How to Choose Your First Car: 20 Important Tips

Purchasing your first car

Buying your first car is a huge milestone in your life. It’s an adult purchase, but there’s one big problem: buying a car doesn’t come with a textbook that guides you through the process. If you need a little help, you came to the right place.

When you’re looking to buy your first car, you should start with a few key metrics. You’ll want a low-budget, safe, reliable, easy-to-drive vehicle that isn’t overpowered. You might consider getting a truck or SUV or buying a car that’s a manual. No matter what you end up in, remember that this isn’t the final car you’ll own, and you can splurge for better styling and a more luxurious car in the future.

To make things easy for you, I put together 20 important tips to consider that will help you choose and purchase your first car. Let’s get started.

Why a First Car Matters

Your first car is going to be a staple of your high school and college days. You’ll look back fondly on the car and have a ton of memories surrounding the car.

Besides the emotional connection, there’s a whole set of dependencies that comes with owning a car. You can now drive yourself wherever you want, whenever you want (as long as your parents sign off on it, obviously).

Want to grab some McDonalds? It’s easy with a car. You can get a part-time job and hang out with your friends more.

The only issue is that you’re a new driver. With this inexperience comes a need for something safer, more reliable, and more rugged. Your parents are going to feel much better with the purchase if it’s a car that keeps you safe.

Buying a first car is nothing like buying your tenth car. That’s why this list of tips is so important.

Buying a car - young person

20 Tips to Choose Your First Car

Without further ado, let’s talk about some tips to choose your first car. Understanding and applying these tips should leave you with the perfect first car.

Look for a Used Car

My biggest tip is to consider getting a used car. My friends and I mostly started with a used car.

If you didn’t know, cars lose their value really quickly. Cars are not an investment. As long as you’re driving the car, the value is just going lower.

When you buy a new car, that price drops off a lot steeper. The first few years can see drops as high as 50%. That means you spend $20,000 for a car that’s worth $10,000 in no time.

There are a few exceptions to this rule, but those aren’t good first car options anyway.

What I’m trying to say is that going for a used car means that you won’t lose a ton of money right off the bat. Plus, they’re the cheaper option which is great for budgeting.

Make a Budget

Before even looking at cars, you should understand what you’re willing to pay for one. For a lot of first-time car buyers, you’re probably looking at a budget of a few thousand dollars.

After all, you just need something that gets you from point a to point b. Make sure you write down your budgetary number and keep referencing it while you’re shopping around. Be firm with yourself — don’t go over that number.

See if Your Parents will Help Financially

A lot of parents are willing to help their kids get their first car. If that means giving you some money, then they’ll probably be up for it.

Don’t assume that your parents are going to pay, you should have an open conversation with them. Find out how much they’re comfortable paying and base your budget around that.

Car finance calculator breakdown

For my first car, my parents matched me with however much money I could get together. We went halfsies on the car and I walked away with a $3,000 that I was in love with.

If they can’t help with the expense, then lower your budget and consider financing the car and getting a loan for it.

Get a Co-Signer (Probably)

If you’re getting a loan for your car, you’ll probably need a co-signer. Again, this is probably going to be one of your parents or guardian.

A co-signer basically puts their credit on the line to help you. The person loaning the money is more willing to give the loan if there’s someone tied to it that has good credit. If you don’t currently have a credit card or any debt under your name, you probably don’t have a credit score, let alone a good one.

You’ll need a co-signer if you’re:

  • Buying a new car
  • Leasing a car
  • Not paying the full amount for a used car upfront

Safety is Key

For new drivers, safety is a huge feature in a car. Safer cars will protect you on the road and keep you alive during an accident.

It means that a fender bender doesn’t turn into something much worse if your car is safe. You can find a car’s safety information online and learn more about brands like Subaru and Volvo.

Don’t Forget About Insurance Costs

When you get car insurance, you’ll pay a monthly bill. The insurance company will calculate how much you owe them based on the safety of your car and the price of it. The less expensive and safer a car is, the less expensive your insurance is.

Car insurance 2

It’s very important that you get insurance before stepping foot into your car after buying it. Insurance protects you if you get into an accident and it helps you avoid huge debt.

High Gas Mileage is a Plus

Another expense that goes hand-in-hand with operating a car is fueling it up. Cars have an estimated amount of gas that they’ll burn every mile they drive, it’s called “EPA-estimated miles per gallon.”

If it says 30 mpg, that means that you can drive 30 miles on 1 gallon of gas. The further you can go, the less money you’ll spend on gas.  

It’s a good idea to go for a high gas mileage car. It allows you to waste less money at the gas pump.

If your budget allows it, you could also consider getting a hybrid or electric car.

Stick with Low Horsepower

Another figure to look for on the spec sheet is the horsepower. This tells you how much power is hiding under the hood of your vehicle. Cars with high horsepower allow you to go faster, accelerate speedier, and get into more trouble.

Too much horsepower for a new driver is always dangerous. You don’t know how your car is going to react and you could accidentally push the gas pedal too hard. This could result in an accident.

Buying a car - young person 2

Plus, there’s no reason to have a ton of horsepower in your first car. Unless you’re going right to Daytona, you can survive with a car that has less than 200 horsepower.

Plus, speeding under 18 in a lot of states comes with a mandatory court appearance and a ton of added fines. Believe me, it’s not worth it.

