A Guide For First Time Car Buyers

So, you’ve finally going to own your very own car! Firstly, take time to reflect on how exciting this purchase decision is. You’ll never forget your first car.

There are a number of considerations to bear in mind when searching around for a first car, but luckily it's a process that many drivers have already been through, so there are some well established maxims and general advice on the subject. We will pass these on to you, as well as some tricks from our own experience and lesser known things to take account of. At the end of this article, you should have a basic idea of the dos and don'ts involved in buying your first car.

For first-time buyers, and more to the point for the parents or other family members involved in the decision and who may well be footing all or some of the bill, safety is often the most important consideration. Reliability usually follows fairly close behind, and these days most people are wisely aware that, quite apart from any environmental impact, fuel costs have a significant impact, meaning that fuel efficiency will be near the top of most lists as well. And it's not much fun to be stranded in the middle of nowhere because of a dodgy old shell that's given up the ghost, or to be the rescue team that has to set out at midnight to pick up the marooned soul from the side of the road.

This leads us to the first order of business that is frequently overlooked by first-time buyers or their financiers, which is that as vehicles age, keeping up with maintenance and repairs will affect safety and reliability to a greater extent than all the design features in the world that the car may have boasted when it was new.

The safest of new vehicles can quickly degenerate into a ticking time-bomb if a young drivers doesn't have the means to replace or repair tyres, suspension, brakes or steering on a car that needs pricey premium parts. Any potential savings on fuel that you may anticipate at the outset will soon be overwhelmed by the cost of expensive servicing and repairs, in addition to the curtailed service life of a smaller vehicle in comparison to larger ones.

buying car tips

Since both reliability and safety typically depend on keeping the vehicle properly maintained, especially as the years pass and age starts to catch up with it, the choices that optimise these two concerns when they are new will not necessarily remain the easiest or most cost effective at a later stage.

A noticeable change in the Australian car market since the late '90s has seen many young drivers move away from purchasing trusty Australian or Japanese models that are easy to maintain in favour of swanky, late-model European cars or pricey Japanese grey imports that frequently demand you track down parts and servicing specific to the make or model, rarely a quick or easy hunt.

However, even as we argue for sticking to reliable old Commodores or the Japanese run-arounds being left on the shelf, it must be admitted that an increasing proportion of these by-words for unglamorous reliability have been flogged half to death, or just left to rust. To avoid being swindled by a ruthless seller, you should be judicious with any car you look at, regardless of perceived reliability.

We've thought long and hard about the advice and insight laid out below. To ensure that you're fully prepared to enter the marketplace, we've erred on the side of caution with the tips below. This isn't intended to worry or intimidate you, or to scare you off from making what in the majority of cases will be very successful purchases – it simply pays to be aware of the fundamentals. And, at the very least, you ought to be able to hold your own if you  app caught in some car chat down at the pub.

Advice & Tips on buying your first car

Remember the following during the selection process for your first car:

  • If you expect that the vehicle will spend a fair bit of time parked on campus or at the station, or on city streets or in quiet locations late at night, be wary of models that are popular with thieves. Use common sense.
  • It is best to avoid vehicles that will leave young drivers tied to expensive maintenance bills (European models, we're looking at you).
  • A sensible tactic is to accrue a no-claims bonus on a car for which insurance premiums are low so that you can reap the financial rewards when you decide to upgrade to a better vehicle. This might mean that you look for a model with plenty of spare parts in recycling yards so that a small prang can be cheaply patched up without bringing in your insurer.
  • If you are a parent buying on behalf of your son or daughter, involve them in the decision process and make sure they have some real investment in the insurance and running costs so they don't feel free to flog it until it's dead – even if just to prove that when you do things without involving them, bad things happen.
  • If a larger vehicle rams the back of some small hatch-backs it can be enough to pin passengers travelling in the back seats, even when travelling at low speed in the suburbs or city. Ascertain the distance between the rear bumper and the back seats, and then enquire if it will be sufficient to stop a 4WD or a ute.
  • Choose a station wagon, a sedan or a 'long-tail' hatch if you foresee a lot of car pooling, with plenty of room in the trunk for luggage.
  • By avoiding the temptation or pressure to go for a model that's trendy or popular, it's often the case that you'll pick up a newer car and still spend less.
  • It isn't usually a particularly great idea to pick up a low mileage older vehicle that belongs to a grandparent or suchlike, simply because regular, everyday use by a younger driver can quickly take its toll, necessitating repairs because of its age. The older car won't come with modern safety features, and it will almost certainly require more frequent maintenance. If there's one in the family that a collector might appreciate, take advantage of this by cashing it in and using the funds to buy a more appropriate first car.
  • For the majority of small cars, an automatic transmission will pack it in before you reach 160,000km, and will generally cost upwards of $2,000; if, that is, it was manufactured for repair in the first place, which some are not. You can pick up a replacement clutch for a smaller manual for less than $700, and the savings you will make on fuel by going manual, as compared to an older automatic, are surprisingly large.
  • Taking more time to practice in a manual before taking the manual exam, rather than settling for an automatic license and whizzing through the learning process, will not only pay off big time in terms of safety and competence, but it basically doubles your choice of used cars. On top of this, if you ever drive overseas in future, where automatic cars aren't always an option, you've got it covered.
  • If you're going to be using your car for a lot of short trips and stop-start running, the latest extended service intervals will most likely be too long, so it pays more than ever to check service records and be extra vigilant during inspections for anything that seems even a little bit off. If you're hearing dodgy noises, it might indicate that the engine is so blocked up that the oil can't actually flow through it properly, which will mean in many cases that the entire thing has to scrapped.
  • If you are studying at the moment, make sure you start looking around during the course of the university year, and well before final exams in October or November. The summer months between December and February are the period in which many sellers will hold off advertising their car for sale as they need it over Christmas, or for getting away on a holiday. If you keep deferring the search for a first car, you may find you run out of time.
  • If your household has no suitable car that is free for the young driver to learn in, it might be a sensible investment to buy their first car prematurely so that they can simultaneously have a vehicle to learn in, and familiarise themselves with their future car. Make sure that there is a total ban on any unlicensed or unsupervised driving in this time. This seems obvious – it's the law, after all – but the nagging temptation can sometimes be there. Cut it out.
  • One final consideration which is often forgotten, since it's sort of a hidden concern, is that it is always a good idea to choose models that make securing finance an easier proposition. Since younger drivers traditionally find it more difficult to obtain a car loan as a first time buyer , making a choice that facilitates this process, and makes the finance company feel more comfortable, will be a sound decision.