Car Buying Guide

After helping several international students buy cars, here some ideas to help you with the process.

  1. Be honest about how new of a driver you are, and your comfort on American roads.
    • Some students arrive here with years of driving experience, studying mechanical engineering, and can’t wait to drive. They are even excited to drive. Others are a little bit more hesitant or afraid to drive. They only want a car so they can get to work and back, and drive as little as possible.If you are someone who likes to drive, who likes to do minor repairs on cars, who is planning on making longer trips, I would suggest looking for the good deals on certain used cars which can give you the best deal, which I will detail below. If you are someone who is more afraid of driving, I have some different suggestions. Before you read any further, please decide what kind of driver you are.
  2. Determine your budget, including your potential insurance costs.
    • For most international students, money is a key factor in buying a car…mostly in the way that because of employment restrictions, they don’t have much money to invest in a vehicle.In my opinion, the best thing to do is calculate two numbers – the amount of cash you can invest one time in a vehicle, and how much you can spend monthly on a vehicle.Let’s say you have $6,000 to invest in a car, and $320 you can pay monthly for gas, insurance, and oil changes. For most international students, the cost of insurance is at least $250 – 300 per month for the first 6 months for liability insurance coverage, which does not cover repairs in the event of an accident. If you want to have insurance that covers repairs, you will need collision insurance coverage, and that will increase your insurance rates even more. The nicer the car you have, the more the cost for collision insurance each month. If you buy a used car worth $6,000, like a 2007 Honda CR-V or 2011 Hyundai Sonata, the insurance rates will be higher. They also vary on where you live.

      So, if you have $6,000 to spend in the beginning, but only $325 per month you can spend, my suggestion would be to buy a car in the $4,000 range, and put that extra $2,000 toward minor repairs and collision insurance. Or, you could buy a car for $2,500, and buy the cheapest insurance that doesn’t cover repairs in the event of an accident. If you get in an accident without having collision insurance, you could simply buy another car for $2,500, and still have money left over from your initial $6,000.

      Always get a quote from your insurance company before going forward with a purchase. In order to get a quote from your insurance company, you must have the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) of the car you are looking to get insured. Anyone who is willing to sell a car will send you the VIN if you request it. Here is the the checklist of items to have when you call the insurance company:

      – Name
      – Date of Birth
      – Employment information (where you work, how much you make)
      – Phone
      – Email
      – VIN of vehicle
      – What kind of insurance you want (liability, collision, or comprehensive)

      If you work for the university in any capacity (research, teaching, grading, food service, etc.), you often qualify for cheaper insurance through MEEMIC. Please contact the Macy Insurance Agency for quotes at 248-673-7320.

  3. Determine the features you want the most.
    • Evaluate what you are looking for most in a vehicle. Rank them as high priority or low priority. Here are some thoughts:- Reliability (least amount mechanical problems)
      – Good handing in the snow
      – Fuel efficiency
      – Good body condition (no dents, rust, scratches)
      – Lowest cost
      – Cheapest repairsNotice that I did not include mileage or year on the list. I am a believer that vehicle mileage is not a great indicator of reliability or quality of the automobile; how well the vehicle has been maintained is the best indicator of quality. There are some 2003 cars I would buy before a 2012 car at the same price. It all depends on make, model, and maintenance.
  4. Locate a quality vehicle.
    • Next, you need to find a vehicle that makes sense to buy. I normally shop Craigslist by owner, but some people want to shop at dealers, etc. It’s all about knowing what kind of car you want.Any type of Toyota or Honda is usually the way to go, if you are looking earlier than 2008. There are even Toyotas or Hondas from the late 1990s or early 2000s with plenty of life in them. I’m a big fan of Subaru, especially for their all wheel drive features which are great in the snow. In buying American, I generally look for the 2003-2007 Pontiac Vibe. It has a Toyota engine in it, and is very reliable. Ford Focus and Ford Fusion are generally really good values as well.If you can drive a stickshift (manual transmission) I recommend it, because it makes it easier to drive in the snow, and they are generally less expensive.
  5. Google search the vehicle you are wanting to buy, including the year, and read reviews.
    • It’s important to read reviews and see if there are recurring problems, recalls, etc. If there is an issue with that model year of a certain car, it’s important to ask the seller if the issue has been corrected, and to have a maintenance record to verify the repair.
  6. Once you decide what direction you want to go, contact someone who knows more about cars than you do (this could be International Oasis!).
    • If you need someone to go with you to see a vehicle, or help you decide which direction to go, contact our auto department at
  7. Schedule times to go inspect and test drive the vehicle, with a friend.
    • Always inspect and test drive the vehicle. If you are leasing a vehicle, you can skip to the next section. You should check the following:- Easy starting, without trouble
      – Easy shifting from gear to gear
      – Strange noises, both in park and while driving
      – How the vehicle handles at 10mph, 20mph, 40mph, 60mph, 80mph. Are their strange noises? Does the vehicle shake?
      – Tire quality
      – Brake quality
      – All the electricals including radio, all windows, power locks, remote start, automatic doors and hatch, lights, turn signals, reverse lights, windshield wipers, cruise control
      – Heat
      – Air conditioning
      – Oil quality
      – Transmission fluid quality
      – Power steering fluid quality
      – Antifreeze / radiator fluid quality
      – Any type of leakingThe seller should have maintenance records as well of any repairs done to the vehicle. You should always ask:

