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Remember driver's ed? You logged some hours in the classroom before you hit the road, right? The preparation process behind buying a car should be no different. If you do a little homework before you dive behind the wheel for a test drive, you'll narrow your options to cars you love and can afford. Okay, pencils ready... here are the major questions to ask and answer when you're in the market for a car.

Should you buy a new or used car? We all love that new car smell, but how much are you willing to pay for it? A new car will cost considerably more than a used version of the same model. On the other hand, you have to consider the peace of mind that a new car warranty provides versus the uncertainty that often comes with a "pre-owned" vehicle.

What will the car be used for and under what conditions will it be driven? Will you be doing a lot of city driving? Mostly highway driving? Carpooling kids? The answers to these questions will help you determine what general features your new car should have. For example, should you place more emphasis on a vehicle's size for parking in tight urban spaces, its fuel economy for driving long distances, or its capacity for holding a lot of passengers?

How safe is a particular car? This should be a primary consideration for every car buyer. Determine what safety features, such as anti-lock brakes or airbags, are essential to you and insist that they be included on your car.

What features matter most to you? Are you willing to pay more for luxury features that aren't essential to the car's performance? Extras can quickly turn a reasonably priced car into one that is completely out of your price range, so before you take the test drive, consider what options you really want and don't allow yourself to be swayed.

How reliable is a particular car?
Unless you don't mind asking for rides and hanging out in repair shops, a car's reliability should be a priority. If you're purchasing a used car or will be keeping a new car for many years, check out the average repair costs for particular models.

How important is the look and style of the car? Remember that fashions change, even in the automotive world. So if you're planning to keep a car for many years, it's best to avoid models with exaggerated lines or trendy styling that might not be appealing to you or prospective buyers in the future.

How should you go about buying a car? There are more ways to buy a car today than ever before. The traditional method of walking into a dealership is one option, but you can also shop online, peruse the classifieds, or hire an auto broker who will negotiate the price for you. If you choose to buy from a dealership, you can verify their reliability and customer satisfaction by contacting your local Better Business Bureau (BBB). If you choose to shop on the Web, check out AutoSMART. This online resource from Northeast Credit Union can help you research different vehicles, build and price a new car, or find a used car. When you're ready to buy, AutoSMART can help you find a local dealer and also apply for a car loan from Northeast Credit Union.

How are you going to pay for a car? If you can't pay cash for the full purchase price, you can finance through the dealer or an institutional lender. It pays to compare loan rates from a number of sources with any financing options that a dealer may offer. To view Northeast Credit Union's current rates, click here. Remember to focus on the total cost of the car, not just the monthly payments. For example, at the same interest rate, higher monthly payments for a shorter period of time would ultimately cost you less than lower payments for a longer time.