After two summers of flipping burgers and countless weekends mowing lawns for your crotchety neighbors, you've finally saved enough to buy the not-so-gently-used car of your dreams. You can see yourself slipping into that gorgeous hunk of metal right now. Before getting too lost in the fantasy of not having to beg your parents for rides, slow down just a minute, cowboy. How well you research, test and inspect your dream car before buying will determine whether you'll spend the next six months ridin dirty or begging repair shops to give you a discount.
These 10 steps will ensure that your used car really is as good as the salesperson says it is.
1. Consider the Alternatives
That's right...before buying a car, we're going to try to talk you out of it. Trust us, it's the right thing to do. That's because cars are expensive, way more expensive than just the price of the vehicle itself. If you don't believe us, check out our "The Real Cost of Your Car" worksheet to tally how much you'll spend in the first year of ownership.
Cars aren't just expensive. The double sad bonus is that they also lose value fast. Cars are NOT AN INVESTMENT. They are an EXPENSE. According to Bankrate.com, vehicles lose 15 to 20 percent of their value every year, meaning that if you buy a $5,000 car during your junior year in high school, the most you'll be able to sell it for when you become a college freshman is $3,200. If even Beyonce wants someone to pay her "automobills," you know it's pricey.
2. Be Clear on Your Budget
The price of gas is high, but that car...you just...can't...get it...out of...your head! THE MADNESS! If visions of your own ride are just too overpowering, take a peek at your bank account before looking at available cars. Gas. Insurance. Maintenance. Cleaning. And oh, those fender benders… Texting while driving is just way expensive.
Before stepping foot on a dealer's lot, make absolutely sure that you know exactly how much you can pay for a car, whether your parents will help you with the purchase (and by how much), when and where you'll be able to drive the car and who will pay for gas, insurance, repairs and maintenance.
Whenever a young buyer doesn't know the absolute max they can spend, a car salesman gets his wings... and too much of that buyer’s cash. Being fuzzy on your real budget gives the seller the opportunity to jack up the price, hoping that you'll reach deeper into your pockets. They are sharks. You are salmon. Get the picture.
3. Know Your Needs
This one should be written in red and blinking like the "Open" sign on a Dunkin Donuts. It's really important. Having a clear idea of what kind of car you're looking for and the features you need in a vehicle before you head to a lot can save you thousands and prevent you from winding up with a bigger, gas-guzzling luxury ride when you really just need something to get to class and back. Remember—salesmen are in the business of selling cars; not helping you find the right vehicle for your needs.
And as Mick notes, you really can’t always get what you want.
After you've got a budget, figure out the basic type of car you want—will a compact work or do you need a minivan to haul sports equipment or band supplies?—then get to searching. Edmunds allows you to shop by type of car then narrow down your selections according to you budget. Bonus points if you can narrow down your search to a few makes and models.
4. Shop, Shop, Shop
You've hemmed and hawed over the perfect first day of school outfit, whether you should take Spanish or French and we won't even bring up how impossible it was to decide the color of your class ring. All of those feelings of indecisiveness? It's time to bring them back to life like Frankenstein rising from the grave.
Buying a car is perhaps the only time in your teenage life that your parents will push you to keep shopping...take advantage of it. Now that you know what kind of car you need, check out vehicles in your area. The easiest way to do this is without leaving the driveway. Sites like eBay, Autotrader, Carmax and Edmunds allow you to search for used cars in your area that fit your budget and compare prices and features between like models.
Once you've exhausted internet possibilities beeline it to your local lots to see what they offer, but don't pull the trigger just yet.
5. Test It Out
According to scientific calculations, 90 percent of the fun of buying a used car is seeing how you look driving a bunch of them around. Now that you've found some options, get out and test drive them. Heck, test drive hundreds if you want but sweet Gandalf's beard, don't buy yet.
Test driving is important...crucial even...but falling in love with how a car feels on the road won't tell you how it's going to perform six months from now. While you're there, ask the seller about the car's history, gas mileage, anti-theft features, whether it comes with a warranty, what type of oil it takes, whether they have the vehicle's service records and the car's Vehicle Identification Number (VIN). Write it all down and get ready to cross check the heck out of it when you get home.
6. Do Your Homework
We know that you spend all day getting homework, doing homework, forgetting homework, scrambling to copy someone else's homework right before class. Buying a car comes with homework too.
The more info you have on a car and the horrors it has seen, the better your chances are of sidestepping a lemon. If a car passes the test drive, we highly recommend ponying up for a history report that will give you a boatload of information including if the vehicle has been in any major collisions, has liens against it and whether the odometer has been rolled back. If you have the VIN, car history reports are available for $30-$35 through Carfax and Autocheck. You can also download a safety report through the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration just to make sure the car you're eyeing doesn't come with safety defects.
With reports in hand, Google some common problems that make and model encounters, then head to Kelley Blue Book—the Mecca of used car resources—to see if comparable cars of the same general age, style and condition are selling for around the price you've been quoted. If they are, you're probably getting a decent deal. High five!
7. Enlist the Fam
We get it. The point of getting your own car is to spend less time with your parents, but trust us, you're going to want to have them there for this. If the car you're eyeing passes your background check, head back to the lot, this time with your parents, siblings and anyone else who may be driving your sweet ride.
Instead of getting psyched up about the car, your job this time is to examine it with the scrutiny of a forensic investigator performing an autopsy. With your 'rents and this checklist, go over every inch of that car, checking everything from the tire pressure to the gas cap, then take another test drive with the family. If you can bring a mechanic with you, all the better.
If you can score a warranty with your car, that would be sweeter than apple pie. Cars that are labeled "certified pre-owned" and "certified used" offer some warranty protection even though the vehicle isn't brand spanking new. Used car warranties get very complicated very quickly.
Remember when you researched how much comparable cars in your area are selling for? Now that info is going to become your greatest weapon. The key to successful negotiation is to start low. If the seller snaps up your offer immediately, you've paid too much.
You should also be prepared to walk away. We know, this one is harder than it sounds. Morphing from a high school student who needs permission to use the bathroom into a stone cold negotiator with a heart of adamantium is a challenge for almost everyone except natural born lawyers and jerks.
But wait! That price that sounds so tasty your mouth is actually salivating? That's probably not the final amount you'll fork over. In addition to the quoted price, you could have to pay for documentation, licensing, title, delivery, inspection, and/or smog certification fees. Oh my! If the seller has promised any repair work before you pick up your new beaut, for the love of all that is good; get it in writing. The little old lady who swears that she'll have the carburetor on that 1984 Chevy Cavalier replaced could be lying her church-going fanny off.
9. Make It Legal
You're so close to buying this car, you can taste it...and it tastes like victory. The only thing standing between you and sweet, sweet victory is a little bit of paperwork including transferring the title into your name (or your parents' names), registering the vehicle and maybe even some state licensing work. Title and registration requirements vary by state and should be available through your state's DMV. There is also this little thing called sales tax.
10. Fight Back
Yikes! Your new (to you) car is smokin' and not in the Tyrese/Megan Fox way. The repair bills are piling on one after the other while your bank account is disappearing faster than the polar ice caps. Luckily you can fight back.
Lemon laws—rules that prevent shady salesmen from hawking junk cars—vary from state to state, but you can track down your state's regulations by heading here. If you feel that you've been swindled, go over your state's lemon laws with your parents and file a claim with the Better Business Bureau as soon as possible.
Extra Credit: Buying the car is challenge number one. Insuring it is a whole different beast. Head here to bone up on protecting your ride and here to read up on maintaining your car for less.