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Patience, common sense still pay off in complex world of car-buying

So you're in the market for a new car? Prices got you scared? Too much to see in the showrooms? Well, you're right. Buying a new car isn't the simple task it used to be when your only choice was a standard model vs. one marked ''de luxe.'' For one thing, the options were fewer back then. Today, the complexities of choice, price, options, turn-in, loan rates, marketing gimmicks, parrying the salesman, and so forth make the task of buying a new car a less-than-enjoyable experience for many people.

One woman phoned me the other day, complaining that although she and her husband had already signed the contract and taken delivery of a new car, the price was really far more than she felt they should have paid. The car itself, in fact, wasn't exactly what she had in mind.

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Yet the deal had already been made and there probably is little that can be done about it.

The lesson is this: Don't buy on impulse. Rather, take with you into the showroom a whole lot of patience and common sense. Don't be in a hurry.

You'll not only have to decide on the size of car, wagon, or van you want, but also the options. Carmakers usually ''package'' some of the most popular items in a car, so you may have to take more than you want. This makes the option decision a little easier, however, because you don't have to make a decision on every single item. Also, the cost is less than it would be if each item were bought separately.

Options are costly, though. The $400 air conditioner of a few years ago is the $750 decision of today. A hefty option list can add several thousand dollars to the price of a car. Then if you pay for the car over a 48-month time period, you're paying interest on those options as well.

Make your decisions logically, and don't be pressured by an overly enthusiastic salesman. Remember, he's trying to boost his own profit on the sale , and you're the one who'll have to pay.

How upscale do you want the ''environment'' inside the car to be? That's important to a lot of people. How much time do you spend in the car? If you spend 15 or 20 hours a week behind the wheel, a pleasing interior may be more important to you than if you simply use the car two or three times a week, and then only on short trips.

The sticker price of a car is only a guideline. A dealer may sell a high-demand car for more than the window-sticker price, and there is nothing illegal about it. The car dealer is an independent businessman who is out to make a profit. How much of a profit he makes is up to you, the buyer.

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Don't buy any car without a test drive. And be sure that a salesman is with you to answer your questions. You then get a chance to size up the salesman and see if he knows very much about the car he's trying to sell you.

Ask questions of yourself a3P- O-Ne you comfortable in the car? How does it perform on hills? How good is the pick-up? Would it have enough zip if you had two or three people in the back? How about the suspension? Is it too hard? Too soft? Does it cross railroad tracks without a thump? How about the brakes? Does the car pull to the left or the right?

You may want to test-drive a number of cars and even try more than one dealership. Check out the dealership with the Better Business Bureau and the attorney general's office to see if there are any customer complaints on file. Ask your neighbors and work associates. It's sound advice to buy from a local dealer instead of traveling 50 or 100 miles to save a few dollars and then being left out on a limb over service.

One West Coast car buyer called to say that she and her husband had bought a car in a dealership some 400 miles from their home only to discover little response to their complaints when the car failed to live up to the sales pitch.

After the decision to buy, discuss price. Get the best price you can on paper , with everything itemized so there are no surprises later on.

If you haven't bought a new car for a few years, the prices may shock you. Helping to offset in part the sharply higher prices, however, are the far more fuel-efficient cars of today when compared with, say, those of 1972 (before the Arab oil embargo). Also, people generally get a better-quality product now because of the intense competition among carmakers, most notably with the Japanese.

Don't be rushed into signing a contract. There are plenty of cars around and the ''slick deal that won't keep'' may be no deal at all by the time the ink is dry on the contract.

If you plan to finance the purchase, check around for rates. The dealer who sold you the car can provide financing, but you may get a better rate at a bank, savings and loan, or credit union. Check out all the possibilities first. Then sign. Some lenders today are stretching out a car loan for up to five years, but a far more common term is four years.

If you order a car made to your specifications, it'll take a few weeks for it to arrive. At delivery, check to see that everything works as it's supposed to work. Again, don't leave yourself open to unwanted surprises after you park the car in your driveway.

Be a smart buyer, not a sorry one.

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