Remember Reliability

With older, low-budget cars, a lot can go wrong. If you go for a brand that isn’t known for reliability, that means that you’ll be broken down a lot and going to the mechanic on a regular basis.

I suggest finding a car that’s highly reliable. Consumer Reports puts together a reliability rating for each car, using a lot of data. Using this rating will help you pick a car that lasts longer. Also, be sure to use these tips to keep your car lasting longer.

A more reliable car will start more often, waste less time and money, and keep going.

Don’t Splurge for Luxuries

When it comes to a first car, luxuries aren’t really important. Having a fancy sound system, leather interior, or massive rims shouldn’t matter.

All of these luxuries are going to add to the final price which means you have to prioritize your wants.

Have a List of “Wants”

In fact, it’s a good idea to put together a list of “wants” and “needs”. A want would be something like exterior paint color. A need would be the number of seats and the price of the car.

Having this list to refer to will help you avoid the pitfalls of someone upselling you a car. Be honest about your wants and needs when it comes to a first vehicle. After all, you’ll have plenty of other vehicles in the future, this is just a starter.

Consider a Manual Transmission

A car with a manual transmission has a few big benefits. For one, they’re usually cheaper to buy. In addition, they’ll teach you how to drive a stick which is an important skill to have.

15026303 - closeup photo of car interiors in bright light

I’ve also found that manual transmissions force the driver to be more attentive to the road. It means you won’t be tempted to check your phone or look around your car while you’re driving.

Test Drive it with an Older Co-Pilot

When you find a car you like, you need to test drive it. I’d suggest bringing an older co-pilot like a sibling or parent with you.

They’ll know some of the big red flags to look for. For you, you’ll want to make sure you’re comfortable in the car and like how it feels. I put together a whole checklist for test drives and initial inspections.

Know How to Negotiate

During the car buying process, a huge part is negotiating with the dealer or seller. This is an art form and takes a lot of knowledge to do successfully.

The short description is that a dealer is trying to get more money out of you, so they’ll use a few different sales tactics to do so. The long answer? I put together a whole guide for that (read it here).

Don’t Get Blinded with Excitement

Let me be the first to acknowledge that buying your first car is super exciting. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t be excited, I’m just saying that you shouldn’t let your excitement guide your decision-making.

Getting blinded with excitement could cause you to buy a car that’s too expensive, get something that doesn’t meet your needs, or get way too much car than you need.

My suggestion? Lead with logic through the whole process then once you finalize the deal, get super excited and celebrate.

Find Something That’s Easy to Drive

Since you’re a new driver, you’ll need something that’s easy to drive. A car with good drivability will have a good steering response, strong brakes, and nice visibility.

It helps if the vehicle is small enough to get into tight parking spaces if you live in a city or busy suburb.

car parking - backing up the car

This concept is easier to understand once you’ve driven a few cars and taken some test drives. If you don’t get it yet, don’t worry.

Don’t Get Caught Up on the Colors and Design

I brought this point up earlier, but I want to reiterate. The color scheme and design of a car aren’t important if it’s your first car. My first vehicle was bright blue and an absolute eyesore. It gave it more personality, as far as I’m concerned.

Try to exclude these features from your “needs” list when you’re putting it together.

Maybe Get a Truck or SUV

If you want something super safe, consider getting a truck or an SUV. Because of the added weight, height, and visibility, these two options are a lot safer than a compact car or sedan.

If you are torn between a truck or SUV, read my guide to clear things up.

My first vehicle (that baby blue one I was just talking about) was an old GMC Sierra — a truck. Learning how to drive in a bigger vehicle makes it a lot easier to drive a smaller car in the future. You will appreciate the smaller size and maneuverability of a car down the road.

Still, I have plenty of friends that are lifelong SUV or truck guys. Everyone has their preference, and every vehicle has a lot of pros and cons that go along with it.

Chevrolet Silverado 2004
Chevrolet Silverado 2004

Don’t Compare Your Car to Your Friends’ Cars

It’s easy to see your friend’s brand-new BMW and want to get the same car. The truth is that their needs and budget are probably very different than yours.

Make the decision for yourself, and don’t go based on what other kids are driving or how you want people to perceive you. In my opinion, an old Civic is way cooler than a new BMW for a first car.

Remember: It’s Not Forever

Finally, you have to remember that this isn’t the final car you’ll ever own. Picking a car that doesn’t have the luxuries or styling or power that you want isn’t a problem for your first car. After all, it’s just your first car.

Any compromises you make for this car can be remedied in the future when you have more money to spend on a vehicle.

Picking the Right First Car

Are you excited to purchase your first car? I put together a list of great options for first cars. You can read the list here and find which option is perfect for you.

Picking the right first car ultimately boils down to combining your budget, wants, needs, and nearby stock of used cars. From there, you’ll find a car that checks all of the boxes on your list. Don’t forget to follow my 20 tips before shaking hands and signing paperwork.

Conclusion

I just reviewed 20 important tips to choose your first car. Hopefully, you’ll keep these in mind when you start shopping around. This is an exciting time for you, and I hope you have fun with your new wheels. If you have more car questions, explore my blog. I also have some car products you should definitely get along with your new car.

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Ernest Martynyuk

An automotive enthusiast who's been tinkering with vehicles since I was 15-years old. Repairing automotive electronics has been my main job for over a decade now and have a passion for everything technical regarding cars.

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