Timothy Moore
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Buying a Back to School Car for Your Teen

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Summer’s fading—and fast—and soon it will be off with the sunscreen and on with the book covers for kids everywhere. (Get ready for a resounding sigh near the end of August; they’ve been known to cause earthquakes in some parts of the world.) Whether you have a high school teen for whom you can no longer play the role of “Soccer Mom Extraordinaire,” or if you have a college student desperately trying to escape your clutches through the front door, chances are good you’ll be focusing on buying a back to school car for them before the pools finally close this year.

back to school car

Back to school car shopping doesn’t have to be a circus. (Photo: paulswansen)

So what do you need to know when buying a back to school car? The number one rule: do not, under any circumstances, let your kid make the decision without your experienced guidance. (If you don’t have experienced guidance, please read on.)

Unless you’re Oprah Winfrey, it’s likely that you’ll be purchasing a used car, not a brand new Mercedes-Benz (but if you are Oprah, welcome to The News Wheel—can we get a free TV or maybe some jet skis?). Of course, not all used car dealers are unscrupulous, but whether you’re buying from an established dealership or someone selling privately, you’ll want to do your homework to avoid getting scammed, just in case. Below I’ve detailed that homework in my six easy steps for buying a back to school car for your teen.

  • Determine the kind of car you’re going to get your teen. As he or she is probably inexperienced on the road (no offense), it’s best not to give your kid the biggest, baddest car around—so definitely no tanks. Instead, think of something with good gas mileage, reliable safety features, and excellent handling. I’d recommend a small or midsize sedan, or perhaps a small crossover.
  • Give the car a good look-over. No really, just spend some time staring at it to see if anything jumps out at you, like a cheap paint job or evidence of bodywork. The truth lies in the sheet metal, so give it special attention.
  • If the car is branded with a “FLOODED” title, get the heck out of there. You do not want a car that survived a flood, and used car dealers will often try to pass these cars off as completely operable. Cars that endure flooding in coastal states make it surprisingly far inland for resale, and some may not even carry the “FLOODED” branding.
  • Note the mileage. Buying a back to school car with over 150,000 miles is probably not the wisest decision, but also be wary of older used cars with low mileage. It is possible for shady sellers to turn back the odometer. (Ferris Bueller could have used these guys’ help, eh?) Make sure you always check the car’s history with a service such as CarFax. You’ll just need the 17 digit Vehicle Identification Number (VIN).
  • Take the car to your trusted mechanic and have him or her compile a detailed report of what is wrong with the car and how much it will cost to fix—everything from the engine to the brakes to the transmission.
  • Check all the “little things” to make sure they work: lights, blinkers, windshield wipers, radio, air conditioning, etc.

If, after all these steps, the car still looks like a winner, you should be good to go. Still not sure what exact model to get when buying a back to school car? Our friends over at CarWoo! have got you covered.

Now hurry up and pick one already. I think I just heard the bell for first period ringing…


Timothy Moore takes his leadership inspiration from Michael Scott, his writing inspiration from Mark Twain, and his dancing inspiration from every drunk white guy at a wedding. When Tim is not writing about cars, he’s working on his novel or reading someone else’s, geeking out over strategy board games, hiking with his pooch, or channeling his inner Linda Belcher over beers with his friends. See more articles by Timothy.