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How to Research a Major Purchase

by Ryan Guina

Making a major purchase is a big deal – both emotionally and financially. There are studies which show many people have a feeling of loss when they spend a large amount of money. Making a major purchase can cause nervousness, anxiety, and even fear. The experience can leave you and your wallet drained.

Regardless of whether you are making the largest purchase of your life (such as a new home) or making another large purchase, it’s important to do your research so you know you are getting a quality product that meets your needs and your budget – because there is almost nothing worse than making a major purchase and suffering from immediate buyer’s remorse because you spent too much money or bought something you didn’t need.

In the last 12 months my wife and I bought a used car, a new house, a new washer and dryer, and several electronics items (a computer, printer, and more). These all qualify as major purchases in my book because they all required research and cost more than a few hundred dollars. Here are some of the steps we went through when making these purchases.

Researching a Major Purchase

There are three key areas to focus on when researching a major purchase: features, price, and quality. The best way I found to research a major purchase is to create a spreadsheet to track everything. Since my wife and I often share in the research we found it easiest to use a shared spreadsheet on Google Docs so we can both access and edit the research without having to e-mail a file or place it in the same shared drive on our home network. In the spreadsheet we track features, price, and quality (often in the form of reviews or user ratings – I recommend visiting Amazon.com and/or Consumer Reports for great research and reviews).

Eliminate based on features. When starting out, list everything in the class that meets your needs, at least on the surface. You can fine tune as you go. For example, when researching cars, determine a set of criteria you need such as how many seats, number of doors, towing capacity, gas mileage, type of vehicle (car, truck, van, SUV), etc. Then list all the cars which meet those requirements. From there you can fine tune your needs and cross off everything that doesn’t fit your needs. It’s much easier to eliminate than it is to try and zero in on your choice when you first start – and keeping an open mind will often surprise you.

Zero in on price. Next up is price. Refer back to your budget and cross off everything that doesn’t fit. That said, you should try to be flexible. You may find that adjusting your budget will give you a much better long term solution. You should also be willing to adjust your requirements if necessary. For example, with cars you could buy a lower trim level or a used vehicle and still remain within budget. You can also use this opportunity to look for rebates, coupons, or other deals that will help bring the price into your budget.

Listen to the experts and use the power of group sourcing. It’s virtually impossible to stay up to date on the product features and technology for all types of electronics, appliances, cars, etc., and when in doubt, I refer to the experts. There are many great print and online resources featuring expert reviews. I like to go to Consumer Reports for cars and electronics, CNET for digital products, and trade magazines and websites for other items. But these sites don’t cover everything, which is when group sourcing can be invaluable for researching major purchases. For example, the reviews and ratings at Amazon.com tend to be very in depth and high quality.

Balance the features, price, and reviews, then pull the trigger. One you have this information at hand, you are ready to go. I like to do one more search for coupons and rebates before I make a major purchase online, and if I visit a store I go armed with my research and try to negotiate the price further if at all possible. It doesn’t always work, but you can often get additional savings just for asking.

I’ve found this process to be efficient and work very well for making major purchases – only once in the past few years have I regretted a major purchase, and that was a small point and click digital camera, which cost less than $150. Other than that, I’ve been happy with pretty much everything else.

Do you have any tips for researching a major purchase?


Published or updated May 9, 2011.
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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Bethy

Good tips! I would also say it’s wise to wait a while for hype about a product to die down.

I bought a point-and-shoot digital camera several years ago, but only after it had been on the market a while, and the price had stayed the same–telling me it was a quality product that was still high in demand. I’ve had it over six years now and it’s still going strong!

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2 Melanie

I usually research major purchases to death – consumer reports, recommendations from friends and family, an academic lit review of the item in questions, etc.

Then I read the results of a study that said you will actually be happier with a purchase the less you research it to death. How can that work?

My husband and I actually tried it out on our last big purchase: a used car. To make a long story short, we didn’t research it to death and so far we love the car. When I drive it I don’t worry about what features it doesn’t have or wonder if we should have bought that other car we looked at.

So I can see how the theory works. And that’s saying a lot when it comes from a research-it-to-death person like me!

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3 Ryan

Good observation, Melanie. I’ve had that experience before as well. In fact, the camera we bought and didn’t like falls into that category. Now I try to do the research as quickly as I can and make sure I still cover my bases. For example, I list all the essential items, then eliminate everything that doesn’t meet our needs. Then I look for glaring problems items, for example expert reviews that recommend against buying it. I find process of elimination easier at the first couple levels. Then I go with a combination of price, features, and intuition. It doesn’t have to be the cheapest item, or the one with the most features – just the one that meets our needs and fits our budget.

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