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Tips on Buying a Used Car for Your Teen

What's more stressful—teaching your kids how to drive, or figuring out the right first car to buy for them?

Everyone remembers their first car (for better or worse). And while every teen dreams of snagging a shiny new convertible as their first set of wheels, it's more realistic that you're looking for a reliable, affordable, used car.

But where to begin?

Turns out, there are 3 key components to consider when picking a used car for your teen. And no, “being cool” isn't one of them.

Safety Features

AKA what matters most to parents, but doesn't even register with teen drivers.

The main safety features to look for when buying a used vehicle are:

  • Size: The safest beginner cars are typically mid-size sedans, particularly those with 4-cylinder engines. Midsize sedans carry enough bulk to provide protection in an accident and are less Teen Driverlikely to flip over or roll. 4-cylinder engines are more fuel-efficient, and also make it harder for inexperienced drivers to blast past the speed limit.
  • Air bags: Ideally you want to find a car with at least 6 air bags, preferably more. Besides front air bags, safe vehicles possess 2 each of side-curtain and side-impact bags.
  • Antilock brakes: Just about all modern cars come equipped with antilock brake systems (ABS), but some older models do not. ABS makes it much easier for drivers to stop quickly, a must-have for teens.
  • Crash test ratings: Before settling on a car, check to make sure it scores at least 4/5 stars on government crash tests. You can view test scores at safercar.gov.

Reliability

After safety, you need to know that your teen's car won't break down every night.

Reliability is always a nagging issue when buying a used car, and it's difficult to know beforehand just what to expect.

The absolute best way to get a feel for a car is to actually drive it.

You and your teen should both take turns putting the vehicle to the test, and not just on a leisurely cruise around town.

You need to check its performance at highway speeds, in city traffic, on steep hills and sharp turns, and (if possible) in rough weather.

Problems that might seem minor coasting through the neighborhood can become much, much worse at higher speeds.

If the car's owner doesn't agree to a test drive, it's probably better to walk away.

On Recalls and Accident History

Even cars that pass the first two tests could have a hidden accident history you might not be too happy with.

For $40 or less, companies like AutoCheck and Carfax can provide a report detailing a car's full accident history. These reports can reveal major crashes that the vehicle's owner isn't keen on revealing.

That said, Carfax and AutoCheck aren't always 100% accurate. The most foolproof way to detect prior damage is to have a trusted mechanic give the vehicle an in-depth examination.

Minor body damage likes scratches shouldn't automatically disqualify a car—your mechanic can tell you if there are any real red flags.

The Final Word

We know you're probably putting a ton of thought towards getting the best car for your new driver. At the same time, don't let the stress of finding “The One” consume your life.

There's no best car for every person, but giving your best effort is a step in the right direction towards keeping your teen safe behind the wheel.

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