A Teenage Dream

Can you be a teenager and drive a car in this country?

Legally, yes. The average starter age to obtain a driver’s license in the USA is 16. Getting one depends on the laws with each state. Maintaining one is a different story.

When a teenager obtains the privilege of licensed driving, most likely they will want a car. In some cases, parents are all too happy to give the keys to their teenage child of the vehicle least used in the family and have them go to town in it. Eventually, these teenagers would be interested in getting a car on their own. This is where the fun begins…

This idea was explored before by the BBC’s global television juggernaut Top Gear. Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May were given £2500 each to find a first-time car for a 17-year-old (the minimum age for a driver in the UK) with insurance coverage included. What they found was if they took the insurance out of the budget, it’s much easier to find a suitable car a teenager would like. However, insurance coverage in the UK is a massive expense for young drivers. The Top Gear cast found that if these teenage drivers went on their parent’s insurance, it would be easier to meet the budget. The rest is…well…television gold.

Video courtesy of BBC Worldwide via YouTube

What is the reality of a teenager buying his or her first car? Are the results that the Top Gear blokes proved (albeit as middle-aged teenagers) considered true here in the States?

The foremost piece of reality for a teenager is the cost of buying a vehicle. Most likely, a teenager would have saved a couple of thousand of dollars in their bank account to buy a car. They want something cool, but their parents want them to be safe and practical.

A first car has to be reliable and cost effective. No one truly has the money to afford some of the costs of repairs when serious things go wrong. Preventative maintenance can cost as well, but you can get offers on simple things, such as oil changes or easy-to-fix items. If a teenager is adventurous, they can actually do these simple maintenance tasks by themselves.

Though a teenager may love a cool car, one must ask whether it is safe or not. It is imperative for a young buyer to determine whether the car can protect the driver and its occupants today, as well as in the past under ownership. Luckily, there are services, such as CARFAX, that displays a history of a vehicle, including any reported accidents, available to consumers.

Another thing a teenager must take in consider is the cost of make sure the vehicle is legal for the road. A budding car owner must be aware of the costs of annual registration, licensing, inspections, applicable emissions testing and personal property taxes levied upon their vehicle. Some states and municipalities levy more than their share, therefore a bit of homework is needed to know what fees need to be paid, what actions need to be done and when.

Most likely, a first car can be found at various dealerships, independent lots or online through, for example, Craigslist and Auto Trader. Try to find a vehicle to look at it amongst any interested listings. Photos may not be enough, so an actual site visit to the vehicle is definitely in order. Make notes of mileage, damage, vehicle history and overall condition of the vehicle. You may want to bring the potential vehicle into your regular mechanic for a thorough examination before buying it. There are things you would normally do when being a used car, but if you’re spending a couple of thousand dollars on a vehicle – it pays to ensure this vehicle will not fail within a short time after completing the transaction for it.

Always remember: There is no such thing as “love on first sight” when it comes to selecting a vehicle to buy.

Even in the States, automobile insurance is a huge burden for anyone under the age of 21. The risks are higher in this country as insurance firms take in consideration the probability of accident rates, underage drinking and the scale of driving ability during a young person's initial years behind the wheel. Most companies will allow a teenage driver to be put on their parent's insurance to save money, but there may be some restrictions on the policy that would impact the parents. Some insurance companies would require changing car ownership to the parent's name on the policy to ensure proper coverage of the vehicle.

How does this all calculate for the teenage driver? Let’s take a look at a teenage driver living in Fairfax County, Virginia who just bought a car for $2,500. First, your vehicle sales tax is $75.00, followed by your flat rate registration fee of $40.75 – all payable to the Commonwealth’s DMV. Then, you have to go through the State Motor Vehicle Inspection Program at an authorized center – another $16.00 for the service. Now, add regionally-required emissions testing, an additional cost up to $30.00. Finally, you have to pay Fairfax County your Personal Property Tax of $114.25. As for insurance, you can expect to shell out $2822 a year for your own coverage. For just the basic coverage, that's more than the value of the car!

Are there any specific vehicles to consider for that precious $2,000 budget? I always throw caution in the wind when buying something at that price point, even when the buyer thinks he or she is saving money on fuel and maintenance. A simple to rule to follow for any consumer is to just beware of deals that are too good to be true – especially in the $2,000 range.

A search on one of the car buying sites came up with some possibilities at $2,000 or below. Some looked a bit too worn for wear. Others had more than enough miles on the odometer to wonder whether they’re still road worthy. Some of these vehicles were found at dealerships where they will sell them without any warranty coverage.

Certainly the teenage driver and his or her parents would do the research on Consumer Reports, Edmund’s and Cars.com. However, keep in mind when you read an odometer, inspect the vehicle’s condition and look up CARFAX – there’s another story behind the car than some consumer advice site can give you.

My advice to any teenager (and his or her parents) reading this? When you're shopping for your first car and you don't want to spend a lot of money – be very careful before you buy! Better still – save your money, practice your driving skills on your parent's vehicle and take public transport until you have the money to afford a better, more reliable vehicle. Certainly your taxes and fees will be higher, but think of the savings in terms of the repairs you might not have to shell out within weeks of buying the $2,000 car you almost blew your savings account on.

Keep in mind, young person (and your parents), automobile ownership is a privilege. So is getting a driver's license. Yes, you can achieve a level of driving competency to master this art. There are many more that do not. Just be smart about what you're really getting for your first vehicle. Make sure you're ready to drive it, insure it and maintain it for a period of time that you will need it.

Wouldn't it be great if you could take that first car of yours to college in one piece? That would make all of us – your parents, included – very happy.

All photos by Randy Stern, except otherwise noted.

About the author


  1. This post scares me only because I am the mother of three little boys ages 9. 7 and 9 months and their dad loves muscle cars! I think 16 is too young to drive myself. In any case…I never for my own car until I was through school and had a job that could support having a car and the insurance, etc. I think reasponaibilty and accountability as well as pride of ownership is key. We will see how things go in my house! Thought provoking post. Thanks!

    1. Hi Lora! Thank you for stopping by V&R! I've received a lot of feedback on this from other parents who are considering how to approach their teens about driving. I agree that you absolutely need to drill the idea of responsibility, accountability and pride in ownership when a teen gets their first car – or uses a parent's until then. Again, thank you for stopping by and the feedback you have on this piece!

      – Randy

Leave a Reply to Randy Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.