Car Buying Guide for Teens and New Drivers

Your kid just finished Driver’s Ed, and now they want a car. Suppressing an outward display of raw terror, you agree. After all, with their own car, you won’t have to be a chauffeur for your teenager anymore. But what car to get? In this article, we’ll help walk you through the decision making process to find a car that, hopefully, works for both of you.

Finished Drivers Ed, Now What?

Your kid’s ready for that first car. If you have a typical teenager, that means they’ve got visions of BMW M5’s and Lexus LC 500’s dancing in their head. So expect a certain amount of disappointment no matter what ride they end up with. Unless, of course, you’re willing to buy thim that LC in which case, any chance you’d adopt me?

What to Consider When Buying a Car?

Realistically, there are a number of things you need to consider when buying your teen a car. Who pays for it? Who pays for repairs and maintenance? How about insurance? And what about accidents?

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety says teen drivers are 4 times more likely to get in a wreck than any other age group. The numbers for brand new drivers are even worse - 16 year olds are 1.5 times more likely to crash than 17-18 year olds.

That demands two considerations: Crash safety, and crash avoidance. If your kid gets in a wreck, you want them to be as protected as possible. That probably means the ‘79 Pinto your neighbor’s unloading for ten bucks isn’t the best option. Even ten year old cars have fewer crash safety features than more modern ones. It’s a good idea to get the safest, which often means the newest car you can fit into your budget.

You’ll also want to have a talk with your insurance agent to find the best way to insure your teen driver without exposing you to too much liability should they cause an accident. Advice for this can vary depending on the laws of your state. You can read more on insurance for your teen driver here.

But the best crash safety is to avoid the crash in the first place. For an experienced driver, this often means a nimble car that can dart out of the way of an oncoming problem. But a teenager is likely to be the oncoming problem. That means it might be a good idea to think about getting them a car that isn’t too powerful or too sporty. The more performance oriented a car is, the easier it is for a new driver to get in trouble with it.

Even the least sporty of vehicles can lead to problems. I’m a great example, considering my teenage misadventure when I almost crashed my parents’ ‘89 Caravan when I was seeing how fast it would go on a dirt road. I hadn’t driven the road before, and didn’t anticipate the sudden 90 degree curve that only became visible after cresting a hill. I barely escaped flying right off the road, and that was in a vehicle that did 0-60 in “eventually!” Imagine how much worse it would have turned out if I’d been driving something with higher performance. Mom, if you read this, I’m sorry, and it won’t happen again.

New or Used Car, Which is Right for You?

Obviously, the newest vehicles have the best safety features. Many will even automatically brake if they detect an impending crash. They’ll keep tabs on whether or not your kid is drifting out of the lane, and some will even nudge the car back to where it’s supposed to be. Blind spot monitoring, often including alerts if the driver tries to merge into a vehicle, can help avoid problems in momentary lapses of awareness.

So should you get Junior a new car? That really depends. Can you easily afford it, including footing the insurance bill for a teenage driver? Are you willing to drop 5-figures on a car that’s got a fair chance of being wrecked? If the answer to those questions is yes, then a new vehicle might be a viable option.

But for many, a used vehicle is the better way to go. The price will be cheaper. Insurance will be cheaper. It might even be cheaper to register. And if your kid does get into a fender bender, you might be able to find used parts to replace the damaged ones, saving you even more money.

Finding the Right Car

Deciding on the right car for your kid needs to include consideration of all those safety factors. But there’s more to think about. Many teens don’t have large financial reserves to deal with unexpected problems. They might want that Jaguar on Craigslist for $7,000 but can they afford to keep it running?

We’ve been talking about a lot of negatives to consider, but there’s another important thing to think about, and that’s whether or not your teen will like the car. As a parent, it’s probably tempting to hunt for the most boring, underwhelming car possible in the hopes that it will suppress any adolescent desires to drive like a nut. But as the above minivan example shows, that’s not always a guarantee. It’s a good idea to try to find a car that, while perhaps not fast, is nonetheless cool. Your kid will thank you.

What is the Cost of Buying a Car?

Aside from the initial purchase cost of buying a car (which at press time is going to be absurd, as used car prices are currently through the roof), there are a number of other cost factors to consider:

  • Insurance - You’re going to have to insure that car, and it’s going to be expensive. Insurance companies are wise to that statistic we talked about earlier. They know your teenager is a lot more likely to get into a wreck than any other age group. And they’ll adjust premiums upward to compensate.

  • Gas - Gas is also expensive. If your teenager’s budget will be tight, it’s a good idea to try to find a fuel efficient car. The good news is there are a number of cars in the 30mpg range that still look good and provide plenty of safety features.

  • Maintenance - Every car requires routine maintenance, and lots of people - not just young ones - aren’t very good at performing it. You’ll want to not only consider the cost of oil changes and other common maintenance items when buying a car, but you’ll also want to remind your kid that they need to track their mileage and what maintenance they need to perform, and when.

