It’s Drive Time

Purchasing a Car for Your Teen

By Pete Alfano


The time many parents stress about has arrived. When their auto insurance rates rise like the temperature during a Texas summer, and they long for the days when their child was safely tucked away in a crib. Yes, it’s time to get that teenager a car.

First things first — can you afford to buy your teen a car? Will they contribute to the purchase price, insurance, maintenance, and gas? Do they even need a car, or is this a case of, “but all my friends are getting cars?”

A teenager shouldn’t be expecting their first car to be a luxury ride. Look for a used car and find a make and model that is low maintenance and fuel-efficient. And ask for maintenance records and whether it has been in any accidents. 

Also, take it for an extended test drive, not just once around the dealership. Car experts recommend at least 30 minutes. This means a parent should drive the car and see how it handles before handing the keys to a teenager. If you purchase from a private seller, insist on taking the vehicle to your service provider for a complete checkup. Also, when buying a used car, you still may want one new enough to have a backup camera, blind-spot monitoring, and side door airbags to help your teenager stay as safe as possible. 

Buying a new car may not require the same scrutiny, and it will come with all the technological bells and whistles. But you will certainly want to take it on multiple test drives to see how it handles. And don’t be shy about negotiating a better price. 

You may also consider leasing a new car instead of purchasing one. A lot depends on how much financial flexibility parents have, given the increase in auto insurance and perhaps helping their teenager with maintenance and gas. The good part about leasing is that you can put less money down, and in some cases, practically none at all. You will have a monthly payment for a set number of years. Then the car must be turned in. If your teenager is in high school and plans to take the car to college, leasing may not be practicable as most leases are for three years and may have restrictions on total miles driven.

If you can afford a down payment and the monthly loan, a new car may last your teenager for six years if properly maintained. The downside to buying a new car is that it can lose value once you drive it off the lot.

There is a lot to evaluate, and parents should do their homework well ahead of time. Also, consider buying the car online from a dealer, as it could come with a discounted purchase price. And consult reputable car websites such as cars.com, Edmunds Car Finder, Kelley Blue Book, and others for invaluable information about cars you may buy. 

The Onus of Ownership

So, you have bought your teenager a car, and whether new or used, they will probably pamper it and show it off to their friends for a while. Inevitably, the newness will fade, and you may have to set some ground rules, so their car does not turn into a garbage dump. 

Set the rules before you buy the car. Require them to wash the exterior and detail the interior regularly. That includes vacuuming, wiping interior surfaces, disposing trash, and cleaning any stains from eating in the car. 

Where will the car be parked? If on the street or in the driveway, make sure your teenager will be responsible for locking all doors and never leaving valuables inside. What penalties will be in place if they get a ticket? And make it clear who will be paying the fees involved.

Insist that their friends follow the rules you have set for cleanliness and safety too.

Setting conditions of ownership from the beginning establishes expectations, paving the way for the responsibility and upkeep of future investments.