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Buying a Used Car for Your Grad

Parents interested in buying used cars for grads are often focused on price — sometimes to the exclusion of other important factors. While price ultimately determines which used vehicle you will purchase for your child, it shouldn’t be your only consideration.

In addition to the prospective vehicle’s condition and history, which you should investigate any time you buy a used car, it’s important to identify the models that are most likely to keep your child safe, be affordable over time and deliver a measure of practicality as your child embarks upon the next stage of life. If a vehicle meets these requirements while providing some of the technology and style your child wants, that’s just an added bonus.

We’re offering up some tips to help parents who are thinking about buying a used car for their grad. The advice comes to you from a father whose teenage daughter is turning 16 and needs a car for school, sports and a part-time job. Like you, I’m thinking about what used cars will best fit my requirements for safety, reliability and value, while still meeting her requests for technology and style.

Unfortunately for her, the red Mustang convertible that she really wants just isn’t in the cards.


Given that the leading cause of death in teenagers is car accidents, buying a safe used vehicle for your graduate is critical. In recent years, the car industry has made advances in safety-related technology and also strengthened crash-test standards — so if you want a safe vehicle, it’s best to purchase the newest one that your budget allows.

Parents seeking a safe used car for a teen driver should start their research by reviewing the lists of Top Safety Picks from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). The IIHS provides this information by model year, and their lists can give you a good first look at the safest used vehicles on the market.

After reviewing the IIHS information, the next step is to check safety ratings from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). The safest models are the ones with an overall crash-test rating of five stars, the highest possible. Rest assured that any car with both a 5-star overall rating from the NHTSA and a Top Safety Pick designation from the IIHS is one of the safest you can buy.

In addition to crash-test ratings, you also might want to think about what safety equipment a used vehicle offers. While new cars are required by law to have six airbags, anti-lock brakes, stability control, a tire pressure monitoring system and more, an older car may not be equipped with these important safety systems.

Beyond these modern basics, you might want to find a used vehicle that offers automatic crash notification technology. Such systems activate after an airbag deployment, putting a live operator in touch with the vehicle’s occupants to assess the severity of the crash and their physical condition, dispatching emergency rescue personnel to the scene at the same time.

Typically, this technology is part of an in-car connectivity system, and either requires an actively paired smartphone to work or is included as part of a subscription-based suite of services. Examples include 911 Assist as a part of Ford SYNC technology and GM’s OnStar Advanced Automatic Crash Notification, each of which has been offered for several years now.


When buying a used car for your daughter or son, you want to find one that has been well maintained by the previous owner, and that has a clean vehicle history report free of previous accidents or other insurance claims. Before buying any used car, it’s worth having it inspected by a qualified mechanic and obtaining a vehicle history report by a company such as CARFAX or Experian AutoCheck.

Additionally, it’s important to look up the vehicle’s reliability ratings with data provided by Consumer Reports and J.D. Power and Associates — leading market researchers that compile such information from surveys conducted with vehicle owners. However, remember that these surveys are usually done with people who bought their vehicles new. With a used car, you also have to take into account how its previous owner(s) treated it, which can be just as important an indicator of how troublesome it might prove in the future.

That’s one reason why, if the budget allows, we recommend choosing a certified pre-owned (CPO) vehicle sold by a new car dealership. CPO vehicles are typically in the best condition. Furthermore, most CPO vehicles are covered by extended warranty protection for an extra measure of security against unanticipated repair costs. They often include limited-time roadside assistance plans, as well, to provide help if your child runs out of gas, gets a flat tire, suffers a dead battery or needs to be towed for repairs.

Alternatively, you could search for a used vehicle that comes with an active, transferable original new-car warranty, or you can purchase an extended warranty for a used vehicle. Extended warranties, however, often won’t cover major repairs and are sometimes sold by companies that are on uneven financial footing. Generally, purchasing aftermarket warranty coverage for a used vehicle is not cost-effective.

In any case, the best approach to finding a reliable used vehicle is to research those makes and models known to provide dependability, and then to make sure the example you’re considering for your child is in excellent mechanical condition and has a clean vehicle history report.


In some respects, value is defined differently for used cars than for new cars. For example, when buying a new car, consumers want to choose one that will retain its value over time. When buying a used car, consumers want to choose one that has not retained its value over time but still meets safety and reliability criteria.

Additionally, when evaluating used cars for grads, you will want to consider the fuel economy ratings associated with the vehicles on your list. Over time, even slight variations in gas mileage can add up to hundreds of dollars of savings, or added cost, in terms of fuel expenses. Just keep in mind that fuel economy ratings published by the EPA or auto manufacturers are estimates, and that actual fuel efficiency is determined in large part by how the vehicle is driven and maintained.

Some makes and models are also more expensive to service and repair than others, and choosing a vehicle that costs more to maintain and fix can easily add thousands of dollars in added expenses in the years ahead. To compare the costs of servicing or repairing the used vehicles on your consideration list, consult Repair Pal, which provides average prices for common vehicle repairs.

Insurance is another factor to consider when choosing a used car for your son or daughter. Start by talking with your current insurance company to see which makes and models are less costly to insure for a young adult or teenage driver. Gauge whether it makes more sense to insure the car in your child’s name or as an additional vehicle on your existing policy.

Young drivers also need to understand how their own driving behavior can impact insurance rates in terms of price increases for moving violations and at-fault accidents. Make sure your daughter or son understands what an insurance deductible is, and how getting speeding tickets or crashing a vehicle carries a financial impact for the future.


Older used cars are unlikely to offer much in the way of modern technologies, unless they are luxury models with higher mileage — in which case they’re likely to require expensive repairs sooner rather than later. Newer used cars offer more up-to-date tech, but time doesn’t stand still; what might have been considered a cutting-edge in-vehicle infotainment system just a couple years ago is likely outdated by now.

The relentless march of technology doesn’t necessarily have to be a source of disappointment to a young driver destined to drive a used car instead of a new car. The aftermarket beckons, providing Bluetooth systems, smartphone pairing and mobile application technology, as well as touchscreen navigation and audio systems offering access to Internet radio, social media channels, real-time traffic reports and more. A good source for information about aftermarket in-car technology is CNET.

Before agreeing to install aftermarket technology in a used car, however, it is critical that you have a heart-to-heart conversation with your child about the dangers of distracted driving. Your son or daughter needs to clearly and unambiguously understand that piloting a vehicle on public roads is a privilege, not a right — one that is accompanied by serious responsibilities to themselves and others. Make sure that your child comprehends the personal, legal, financial and even spiritual ramifications associated with hurting or killing themselves or others as a result of distracted driving.

Additionally, share with your child the following statistics:

  • Every single day in the United States, nine people die and 1,060 people are injured in vehicle crashes caused by a distracted driver.
  • In 2011, the cause of nearly one in four automobile accidents involved the use of a cell phone.
  • A driver is 23 times more likely to crash while texting than he or she is while not texting.
  • Teenagers die in motor vehicle accidents more often than from any other cause.

Don’t forget this, either: Your children model their behavior after you, whether they care to admit it or not. If you’re engaging in risky behaviors while driving, they will too.


Young people can be self-conscious about what their peers think of their looks, clothes and whether or not they fit in with the crowd. You also may have noticed that what you think is acceptable in these arenas is usually very different from what they do.

As a parent, you should recognize that these superficial concerns extend to the car they drive, and you should be sensitive to them. But don’t let this situation drive the decision-making process. When buying a used car for your child, it is far more important to find a safe, reliable and affordable used car that is in great condition and will last a long time.

And if your kid doesn’t like this approach, make it clear that he or she is welcome to pay for the car instead.


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