How to Shop for Your Teen’s First Car
They grow up so fast! From training wheels to their first set of four, it’s up to you to help guide your child in the right direction and keep them safe. While shopping for your young driver’s first car can seem daunting, it doesn’t have to be a pain. Whether you’re buying new or used, there are a ton of options available. Here, we explore five tips for choosing the best starter vehicle for your teen.
1. Determine What Your Teen Driver Needs
From size to class to safety features to aesthetics and beyond, there’s a lot to think about when it comes to choosing the right car for your young driver. Narrow things down by making a list of the features they’ll need out of a car. (Think all-wheel drive, side airbags, anti-lock brakes and other safety features.) After that, you can ask your teen what they want out of a car and strike a compromise from there.
If a two-door hatchback with a rich sound system and basic air conditioning is going to cut it for them — great! But for those looking for more specific qualifications, here are some things to consider:
- How much garage or parking space does your teen have access to?
- What safety features are most important to you and your child?
- Do they need to have all-wheel drive?
- Will they be doing a lot of driving (and need better fuel economy)?
- Do they need a lot of trunk space for school- or job-related activities?
- What type of driving do they do (highway, surface streets or both)?
Don’t forget to consider electric or hybrid models. Keep eco-friendly cars in mind during your search — not only are they better for the environment, but you could score certain tax breaks and even lower auto insurance rates.
As you make your list of wants and needs, put an asterisk next to features you and your child are willing to compromise on. This can make a world of difference once it’s time to negotiate.
2. Consider All the Ownership Costs
Sure, there’s the cost of the car itself. But then there’s parts and maintenance, insurance and even depreciation, which can quickly add up. Maybe the model you’ve got your eyes on tends to depreciate faster than another you’ve considered, or perhaps one vehicle’s routine maintenance is more extensive (and therefore, expensive) than another’s. Be sure to weigh the costs versus the benefits of each car you and your child have in mind.
Keep in mind your teen can’t legally drive without being insured. Once you’ve narrowed down some prospective purchases, call car insurance companies to get coverage quotes for each one. It’s imperative to budget for insurance premiums. You may find that adding your new driver to your auto insurance policy can help save money overall. Be sure to ask the agent what your options are.
3. Cement Your Budget and Explore Financing Options
Take a look at your budget and break down how much you can spend on the down and monthly payments — to the penny. Give yourself some wiggle room in case a financial emergency crops up. If you’re leaving the payments up to your child, it’s key to set them up for success by helping them budget properly.
At this point, you’re ready to talk money. You typically have three options:
Buying the vehicle outright. If you have enough cash in the bank to buy your child a vehicle outright without any financing, this is your best bet. You’ll avoid monthly payments and won’t ever have to pay interest on a car loan.
- Taking out a car loan. If you’re like most people and need to finance the vehicle, you can typically take out a loan from a financing company like a bank or even through the car dealership. Yes, you’ll typically have to pay interest on the loan, but it also allows you to break down the cost of the car into affordable monthly payments.
- Leasing your vehicle. When you lease, you make payments on a car for a specified term (typically two to four years) and then return it at the end of the term, unless you choose to buy it. Lease payments are often lower than loan payments since you’re only paying for the car’s depreciation during the lease term, as well as interest charges, taxes and fees. Many ownership costs go by the wayside. It’s important to note, however, that a lease will often limit the number of miles you can drive in a year — usually 12,000 to 15,000, though you can often negotiate a higher mileage limit.
4. Schedule a Test Drive (or Several)
Here’s the fun part. Once you’ve solidified your top picks, call up dealerships (or private owners) and schedule test drives for you and your new driver.
Test driving is important because you can spot potential problems and make sure the car is the right fit for your teen. Here are some things to keep in mind during the test driving phase:
- Have your teen drive the car how they’d drive on their average day. If they’re going to use it to commute to and from school and a part-time job, for example, have them drive it at both highway speeds and in stop-and-go traffic.
- Test the agility of the car by having your teen drive over bumps, take tight corners and test the brakes (all in a safe location, like an empty parking lot).
- Turn off the music so you can listen to the engine. Be sure to test the air conditioning and heat as well.
- Take your time inspecting the car. You don’t want to miss seemingly small issues that could end up costing you or your teen big bucks in repairs down the line.
- If the car is used, look and smell for signs of water damage, mold or mildew. Rust and other signs of corrosion may present a problem later on.
It’s important to do some research at this point. Look at Kelley Blue Book, as well as the vehicle’s accident and claim history if you’re buying used, to help determine a reasonable price range for the car. Research how prospective models perform in crash and safety tests, and make sure there haven’t been any important safety defects or recalls issued on them.
5. Choose Your Child’s First Car
Woohoo! Now that you’ve weighed all your wants, needs and financing options, you’re ready to choose your child’s new set of wheels. If you and your teen have completed a few test drives and still aren’t sure, it’s best to sleep on the decision to help ensure you’re both happy with your investment.
Intimidating though it may seem, following these five basic steps to shopping for your new driver’s first car can help remove a lot of stress and hassle from the process. Happy driving to you and yours!