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3 Ways to Find Your Teen a Safe, Affordable Car

 Courtesy of USAA

Although some teens buy cars with earnings from fast-food labor or hours of trudging behind a lawn mower, others receive an assist from mom and dad or grandparents. Either way, you can provide valuable advice on how to save money on the purchase, what safety features the car should have and how to drive responsibly.

Avoid Buying a Clunker
Reselling a car traded-in under the Cash for Clunkers program is illegal. To find out if a used car you're considering is one of them, go to USAA's Car Buying Service to order a CARFAX® vehicle history report.

1. Protecting Them and Their Investment

When you realize that your children or grandchildren will command an object that weighs several thousand pounds, you want to make sure they'll be safe behind the wheel. When you start researching a car with your teen, go to the USAA Car Buying Service and click the Safety Tab to find answers to the following questions:


  • Does the car have working air bags and seatbelts? Air bags and seatbelts used together provide the greatest protection against injury in traffic accidents. Correctly used, the seat belts keep you restrained in the exact place where the air bag can protect you. Also, the two restraints are now legal requirements for both auto manufacturers and drivers in most states. Vehicles produced for the 1999 model year on had to have front air bags for driver and passenger.
  • What brake technology does it have? An anti-lock braking system prevents the wheels from locking during a panic stop, which helps a driver retain control of a car's steering. Electronic stability control, or ESC, incorporates anti-lock brakes but is a more complex system. It compares a driver's actions on the steering wheel, gas pedal and brake pedal with what the vehicle actually is doing. Now it's standard on most new vehicle models, with all vehicles required to have the feature by 2012.
  • How does a vehicle hold up under impact? Five minutes researching the safety of a vehicle may be the best five minutes you ever spend: Teenage drivers have the highest crash risk of any group, according to the IIHS.
  • What has a used car experienced? For a detailed history of a car, order a report from CARFAX®, which offers USAA members a 20% discount.


2. Adding Up the Cost

When buying a car, keep in mind three numbers: the sticker price, which the dealer wants you to pay; the invoice price, which is what the dealer paid; and the true market price. USAA Car Buying Service offers research tools and a network of dealers to help you find the right car at the price you're looking for. As you build your car, you'll be able to see what others are paying for the vehicle you're considering.

Auto insurance costs vary widely. Although some factors are outside your control — typically, boys cost more than girls, teenagers more than adults — your decisions and lifestyle can affect your total cost. Having safety features like air bags and anti-lock brakes might lower the cost, while a poor driving record and performance features such as a large engine could raise it. Cars that cost more to repair or are popular with thieves cause higher premiums.

3. Taking control

Help your teen manage life behind the wheel with a driving contract, suggests parent-life coach and licensed clinical social worker Susan Epstein of It could spell out how many people are allowed in the car, when a cell phone can be used, what curfew must be met and how long a license will be lost for misbehavior — even unrelated to the vehicle. Include details in the contract such as who's paying for what, she adds. "If kids pay insurance or monthly car payments, help them set up debit programs from bank accounts," Epstein suggests. "This teaches them the real costs of driving and keeps you from picking up the full tab." Adherence to the contract shows responsibility and can lead to greater maturity behind the wheel, says Epstein.

"If your child cleans the car regularly and makes appointments for oil changes and maintenance, those actions show initiative and care that will translate into activities on the road," Epstein adds.

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posted 3/23/2010

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