If you've decided you need to get a car for commuting, hauling kids to hockey practice or fun jaunts on the weekend, there are several things you need to keep in mind before rolling off the lot in your new ride.

It's easy to get excited by a low asking price or by hot, head-turning looks. But for many people a car is the second-largest purchase they’ll make, so it's important to proceed with caution.

That's not to say buying a vehicle can't be fun. Just do your homework ahead of time. To help, here are five things to know and do if you're in the market for a new or used ride.

1 – Determine your needs (Research)

First, figure out what type of vehicle you want. The size and style of your next car will depend on what you’ll be using it for.

For example, a car for the daily commute will likely be smaller and more fuel efficient than something big for a family of five that heads up to a cabin every weekend.

Also, think about which features your next vehicle must have, such as a backup camera, a powerful engine or all-wheel drive.

Brian Santos, a realtor looking to replace his car in June, says there is one feature he won't be willing to compromise on.

“I want all-wheel drive and I regret not getting it with my last car,” Santos said.

And before you even step foot in a dealership, do your homework online and research potential models. Look for Canadian reviews (link: autofocus.ca) of the cars you're interested in, which will reflect pricing and options unique to our market.

2 – Set a budget

This isn't a coffee you're spending money on – this is something that could be worth tens of thousands of dollars. Make sure you can afford it.

For a new car, the optional features can put the total cost in top gear from what was likely promoted as a base price.

Santos says the price of a new car is a “huge factor” as he shops around. “It's what I base my search on. I set a budget and then find a car that fits within it,” he said. “My last vehicle...I didn't necessarily want what I got. But it was well under budget and had everything I wanted, so I went for it.”

Prepare for other expenses such as taxes and licensing fees. Now is also a good time to get insurance quotes for the models you're interested in. There's nothing more shocking than getting a great deal on a sports car, only to find out that your insurance premiums will eat into your retirement savings.

3 – Find a good dealership

To find a good dealership, Car Helps Canada director Mohamed Bouchama suggests asking people you know about their car buying experiences.

“Some might tell you who to go to and who is good, who is not,” Bouchama said.

Keep in mind that a dealership's advertising must match the pricing they offer when you show up in person for the same vehicle that was in the ad.

Bouchama also says doing lots of research before visiting a dealership will help put customers in a stronger position when they’re talking numbers.

“If the salesperson tries to sell you something you don't need, or you don't know about, you can tell them ‘no’ if you have all the information.”

Feel like something's not right? Go somewhere else, he said.

“The most important thing is to be prepared to walk away. There's another salesman out there, at another dealership.”

If you're intimidated because you don't know a lot about cars, then go with someone who does. Thank them with a nice dinner – chances are it'll cost less than the pricey paint protection they might try to sell you.

4- Take it on a real test drive

You'll be spending a lot of time in your next car, so you better love it. Don't just go for a spin around the dealership's local streets, get out to the highway and take it to both busy and empty streets. Attempt some parallel parking, too, even if it parks itself.

And it's not just about the on-road experience either. Make sure the car will suit your lifestyle – including the people and the stuff you'll have with you.

See if your kids can easily climb in and out of the back seat. Check to see if that SUV can swallow up the hockey bags you'll regularly toss in the trunk. Try fitting two sets of golf bags in the back of that sports car.

If you're looking at a used vehicle, try every feature you possibly can. This is your chance to find out that the air conditioning doesn't work before they've cashed your cheque.

WIth used cars, Bouchama also suggests that shoppers ask to see a car’s maintenance records and take the vehicle to get checked out by their own mechanic.

“The number one thing is make sure you take it for an inspection to your own garage, the mechanic you usually deal with,” Bouchama said.

Potential buyers should also request a CarProof report, which would show a vehicle’s accident claims history, along with other details.

5 – Read twice, sign once

Buying a car isn't like buying something online from Amazon – you can't just send it back because it didn't fit.

Before you leave a deposit, make sure you're committed to actually following through with the purchase. If you decide to walk away from the deal, your deposit is likely gone faster than you can speed off the lot.

Beware of add-ons such as expensive admin fees and protection packages. Many of these extras are cheaper elsewhere, if even necessary.

“(The dealership) will charge you between $800 and $1,500 for rust proofing, when usually it costs about $150 to $200,” Bouchama said.

Bouchama also cautions when buying an extended warranty with a new car. Certain manufacturers let customers get an extended warranty after the initial purchase, up to three years later or a certain mileage.

“You have a lot of time then to realize if the car is good or if it's having lots of problems,” he says.

The dealership also gets a big incentive for selling you an extended warranty.

If you've added optional features to a new car, find out how the vehicle you drive off the lot might be different than the one you test drove.

Santos says he wishes he had paid more attention to the impact certain options had on his last car.

“With the packages it had, it didn't have the fold-down seats and I didn't realize that until I later picked up some things and needed the space” he says.

Also, look over the purchase agreement and ask questions if something is confusing. You can't get out of a deal or make changes after you've signed for it.

Bouchama says he recently heard from a Car Helps Canada member who didn’t notice a hefty dealer admin fee. The customer only noticed the $700 charge after he had signed, and the dealer said it was too late to change it.