It’s a longstanding tradition among many American families: Mom and Dad buy a new car for themselves, then turn their old one over to a teenage son or daughter rather than sell it or trade it in.
But experts say parents should ask some key questions about their car’s safety features and other characteristics before simply handing Junior the keys.
“It often makes a lot of sense financially to give your child your old car, but a lot of it depends on the vehicle’s condition and other factors,” says David Bennett, AAA’s manager of automotive programs.
Bennett, who oversees AAA’s buyer-education efforts, says hand-me-down cars certainly have plenty of advantages, including:
- Small or nonexistent monthly car payments, as older vehicles are often paid off.
- Lower car insurance rates, as well as smaller repair costs if your child gets in an accident.
- A familiar “feel” to your teenager if he or she learned to drive in the car or has at least used it occasionally. That’s a big safety plus.
- A known maintenance history. There’s no previous owner who’ll hide accidents or mechanical problems from you.
But giving a child the old family car can have drawbacks as well.
For instance, Bennett says older models often lack the cutting-edge safety features that some new cars offer. “There have been plenty of advances in safety technology — but they all come at a price,” he says.
Here are seven questions that parents should ask themselves before transferring an old family vehicle to a teen or young-adult driver.
1. Is it safe enough?
Automakers have been putting things like front-seat air bags on cars long enough that your old automobile will probably have them, but it’s always worth checking — and weighing whether it’s OK to skip the latest safety features.
“There are trade-offs to giving your child a hand-me-down car,” Bennett says. “New cars will often have things like blind-spot indicators or front- and rear-collision avoidance systems — good things to have.”
U.S. auto regulators have required front-collision air bags since 1998 and electronic stability control since the 2012 model year, but other items like side-curtain air bags are still optional and either weren’t available or rarely purchased not long ago.
Bennett recommends checking your owners manual or other paperwork to see exactly what you car does have.
Another good way to grade your vehicle’s safety level is to look up its crash-test ratings. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety both have online crash-test databases that go back several years.
2. Is it the right size?
Some parents want to put their kids into sport utility vehicles or other large hand-me-downs on the theory that such models won’t slip on icy roads or will provide better protection in crashes.
Conversely, other parents like the idea of Junior taking over a small family car to make maneuvering and parking easy and save money on expenses like gas.
But Bennett says the most important thing is to make sure your teen can safely handle whatever hand-me-down you give him or her, preferably by signing over a car that the child already drives regularly.
“Bigger is not always better — in fact, if your child isn’t used to driving a big car it could be worse because the turning ratios and blind spots won’t be what they expect,” he says. “You don’t want them trying to back up a big SUV they’ve never driven and all of sudden side-swiping another car or a lamp post.”
Another tip: Be cautious about giving kids hand-me-down minivans or SUVs. That might allow them to pack the vehicle with noisy, partying friends who’ll put your young driver at risk.
3. Is it too fast?
Giving your child a hand-me-down Ford Mustang or Porsche Boxster might make the teen popular with peers, but it also raises huge safety concerns.
“You don’t want to give a child something that can do 0-60 mph in three seconds,” Bennett says. “That’s not what they need in their first car.”
Besides, giving a child a sporty car will boost the young driver’s insurance premiums big time — an especially bad idea if you expect your teen to cover the vehicle’s operating costs.
4. Is it too valuable?
A high-end hand-me-down car will generally cost more to maintain, repair, insure and possibly even fuel up (if the model gets bad mileage or takes premium gasoline).
Again, that’s something to keep in mind if you want your child to cover all auto-related expenses.
Still, Bennett notes that a parent’s paid-off car — even a fancy one — will usually cost less to operate than a new vehicle will, given the lack of car payments.
“A family needs to sit down and put pen to paper and say, ‘OK here’s what a new car is going to cost and here’s what keeping our current vehicle is going to cost,'” he says.
5. Is it reliable?
You don’t want your child driving a car with dangerously worn brakes or an engine that conks out in the middle of nowhere.
Fortunately, no one knows your vehicle’s condition better than you do. “If you have been driving your current car for a number of years, you know whether it’s reliable or not,” Bennett says.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt to get a second opinion. That’s why Bennett recommends taking your vehicle to a mechanic for the same kind of professional inspection that many consumers pay for when considering a used car.
A good mechanic will charge around $125 to check all of a vehicle’s systems and estimate repair costs, the AAA expert says.
Another good idea: Go online and check out what chat groups say about your vehicle’s longevity.
“A lot of cars have online owners’ groups, and someone might say: ‘When the vehicle hits 180,000 or 190,000 miles, here are some common things that break,'” Bennett says.
6. Is it worth keeping at all?
If a professional inspection turns up problems, you’ll have to decide whether it’s worth the money to fix your old car or not.
Bennett recommends using cost-of-ownership calculators at auto-buying sites like Kelley Blue Book or Edmunds.com to figure out whether you’ll save enough keeping your family car to justify any repair bills.
But he says doing even fairly extensive repairs on a paid-off vehicle will usually cost less than buying a new one. Experian recently reported that the average U.S. new-car buyer faces a $482 monthly car payment.
Bennett says that often makes fixing up an old car the better deal. Even if you spend, say, $1,000 replacing all tires and brake pads, “that works out to only two or three monthly car payments,” he says. “Even if that only keeps the car running for six or seven months, you’ll still save money.”
7. Is it expensive to insure?
Drivers under 25 typically face the heftiest insurance premiums around, and handing them the keys to certain cars — such as those with pricey features or otherwise expensive-to-replace parts — will only add to the problem.
Bennett says families should also always prepare for a “double whammy” of higher premiums when they sign the family car over to a son or daughter. Mom and Dad may see their rates rise when they switch to a new vehicle, while the old car’s premiums will usually go up when the young driver takes it over.
That’s why Bennett recommends calling your insurance agent or carrier to find out exactly how much your new premiums will be.
“Your insurance agent will be your best friend in this situation,” he says.
It’s also wise to check your current insurer’s quotes against the competition. You can review car insurance quotes from leading companies on Insure.com and see average insurance premiums for more than 1,500 models with its average car insurance rates tool.