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10 Things I Wish I Had Known Before Buying My First Car

Updated on March 10, 2017
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Jorge has driven many clunkers for hundreds of thousands of miles, and now will pass his questionable wisdom onto you.

How to Buy Your First Car Without Taking a Huge Risk

Most of us are young when we buy our first car, but that's not always the case. Whether you're a naive spring chicken or you've been around for a few decades, there are a lot pitfalls that you can find yourself in. You may encounter sleazy car salesmen, scammers on Craigslist, or maybe even "friends" who want to unload a lemon on you.

I'm not the world's greatest expert or anything, but I've bought cars before and let me tell you that I wish I could go back in time and warn myself about a few things the first time I tried my hand at it. (I've gotten ripped off before, needless to say.)

If you want to avoid all the shenanigans, follow these simple tips when buying your first car:

An old beater.
An old beater.

1) Be Careful Who You Trust. Remember That the Seller is There to Sell.

"Duh," you might say. And, yes, maybe it's easy for you to remember this when you're face-to-face with a creepy, over-dressed guy on a salesroom floor. What if it's a friend or acquaintance, though? What if it's a poor old lady who is trying to get rid of her car because the doctor said she can't drive it anymore and she's feeding you the most touching sob story you've ever heard?

At the end of the day, no matter how nice the person selling to you seems, they are trying to sell and that is their first priority. Don't be taken in by any of their excuses if they are trying to overcharge you or trying to get you to overlook flaws in the car.

Remember that a used car especially is a mystery, and there could be dozens of things that are wrong with it that you wouldn't be able to notice by just eyeballing it. Don't just trust people and follow the rest of the tips below to make sure you are doing what you can to examine the car objectively and not just take someone's word for it.

2) Check For Signs of Damage

The first thing you're going to want to do is check for signs of physical damage. If the car's paint job seems like it's not the original, this isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it could indicate that someone is trying to hide damage, so you should take a closer look.

Check that all the doors close flush against the car. Check to make sure all of the rubber trim on the doors and windows line up with the car. Check to make sure the hood and trunk close perfectly. If there's any misalignment, this could be a sign that the car has been in an accident and was rebuilt; it might not be safe to drive is such a case.

Of course, also check for dents and scratches. Small ones may not be a deal-breaker, but it's better to know that they're there before you buy than to pay full price and find out later.

Do we have a deal? Pay no attention to the drops on the concrete; that's just the car peeing.
Do we have a deal? Pay no attention to the drops on the concrete; that's just the car peeing.

3) Look Under the Car

Is there anything wet under there? If it's not water from the air conditioner, then it could be a leak.

Always check for leaks before you buy a used car, as these are a pain in the neck to fix. Many times oil or transmission leak repairs might even cost more than the value of the car, especially if your first car is going to be an old beater (as is the case with most people).

4) Look Under the Hood or Take the Car to a Mechanic

Check that everything looks good. Pull on the belts. Sniff discreetly to see if you are picking up any suspicious smells like burning gasoline after you give the car a test drive.

If you feel like you don't know enough about cars, that's fine. Just take the car to a mechanic before you buy it. If the seller is honest and motivated enough, it shouldn't be a problem. You could also bring someone experienced with you when you go to test drive it. This brings us to the next tip:

5) Bring Someone Older With You to Check the Car

If you're 18 and you want to buy your first car to get to and from class, then no matter how much you may think you already know about cars, always bring someone older and more experienced to take a look at it. Preferably, this would be your parent, but if they are also clueless, try to find a family friend that can help you out and give you an honest opinion.

Very young adults are often targets for scammers or sleazy salespeople simply because they have less life experience. Often just the presence of an older person will make the seller turn down the sleaze considerably.

6) Avoid Going Into Debt Unless You Absolutely Have To

When I first went to university, the parking lot on campus was filled with fancy new cars. They were shiny, had blaring sound systems, and sometimes even spinning rims. These cars were basically screaming: "I'm already going into debt paying for school; I might as well get into some more debt if it means I can also pick up chicks."

Monthly payments are the worst. Getting your car repo'ed is the worst. Having to spend years paying down a debt on a car that will only lose its value as time goes on (depreciating asset) is terrible. Why would you give yourself thousands of dollars of debt before you even have a decently paying job?

Buy a used car, and buy one that you can pay completely or mostly out of pocket. If you look carefully and follow your mechanic's advice, you will probably be able to find a decent car that runs and gets you from point A to point B for a few thousand dollars--and in some places, if you're really lucky, maybe even a few hundred.

Sure, a car that price isn't going to be very pretty. It will get you to where you're going, though, and that's the whole point, isn't it?

If you're just starting out in life, don't weigh yourself down with a luxury item. A new car is a luxury.

Don't worry. Your car doesn't have to look like this. It can be a slightly more recent model.
Don't worry. Your car doesn't have to look like this. It can be a slightly more recent model.

7) Don't Buy For Looks

It's much better to drive an old beat up car that runs perfectly, even if your girlfriend wouldn't be caught dead in it, as opposed to buying a pretty car that is on its last legs or will cost you a fortune.

A friend of mine overlooked a lot of flaws in a car that she was about to buy because she liked its "sporty" look. It ended up leaving her stranded more than once.

When it comes to cars, that's usually the compromise you have to make: Pretty, cheap, or reliable? Pick two. Sometimes you get lucky, and your car will be all three, but most of the time that won't be the case. Don't let the looks of the car sway you.

8) Avoid Luxury Cars—Even Used, Even For "A Good Deal"

The problem with buying a used luxury car is twofold:

  1. Even if the car was a good deal, luxury parts are almost never a good deal. And if the car is used, you're almost certainly going to need to pay for parts at some point.
  2. Luxury does not mean reliable, and often means the opposite.

I know someone who bought a used BMW because it was fast and he had always wanted a luxury car. That thing has left him on the side of the road more than once, and has cost him so much in repairs over the span of just a couple of years that it's like he paid for the car twice. Tens of thousands down the hole.

Sure, luxury cars can be fun to drive, but the maintenance costs are ridiculous, and many times they're not even better quality in terms of reliability than a mid-range family car. Do yourself a favor and get a make of car that is known for reliability and fuel economy, like Toyota or Honda.

9) Get Something Fuel Efficient

Gasoline costs more than it seems, especially if you're driving your car every day. If you've never had a car before, you might not realize how this can quickly become your biggest expense if you drive a car with poor gas mileage.

Take this into account when browsing cars that you're looking to buy. Get a compact car if you can, since these are usually much more fuel efficient than SUV's.

And if you can find an electric car for an affordable price, then you might even consider that instead; they are not only more cost effective when it comes to the price of the energy that moves them, they are also usually cheaper in terms of maintenance. It doesn't hurt that they're better for the environment, too.

A gasoline-electric Prius.
A gasoline-electric Prius.

10) Get Good Car Insurance

Most territories require you to have car insurance if you're going to be driving your car, but not all of them do. Whether or not you are required by your local laws, get car insurance anyway.

This isn't so much to collect insurance money for your old beater if it gets into a wreck, it's more to save you from mountains of potential medical bills if the unthinkable happens. Get car insurance that will cover you and any person that you injure, and that will also cover you if someone hits you and is uninsured.

Check your local laws to see what minimum amount of insurance you need on your car, and make sure that you comply at least with that.

Shop around for some deals, but make sure the insurance is good and that they don't have a history of ripping their customers off. Look up reviews and ask people for recommendations.

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© 2017 Jorge Vamos

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