You've passed your driving test and now you're ready for the next motoring milestone: buying your first car. There's a lot to consider before making that final purchase, but it's worth remembering that after all the hard work you've put into learning to drive, it pays to make sure you go for a car that's right for you.

However you plan to pay for your first car, there are all kinds of different makes, models and purchasing methods that cater to what you're looking for. To help you out, we've put together this extensive guide to buying your first car – touching on everything from budgeting and buying insurance, to buying new vs. used and taking your potential purchase for a test drive.

Setting a budget

As with anything worth saving for, setting a budget and sticking to it helps to make your decision a little easier. While shelling out for added extras might seem like a nice idea at first, such additions soon mount up. Remaining within the limits of your budget creates a scope that lets you know the kind of car you’re looking for – but what do you need to look out for?

Opting for a car that isn't too pricey is a sensible idea, especially given that there's still plenty of other running costs to weigh up which will put a dent in your budget, including:

  • Car insurance: Typically high for new drivers under the age of 25. We'll delve into this topic later.
  • Road tax: Unless your desired car is in Vehicle Excise Duty (VED) band A or it's an electric vehicle, you'll have to pay road tax. To see how you can beat increases to road tax, check out this video on the matter here.
  • MOT tests: Every road vehicle in the UK that’s three years or older has to undergo annual MOT tests to ensure it’s safe to drive on the road.
  • Servicing: Most drivers book their car in for an annual service, which costs upwards of £100+ depending on the make and model of your car. If you buy a car on finance, it’s important not to miss the yearly service, as this is often included in the Ts and Cs of the contract.
  • Fuel: Cars obviously need fuel, and depending on how much driving you'll be doing, as well as fluctuating prices to deal with, it isn't cheap.

Once you can identify the cost of these things, it'll make the amount you need to save a little more straightforward. As a reminder, it's good to remember all the additional costs outside of just the vehicle's price.

Car insurance for new drivers explained

It’s no secret that car insurance can be expensive for young, first-time drivers, with those aged 17-25 paying around £1,081 more than the national average. Therefore, it's essential to shop around for the best deal.

If you’re looking for a short-term option so you can buy and drive the car before arranging annual car insurance, or you're testing out potential cars before buying, then temporary car insurance will cover you in this regard. It's also handy for the days and weeks when you've just passed your driving test and you're sharing a vehicle with your family or a partner.

When you're looking for a more long-term insurance policy, then finding a policy to suit you can be tough; as well as your age, there are a whole host of other things to factor in, such as your postcode, your driving history as well as the actual car itself. Most insurance companies will offer you the choice to pay a lump sum that will cover you for a year, or a direct debit that breaks up payments into more manageable chunks.

For more on car insurance, including the types available, information on policy excess, and black box insurance, check out our guide on everything you need to know about car insurance.​

What are you using your car for?

Another thing to take into consideration is what you'll be using your car for? Buying a car is a big, costly commitment and, in many ways, it has to fit your lifestyle. If you're only making low-mileage, low-speed journeys through urban environments, then it doesn't make sense to go for a diesel guzzler – especially since they can come with large maintenance bills.

If, however, you're making long, daily commutes on high-speed roads, then you'll need something that's ready for the task – and a diesel engine will help to keep fuel bills down in the long run.

Perhaps you've a family to take care of, and you're looking for something suitable. In that case, not only will you have to factor in functionality, but you'll need to weigh up the size and seating too. Additionally, if your clan is prone to getting restless, then the appropriate in-car entertainment needs to get a look-in too. For more information on buying a family car, check out our article here.

Choosing a new car: Things to consider

Now you're ready to start choosing the car that's right for you. When it comes to your purchase, you may think that appearance should be priority number one. However, don't be tempted to take the style over substance approach. Safety is certainly important, as is reliability, especially if it's going to be your main mode of transport.

Size is another factor to consider. You may think that larger vehicles are safer, but if you're used to the smaller model you passed your test in, they can be tough to master. A smaller car could be the better option, helping you get around more confidently without having to get to grips with completing manoeuvres in bulkier, less driver-friendly models.

Insurance rating

Another consideration to weigh up is purchasing a car that has a low insurance group rating. Every new and used car in the UK belongs to one of 50 car insurance groups set by the Group Rating Panel.

Factors like the value of the car, how it performs, how secure it is, and the cost of repairs and car parts are all taken into consideration with regards to this rating. If the car ranks well in each of these areas, it's more likely to be placed in one of these 50 insurance groups – with Group 1 being the cheapest option.

Fuel type

Both petrol and diesel have their pros and cons, with each fuel type suiting particular lifestyle and driving habits. Whether you're looking for a fuel-efficient petrol saloon or the torque, power and efficiency of a diesel.

Tyre tread

Again, tyre tread can be an important deciding factor in choosing your first car, since they're suited to specific driving styles and environments. If you're driving in a lot of city environments, you'll need something that's used to the stop/start of urban traffic. Conversely, if you're doing long drives in the outdoors, something that's ready for all-weather types will do the trick.

If you're unsure, take a look at this guide to tyre tread patterns. Tyres have to be replaced, which is another cost that mounts up. Our guide takes a look at the pros and cons of each style of tread pattern and the price of each is weighed up alongside other factors.

Should I buy new or used?

While there's certainly red tape surrounding both, buying a used car and buying a new car certainly come with their own advantages. Here, we'll take a look at what to expect from both.

Buying a new car

The pros of buying a new car:

  • Greater peace of mind since there have been no previous owners
  • No need for an MOT
  • Protected by a dealership's warranty
  • Competitive finance deals
  • The cons of buying a new car:
  • Upfront cost can be expensive
  • Loses value in the first year

Buying a used car

The pros of buying a used car:

  • Since a car devalues by 30-40% over the first three years, it could be a lot more affordable
  • Lower customisation costs
  • Several different purchasing options
  • The cons of buying a used car:
  • Not always covered by a warranty
  • Less choice than when buying new

If you're opting to go down the used route, take a look at our ultimate guide to buying a used car. Touching on the various purchasing options, buyers’ rights and protections, and checks to carry out before purchase, it's an excellent, in-depth resource designed to put buyers' minds at ease before starting the purchasing process.

Whichever option you go for, the process of buying a car comes laden with all sorts of unfamiliar terms and jargon. Check out our glossary of car terms, specially designed for first-time-buyers, to help navigate the at-times confusing terminology of car buying.

Test driving a car: What to expect and what to look for

A car might look great on the outside, but remember: it's what's inside that counts. It's important to get a feel for the car from behind the wheel to make sure you haven't just forked out for a lemon, so be sure to take your car for a test drive before buying.

A good rule of thumb is to make sure the engine is cool before starting; a warm engine could well be masking certain problems that may only become noticeable down the line. Once you're on the go, take note of the following:

  • Performance: How does the vehicle perform? Does it accelerate well? How does it handle when taking corners? Answering these gives you more of an indication of a car's performance on the road.
  • The clutch: Be sure to test the biting point of the clutch; if it doesn't bite until it's fully engaged, then chances are it may need replacing or maintaining sooner rather than later.
  • Driving at high speeds: Take the car onto a motorway or dual carriageway if possible; any problems with the car become more noticeable when driving at high speeds.
  • The gears: When shifting, does the transmission feel smooth?
  • Brakes: How responsive are the brakes? Do they require a lot of pressure to work as you'd expect?
  • The steering wheel: Do you notice any vibrations from the steering wheel? This could mean improper tyre balance, uneven tyre wear, separated tyre tread or uneven lug nuts.

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