How to buy your first car

Passing your driving test is a great achievement. Here’s how to build on that success by buying a safe, reliable car without breaking the bank

Words ByDavid Motton

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Nobody ever forgets their first car, so it pays to make it a good one. Whether you're a parent looking to choose a safe car for a newly qualified teenage driver, or you’ve just passed your test and want to make your budget go as far as possible, What Car? can help.

On this page we’ll give you our tips for finding a safe and affordable first car, and advice on how to keep running costs, such as insurance, under control. We'll also give your our recommendations for the best first cars to buy.

Should I buy new or used?

It goes without saying that a used car is going to be cheaper to buy than the same model new. After three years on the road, a second-hand car is typically worth 30-40% of the original price. So it's wise to let someone else take that financial hit and pick up a bargain.

The picture is more complicated than it first appears, though. A new car will come with a warranty to protect against unexpected bills, typically for three years, but sometimes for five or seven.

A dealer may sell a used car with a warranty, but it’s likely to last for a few months or a year at the most. Do without a warranty and the cost of a breakdown could eat into the saving made through buying used, as well as meaning you’re without your wheels until it can be fixed.

Unless you have enough funds to buy a car outright, there’s also the cost of finance to consider. This is when a new car, purchased on a competitive finance deal, can be less expensive than it first seems.

Can a new car make an affordable first buy?

Twenty years ago you needed a trust fund or generous parents to afford a brand new first car. It’s still not for everyone, but low-rate finance schemes with modest monthly payments have brought new cars within reach of more young drivers.

The most attractive deals for new drivers are usually PCPs (personal contract purchase leasing deals). These offer low monthly payments and leave a large chunk of the car’s value until the end of the deal. Buyers can make the final payment to own the car, or hand it back with nothing more to pay. Alternatively, if the value of the car at the end of the term is greater than the final payment, this difference can be used as a deposit to start a new deal. However, the car’s used value isn’t guaranteed, and it can drop if you exceed the agreed mileage or don’t keep the car in good condition.

The big appeal of a PCP is the low monthly payments. Special offers with low interest rates mean that if you are shopping for a city car, monthly bills of less than Β£100 aren’t uncommon after a fairly large initial deposit.

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