Car shopping for first-timers
Couple looking at a catalogue in a car dealership

For newcomers to Canada or newly minted drivers, shopping for a car can be as exciting as it is daunting. There are hundreds of makes and models on sale, and dozens of different ways to find the best vehicle for you. Buyers can visit new-car dealerships, used-car dealers, online dealers and marketplaces, classified ads on social media, or even purchase a car online from the comfort of one’s own couch.

Before you even set foot in a car dealership, though, there’s a few things you’ll want to consider first. Here's our simple guide on best way to go car shopping for first-time buyers.

First steps for newcomers or new drivers looking to buy a car

Make a budget (and stick to it)

If you’re thinking about buying your first car, make a rough budget that takes into account the full cost of car ownership in Canada: including monthly payments, estimated fuel cost, winter tires, insurance, parking, maintenance and depreciation. Cars are especially expensive these days, with the average asking price for new vehicles hitting a record $67,817 according to AutoTrader’s Price Index. You can save money by buying a used car – just be sure to budget a little extra for annual maintenance and repairs. 

Decide how to pay

The majority of people in Canada either finance a vehicle by getting a loan to pay for it, or lease (think: rent) a vehicle for a set number of months. Some people pay for a car in cash, but it’s a minority according to a recent Globe and Mail story.

Secure financing

If you’re planning to finance a purchase, it helps to get pre-approved for a car loan from a bank or credit union. That’ll give you a sense of your budget, and it’ll also alert you to potential credit issues that could make financing a vehicle more expensive. With interest rates still sky-high, it’s worth spending the extra time to shop around for the best rate.

Consider language barriers

If English or French isn’t your first language, don’t let that deter you from buying a car in Canada. Translating a webpage or online classified ad is easy with Google Translate or the translation features built into most phones and web browsers. Before going to a dealership in person, phone and ask if there are any salespeople there who speak your preferred language. If not, bring someone you trust to the dealership who can help translate.

Bring a friend

No matter what language you speak, if you’re new to car shopping, you should definitely bring a friend or family member to help. Ideally, bring someone who knows more about cars and has been through the whole car-shopping experience before. It helps to have someone there who’s on your side to guide you through the process. (Besides, shopping is more fun with friends!)

Do your research

Not all cars are created equal. Check out car reviews from reputable sources, including major newspapers, as well as magazines like Car and Driver. Go to Consumer Reports for reliability ratings. (If subscriptions are required, you may be able to log in for free through your local public library.) Estimated annual fuel costs for every new vehicle on sale in Canada are listed by Natural Resources Canada, while safety ratings can be found online at the IIHS and NHTSA

Get insurance quotes

To find the best policy for you, get multiple insurance quotes for any car you’re seriously considering. You’ll find some vehicles are cheaper to insure than others. For newcomers to Canada, we have a whole guide on how to get auto insurance.

Where to shop for cars

New car dealerships

New car dealerships are gleaming showrooms full of shiny new SUVs, sedans and coupes. If you’re interested in a particular car, it’s a good idea to call ahead to book a test-drive. Some new car dealerships even allow customers to buy cars online, without setting foot into the dealership.

Used car dealerships

Many new car dealers also have used cars in stock, but you’ll generally find a greater selection of older, more affordable used cars at independent used-car dealerships. These shops are not affiliated with a particular car company, so you’ll see a wide variety of makes and models. As with any dealership, check reviews online to see which stores have better customer ratings.

Classified ads and social media

You might find some advertisements for used cars in your local newspaper still, but you’ll likely have more luck searching for classified ads on various social media platforms. 

Online marketplaces 

Popular online marketplaces such as AutoTrader or Kijiji Autos list hundreds of thousands of new and used cars from dealers across the country. You’ll also find ads from people offering their old cars up for sale on these marketplaces. You can search for a particular make and model, year, or even a favourite colour. These online marketplaces are probably the best place to start shopping and get a sense of what’s out there.

Online dealerships

New start-up companies, including Clutch and CarDoor, allow customers to browse and buy used cars completely online. They’ll deliver the car right to your door. Some buyers may rightly be nervous about buying a car they’ve never sat in, let alone driven, but Clutch does offer a 10-day money-back guarantee. 

Happy hunting!