5. Take It for a Drive

Now that you’ve narrowed down your search, go and see some cars! Again, set the meetings in public places, and bring an adult with you for safety.

When you get to see the car, you should crawl around it like a forensic examiner on Law & Order—look at EVERYTHING. Check out anything you inquired about on the phone, and really get a feel for the car. Does it smell weird? Is the steering wheel too high (if so, can it be adjusted)? Does the radio work or do you need to save some money to replace it? Do the windshield wipers work? How about the heat, A/C, and defrost? Does the engine take a long time to turn over when you turn the key? Do the seats move forward and backward with ease, or do you have to wrestle them into position? Check the tires but do not kick them—bring an air-pressure gauge, which you can buy for less than $10 at most hardware stores. Don’t be afraid to pop the hood, either. You may not be a mechanic, but you can look for things like smoke, high-pitched sounds, leaks or spurts, or anything leaking under the car when it’s running—those are all bad signs.

Next, you’ll go for a short spin around the neighborhood, with the seller in the passenger seat. Here you’ll learn a lot more about the car. Don’t be afraid to challenge the car a little bit—I mean, don’t do doughnuts or anything, but you don’t want to be timid here and then realize later that the brakes don’t work very well or that the car can’t drive uphill. During a test drive, you’ll want to drive on a variety of different kinds of roads (paved and unpaved, smooth and bumpy, winding roads, uphill climbs, etc.) to be sure the car can handle them all. Do a little bit of controlled swerving (warn your passengers first!) when no other cars or obstacles are around to see how easily the car handles—you don’t want it to be hard to avoid a future accident. Test the car’s power by hitting the gas to get onto a freeway or to pass another car. Test the brakes (again, when no other cars are around, and after a warning) by hitting the brakes hard. The car should come to a complete stop. Turn on the air conditioner full blast while you’re driving to see if doing so significantly affects the car’s power. If the car’s an automatic, be sure the stick shift and the clutch operate smoothly.

If everything looks good, or you’ve negotiated the price down based on anything that might be wrong or need immediate maintenance, your next step is optional but important if you, like me, trust no one: Take the car to a mechanic you’ve already vetted for a routine check.

Here’s the thing: If the seller is honest, they won’t mind driving the car over to a mechanic that YOU chose to ensure that everything is OK. To choose a mechanic, do some online research (a good one will have tons of local awards, a huge customer base, and good Yelp reviews) or go by word of mouth (your family uses this mechanic, you’ve asked someone you trust whom they use, then you went online to check their customer feedback). Use your gut here, too—don’t give your money to someone who condescends to you, doesn’t answer your questions, or otherwise makes you feel confused instead of informed. You won’t do this with every single car you look at, just the one(s) you really like. Find out the hourly wage for your mechanic, let them know the deal (that you’re buying a car and want their opinion), and schedule a time to come in (coordinate with the seller to make sure they can be there too). The $100 you may spend on this appointment could save you a LOT of grief in the future.

6. You Found a Car—Let’s Buy It!

When you’re ready to buy the car, you’ll exchange your check or money order for the keys, the title, and a proof of sale. A title is like a birth certificate that comes with every car, and the seller should have it on hand (if they don’t, do not buy this car—you don’t know where it came from). They will transfer the title to you. If you live in the U.S., here’s some more information on how to transfer a title or apply for a new one. The title shows that you own the car, but not who sold it to you, so you will also need a signed bill of sale that states who sold you the car and for how much. If the seller doesn’t have a proof of sale, you can create one on your own on your computer (U.S. residents can download one from the DMV). It should state that you are willing to buy the car in its current condition (“as is”) and include the full name and address of the person who sold you the car, how much you paid for it, how you paid for it (cash, check, etc.), a description of the car (make, model, any cosmetic problems like a cracked windshield), the date of purchase, a witness signature (someone you bring with you to watch you make this transaction), and space for both you and the seller to sign and date it. You should print two copies—the seller gets get one, and you get one.

If your state has smog or emissions tests, ask the seller to keep those documents in the glove compartment or make copies for you. Be sure that the emissions stickers (given out by mechanics for cars that pass the test) are still on the car.

Before you can legally drive the car, you’ll need license plates. Find out if your state offers temporary plates, and how soon after buying a car you’re expected to have permanent plates on it. Most DMVs will give you plates the day you walk in and request them, but some places mail them to you, which takes time. You will have to pay for your license plates, so factor in this expense. They’re really easy to put on/take off; in most cases, you just need a screwdriver.

You will also need car insurance. Car insurance protects you in the event of damage, and it’s usually REALLY expensive for teens—you’re newly licensed, so they consider you a menace to society, and they want to ensure that they won’t have to pay exorbitant fees your possible mistakes. Some people join their parent’s insurance if they can (they pay more than they are currently paying, but not as much as you would if you had your own), but a lot of us had to get our own insurance. I got my license in 1994, and, since no one in my family drove, I had to get my own insurance. I went to my local insurance office on Main Street, but you can look around Google and see who has the best deals and service. Definitely take the time to find the best service that you can afford! I did need my parent’s signature on some forms, but the insurance was entirely in my name, meaning I was 100 percent responsible for the monthly payments of $200. That’s right—I paid $200 a month ($2,400 a year) to insure a car I paid only $100 for.

When you find insurance you can afford, be sure to ask what it covers. Don’t let them use obscure language, like “liability”—make them tell you what that means. Ask them questions: If my friend is driving my car and gets in an accident, will I be covered? If the car is totaled, will you replace it? Ask about anything that is unclear to you.

That about covers it! Be confident, be smart, trust your knowledge and get going! Owning a car can be crucial to your freedom, and you have all the tools you need to make it happen. ♦