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Tips for Buying Your Teen's First Car

It's hard to believe, but your kid has already learned to drive. And now you need another auto so he'll have something to tool around in. He's totally psyched, and you're excited as well (no more chauffeuring!) but you do have your moments of panic. Try not to worry. Our parent's manual will help make this rite of passage a safe and happy one for the entire family.
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1. Breaking the News
Your teen's first car
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Stephen Webster

Your teen has completed driver's ed and passed the state license test. In the meantime, you've pored over your finances and concluded that, with some extra budgeting here and there, you have enough money to put another car in the garage—a used one, that is. When you announce your decision, savor the moment: It's one of the biggest thrills your teen will ever have.

Next, sit him down and manage expectations. Point out that having a vehicle is not a birthright but a gift, especially in these tough economic times. And while he may have visions of a shiny new set of wheels, tell him you're going to buy used. His opinions and input are welcome, but the final call is up to you. "One mistake that parents make is caving in to their kids' wishes for something flashy," says Warren Clarke, an editor at the car research website Edmunds.com. "You don't want something with too much power, and you don't need a new model to give them a safe driving experience."

Determine in advance whether you'll foot the bill or ask your teen to help out. According to CNW Research, an automotive marketing firm in Bandon, Oregon, 45% of teens with used cars have parents who cover the entire purchase, a number that has been rising due to the weak job market for young workers. But kids who contribute a portion of the payments, however small, get a much clearer sense of the responsibilities of ownership. It's also important to explain the high cost of gas, insurance, maintenance and repairs.

Finally, set some long-term goals with your teen, such as 12 months of driving with no accidents or tickets. It's up to you whether to impose penalties or rewards; some parents even write a check if their kids are successful. You won't want to do that year after year, of course. But by emphasizing safety and responsibility from the very start, you'll be steering your teen in the right direction for a lifetime.

2. Going Shopping

Visiting local dealers together to check out their inventory can be overwhelming for you and your teen. With so many factors to consider, it's easy to get confused, so bring this checklist to help you stay focused on the essentials.

Think big. Your teen, of course, will want a cool ride, something shiny, fast and sleek. But you definitely want a vehicle with heft, even if she sees it as something of a clunker. Midsize sedans tend to be the safest, since more mass means more protection in a crash, and their relatively low center of gravity makes them less likely to roll over. Select a vehicle with the smallest available engine (such as a four-cylinder instead of a six), which is more economical and also makes it harder to speed.

Find a good deal. Websites such as Edmunds.com, Kelley Blue Book, IntelliChoice.com and TrueCar.com can help you determine a fair price given a vehicle's age, mileage and condition. Consumer Reports publishes an annual used-car guide with reliability rankings that is also available online ($7 per month). If you can afford it, look for certified, pre-owned models that are two or three years old, often from an expired lease. They cost a bit more but have usually been examined for wear and tear; some even come with a limited warranty and better financing rates.

Make safety a priority. Don't consider a car with fewer than six air bags: the two required in front, plus side-impact and side-curtain bags, which help protect occupants' heads and chests. In general, the more the better. Antilock brakes and stability control are also must-haves, especially if you're buying a high-sitting crossover or SUV. Ask to see the original window sticker that came with the vehicle. If it's not available, the dashboard lights that come on as you start the engine will tell you what systems are installed. Air bags should be marked with the letters SRS ("supplemental restraint system") on door panels or the rear-seat headliner (the cloth part of the roof). Finally, try to choose a car that scores at least four stars out of five on government crash tests, which you can research at SaferCar.gov. In addition, go to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety website (iihs.org) to find cars that have merited an overall "Good" rating or those designated a "Top Safety Pick."

Take a test drive. Bring your teen along so that both of you can get a feel for the car. And don't just cruise around the block. Hit the highway, find some challenging curves and grades—in other words, put the vehicle through all the paces you would in a week of driving.

Do a background check. For $30 to $40, services like Carfax and AutoCheck can tell you if a vehicle has been in an accident. But those reports aren't foolproof. Have a mechanic perform a thorough inspection.

Don't sweat the small stuff. A few dings and scratches will help you negotiate a lower price. And chances are your teen will add a few more.

3. Playing Enforcer

Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for American teens. In fact, kids between the ages of 16 and 19 are four times more likely to crash than older drivers. So it's important that you lay down rules of the road—and insist that your child follow them. First, make sure she complies with safety basics 100% of the time. Everyone in the vehicle must always wear a seat belt. Drinking is absolutely forbidden, as are texting and phone conversations. Although using a hands-free device isn't illegal in all states, studies show that simply talking on the phone can distract drivers and raise the odds of an accident. Your safest bet is to require that your teen turn off her cell whenever she's behind the wheel.

All states have "graduated" licensing laws that help drivers gain experience under lower-risk conditions. If you live in an area with fewer restrictions, you may want to implement some anyway. Since teens often drive at night with other teens, increasing their crash risk, consider setting a curfew. For the first year or so, you may even require that your teen drive with a parent or other adult.

More common distractions that should be banned include eating, applying makeup, wearing headphones and driving while upset. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention publishes a contract that you can print out and sign with your teen (cdc.gov/motorvehiclesafety/pdf/Driving_Contract-a.pdf); it also has safety reminders that you can both refer back to. Finally, let your child know that you promise to pick her up any time she's been drinking, is otherwise impaired, or doesn't feel comfortable at the wheel or in a friend's car for any reason—in other words, that you or another grown-up will always be there in a pinch.

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