5 tips when buying a car for a teen

parent buying a car for a teen

With graduation season and summer break upon us, many parents may be on the hunt for a new car for their graduate. Memorial Day deals offer some of the best incentives of the year, so it's crucial to know how to navigate what can be an overwhelming and exhausting process.

“USAA helps members find, finance and insure vehicles that are right for their personal needs and financial goals,” says Heather Pollard, vice president of Auto Experience at USAA. “We want to avoid you ever having to regret your purchase decision, or worse, lead to financial hardships where you can no longer afford to keep your vehicle.”

If you are one of the millions of Americans looking to buy a car, here are the five things you need to know before you step foot on a dealer’s lot.

Know what you can afford.

The first and most important question to answer before launching into the car-buying process is “how much can I afford?” Figuring this out will help you determine whether you are in the market for a new or used vehicle. A good starting point is to use 15-18 percent of your take-home pay as a gauge for your total vehicle budget including the loan, insurance, gas and maintenance.

Next decision, how will you pay for it? There are numerous ways to manage the financial burden for purchasing a new car, including taking out a loan. If you have decided to go the loan route, determine how much you can afford in monthly payments. Banks or another financial institution might offer lower interest rates than a car dealer. Aim to pay off the loan within three to five years.

“Get pre-approved for an auto loan amount and interest rate so you know where you stand before you begin shopping,” says Renée Horne, vice president of Consumer Lending at USAA Bank. “Look for low loan rates and flexible terms to fit your budget needs versus being steered by dealers into a decision solely based on monthly payment, which often results in paying more in interest for the overall loan term.”

Another idea is to sell or trade in your new graduate’s current vehicle. If you plan to do this, factor in the cash value of that car and then add your planned down payment, typically 15-20 percent. You can use online tools such as USAA’s Auto Loan Calculator to get an estimate of what the end price tag will be.

Determine the total cost of ownership.

It is important to understand the total cost of ownership before surprising your graduate with the car of their dreams. Everything from gas to auto insurance will be an extra expense added on to the monthly cost for a new or used car and something everyone in the family needs to consider.

When receiving an auto insurance quote, note that collision and comprehensive coverage generally cost less for used cars. If purchasing an older car, consider getting pricing for Extended Vehicle Protection coverage before you go to the dealer.

Keep an open mind.

Once you have established what you can afford and the total cost of ownership, it is time to discover what features and styles you or your teen want in a car. Prioritize a list of the features you would like to see. For the teen in your life, safety is usually at the top. Next, assess how much they will be using this car and what for. Are they commuting to school or a job? Remember to keep an open mind and be flexible — stay open to two or three models that would meet your teen driver’s needs and your or their budget.

Do your research.

Everyone can agree that dealerships can be overwhelming and intimidating. Research your market first. Try the USAA Car Buying Service to see what’s out there and find vehicles that come with exclusive member discounts.

If you are looking into the used car market, always run a background check. You can get a vehicle history report from Carfax, which can help verify ownership history, mileage and accident history. Also, make sure the used vehicle has never been salvaged by entering the vehicle identification number into the National Insurance Crime Bureau’s system.

Go for a test drive.

After picking out a few of your top favorites, it is time to see how the car operates on the real road. Hit the highway to properly gauge a car’s performance, and inspect the car for mileage, tread, etc. If possible, run the car by a trusted mechanic for an under-the-hood inspection to forecast longevity and maintenance needs. Remember, factory warranties usually transfer depending on the mileage.

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