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Thinking about buying a car? Here’s what auto experts say you need to know

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A customer is shown a 2022 Toyota Prius at Longo Toyota in El Monte, CA on Wednesday, March 23, 2022.

Medianews Group | Orange County Register via Getty Images

People spend a lot of money on their cars and trucks. In fact, about 16% of the average American’s total budget goes to transportation, including vehicle costs and fuel. That makes it the second-biggest expenditure after housing but before incidentals like food, education, and saving for retirement.

The scale of the expense can make shopping for a vehicle stressful – especially for younger, first-time buyers who tend to have less-established credit histories and lower savings.

And today’s market makes it even worse.

According to Kelley Blue Book, the average cost of a new vehicle (including cars, crossovers, vans, pickup trucks and SUVs) exceeded $47,000 at the end of 2021 – up more than 25% in just two years. Average used vehicle prices saw an even steeper rise, going up 42% from under $20,000 at the end of 2019 to over $28,000 two years later. These price increases exceed overall inflation over the same period. They’re due to a production slowdown caused by the pandemic, coupled with pent-up consumer demand and a global microchip shortage.

So, what’s the best way to buy a first vehicle in today’s marketplace?

Where to start the car-buying process

A new buyer’s first step is to determine the sort of vehicle they need, and their budget.

Selection takes some thought. A small sports car might work for a single person or couple, but not if they’re planning on starting a family. A large SUV might be great for camping and road-tripping with friends, but isn’t likely to be much fun when it comes time to fuel up, pay for insurance, or find street parking.

“Think about your actual needs, how long your commute is, how much you have to carry, and if you actually enjoy driving and might want something sporty,” said Ronald Montoya, the senior consumer advice editor and content strategist at Edmunds. “Avoid overbuying – you can probably get by with a smaller vehicle for most of your needs, and just rent something bigger once or twice a year, when you really need it.”

With prices so high, shoppers also need to keep a close eye on their budget. “There is no point in test driving a car if it turns out you can’t afford it,” said Tom McParland, who runs the vehicle-buying service Automatch Consulting and writes about consumer issues and the automotive industry for Jalopnik.

Most experts advise spending no more than 20% of take-home pay on a vehicle, including payments, insurance and fuel or electricity. There are many online calculators to help consumers determine how much a car buyer can afford.

Choosing the type of vehicle to buy

These days, nearly half of auto shoppers choose crossovers – tall vehicles based on passenger cars that have an open back area (like a station wagon or SUV) rather than an enclosed trunk. Crossovers blend most of the efficiency and driving characteristics of a traditional car with a bit of the off-road and foul-weather capabilities of a four-wheel drive SUV.

If you don’t need a tall driving position and rarely travel in deep snow, a traditional car might be a better choice, however. Whether in the form of a sedan, coupe, convertible or station wagon, cars tend to be lighter and have a lower center of gravity than crossovers, which aids efficiency and handling.

Conversely, someone who regularly tows or travels on poorly-kept dirt roads might lean towards a traditional SUV or pickup, which are generally built on heavy-duty truck frames to take such abuse. Though most SUVs and pickups are gas hogs, there are a handful of efficient options, such as the hybrid version of the new Ford Maverick and diesel versions of the Ram 1500 and Chevrolet Tahoe. On top of this, a range of electric options including the Ford F-150 Lightning pickup are entering the market over the next year.

Anyone who doesn’t go off-road or tow much but does carry a lot or people or stuff should remember that minivans still exist. This oft-overlooked segment of the market is ideal for larger families and there’s a range of front- and all-wheel-drive minivan options that can seat up to eight people in car-like comfort.

Finally, those thinking of getting an electric vehicle might need to plan for a long search. Battery powered transportation may represent the future, but the vast majority of vehicles sold still use gasoline – electric vehicles accounted for only 3.4% of total vehicle sales in the fourth quarter of 2021, which is actually lower than diesel sales (4.6%, mostly pickups). Hybrid vehicles, which combine gas and electric power, made up another 7.5%. Manufacturers are trying to ramp up battery production, though, and some new electric vehicle purchases can still qualify for federal tax credits of $7,500 on top of state and local subsidies.

Once a shopper has a particular type of vehicle in mind, they should read professional reviews (e.g. Car and Driver, Jalopnik and Edmunds) and search owners’ reviews to determine which particular models interest them, then arrange for test drives.

New or used?

