What Are You Buying When You Buy a Car?

Over the last few months, I’ve been slowly shopping for a minivan to replace my truck. Since the truck will not seat three young children safely (I could jam them in there in an illegal fashion), I will have to replace the vehicle by April at the latest. That’s on top of the fact that the vehicle has a mountain of eminent repairs that are needed.

As I shop for the minivan, I keep coming back to one central question: what exactly am I buying here? On the surface, it seems obvious – I’m buying a minivan. But that’s not what I’m really buying.

First of all, I’m buying something that will get me, my wife, and all three of my children from point “A” to point “B”. The entire point of buying such a vehicle is for transportation.

That being said, I am not buying a status symbol. As long as it’s clean and safe, I really don’t care what it looks like. It doesn’t have to be shiny, new, or top of the line. I don’t really care what the opinions of the people around me are about the minivan I bought. Does it meet my needs? That’s what matters.

Is a status symbol a need for you? Probably not. Is it a want? Probably. The question you have to ask yourself is how much extra money you’re willing to pay for a status symbol whose luster will fade in a year or two.

I have three primary concerns when buying this car.

First and foremost, it must be reliable. Next April, I will have three children under the age of five. I don’t want a vehicle that has repair issues bubbling just under the surface. For me, reliability is more important with this vehicle than it was with my wife’s commuting car that we bought earlier this year, in which our priority was fuel efficiency. I’m using Consumer Reports as my primary guide for this, which is pointing me towards the Toyota Sienna or the Honda Odyssey.

Second, it must be safe. I require a vehicle with good safety ratings and a history report that shows that it’s never been in accidents. Again, my concern in this area is raised by my specific requirements – this vehicle will be used to transport myself and my children.

Third, it must have storage space. We often go visit family for a week two or three times a year. In order to accomodate two younger children, a baby, and two adults for a week, there’s going to have to be some significant storage space in the vehicle. On top of that, It’s this need for additional space which is pushing us toward a minivan instead of a large car.

Beyond that, fuel efficiency is a secondary factor, as is ergonomic seating (chairs that provide lumbar support and don’t result in numbness and back pain after a long drive).

I do not care about having a drop-down Blu-Ray player. I do not care about leather seats. I do not care about having a perfectly silent ride, nor a perfectly smooth one. If those features came for free, I would take them, but I’m not about to pay much for them at all.

I am the one buying the car. Because I’m buying early, I can wait until the right vehicle comes along. I don’t merely have to choose whatever is available on the lot. This enables me to look at other options, such as what’s being sold on Craigslist and other sources directly by individuals. Given what I want, I have the cash on hand to buy pretty much anything within those requirements.

What are you buying when you buy a car? Do you know what you want? Do you know what you don’t want and aren’t going to pay for? Have you planned ahead enough that you have the time and ability to explore lots of options to find what you want?

After all, the last thing you want to do when buying a car is to find yourself on a car lot needing to make a purchase and having no idea what you really want or need. Such a situation is delicious prey for car salesmen.

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