How to Buy Your First Car

If you're a driver, whether you're just starting out or just getting out on your own, eventually you're going to have to know how to buy your first car. Whether it's buying a new car or buying your first used car, there are a lot of things to consider. How you buy your first car at 16 is even going to be different than how to buy your first car at 19 or 25. Buying your first car with no credit — and most young people have little or no credit — can be difficult. You could get a cosigner with good credit to help, but you may need to know how to buy your first car without a cosigner. Needless to say, a lot goes into buying your first auto and to learn all the things you should consider, read on.

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Chris Tepedino is a feature writer that has written extensively about auto insurance for numerous websites. He has a college degree in communication from the University of Tennessee and has experience reporting, researching investigative pieces, and crafting detailed, data-driven features. His works have been featured on CB Blog Nation, Flow Words, Healing Law, WIBW Kansas, and ...

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Rachael Brennan has been working in the insurance industry since 2006 when she began working as a licensed insurance representative for 21st Century Insurance, during which time she earned her Property and Casualty license in all 50 states. After several years she expanded her insurance expertise, earning her license in Health and AD&D insurance as well. She has worked for small health in...

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Reviewed by Rachael Brennan
Licensed Insurance Agent Rachael Brennan

UPDATED: Jul 19, 2021

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A brief overview...

  • Answering basic questions about why and how you might use your first car is an essential step in the process.
  • Budgetary restrictions are one of the unfortunate realities of buying a car for many buyers.
  • Make a list of the cars that fit into your budget and can satisfy your needs then research each.
  • Dealers are often willing to negotiate on price, even if it seems like they’re not going to budge at first.

Some people who are in the process of shopping for their very first car won’t have a strong credit history or much experience on the road.

For these reasons, it’s important to do your research before buying a car for the first time. You can consult our 10-minute auto insurance buying guide once you pick your car. to do that, identify your needs, know your budget, and know how to buy your first car so that you can avoid common pitfalls.

If you do it right, your first car can last for years, saving you the stress and expense of buying a second car for a long time to come.

After you get that car, of course, you’re going to need insurance. To search for insurance quotes for your first car, you can use our FREE comparison tool.

Consider Your Needs

Answering basic questions about why and how you might use your first car is an essential step in the process. Try asking yourself the following questions:

Why do I need a car?

This is the most fundamental question behind any purchasing decision. Think about why you need to buy a car, or if you need to buy one at all. This will guide you into thinking about what you might use your car for.

Where will I be driving my car?

  • Think about the most common trips that you’ll be making with your car. From home to work?
  • Over long trips across state lines?
  • Deep into the mountains and woods for camping and hiking?
  • Common usage should help determine the kind of car that’s best for you, but it’s also important that your car can handle different kinds of driving that you might engage in.

How much do I need to carry?

This is an important one. Some people only need to transport themselves, maybe to and from work on weekdays.

Others may expect to carry large groups of people long distances or move heavy payloads.

A bigger car can be helpful if you ever expect to move a lot of people or items, but keep in mind that bigger vehicles usually come with a price — a more costly vehicle and more money spent on gas. Buy a car that’s big enough to satisfy your regular usage.

What kind of weather conditions will I drive in?

Many people don’t realize how much weather affects driving until they’ve been through some tough conditions.

Think about the kinds of weather that you might face — such as blizzards, heavy rain, or even extreme heat — and buy a car that can handle these weather conditions and make sure that you’re prepared for potential emergency situations.

Keep in mind that parking your car and staying inside during severe weather events is also a valid option, so a vehicle that adapts to harsh weather might not always be necessary for you.

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Determine Your Budget

Budgetary restrictions are one of the unfortunate realities of buying a car for many buyers.

Oftentimes you may be required to compromise on other aspects of your decision — such as your needs, additional features, or comfort level with a particular vehicle — to account for your budget.

In order to figure out how your budget will play off of other purchasing factors, you’ll first need to figure out how much you can afford to spend.

If you can afford to buy your car with cash, that can help you spend less money overall, since you’ll avoid fees and interest rates associated with a loan.