For many years, the fiscally smart move was to buy a low-mileage used vehicle – something two or three years old and in good condition. These might lack the latest infotainment equipment and a full factory warranty, but generally provided reliable transportation at a steep discount since vehicles would typically depreciate about 20% in the first year, and 10% annually for a few years after that.

The Covid pandemic has muted depreciation, however, and prices for used cars are growing faster than for new. As the price gap narrows, buying new becomes more appealing because the vehicles are in better condition, plus, they have a full warranty and can be financed at a lower rate.

Used Teslas have done particularly well of late, as gas prices have risen, spurring more interest in EVs and the economics of recharging versus filling up. The popular all-electric vehicles are now averaging $65,000 on the used marketplace, coming close to their cost when new.

The best move for consumers is to look around, because paying almost as much for used as new doesn’t make sense.

Used shoppers should also consider looking for a certified pre-owned vehicle, which most manufacturers offer through authorized dealers. CPO vehicles – generally low-mileage and of recent vintage – are thoroughly cleaned and inspected, then repaired if necessary. They offer a manufacturer-backed warranty on top of what’s left from the original coverage, and some include additional perks such as roadside assistance or trip insurance. CPO vehicles cost more than other used cars, but they can provide peace-of-mind.

How to pay for an automobile

Buying a vehicle outright – often called paying cash for the car, even though it’s more likely to involve a cashier’s check or credit card rather than a literal wad of cash – lets consumers avoid monthly payments and thousands in interest. But it’s not for everyone. Many people just don’t have the savings, plus dealers make money off of financing and are less likely to negotiate on price for buyers paying cash.

“Paying cash is usually your best option because it limits how much you have to pour into a depreciating asset,” said Greg McBride, the chief financial analyst at consumer finance site Bankrate.com. “But don’t deplete your emergency fund just to buy the car.”

Besides paying cash, shoppers can also turn to leasing or loans.

With leasing, consumers generally make lower monthly payments, but don’t own the vehicle at the end of the term – typically three years – unless they pony up a big lump-sum payment. “Leasing is often a treadmill of payments,” McBride said. “You’re essentially renting the vehicle and at the end of the lease you return the car and start over on a new one.”

Since leasees don’t own the car during the term of their lease, they can run into trouble if they make modifications such as sound system or engine upgrades. They also have to pay a penalty for excessive wear and tear, terminating the lease early, or driving more than a set amount (usually about 12,000 miles annually, though some newer leases are down to 10,000).

Besides cutting mileage allowances, lease providers have also been limiting the incentives they used to offer (such as cash rebates or subsidized interest rates). For these reasons, most people currently in the market for a vehicle should look to loans if they can’t pay cash. Loans usually end up costing less than leases – especially for consumers who hold onto vehicles for years. Also, those with loans don’t have to worry about mileage or wear, or pay a penalty for early termination. Most importantly, at the end of a loan term, the consumer owns the vehicle. Loan terms can run to 84 months, or even longer. But most experts recommend sticking to shorter loans with lower interest to keep overall costs down.

Loans usually end up costing less than leases, especially for consumers who hold onto vehicles for years. Since they own the vehicle once the loan is paid off, consumers don’t need to worry about mileage or wear, and there’s no penalty for early termination. “We recommend loans to most shoppers, and putting down at least 20% to keep monthly payments reasonable and avoid GAP insurance,” said Montoya.

GAP (short for Guaranteed Asset Protection) protects people who have a loan or lease on a car and owe more than its worth. If their car is totaled or stolen, it supplements regular insurance by paying the difference between what their vehicle is worth and what’s owed. 

McParland said that anyone financing should understand their credit score to know where they stand and then cross-shop lenders and lease providers. “It’s always wise to be pre-approved for a loan before you talk to the dealer,” he said. “That way, you do have some leverage for them to find you a rate that either matches or beats what you already have.”

Where to buy: Dealers or direct?

Most new and used car sales are still done through dealerships. Using a dealer lets you view and test drive multiple vehicles in a day, and provides access to financing and sometimes even useful services such as free oil changes or tire rotations. In many cases, a dealer will also accept a buyer’s old car on trade in – with used vehicle prices so high, that can be a big help.

Problems with using dealers include their often aggressive sales tactics and tendency to fold extra services into vehicle sales at inflated prices. For instance, etching a vehicle identification number (VIN) onto the windshield is a useful practice that can deter theft and lower insurance rates, but a dealer might charge more than $300 for the work, which consumers can do themselves with a $25 kit. To avoid paying excessive fees, it’s wise to ask about any dealer-installed options or markups, Montoya said. It’s a sellers market, and dealers might not waive any of the costs they tack on, but the buyer can always take their business elsewhere.