    One tip to save money: Seek out cars that use a timing chain rather than a timing belt. Chains generally don’t need to be replaced as routine maintenance, whereas belts do. If you really want a car that uses a timing belt, find out when it will next need to be replaced. If it’ll be shortly after you buy it, try to negotiate the price down to compensate for the cost of the job.

  • Warranty - Some used cars come with a dealer-provided warranty, often lasting 1 to 3 months. Newer used cars such as those that just got returned from a lease often have the balance of their factory warranty still active. If you can afford a used car that’s new enough, that warranty will give you extra peace of mind.

    If you buy your used car from a dealership, they will often try to get you to spring for an extended warranty. We’ve got a lot of resources to learn about those here at Car Talk. But in general, you shouldn’t assume the dealership’s offer to buy an extended warranty is the best deal you can get. Shop around!

  • Tires - As if you haven’t paid enough already, at some point you’ll probably need to replace the tires. While you don’t necessarily need top-of-the-line rubber, you also want to avoid the bottom-barrel no-name-brand cheap tires. Those tires are what keeps the car on the road. Poor-quality tires can impact cornering ability, gas mileage, safety and stopping distance, and especially for new drivers those are important.

    Many newer cars come with large wheels that use low-profile tires. These are more expensive than the old-style high-sidewall tires that most cars used to come with. It’s not a bad idea to check tire prices for the specific car you’re considering, just to see what you’ll be in for down the road. You can read more on our top tire picks and recommendations here.

Finally, a great resource for advice to parents about cars for their kids is right here at Car Talk’s Community Forums. Head on over and ask away!

Do Your Research

You’ve found a used car that you approve of and your teen likes. You’re almost ready to make an offer, but hold on! There’s still a couple things to do. The first step is to carefully inspect the car, inside and out. Look for previous damage and signs of abuse or neglect. Some things to check:

  • Make sure the oil is filled to the proper level and isn’t burnt or sludgy, which can indicate the seller neglected to have the oil changed on schedule. Another thing to watch for is oil that’s opaque. If it looks like chocolate milk instead of oil, that’s a sign of a bad head gasket, which is expensive. Note that some cars no longer include dipsticks, in which case the best you can do for now is to open the oil filler cap and shine a flashlight inside to see if there’s sludge buildup.

  • Next, check the coolant. Make sure the engine is cold, then open up the radiator cap. You should see coolant covering the fins. It might be red or green, and it should be see-through. Just like the oil check, if the coolant looks like chocolate milk, you should assume the head gasket is bad.

  • Make sure the transmission fluid is clean. It should be pink to brownish-pink. It should not be black, and it should not smell bad. If it is, that’s a sign the owner probably didn’t get it exchanged as often as it should have been, if at all.

  • Next, go around the car very thoroughly. You’re looking for collision damage and other flaws. Especially if you live in a state that uses road salt in the winter, you want to look very carefully for rust. Particularly check the wheel wells and underneath the doors.Remember that once rust takes hold, it’s incredibly difficult to eliminate. If you find rust, the price of the car should drop accordingly. If the rust is very bad - large holes in the bodywork or, worse yet, the structural components, it’s probably a good idea to pass on that car and find another.

  • Check the interior. Be sure to look at the pedals. It’s a good way to do a basic odometer honesty check. If the rubber on the pedals is badly worn, but the car supposedly only has 40,000 miles on it, you know something’s not right.

  • Make sure to check the maintenance and accident records of the car, using the VIN. CarFax is a great resource for this.

  • Finally, after you’ve performed your own checks and are still interested in the car, it’s a very good idea to take it to an independent mechanic with good customer reviews for a pre-purchase inspection. The shop will be able to find stuff that you might not notice. A hundred bucks or so now can save you thousands in unanticipated repairs later.

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What is the best starter car for a teenager?

It’s going to depend on your teenager and their needs. In general you want to look for a car with a good reputation for reliability that won’t cost your kid too much to fuel and maintain.

How much should a teenager pay for their first car?

That depends entirely on the available budget. Some kids can afford new luxury cars. Others… Can’t. Research car prices to make sure the asking price for the car you want is in line with the market.

How much should I spend on a car for my teenager?

Used car prices are very high at press time. Expect to spend at least a few thousand for a decent car, unless you get very lucky. Another option would be to give your teenager your car, and treat yourself to something new!

Should a 16 year old buy a car?

If they can afford it, and their parents approve, why not? Note that even if your teen buys a car with their own money, many states won’t allow them to title it in their name.

Can a teenager have a car in their name?

Oftentimes not. Many states will not allow anyone under 18 to register a car. Even if they can, many insurance companies will not enter into an insurance contract with a minor. Check with your state and insurance company to determine the best path for car ownership for your teen.

Can a teenager afford a car?

If your teen has an after-school job, they’re likely to be able to afford a car. However it may not be the Corvette they really want! You’ll also want to sit your teenager down and go over all of the expenses of car ownership they probably haven’t considered.

Editor's note and disclaimer: Car Talk is supported by our fans, readers and listeners. When you click on some of the links on our website, we may receive referral compensation. However, you should know that the recommendations we make are based on our independent editorial review and analyses.
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