What I learned when buying a car for my teenager

What I learned buying a car for my teenager


Car shopping.

Depending on your thoughts on the subject, it can be a thrilling, emotional, befuddling, comprehensive, satisfying, fun, (not so) fun experience. Often all of these things are felt as you move through the entire car-buying process.

If you’re a teen driver looking for your first vehicle, I’d say the feelings lean more toward the thrilling and fun side of the emotional equation. Getting your initial set of wheels is an event that happens only once in your life, and more often than not, leads to a series of stories talked about for years.

I recently reflected on my first car stories as I am presently immersed in this process for a second time. This go-around, I’m in the market for a first car for a teenager.

It’s been an eye-opening adventure and I learned – and relearned – a trunk load of information while shopping with my teen. Below are some tips I learned along this journey you might find helpful when facing this same scenario.


Establish priorities

The first thing we did when we sat down to discuss a vehicle with our teen was figure out our deal-breakers and must-haves. It was easy for us to start off our auto search by ruling out some of the features we DID NOT want.

We live in a massive metroplex in Texas where driving many miles to go anywhere is a way of life and traffic congestion is a daily occurrence. With this in mind, we didn’t want a standard transmission vehicle.

We also knew that a large SUV, minivan or monster truck could be ruled out. This was based not just on our preferences and overall handling (not to mention garage space), but also our teen’s tastes. That led us toward the segments of sedans and smaller SUVs.

Another factor, air conditioning. Again, we live in Texas where it gets quite warm in the summer, so having a good AC system is crucial. More on this later in the “hands dirty” section.



Must-haves for us as parents fell into the category of safety. Features such as airbags, electronic stability control (ESC), working seatbelts throughout the vehicle and other safety items were all big players in our decision.


Be budget conscious

Crunch the numbers for how much you want to pay – and stick with that amount. An auto finance calculator can help you figure out financing and what works with your specific budget. I know plugging in the numbers helped us!

It also can be beneficial to get preapproved for auto financing so you know the amount of vehicle you can get before you even walk onto a dealership’s lot. Having this number in your head as you look can eliminate vehicles out of the price range and give confidence in the final purchase. You can find more about getting preapproved here.


Do your research

There is so much information on vehicles available online these days it’s easy to do your homework. Sites such as Autotrader, Consumer Reports, Cars.com, U.S. News & World Report, Kelley Blue Book, Edmunds, NADA Guides and J.D. Power all came into play at some point in our search for the right vehicle. These resources help compare similar types of vehicles and can give price estimates so you know you are staying in the ballpark of your budget.

We set up a sort of Pros and Cons document with all of the vehicles we were looking at for my son. It was easier to have everything down on one sheet and be able to add or subtract what we liked or didn’t like about each one.

I believe research is the key to finding the right car. The more you know, the more you can make the right decision for your teen who is about to get behind the wheel.


Be flexible

Let’s face it, no two cars are alike. Especially pre-owned vehicles. It’s easy to do, but don’t just jump on the first vehicle you see.

In our search, we saw a lot of awesome options. But upon further research (again, research = key), we discovered there were certain aspects about vehicles our teen preferred and ones that we preferred for our teen. Each side had to be flexible.

In addition to establishing priorities as mentioned above, we found it helpful to go into the car-shopping experience with an open mind and willingness to compromise on some features. (Does my teen really need that six-cylinder engine or is a four-cylinder good enough? We can probably do without the customized paint job and wheels.)


Get your hands dirty

Test drives are essential. Once behind the wheel you can tell how a vehicle handles and how it actually fits the person, in this case our teen, who will be driving. If his or her head is hitting the ceiling while they drive, not good.

Nothing beats an inspection with your own two eyes to see if the interior is torn up or in good shape. What about the tires? Will you need to fork over money for a new set of tires because the tread is worn down?

An in-person visit also lets you see for yourself if the “minor” scratches described in an online post are what you would consider “major” in your opinion.

You can also check for any flood damage that may have occurred over the life of the car and any other damages that may be present.

And then there’s the HVAC. By test driving, you can crank the AC and see how well it responds to the demands of 100-degree heat, or the heater’s ability to fight frigid temperatures.


A final note

Hopefully these tips were helpful. My main takeaway from our experience? As I stated above – research, research, research.

No matter if it’s a new vehicle for your teen driver, yourself or another member of your family, finding the right one involves a lot of moving parts, literally. Here’s hoping you find the right fit for your situation.


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