Another option is to use a no-haggle dealership, typified by CarMax, Vroom and Carvana. These companies can charge more than traditional dealerships, but generally score positive reviews from consumers. Each promises stress-free shopping with a non-negotiable price and money back guarantees, plus large and easy-to-search inventories. Each will also deliver a new car right to your door, in most instances. Unlike the others, CarMax also offers physical locations where shoppers can peruse cars.

Of course, you don’t have to deal with dealers. Buying from a private seller is usually cheaper – there’s less overhead to deal with and little chance for any inflated add-on costs. Buying privately can also be less of a hassle for consumers who don’t mind handling their own paperwork, arranging their own financing, and paying any applicable state sales tax when they register the vehicle.

When to buy a car

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Trump media company subpoenaed in federal criminal probe of SPAC deal

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Former U.S. President Donald Trump gives the keynote address at the Faith & Freedom Coalition during their annual “Road To Majority Policy Conference” at the Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center June 17, 2022 in Nashville, Tennessee.

Seth Herald | Getty Images

Donald Trump’s media company was subpoenaed by a federal grand jury in connection with a criminal probe, according to the company with which the former president’s firm plans to merge.

Digital World Acquisition Corp. said in a filing Friday that Trump Media and Technology Group received a subpoena from the grand jury in Manhattan on Thursday. The Trump company also received a subpoena from the Securities and Exchange Commission regarding a civil probe on Monday, DWAC said.

DWAC also said some current and former TMTG employees have also recently received grand jury subpoenas.

The filing came days after DWAC said the government investigations could delay or even prevent its merger with Trump’s newly formed company, which includes Truth Social, a social media app intended to be an alternative to Twitter.

Neither TMTG nor a spokeswoman for Trump immediately responded to CNBC’s requests for comment.

The Justice Department and the SEC, which regulates the stock market, are investigating the deal between DWAC and Trump Media. By merging with DWAC, which is a kind of shell company called a special purpose acquisition company, or SPAC, Trump’s firm would gain access to potentially billions of dollars on public equities markets.

Trump established Truth Social months after Twitter banned him for his tweets on Jan. 6, 2021, when hundreds of his supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol in a bid to overturn Joe Biden’s victory in the presidential election. Trump Media’s CEO is former Rep. Devin Nunes, one of the former president’s most ardent loyalists in the Republican Party. Trump is also considering whether to run for president in the 2024 election.

Trump has continued to spread the lie that the election was stolen from him. His alleged involvement in the Jan. 6 insurrection is being probed by a House select committee that has accused the former president of being at the center of a multipronged conspiracy to block the peaceful transfer of power to Biden.

Early criticism of the Trump-DWAC deal came from Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. In calling for an investigation, she wrote to SEC Chair Gary Gensler in November, telling him that DWAC “may have committed securities violations by holding private and undisclosed discussions about the merger as early as May 2021, while omitting this information in [SEC] filing and other public statements.”

DWAC shares are far off their highs, closing Friday at $24.20. The stock had surged above $90 in October, after the deal with Trump’s group was announced.

DWAC on Monday revealed in a securities filing that it learned June 16 that each member of its board of directors received subpoenas from the same federal grand jury.

The grand jury sought documents similar to those the SEC already requested as part of its civil probe, DWAC said. The company itself was served with a subpoena a week ago with similar requests, along with other requests relating to communications, individuals and information involving Rocket One Capital.

DWAC also revealed Monday that a board member, Bruce J. Garelick, had told management that he would quit the board during the previous week. Garelick said his resignation “was not the result of any disagreement with Digital World’s operations, policies or practices,” according to the company filing.

— CNBC’s Kevin Breuninger and Thomas Franck contributed to this story.

This is breaking news. Please check back for updates.

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Walmart is working on a response to the Supreme Court’s abortion decision, CEO says in memo

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Walmart CEO Doug McMillon speaks at the CNBC Evolve conference November 19th in Los Angeles.

Jesse Grant | CNBC

Walmart CEO Doug McMillon told employees on Friday that the company is weighing how to respond to a Supreme Court decision that ended the federal right to an abortion.

“We are working thoughtfully and diligently to figure out the best path forward, guided by our desire to support our associates, all of our associates,” he said in a memo sent to employees on Friday. “We will share details on our actions as soon as possible, recognizing that time is of the essence.”

