13 Mistakes to Avoid When Buying a Car for a Teen

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parent driving instructor and happy teenage student driver in car
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RULES OF THE ROAD

So, your not-a-kid-anymore kid passed the big driving test and is now (gasp!) officially licensed to drive. Even better, you somehow have room in your budget to become a super parent and bestow upon your newly minted driver a new set of wheels. Well, you've got some planning to do. Shopping for and buying a car is overwhelming enough when you're the one who's going to be driving it. When you're buying a car for a teenager whose enthusiasm is only matched by their inexperience, however, things get even more complicated. It will go much more smoothly if you avoid these common mistakes.
father and son in serious front porch conversation
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NOT MANAGING EXPECTATIONS RIGHT OFF THE BAT

First thing's first. Parents should manage expectations by breaking the news that they're considering helping their teen get a car, but that everything is conditional. Before you do anything else, make it clear that according to both you as a parent and in the eyes of law enforcement, driving is a privilege and not a right. Now is the time to explain that money is finite and cars are expensive, both to buy and to own, and that the vehicle can be taken away as easily as it can be given.
father handing son car keys
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NOT HAVING 'THE TALK'

Handing car keys to a teenager isn't exactly the same as handing them a loaded gun, but it's certainly a time to talk about the inherent risks and dangers involved. Don't make the mistake of assuming your teen knows that one in three 13- to 19-year-olds who die do so in car. Don't assume they know that 16-year-olds crash more than drivers of any other age group and don't assume they're aware that 20 percent of teens have an accident within their first year behind the wheel. Teens shouldn't be terrified of driving, but they should have a healthy fear of the very real risks that come with the privilege. When it comes to safety, stress the non-negotiable big three, the first of which is an always and the second two are nevers: seat belts, cell phones, and drinking.
teenager in car at dealership with parent and salesperson in background
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LETTING YOUR TEEN STEER THE SHOPPING PROCESS

This is a big moment for both your teen and you as a parent, and it's natural for you to want to knock it out of the park. But don't attempt to be a rock star by getting them the car they think they want. Chances are good they're going to want some combination of flashy, fast, and big. Here's where you manage expectations the second time by making it clear up front that your criteria instead are going to be safety, practicality, and economy.
truck at dealership
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BUYING AN SUV OR LARGE TRUCK

For a lot of teens, bigger is better. But according to Consumer Reports, vehicles like SUVs and large pickups are not good starter cars for young, inexperienced drivers. They're harder to handle, harder to stop, and they have room for more passengers. Studies show that the likelihood of an accident increases with the addition of every passenger.
teen with driver's permit in sports car
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BUYING A SPORTS CAR

Just like big trucks and SUVs, you teen is likely to want, but is probably better off without, a sports car. According to Consumer Reports, sports car have higher rates of accidents, make it more likely that the driver will speed, and are more expensive to insure.
teen on phone in front of car accident
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PUTTING SAFETY SECOND (OR ANYWHERE BUT FIRST)

You're of course limited by your budget, but within that budget, you should choose the safest car possible. Go for a car that's big and heavy. Statistics show that teens are less likely to crash bigger cars, and that they and their passengers fare better when they do crash. Midsize sedans tend to be safer thanks largely to their low centers of gravity. Bigger cars with smaller engines are best. If you have the option of four or six cylinders, choose the former. Before you buy, run the make and model you're considering through the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration safety rating tool.
angry woman in front of broken down car
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BUYING A PRE-2012 CAR

If you're buying a car for a teen, chances are you're buying used — older cars are usually cheaper. A car that's too old, however, is almost certain to require repairs so frequently that maintenance costs are likely to negate any up-front savings. More importantly, when you buy a car built during or after 2012, you're adding an extra layer of safety. Something important happened in 2012. That's the year the government mandated all cars come standard with electronic stability control (ESC), which is a computerized technology that detects loss of traction and automatically reduces skidding.
deployed airbag in the interior of a vehicle
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CONSIDERING A CAR WITH FEWER THAN 6 AIRBAGS

Any car you're considering should have at least six airbags, which includes both side-impact and side-curtain bags. Side-impact airbags protect your body while side-curtain airbags protect your head. Generally, the more airbags the better.
magnifying glass on folder of documents
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NOT DOING A BACKGROUND CHECK

Before you pull the trigger, you absolutely must get a vehicle history report (VHR). A VHR is a detailed report that corresponds to the exact car's VIN number. The report gives you critical information such as how many owners the car has had, its maintenance records, any accidents it's been involved in, airbag deployments, flood damage, liens, title information, and more. It's possible to get a free VIN check or to pay for a more thorough report. In this case, it's almost always worth the expense to buy a report from a company like Carfax.
teen smiling out of window of car
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NOT BRINGING YOUR TEEN ALONG FOR A TEST DRIVE

Like any car purchase, you're going to want to take a test drive, but just because your teen doesn't know anything about cars doesn't mean he or she shouldn't come along for the initial ride. In fact, the soon-to-be driver should absolutely be there for the test drive so you can both get a feel for how the car handles, how it rides, the tightness of the steering, and how quickly the brakes bring the car to a stop at any given speed.
car insurance bill with car keys
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NOT BUDGETING FOR INSURANCE

Because of their inexperience, increased rates of accidents, and propensity for displaying less-than-stellar judgment, teens are expensive to insure. Buying the right car is part of the key to getting a good rate. But it's critical to call your insurance company before you buy, let them know you have a new driver in the house and discuss your options first. Involve your teen in the process — this can be a great opportunity to educate them on the realities of the indirect costs of car ownership while fostering a sense of responsibility.
two teen girls driving car
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NOT MONITORING THEIR DRIVING

In previous generations, parents had to teach their kids as much as they could, hand over their keys, watch them drive away, and hope for the best. Today's parents have the luxury of being able to proactively prevent tragedy with apps like MOTOSafety, and MobiCoPilot. These simple apps let parents monitor their teens while they're driving, see where they're going, check their speed, check for harsh braking, and even get driver report cards.
young woman working in a gift box store
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PAYING FOR THE WHOLE CAR

Chances are good your teen can't afford a car. But chances are equally good that your teen can afford to pay something. Whether it's accumulated birthday money or money from a summer job, by asking your new driver to contribute something to the upfront or ongoing costs (part of the monthly insurance, for example), you'll instill a sense of ownership and reduce the likelihood of reckless behavior.

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