A car is usually a big purchase for anyone, but for young first-timers it can require particularly critical and challenging decisions.

Purchase and running costs, safety, reliability and driveability will be prime factors, but you can bet your mag wheels status or fashion inevitably will influence young buyers more than most.

Where to start on the first-car quest when you have no experience of cars, driving, or likely, expensive purchases?

I’ve discovered most people don’t have a clue, so here’s my guide to negotiating the rocky road to that triumphant achievement, Your First Car. They’re my personal tips gleaned from more than 50 years of buying, driving and writing about cars, but I recommend you also investigate as many advice sources as possible.

What to buy?

Let’s assume you’re a young, inexperienced and relatively impoverished driver and first-time owner. Starting always with safety, your priorities should be:

1. Safety

Why is it the most vulnerable are the least able to afford the cost of safety? Young drivers need as many safety features as possible to protect themselves from their own inexperience and almost inevitable accidents. Buy a vehicle with the most safety features your budget allows. Even a 10-year-old car should have four airbags and anti-skid brakes, but the newer the model the safer it usually will be. Except for its bulk, a big, old car isn’t necessarily as safe as a hi-tech, new small one. Check if it has an ANCAP crash protection rating – 5-star is best. It should go without saying that mechanical and tyre condition is crucial to safety. Utes, SUVs and 4WDs with a higher centre of gravity are less stable in emergency manoeuvres.

2. Suitability

Ditch the ego and fantasy and make your first car the one you need rather than necessarily your dream machine. Use it to get used to vehicle ownership while minimising day-to-day costs on a low income. An SUV, ute or large sedan will cost more for fuel, tyres, registration and insurance, but you’ll get to love a smaller car for its economy and easy driveability. Think you’ll look cool in a Commodore with fat mags? Believe me, no-one cares! Considerations other than safety: Driveability, fuel economy, number of seats/doors, boot and roof capacity for sports gear, service intervals, insurance rating, cabin comfort and convenience features. Low priorities: Performance, looks, size, what other people think.

3. New or used?

New cars available for as little as $13,000 drive-away make a compelling argument with their latest safety and interior features, long warranties, roadside emergency response and fixed-price service packages. But you’ll get a great used car for less – I wouldn’t be afraid of a secondhand vehicle with up to 200,000 kms on the odometer if it’s sold with a good service record. If you know nothing about cars, stick to any mainstream brand for reliability and minimal running costs. If you’re car-wise, “orphans” of the secondhand world – eg, older Volvos or Mercedes – with low resale appeal can be sensational value for money to buy and run. Don’t stress over resale potential on a low-priced car – how much can you really lose?

4. Dealer or private?

Licensed dealers of new or most used vehicles provide statutory protection plus warranties from manufacturers or other sources. Naturally, you’ll pay for this but they’re a safer bet. A used car with the balance of its new-car warranty – new Kias are sold with seven years’ cover – is a good deal. Don’t agree to “aftermarket” used-car warranties, which are just insurance policies with numerous exclusions. Purchases from private sellers demand extreme caution, though in almost all cases will turn out fine. Without the benefit of statutory or warranty protection, private-sale prices should be significantly lower but often they aren’t – in my experience, private sellers often have inflated ideas of their vehicles’ value and, having been disappointed by a dealer’s low offer, try to get a better price directly. Tell ‘em they’re dreamin’.

5. Oranges and lemons

The occasional high-profile lemon or manufacturer recall is inevitable, but buyers generally have little to fear about reliability, whether new car or recently used. Cars are more reliable and durable than ever thanks to the electronic technology traditionalists like to decry. Don’t follow some fool who says, “I’ll never buy another Holden (or Ford, etc)”. All brands are reliable, but sometimes some models may have inherent problems, hopefully resolved by manufacturer recalls. Used cars should be assessed thoroughly for condition by an independent expert. Look for average annual use between 15,000km and 20,000 km (you’ve found a gem if a five-year-old car has only 40,000 kms on the clock) and proof of regular, scheduled service throughout the vehicle’s life. Ignoring the obvious cover-ups from pre-sale detailing, a car with a tidy, unworn interior and bodywork is a good starting point – mechanical faults often are cheaper to fix than damaged upholstery or bodywork.

6. Other fruit

A car with more “fruit” is better, especially in the safety department. But don’t be swayed to buy a well-loaded used car in inferior condition over a good-un with less. Check if there’s a full-size spare wheel, a space-saver or just a can of latex and a pump. If you regularly do lots of klicks on out-of-town roads, a full-size spare is an investment in safety and security. New cars in the lower price ranges are extraordinarily equipped and should need nothing extra except roof bars for your bike or a tow-bar for your jet ski.

