Finding the Best Car for your Teenager

by Alan Brady

in Tips

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Like most of us, I’ve been a car guy since that 1976 Trans Am matchbox car found its way into my Christmas stocking when I was barely three years old. The entire family was a gear happy group. To this day, Dad still has his first car—a 1966 Mustang convertible, which he bought when he was fifteen and still unlicensed. My own ’69 Mustang still serves as my daily driver, and I have fond memories of my high school days working on her with my dad.

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to carry on the tradition. My daughter graduated high school, and the deal was if she finished with a 3.5 GPA, the wife and I would match her on a car. Needless to say she kept up her end of the bargain, and her proud father could not be more excited about the prospect of car shopping—perhaps the only shopping I ever enjoy. With the match, we had a little over $6,000 for the budget—significantly higher than the $1,900 I paid for my Mustang on that snowy day in 1986.

With the exception of test driving the new Mustangs with me back in 2005, my daughter had no experience with car shopping. I knew this would be a teachable moment; one that would last her for the rest of her life. My experience with cars—as well as the memories of spending several months hunting down the perfect ride with my own father—made me the perfect teacher. It was more than an errand, this was memories in the making; a chance to bond before my little girl’s last summer home. I thought it would be pertinent to share the experience—as well as some of my tips—for the rest of the Automoblog community to use when the time comes for them to car shop with their own teens.

Buy used

Let’s face it, new cars are expensive and a luxury. Don’t curse your kid with debt right out of the starter’s gate. I don’t believe in financing a vehicle, particularly a new one that will be worth substantially less the moment it takes ownership and leaves the lot. Remember, too, this is a teenager we are talking about, and they should not be driving a nicer car than you are.

Skip the lots altogether

I think a lot of parents make this mistake, whether they are buying for their kids or for themselves. Walking a lot with a teenager is salesman’s dream. I don’t believe you can find a deal on a lot, and lot cars—new or used—are just as likely to be problematic as a private sale. With a private sale, you are paying for a car and nothing else. At the lot you are paying for the commission of the salesman, and for the cost of the dealership. A “deal” on a lot is a “rip-off” in a private sale. I find no advantage to the lot; and if you are a smart buyer, you will not see one either.

Get a diagnostics done

I know a lot of folks have grief with dropping a hundred bucks in the shop on a car you might not end up buying, but it’s better than dropping thousands in repairs on a car you though was in good shape. However, I don’t advise doing this for every car you look at—save this only for the car you are planning to make a serious offer for. I have met too many people who purchased a car only to learn later that every aspect of the vehicle was on its last leg.

Don’t run from a beater

Ok, maybe beater is a strong word, but if you stumble across a car that needs some work, use this as a way to talk down the price. The money potentially saved in your budget can then be used on the repairs, and in the end you might come away with a real steal. Your diagnostics can give you a clue on expected repairs and costs, so if it is worth it, go for it. A buddy of mine bought a car with a bum alternator. The owner never knew what was wrong, but assumed it was a lost cause and sold the car for a few thousand bucks below blue book value. A trip to the parts store for a $200 alternator left my buddy with enough leftover cash for a new paint job.

Work to minimize your insurance payments

It’s expensive for kids to drive, and the insurance companies can take your kid to the bank on this fact. Look into the projected cost of insurance for whatever car you are looking at, and then ask yourself if the burden is worth it. Maybe the model is too hot, or has a bad reputation with teenage drivers. Buy the insurance with higher premiums, as this will always lower the monthly payments. When I bought my Mustang my dad would not let me have a V8 because of the added cost of insurance. It was a bummer at the time, but again, the money saved went back into the car. The 6 banger still sits under the hood, but can beat my brother’s ’71 Mach 1 off the line, and is a real attention grabber at the local show ‘n shines.

Buy to last

I already mentioned both my dad and I still have our first cars. Help your teen avoid short-sightedness in this process. The past years have made my car very special. Even my kids have fond memories of family outings to the drive-ins and car cruises. I was scared to death that my daughter would want that late model Isuzu Rodeo she heard about in one of her country music songs, and in a few years she’d find the car dated and tacky. I wanted her to have a car to grow old with, one that would be as significant to her in ten years as it was the day she bought it. A car signifies a moment of growth in your child’s life. This is a landmark time, and I wanted her to take away more from the moment than obtaining a second bedroom to grow out of.

I am inexpressibly pleased to say we were able to avoid the Rodeo issue, and my daughter is the proud owner of a 1970 2-door Ford Maverick (Take a look at Motormax 1/24 Scale Diecast 1974 Ford Maverick). The price tag stood just over $4,000, and I’ve already given in and agreed to use our remaining money to swap in a 302. It might cost more to insure, but it also provides me with some insurance in knowing she’ll be able to outrun all the boys. We will spend the summer working on the car, making it exactly what she want it to be.

This will be our last summer before she goes away to school, and I hope to make is a summer she will cherish as much as I cherish my summers working on cars with my dad. I hope she keeps the car forever, but if the day comes when she decides to she needs something, she will know exactly what to do and how to look for a new car.

The next thing that I would like to do for her is getting a guide for her first car and it will likely to be this one – In the Driver’s Seat: A Girl’s Guide to Her First Car by Erika Stalder!

 

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