Buying your teen's first car and avoiding the lemons

Buying your teen's first car is an experience of mixed emotions. Perhaps you feel proud,...

Buying your teen's first car is an experience of mixed emotions. Perhaps you feel proud, nostalgic, scared or often a mix of all three. After all, this is a huge step for your child and letting go of control isn't always easy. But there is one area where you can do everything you can to ensure your teen is safe even if you are not always there: inspecting your teen's first car carefully before you buy. While you should always have your mechanic check out any car you are seriously considering to buy, there are three important things you can check on your own before seeking professional help.

Go to the tailpipe

Get the glove ready and prepare to perform the car version of a colonoscopy. Okay, it doesn't have to be an actual glove; a paper napkin or a tissue will work.

The car's waste, or exhaust, can tell you a lot about the way a car runs, so head to the car's rear end. Remember not to touch the tailpipe with your skin if the car has been running because it will be hot.

Slip the glove about two inches into the tailpipe, press firmly and swipe around. Pull the glove back out and look at the residue. It should be dark charcoal gray and powdery, or possibly even black if you're looking at an older car, but not gooey and not perfectly clean.

If the tailpipe residue is gooey or oily, it can be a signal that something's wrong with the vehicle. If it's clean, it can mean it was cleaned out, and people almost never clean inside the tailpipe. It doesn't necessarily mean the vehicle is bad, but it is something to discuss with your Atlanta-area professional mechanic before buying the car.

No kicking

You've probably seen people kick the tires on cars before they buy them. But what will that kick really tell you other than if the tire holds air? Here's what you should check on the tires, tread and shape. You're going to need the glove for this one too, and make sure to check all four tires.

  • First, look at the tread to see if the wear is even. Compare the tread depth at the inside of the tire to the depth at the tire's outer edge. It should be fairly close. If the wear is uneven, it can mean the car needs to be aligned.
  • Also, while you have the glove on, slide your hand around the tire's inner wall and over the tread, if you feel a bump or bulge, it can mean the belt has slipped, making new tires an immediate need on the vehicle.

Take it to the (speed) limit

Make sure you drive the car at highway speeds, not just in town. This is important because some transmission problems, such as improper shifting, do not show up at lower speeds. You don't want your child experiencing any surprise problems on the Atlanta highways if you can help it, so this step is very important.

Remember that nothing can substitute for a professional mechanic's advice. While there, make sure the mechanic hooks the car to a computerized diagnostic machine; the computer detects problems that aren't visible to the naked eye. If the car checks out and you're happy with your purchase, you'll feel much better letting your teen ride alone. But if you're still feeling uneasy, consider writing a contract with your teen. This contract should be signed by you, your spouse and your teen. The contract can include rules, such as when your son or daughter is allowed to ride and whom your child is allowed to gives rides to, as well as financial responsibilities and what are the consequences of breaking the rules.

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