How to buy

Follow a methodical process to search for and identity a suitable car and it’s hard to go wrong. Buy in haste without doing your homework thoroughly and you’ll probably burn your hard-earned.

1. Prepare and don’t rush

Have you noticed there are hundreds of thousands of new and used cars for sale every day? As a buyer you’re in control, so don’t let the money burning a hole in your pocket rush you into buying the first car you like as if there’ll never be another. Take your time to thoroughly understand what’s available and what represents value for money.

2. Set your budget

Fix how much you can afford then go looking; doing it the other way around inevitably forces compromise. Your provisional price should include any cash, trade-in or loan in hand. Arranging a pre-approved loan will allow you to move instantly and confidently when you find the car you want. The more expensive the car, the more you’ll pay for interest and insurance.

3. Initial research

Like any investment, nothing beats thorough research. The half-dozen top Australian motoring websites all have new and used listings where you can set search parameters such as price, type and location. Start searching by price and location. Look at everything that comes up, from which you should create a preferred short list by price, type, make and other parameters.

4. Start hunting

Now you’re no longer clue-less – you know how much you can afford and have identified a few vehicles that appeal. If buying new, it’s time to hit the showrooms; go to multiple dealers for the same brands to get the best deal. If buying used, set search alerts with your key parameters in the car websites; you’ll get daily email alerts as new sellers list their vehicles. A few days or weeks of watching these alerts will help you refine your preferences even further. Read websites, forums and social media for media reviews and owners’ comments. When the perfect car for you appears, you’ll know it and should move quickly to check it out in person.

5. Test-drive

A test-drive doesn’t avoid the necessity of a mechanic’s check, but should give an early, superficial indication whether you’ll want to continue negotiations.

• Take a partner for a second opinion.
• Drive on a variety of roads including rough and winding bitumen and 80km highway.
• Listen for unusual noise or harshness in the engine and gearbox. Does the automatic change smoothly and promptly, or does it hang on too long then change with a thump?
• Does the suspension or steering rattle or feel uncontrolled over bumps? This indicates wear, possibly dangerous.
• Does the vehicle steer straight or wander at straight-ahead?
• Make an emergency stop. The brakes should respond without any lag, pull up quickly and straight, without any hint of instability from the back wheels. Squealing, scraping noises or veering should be investigated.
• Check fluid levels and condition under the bonnet. Dark black engine oil shows servicing has been neglected.
• Make sure every piece of equipment works, from the windscreen washers to the audio system, Bluetooth, main lights and even the boot light.
• Check for crash repairs by sighting along panels for misalignment and poor paint matching. Other tell-tales are missing or mis-fitted bright trim or paint overspray on door rubbers or underbody and suspension and non-working minor lights.

6. The deal

If you’ve done your homework, found a car you want at a fair and typical price and have the money lined up, the rest should be easy. A dealer must guarantee clear title – including that it’s not stolen, subject of a debt, or a re-birthed insurance write-off – but you’re on your own with a private seller and should use one of the many services available on-line to check. All sellers of used vehicles must provide a roadworthiness certificate in order for the registration to be transferred. Never hand over even a deposit without sighting this certificate and never drive away with the promise, “I’ll send it to you later”. And remember, a roadworthiness certificate is only that. Get a report on a vehicle’s overall condition from a mechanic or motoring club.

7. Tidy the details

Once money changes hands the car’s yours, so immediately contact an insurance company to arrange temporary cover then complete the registration transfer. Third-party insurance is compulsory with registration, but as owner you should protect yourself also with comprehensive (covers damage to your vehicle or others’ property) or third-party property (covers damage to others’ property only). Now you’re ready to hit the road in Your First Car.

8. You’re an owner now

The dollar drain is only just beginning, but it can be minimised. Care and maintenance are the keys.

Don’t over-drive and save burning up fuel, tyres and brakes. Scrupulously follow service schedules so that small problems don’t become big, expensive ones, so your car always drives at its best and so you have a good story at resale time.

Don’t abuse your car, service as scheduled and, most importantly, regularly check your tyres’ pressure and condition, and you’ll have a reliable and car until you crack your first good job.

Taking care with your first-car purchase will reward you time and again. When your safety and that of passengers and other road users is at stake, it isn’t good enough to settle for any old thing to get you on the road.

Here are a few useful websites for first-time car buyers:

New vehicle environmental ratings
New and used car safety ratings
QLD Transport and Main Roads safety guide
Personal Property Security Register