When you set out to buy a car, you should keep in mind several important things regarding the car-buying process. Namely, that it is, in fact, a process. You'll do best if you keep in mind this idea that buying a car will take time and research. Because it is such a big purchase for many people, it makes sense to go into it slowly and carefully.
Your first step to getting the best value on your car is to do as much research and preparation before you leave your house as possible. In this case, the internet is your best friend. You'll find a variety of sources online that can help you evaluate costs of owning different cars, reviews of how they handle, used and new comparisons, and other information. The more information you have, the greater the leverage you'll have when you get into the negotiations with the car salesman at the dealership.
Your next task is to go off on preliminary searches for the right car. Scan Craigslist and other listings for cars to test drive. Visit as many dealerships as you have the time to visit. During these visits, keep in mind that you are only trying to find out more information. Go into these test drives with the understanding that you will not buy a car. You're only gathering more information, which you can compare and contrast to your preliminary research.
Once you've done all your research and test-driving, you're ready for the big purchase. Search for the cars that fall within your price range. Visit the seller or dealer that you think will give you the best price and enter into negotiations with them. In many cases, dealers will try to control the negotiations by shifting many factors into different purchasing packages. Don't let them control the conversation. First you want to nail down a purchase price, then after that you should negotiate each part of the package separately, such as financing, monthly payments, and your initial payment. Remember, at any point in the conversation, you can walk away and visit another dealership or seller. Sometimes, this threat can be enough to jumpstart a stalled deal.
One final consideration for your car-shopping is that of maintenance costs. You should look for information that will help you determine how much it will cost you to own the car over the next three to five or ten years. This factor may be enough to help you buy a car with a higher price tag, which could save you money in the long run if the car maintains better than a cheaper alternative. Many sites will provide you with this information for free, such as this cost-to-own calculator at Edmunds.