Buying Your First Car

Whether you're ready to trade in that hand-me-down station wagon your parents gave you when you left for college, or it's simply time to toss that bus pass in the trash and get your own wheels, you're in for an adventure.

Even when approached properly, buying your first car is usually a time-consuming, frustrating yet exhilarating process, so it's best to devise a plan before you head out to the car lots.

Start at the Beginning

The beginning is not the point at which you start looking at cars. The beginning is the point at which you start doing some research. Before you begin searching for the perfect first car, you should first ask yourself several important questions:

  • "How much money can I spend on a car?" This includes the price of the car, the price of making it legal, i.e., titling and registering, and the cost of insurance coverage. Don't spend every penny you have saved for the car, and don't purchase a car you can't afford to maintain.
  • "What kind of car is best suited for my needs?" Your needs could include anything from how many passengers you expect to carry to how often and how far you'll be driving the car. For example, you'll want something that gets good gas mileage if your everyday commute to work or school is a long one.
  • "Should I buy a new or used car?" Most of us want our first cars to be brand new; however, your budget and other personal needs are going to have the final say as to whether your car is new or used.

Once you've confidently answered these questions, you can start thinking of the exact models and makes of cars you're interested in. Do some research on these vehicles, such as reading up on their safety ratings, as well as the rate of theft for those particular vehicles.

During the Search

It's time to head out and begin looking for your first car. You're probably going to visit several dealerships; many people feel more comfortable doing business with a licensed dealer. Try checking out the dealership ads in your local paper for special sales that may be going on.

It's true that doing business with a licensed dealer gives you a bit more assurance due to your rights under the Lemon Laws. But, you shouldn't rule out a private sale from an individual; some very good deals can be found by purchasing a used vehicle from someone who has properly maintained the vehicle and is just looking to sell it. Check your local newspaper and trade journal for people advertising to sell their cars.

If you find a used car you like, consider requesting a vehicle history report for it and find out if the vehicle is salvaged, has been in an accident, or has had odometer changes.

Regardless of the route you choose, try to take someone along who's been through the buying and selling process before. Prices are usually negotiable, so you'll want someone who knows the ropes to accompany you. And, if your Uncle Billy just happens to be a mechanic―well, he should be your first choice. It's always wise to take a test drive and a peek under the hood before committing to a purchase―especially if you're buying a used vehicle, or from a private seller.

The Paperwork

Yes, the paperwork is so important that it deserves its own section. Whether you're buying your first car from a dealership or a private seller, once you've selected a car you're going to have some paperwork to complete.

It's usually less stressful to deal with paperwork when you purchase your car from a dealership―dealers are trained to handle it all. However, that doesn't mean your only role is to sign on the dotted line. When you drive off the lot in your first car, you should understand everything from the warranty to the title. Make sure the dealer reads the paperwork with you, and don't be embarrassed to ask questions.

If you're buying your first car from a private seller, the paperwork is up to you and the seller. The most important part of the transaction is usually the Bill of Sale, which documents the sale of the vehicle. A proper Bill of Sale will include thorough contact information, vehicle information, and the selling price. Many states require Bills of Sale to be notarized.

Most individuals sell their vehicles "as is," meaning you're agreeing to purchase the vehicle in the condition it's in. In other words, once you pay for it, it's yours. If, however, you're buying from a seller who wants to offer you some sort of guarantee, make sure to get it in writing and notarized.

If you're confused about how to handle paperwork during the buying and selling process between individuals, contact the agency in your area that handles motor vehicle-related transactions.


You've just bought your first car! If you purchased the car from a private seller, you'll need to take a few more steps. Take all of your paperwork to your DMV to handle the titling and registration process.

However, if you purchased it from a dealership, all of the paperwork has been handled for you, and you'll probably need to make few, if any, trips to the DMV. You'll be given a temporary license plate to use until your permanent one arrives.

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