Image: Used car shopping
Rich Pedroncelli  /  AP
Research is key when shopping for a new car: You should find out which kind of financing is cheapest for you, explore several possible vehicles (including used ones) and visit more than one dealership to do some comparison shopping.
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updated 5/17/2011 7:18:32 AM ET 2011-05-17T11:18:32

Thinking of buying a car? Don't make the mistake of dropping by a lot to browse. You may end up with more than you bargained for.

"That's a good way to accidentally buy a car," says Joe Wiesenfelder, senior editor for Cars.com. Salesman are going to bring all the pressure to bear that they can to entice you to make a purchase.

Everyone knows it's important to research a vehicle before taking it on a test drive, but not everyone knows the kind of reconnaissance that leads to getting a fair deal.

Real research means finding out which kind of financing is cheapest for you, exploring several possible vehicles (including used ones), and visiting more than one dealership to do some comparison shopping.

Forbes.com slide show: 13 Common Car-Buying Mistakes

Bottom line: It means going into a dealership with confidence, knowledge and, potentially, an open mind. It also means knowing when to walk away.

"Spending more money doesn't necessarily mean that a car will be more durable," says David Sargent, vice president of automotive research for J.D. Power and Associates. "There are some very good, very durable, inexpensive cars out there and not so good, not so durable, expensive vehicles."

That's why we compiled this list — you've got to know when, and where, to spend before taking the plunge. For starters, determine whether you even need a new car. Just because you're spending $80 to fill up your gas tank every week doesn't mean it makes financial sense to switch to something smaller.

Availability on hybrids, for instance, has gone down, and sales prices are going up, so even though something small or hybrid might save money at the pump or make you feel better about yourself, they aren't necessarily the cheapest option, especially if you already own a car that is not particularly fuel efficient, Wiesenfelder says.

"You really have to do the math," he says. "The efficient car is costing more these days than sticker price, and the resale value of your guzzler has gone even lower than it was five months ago. You'll get [penalized] on both ends."

Forbes.com: America's 10 best-selling cars this spring

If you do decide to buy a car, be especially vigilant about negotiating for the overall purchase price, rather than monthly payments. Dealers love to draw four-square boxes that are supposed to show how much a prospective buyer can afford to pay per month, but that can be deceiving: If payments are stretched out long enough, even a Bentley can seem affordable.

"A car is never worth more to you than when it's paid off," Wiesenfelder says. "If you pay $1,000 [for repairs] and get another year out of the car, that's a heck of a lot less than $350 a month."

Another idea: Work with the dealership's Internet sales department, rather than the sales guys up front. The Internet team usually has different motivations than their sales floor counterparts.

"A salesman on a showroom floor is trying to make as much money off the purchase price as he can," says Philip Reed, the senior consumer advice editor of Edmunds. "The higher purchase price, the higher the commission he will get. The Internet manager makes a salary and gets a bonus based on volume."

That means the Internet guys are more motivated to make a sale rather than run up the price. Most of them assume a higher level of knowledge from their buyers, since they're using the Internet, which can make finding something you need, and negotiating a fair price, faster and more direct.

Finally, be aware that everything you say in any kind of interaction can and will be used against you in the "official" negotiation process. Mentioning "I need a car" or "I love this car" only makes you seem vulnerable — emotional reactions are never conducive to commanding low prices. And consider keeping your profession under wraps: If a dealer knows you're a physician or an attorney, he may assume you will pay more than you'd like.

Above all, relax. Car-buying can be time-consuming and difficult. But it doesn't have to be stressful.

"People are so fixated on getting the right deal and not getting screwed," Wiesenfelder says. "They'll be like, 'My neighbor paid this much!' But who knows when your neighbor bought, who know what equipment is in your neighbor's car. It's just not that simple."

More from Forbes.com:

The Next Wave Of Green Cars

Coolest apps for your car

10 cars you may drive in 10 years

The worst cars on the road

© 2012 Forbes.com

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