before the purchase how much you can comfortably afford to pay. Dealers will make it easy for you to spend a lot of money you don't have on a vehicle, so it's your job to understand what is doable for the future financial needs of your family. Don't fall into a purchase that puts you beyond your means. Look hard at your savings, your income and your future prospects as you plan your vehicle purchase. Remember, too, that buying and using a vehicle for a long period is typically less expensive than acquiring a new car every few years.
6. What is important to you?
Is the prestige of a luxury brand important to you? Or are you more concerned with the functional aspects of the vehicle than the badge on the hood? Certainly, there's nothing wrong with wanting the added equipment and elevated perception of a luxury brand. These days, though, many non-luxury-brand family vehicles offer very high levels of style, equipment and safety.
7. Research before entering the dealership.
If you're looking to make a less-than-optimal deal, then just stumble into a dealership on a whim, look at a single model from a single manufacturer, do a rough estimate of what you can afford and buy a car right then and there. If, on the other hand, you want to choose wisely and strike a good deal for your family, then do some research online before you enter a dealership. A site like kbb.com can provide you with expert reviews on all current vehicles, consumer-owner reviews, precise cost to own and transaction price data, and estimates of your current car's value. All these data points can help you better understand both what you should buy and how much you should pay. And don't neglect valuable lists like Top 10s and Best Buys of 2015 award-winners. These can help simplify your search markedly.
8. Taking the deal
As a financially sound customer who knows what she or he wants, and, importantly, what she or he can afford, you'll immediately be viewed as a precious commodity by the dealer personnel. They want and need your business and will respect your understanding of the key ingredients of the deal. Based on this knowledge, you should be able to come to a reasonably quick agreement on all aspects. If you can't, either your research has led you astray or the dealer is being unreasonable. In either case, it's time to step back and regroup. I recommend that if you don't like what you hear or if you are simply unsure, walk away. Believe me, that dealer and thousands of others will have cars to sell you tomorrow.
9. Assure the deal is what you thought it was.
Okay, you've come to an agreement with the dealer on the new vehicle price, trade-in value of your current car and financing. Most likely, you will then be introduced to a different member of the dealership staff to finalize the deal and do the paperwork. This is where you must be diligent in keeping the dealer to the terms of your agreement. Pay attention to every aspect of the sales contract and question everything that seems to require you to pay more than you have agreed to pay. Some charges, like sales tax and license fees, are understandable, but others are not. Again, if you don't like what is going on, it's not too late to walk.
10. Make the most of the delivery
These days, many people pay for expensive optional equipment and then never take the time to learn how it works. At delivery time, allow yourself ample opportunity to learn everything about your new vehicle. Navigation and entertainment systems can be especially complicated. Nothing can put a damper on a family vacation like failing to get the expensive in-car entertainment system working properly. And it's equally important to understand how to use electronic driving aids, like adaptive cruise control. They can be lifesavers, so don't rush out the door without taking the time to learn about them.
With these 10 tips in mind, acquiring the right vehicle for your family and paying the right amount for it will be easier than you expect. Don't be scared, but do be careful. And remember, shopping for the family car can be a great bonding experience, so take the kids and have fun.
Jack R. Nerad is vice president, executive editorial director and executive market analyst for Kelley Blue Book and KBB.com. Nerad is the official voice of KBB's "The Trusted Resource" and he wrote "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Hybrids and Alternative Fuel Vehicles." For nearly 20 years, Nerad has co-hosted the radio program, "America on the Road," and he has also appeared as a frequent on-camera vehicle expert on the History Channel program "AutoManiac" and as motoring correspondent on ESPN's "Cold Pizza" morning news program.