However, if you do end up taking out a loan to buy your car — and many people do — then you should use an auto loan calculator to figure out your monthly spending and the overall cost of a potential vehicle.

Compare these to your expected disposable income to figure out your budget for buying your first car.

As you’re calculating your budget, remember that there’s more to buying a vehicle than just the cost of the vehicle itself.

You’ll also have to pay for gas, regular maintenance, and keep up on your car insurance premiums.

You should factor these expenses into your budget now so that they don’t catch you by surprise later.

Do Extensive Research

Even once you’ve figured out your needs and your budget, you may still find yourself with an incredible variety of cars to choose from.

Different models made by the same manufacturer may have overlapping functions or fit into similar budget ranges.

Meanwhile, major car manufacturers are constantly trying to compete to produce the best vehicle that fits a specific niche.

Make a list of the cars that fit into your budget and can satisfy your needs.

Do extensive research on the cars that make this list with an eye for the pros and cons of each. Some important features to watch out for in your research include:

  • Longevity – A car that lasts longer will often cause less hassle and save more money in the long run. If you’re buying a new car, consider the longevity record of past iterations of that model as well as the overall longevity record for that manufacturer.
  • Reliability – Imagine having your car break down in the middle of a long trip. Sounds pretty awful, doesn’t it? A manufacturer with a solid record of reliability can help give you some peace of mind while you’re driving, in addition to saving you money in the long run.
  • Fuel Efficiency – Remember that another major cost of owning a car is paying for gas. A report from CNN estimated that the average American household spent $368 on gas in just one month in 2011. A car that gets more miles to the gallon can help cut down on your fuel spending, saving you money, and helping the environment.

Shop Around and Test Drive

There are some things about a car that no amount of research can tell you. Sometimes, you just need to drive a car for yourself.

In-person test drives can make you aware of a lot of issues that might not come up when you’re comparing facts and figure online.

For example, does a car handle well? Does it have enough legroom for you and your guests? How noisy is it?

If possible, test drive any car that you’re considering at least once before buying.

This will help you to get an idea about whether or not this is a car you could be comfortable driving for the next 10 years, or however long it lasts you.

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Don’t Be Afraid to Negotiate

A car lot isn’t the grocery store, so sticker price doesn’t necessarily mean the final price.

Dealers are often willing to negotiate on price, even if it seems like they’re not going to budge at first.

The ability to pay is often a powerful tool in negotiations, so your ability to pay in cash or keep up with loan payments can help you to bring the overall price down.

If you have a good credit score, make sure to bring that up in negotiations. Even if you don’t, you may be able to get someone with a great credit score to cosign for you.

If negotiation isn’t your strong suit or it makes you uncomfortable, you should bring along a friend or family member to help you.

This person can approach the negotiation with a neutral point of view, allowing them to make an unbiased decision to pull out of discussions if they feel that it’s possible to get a better deal.

Purchase Car Insurance

Automobile insurance is required by law in all 50 states, so buying your car insurance policy should be the first thing that you do after buying your new car.

You may even start the process of getting your car insurance before you drive the car off the lot.

You can save money on premiums by choosing a policy with less coverage, but keep in mind that this may cost you if you do get into an accident.

Getting the right car insurance is a matter of balancing coverage with your budget so that you aren’t financially crippled by a collision and you meet the legal requirements for insurance in your area.

Car insurance premiums go down alongside your ability to prove your safe driving record.

This kind of proof is difficult to produce for many new drivers, but many car insurance providers will offer student discounts to high school and college students with good grades.

Enjoy Yourself

Buying your first car can be stressful, but it can also be a lot of fun.

Getting your first car is an exciting time in your life since it might be one of your first big purchases, and because having your own car opens up a whole new world of freedom for you.

You can also expect to learn a lot as you test drive cars and do your research online.

So while you’re working your way through the process, don’t forget to enjoy yourself. After all, you’ll never get the chance to buy your first car again. And once you decide on that car, you can compare insurance rates with our FREE quote tool.

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