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Tips for buying your first car


Owe Carter



Tips for buying your first car

Draw up a budget

First of all, it’s a good idea to set a realistic budget. And this doesn’t just mean for buying the car itself. You’ll need to work out all the running costs too.

If you’re getting some financial support – for example if a parent’s helping you buy it – make a plan for who’s going to pay for what. Your parents might decide, for example, that they’re happy to buy or finance the car and its insurance, but tax, fuel and repairs should be down to you. However you decide to divvy up the costs, it’s a good idea to talk about this in detail beforehand, so no one’s surprised if something crops up later.

The main things to work out are:

  • The cost of the car.

  • Car insurance, which can sometimes be as costly as the vehicle itself. More on that in a mo.

  • Vehicle excise duty (VED), known variously as vehicle tax, car tax or road tax. Unless the vehicle’s exempt, this can be paid either every 12 or 6 months, and can be broken up into monthly Direct Debit payments.

  • Fuel costs. These can really add up, so it’s best to choose something with good fuel economy.

  • Servicing. Getting your car serviced annually will help keep it in good working order. Also, having a service record can make it easier to sell the car, when you need to.

  • MOT. If the car’s more than three years old (which we’re guessing it will be), there’ll be an annual MOT to get through. While these are price-capped at £54.851 for the test itself, you’re likely to have to pay more if anything needs to be fixed.

  • Other maintenance costs. It can be difficult to price this from the outset, as costs may be variable. Who knows if you’ll need to replace one – or all – of the tyres in the first year, for example? But it’s a good idea to buy a set of essentials when you first get the car. So get yourself some screenwash, engine oil, coolant, brake fluid and jump leads for starters. This lot should cost you roughly £50.

Choose a sensible runaround

Granted, this isn’t the most exciting bit of advice you’re likely to hear… But it’s best to pick a small, reliable vehicle. Don’t let your arm be twisted in getting something that looks like it could get from zero to 60 in the blink of an eye.

Hey, think of us as an angel on both shoulders!

It’ll come as no surprise that more powerful cars are going to be way more expensive to insure. This is because they’re more likely to be involved in collisions, and are more costly to repair.

Driving around in something small and sensible is totally the way forward. Hatchbacks are also a lot more practical for urban driving, and can squeeze into smaller parking spots.

Plus the insurance is likely to be cheaper. Before parting with any money, check out the car’s insurance group. The lower the better, as they’ll be cheaper to insure. Aim for a car in groups 1 to 3.

Also, if they do have a prang while still fairly new to the road, it may not be quite so heartbreaking. With this in mind, it’s also worth checking out how cheap replacement parts might be.

Know where to shop

When you’ve decided on what car to go for – or maybe you have a few likely contenders – it’s time to buy. Your main options here include buying online, going to a car dealership or independent dealers, an auction, or from a private sale.

While buying online means you probably won’t get to test drive the car, it’s a very popular way of shopping for cars. Certainly while strict social distancing was in place, buying remotely and having a car delivered became the way to acquire new wheels.

Sites such as and AutoTrader have been around for ages. But there are also some great new sites getting a look-in, such as Cazoo, heycar and Cinch.

Dealerships tend to be more expensive, even for secondhand cars. You’re more likely to get bang for your buck at an independent dealer. They may also offer certain protections you won’t get by going private, such as a warranty.

They may even throw in some extras, such as an annual service, or a full tank of fuel. And if not, hey – where’s the harm in asking?

Similarly, when it comes to the price, there’s nothing to lose by trying to haggle. If they knock down the price, you’re laughing. If not, c’est la vie!

You’ll probably find something cheaper still by looking privately. This could be via Gumtree, Facebook marketplace, or other online market site. We’ll look into how to buy privately soon.

Your other option is going to a car auction. A word of caution here though. While it is possible to bag a bargain at an auction, you really want to take along someone who knows what they’re doing.

To make sure you’re buying safely, check out this guide from the Vehicle Safe Trading Advisory Group (VSTAG).

Do your homework

Once you’ve narrowed things down and have a car in mind, it’s worth making a few checks to make sure it’s not a dud.

First off, get a HPI check at a site like or TotalCarCheck. This flags what you might need to know about the car’s history. For example:

  • If it’s been written off at any point

  • If it’s ever been stolen

  • If there’s outstanding finance on the car

Take it for a test drive

Next, it’s time to take the car for a spin. When you test drive it, you can get a good feel for it.  But it’s not just about whether it’s nice to drive… You’re also doing a bit of detective work. If you want an expert opinion, take along a mechanically minded friend or family member too.

Drive it around for about 15 minutes or so, and keep an eye out for things like:

  • Trouble starting the car

  • The steering pulling to one side as you drive

  • Strange noises from the engine or brakes

  • Dashboard warning lights coming on

If something doesn’t feel right, or you just don’t like the way it drives, no one’s forcing you to buy it. If you get any red flags, it’s OK to walk away.

Sort your paperwork

If you decide you want to buy, there are a few more boxes left to check. The seller should have a V5C registration certificate (or the log book, since we’re friends). They should keep this, and give you the new keeper slip.

They should also have a valid MOT certificate. Even if they don’t have a paper copy of this, you can check its MOT status here.

Once the car is sold, its tax expires. That means that you’ll have to tax it straight away, which is where the log book comes in handy. You can tax your car online here.

It’s up to the seller to transfer ownership of the car to you. It’s easiest to transfer ownership online, but it can also be done by post. Once they’ve been notified of the transfer, it should take the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) about 3 to 5 days to send a new log book.

Finally, make sure there’s car insurance in place before you drive it away into the sunset.

After you’ve bought the car

Even after you have the keys to your new pride and joy, there are still steps well worth taking to save on costs. Check out our guide: How can young drivers get cheaper car insurance?

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