      – When was the last time the tires were changed? How many miles ago?
      – When was the last time the brakes were changed? How many miles ago?
      – Does the car have a timing belt? When was the last time it was changed?
      – When was the last radiator flush?
      – How often was the oil changed?
      – Has it ever been in a flood or had water damage?

      If someone can tell you when these things happened, and they maintained the vehicle well, the chance of the car being good is better.

      Finally, you are always looking for a “clean” title, not a salvage title. This means the paper that proves they own the vehicle will look green on the edges. If it has a red border on the paper or says salvage, then stay away from buying it. It means the car was in an accident. If you really want to buy a salvage title car, make sure you take it to a mechanic you trust before purchasing. I recommend Pontiac Auto Repair in Pontiac, MI on Huron St.

  8. Negotiate the price, with a friend.
    • Negotiating is the hardest part. If you are leasing a vehicle, you can skip to the next section.Often sellers post their vehicles for sale a little more expensive than they are willing to sell them for. Most people posting a vehicle for $2700 will be OK with $2500 or so, for example. If you are paying in cash, you can usually get a little bit of a discount. When negotiating, I usually round down to the nearest $500 increment for cheaper cars, and the lower $1000 increment for cars prices $4000 and above, and start negotiating from there, unless there’s major issues. Example: if a car is listed for $5400, I’ll start negotiating at $5000. Same for $5600. But $5100, I’ll start at $4500.Beware of someone who is willing to go too low in the price when negotiating; it may mean they just want to get rid of the car, and that the car has major problems. Also, if the car deal seems too good to be true, that means it is. Beware of scams trying to sell cars that seem overly inexpensive.
  9. Agree to purchase the vehicle.
    • Once you’ve decided you want it, agree with the seller and provide them cash or check or digital payment for the sale. You don’t need to ask for a receipt.
  10. Get insurance for the vehicle from your insurance provider. Don’t drive the vehicle without it!
    • Before you drive away, make sure you have insurance on the vehicle! You can get insurance on a vehicle, even if you don’t own it. So if you agree to purchase the vehicle on Wednesday, call your insurance company with the VIN that day, so that on Thursday you already have insurance when you actually go to pick it up and make the financial transaction.
  11. Register the vehicle.

Once you are insured on the vehicle, find the nearest Secretary of State office to register the vehicle. You have 10 days from the date of purchase to do this. You will need:

– Driver’s license
– Completed title
– Proof of insurance on the vehicle (your insurance company will email this)

Here is the website that lists all SOS branches:

Also, you don’t have to wait in line once you get there. You can get in line by texting in, and it will tell you when to come! Find your nearest SOS, and follow the instructions on this webpage:,4670,7-127-1640_3408_9135-315692–,00.html