How to Find a Safe, Budget-Friendly Car for your Teen

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UPDATED: Oct 22, 2019

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Shopping for your student driver’s first car can be a daunting experience. Teenagers usually have an ideal vehicle in mind — something sporty or otherwise “cool” — but as a parent, a car’s reputation for reliability and safety is much more important than a great sound system or a sleek body style. Needless to say, it can be difficult to balance the wants of your teen with more practical values, but finding the right car can pay off in the long run. Once your teen starts driving, you can expect new costs to emerge in the forms of maintenance bills, insurance premiums, and gas money to cover your child’s driving expenses. In addition to finding a safe car that doesn’t guzzle gas, you can save money on your monthly insurance premiums by referring to the following criteria while shopping for your teen’s first car.

Remember, Ticket Price isn’t the only Factor

Typically, the more expensive the car, the higher the insurance rate. But that doesn’t mean that two cars that are similar in cost will command similar insurance premiums. Car insurance companies look at factors outside of cost, such as

  • How likely a car is to be involved in a collision
  • How likely a car is to be stolen
  • How the car measures in safety ratings
  • How much collision repairs are likely to cost

Buff up on Research Before Visiting a Dealer

When shopping for a good car for your high school student, it’s best to do some research before you visit the car lot. To find the best car for your student, you will want to consider crash testing results, safety features, and gas mileage. To get you started, here are some helpful resources:

  • SafeCar.gov – Check safety ratings, crash test results, recalls, and complaints associated with vehicle models from 1990 to present day. Come prepared with a specific make and model.
  • Insurance Institute for Highway Safety: This independent, non-profit organization supplies safety test information for specific cars, but it also allows shoppers to browse safety features of cars within a specific category such as “midsized moderately priced cars.”
  • FuelEconomy.gov: Powered by the U.S. Department of Energy, parents can use this site to research a specific car or to narrow down the selection process by browsing the gas mileage of vehicles from 1984 to the present day. The site also makes it easy to compare the gas mileage of different models.
  • Kelley Blue Book: Parents who are looking to buy a used car will especially benefit from browsing Kelley Blue Book, but those who are buying new vehicles might be interested in researching the resale values of older model cars. Since World War II, Kelley Blue Book been the go-to source for determining car value, and today the company offers vehicle reviews and lists for the “best” cars in different categories.
  • NHTSA Collision Costs by Vehicle Model: Knowing the expected collision repair cost for your teen’s prospective vehicle can be as important as anticipating maintenance costs, since many teens will cause at least a few fender-benders after they start driving. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration documents the average collision cost for each vehicle model and produces a biannual report of the results.

While you can ask your dealer about these car specifications, you must always keep in mind that the agenda of a dealer is to sell you a car, while your purpose is to find a safe, reasonably priced car for your child. You may arrive at the dealership with knowledge in hand, or you may prefer to go home afterward to research cars in your price range before making a decision. Never allow a salesman to rush you into a decision.

If you’ve settled on a manufacturer but can’t decide whether to go for the sporty model or the base model of a certain car, keep in mind these few rules of thumb:

  • When a manufacturer offers a car model as either a four-door sedan or a two-door coupe, sedans generally cost less to insure than their coupe counterparts
  • Engine size also affects insurance premiums, insofar as slower cars are less likely to be involved in high-speed collisions than their faster, sportier counterparts.
  • Convertible tops and sunroofs will cost more to insure than their hard-top and solid-roof counterparts

There are many different paths to making an informed decision about your teen’s first car, but the most important step is to acquire as much information as possible. If you’re shopping for a used car, get the facts about the car’s history before you buy it. Dealers commonly buy these reports to show their customers, so before paying a service fee to investigate a vehicle, ask the dealer to see the report.

Call your Insurance Company

To ensure that your teen’s first car will help keep your insurance premiums low, go straight to the source. Contact your insurance company to get information about rates and how different models will affect the prices. Customer service should be able to give you an idea about how much different makes and models of vehicles will cost you to insure. They can also tell you what to look for in a vehicle to keep your rates low, like anti-theft devices, airbags, and anti-lock brakes. A quick conversation can also help you determine other ways of earning other car insurance discounts for your teen.

A Little Research Can Pay Off

In the long run, doing a little research about your student’s future vehicle can help you save a lot of money. Keep in mind that insurance rates can make a big difference in the overall cost of your car, and your best bet is to choose a safe, reliable vehicle well within your budget. Not only will a safe vehicle help to protect your teen in the event of an accident, it will offer you the most savings in terms of both monthly payments and overall risk of insurance.

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