Determine Your Budget - Accounting for Repairs

If you are buying a car for the first time you are probably a high school student.  That means you have a high school job at the grocery store that pays $8.00 an hour.  So your budget is going to be pretty constricting.  Unless Mom and Dad are helping you out, you probably want to rule out the Porsche, Jaguar, and Alfa Romeo you may have been considering.

The Alfa Romeo's Natural Habitat

More importantly, realize that you are buying a cheap used car.  You don't know how the previous owner took care of it (amazingly they'll all tell you oil was always changed at the 3k mile mark), and what quirks and issues it may have.  Some new drivers are mechanically inclined, or are fortunate enough to have a grease monkey in the family to help out when things go wrong.  Others are not so lucky.

If you want to save yourself large amounts of money, you should definitely pick up a book on auto repair.  You don't have to learn how to rebuild an continuously variable transmission, but you can at least start to understand how an internal combustion engine works, and how to perform basic tasks like changing a flat tire and changing your own oil.  If you get really serious about doing your own work, it also will be worth investing in a shop manual for your specific model car.

While routine maintenance like changing your oil and swapping out air filters is something that everyone can do, you will also want to think about how you are going to handle more serious repairs.  Cars are expensive to maintain, some much more so than others.  You may be able to buy that $6000 Range Rover with 190,000 miles, but you will probably not be able to afford owning it when a $4000 repair bill pops up 20 minutes after the title transfer.  Always factor in repair cost as part of your buying budget, and adjust the cars in your price range accordingly.

Auto Repair For Dummies
Amazon Price: $22.99 $11.63 Buy Now
(price as of Sep 3, 2016)
A great book if you don't know anything about working on cars and want to learn the basics.

Don't Listen to Brand Stereotypes

When it comes to cars, everyone has an opinion and their own form of brand loyalty.  There's nothing wrong with that.  If you come from a family of General Motors owners, and feel you'd be doing your family a disservice by purchasing a Mopar product, then go buy a Chevy.  Your family probably knows a lot about which models to get, and how to work on them.

But if you are pretty unscathed and uninfluenced, read on.

You're going to hear stereotypes, good and bad, about every kind of car on the market.  And most of them are complete nonsense.  Do not use them as any basis for your car purchase.  Contrary to what you may hear from your "well advised" friends and family...

  • Ford does NOT stand for "Fix or Repair Daily" (that's almost clever.)
  • All German cars do NOT require a fortune to fix (big difference between a Jetta and an obscure "1 of 6" BMW.)
  • Honda's are NOT rust buckets (cars that aren't taken care of in the winter are.)
  • All Subaru's are NOT "monsters" in the snow (AWD helps, but it more so comes down to tires.)

Believe it or not, it's still possible to crash with AWD.


Factor in Safety

You don't have to cross off anything on your list that isn't a Volvo or a Saab.  But you really should look into safety.  Teenagers are the most likely demographic of people to get into a car accident.  And when you're involved in an accident, nobody cares about the car's speed or handling, because that's not what matters.

The beauty of modern engineering

Most modern cars are in fact very safe.  Certainly more so than cars made 30 years ago.  But it still doesn't hurt to check out the crash test ratings on models you are interested in.

Don't think of it as setting a bad tone for the future of your driving career.  Consider it insurance research.

Think About Future Use

If you are a high school or college student, or a recent graduate (which sums up pretty much all first time car buyers) then this is very important.  Remember that you are not just buying the vehicle for now, you are buying it for 4 years from now.

This means that you need to consider practicality.  For instance, a small 2 door coupe might seem cool and sleek now, but you might be going to college in a year.  This means you are going to have to do a lot of hauling belongings back and forth, and most coupes don't have the space for that.

Also consider your location.  Maybe you are living in a southern state so a 2WD pickup truck may be cheap and reliable transportation.  But if you are planning to go to school or move up north, snow is going to put a serious damper on your ability to get around.

Not fun...

Another thing to keep in mind is commute.  Maybe you are going to a high school that is just across town, and getting a big V8 SUV with 14 miles to the gallon sound spectacular.  But what about when you graduate?  You may suddenly be driving 40 miles every day to a job, or as a college commuter, and before you know it gas bills are eating up a huge percentage of your paycheck.

If you are a recent college graduate, you have another size factor to consider.  A 2 seat convertible might seem awesome for picking up women, but if you meet "the one"?  It's possible that your family may be growing in the next few years, and you'll need some back seats as well.  Furthermore, at that point safety becomes even more important, because you are putting more at risk than just yourself.

Things NOT to Look for in a First Car

In addition to all of the important factors to keep in mind, there are a few things to disregard while you search.

The first one is more for the men.  Most women do not care what kind of car you drive, and the ones that do probably aren't worth your time anyway.  Furthermore, many women won't even know the difference.  Just keep in this mind when you think that the BMW 5 series with 240,000 miles is a more practical buy than the Nissan Maxima with 120,000 miles.

Another thing to disregard is "mods".  If you want to be one of those guys that builds up sleepers or bolts on turbos, fine.  But do that to your buddies car, or your 2nd car when you have the money for it.  Because this 1st car purchase has to be your reliable source of transportation for the next few years, and the last thing you need is a $3000 engine swap because of a mistake you made.  If you are that interested in working on a car, do the work your car actually needs done.  If that's still not enough, search around for a $500 "fixer-upper" and get your friends to come over and help get it running.

Ultimately, you want to buy a car that is going to serve you well, and give you a positive view of driving.  This is probably going to influence your opinion of cars more so than any other automobile you ever drive, so try and start yourself out on the right foot.