He did not say what changes the company is considering, such as if it may cover travel expenses for workers who must travel to another state where abortion is available.

The memo was previously reported by The Wall Street Journal.

Arkansas, home to Walmart’s headquarters, is one of several states with severe limits or bans on abortions that went into affect after the high court’s ruling.

Walmart is also the country’s largest private employer. It has about 1.6 million employees across the country, including many who live and work in states across the Sunbelt with abortion restrictions such as Texas, Oklahoma and Florida.

Since the Supreme Court reversed Roe v. Wade, companies across the country have had a mix of reactions. Some, including JPMorgan Chase, Dick’s Sporting Goods and Target, have announced new plans to cover employee travel to other states for abortions. Others, such as Kroger and Apple, said they already cover travel for medical treatments and reproductive health care. And still others have remained quiet.

Amazon, the second-largest private employer in the country, said in May that it would pay up to $4,000 in travel expenses each year for non-life-threatening medical treatments, including abortions.

Walmart already covers employee travel for some medical procedures, such as certain heart surgeries, cancer treatments and organ transplants.

Walmart health benefits cover only some abortions. According to the company’s employee handbook, charges for “procedures, services, drugs and supplies related to abortions or termination of pregnancy are not covered, except when the health of the mother would be in danger if the fetus were carried to term, the fetus could not survive the birthing process, or death would be imminent after birth.”

Plan B, an over-the-counter form of contraception, is covered only if the person gets a prescription. The pill, often called the “morning after pill,” works by preventing ovulation or preventing a fertilized egg from attaching to the womb. It can be taken after unprotected sex or when contraception fails.

Other forms of contraception are also covered with a prescription, including birth control pills, injections and intrauterine devices, or IUDs. Some anti-abortion activists also oppose IUDs because they can stop a fertilized egg from implanting in the uterus.

In Friday’s memo, McMillon said Walmart has gathered input from employees as it decides what to do. He also alluded to the size and diversity of both the company and its customer base.

“We know our associates and customers hold a variety of views on the issue, and this is a sensitive topic about which many of us feel strongly,” he said. “We want you to know that we see you, all of you. No matter what your position on this topic is, we want you to feel respected, valued and supported.”

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FCC authorizes SpaceX to provide mobile Starlink internet service to boats, planes and trucks

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The Starlink logo is seen in the background of a silhouetted woman holding a mobile phone.

Sopa Images | Lightrocket | Getty Images

The Federal Communications Commission authorized SpaceX to provide Starlink satellite internet to vehicles in motion, a key step for Elon Musk’s company to further expand the service.

“Authorizing a new class of [customer] terminals for SpaceX’s satellite system will expand the range of broadband capabilities to meet the growing user demands that now require connectivity while on the move, whether driving an RV across the country, moving a freighter from Europe to a U.S. port, or while on a domestic or international flight,” FCC international bureau chief Tom Sullivan wrote in the authorization posted Thursday.

SpaceX did not immediately respond to CNBC’s request for comment on the FCC decision.

Starlink is SpaceX’s network of satellites in low Earth orbit, designed to deliver high-speed internet anywhere on the globe. SpaceX has launched about 2,700 satellites to support the global network, with the base price of the service costing users $110 a month. As of May, SpaceX told the FCC that Starlink had more than 400,000 subscribers.

SpaceX has signed early deals with commercial air carriers in preparation for this decision: It has pacts with Hawaiian Airlines and semi-private charter provider JSX to provide Wi-Fi on planes. Up until now SpaceX has been approved to conduct a limited amount of inflight testing, seeing the aviation Wi-Fi market as “ripe for an overhaul.”

The FCC’s authorization also includes connecting to ships and vehicles like semi-trucks and RVs, with SpaceX having last year requested to expand from servicing stationary customers. SpaceX had already deployed a version of its service called “Starlink for RVs,” with an additional “portability” fee. But portability is not the same as mobility, which the FCC’s decision now allows.

The FCC imposed conditions on in-motion Starlink service. SpaceX is required to “accept any interference received from both current and future services authorized,” and further investment in Starlink will “assume the risk that operations may be subject to additional conditions or requirements” from the FCC.

The ruling did not resolve a broader SpaceX regulatory dispute with Dish Network and RS Access, an entity backed by billionaire Michael Dell, over the use of 12-gigahertz band – a range of frequency used for broadband communications. The FCC continues to analyze whether the band can support both ground-based and space-based services, with SpaceX pushing for the regulator to make a ruling.

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