Buying a car, any car, is a big deal. Depending on your budget, it could be the second-largest expenditure after your house. But even if you're planning on spending considerably less than that, there's still a lot to mull over - and it's worth taking the time to think about, to ensure you choose a car that is perfectly suited to your family needs.
1 - Budget, but not just for the purchase
Before you even consider makes and models, it's sensible to get down on paper your budget in as much detail as possible. Get a realistic estimate for the value of your current car if you have one and then work out how much you're going to add to that for the overall purchase price. Remember that you're likely to get less for a car on trade-in than if you sold the car privately. But don't stop there. Make sure you look up the annual cost of road tax, get a few representative insurance quotes and read expert reviews to get a feel for how economical the car is likely to be in reality. Then factor in your average mileage to calculate your likely fuel costs, plus any scheduled servicing that'll need doing. It all adds up considerably so there's no point investing all your disposable income in a lovely new car if you can't actually afford to run it. Don't put the family budget under pressure, in short.
2 - Petrol, diesel, or something else?
All families use their cars in different ways, so think about how you'll use yours. Will it be primarily driven at low speeds in an urban environment on the school run? Then it's highly advisable to stay away from diesel-powered cars, as they don't suit low-speed, low-mileage driving over longer durations, meaning potentially large maintenance bills. In that situation, you're better off sticking with modest petrol power or, if the budget allows, perhaps a hybrid or pure electric vehicle. However, if your family car doubles up as a commuting vehicle with time on the motorway and over, say, 20,000 kilometres a year, then diesel power will keep your fuel bills down.
3 - Seating
The number of kids you have pretty much defines the type of car you should buy. If there's just one child in the family, things aren't complicated, but tiny city cars aren't great for the job as they don't have a lot of rear seat space in which you can mount a child seat, and their boots are usually too small to accommodate a modern 'travel system' buggy. Indeed, some C-segment hatchbacks struggle to fit large prams in. Once you have three or more kids, it's a game-changer in terms of vehicle options. Very few regular cars can easily or safely accommodate three children across the back seat (even if they're just on boosters) so it's time to look at dedicated people carriers. That doesn't necessarily mean full seven-seat cars, though, as there are plenty of compact MPVs with five seats that have wide, separate rear chairs that do the job just as well. SUVs, too, though they tend to be more expensive for a given number of seats. If you prefer ISOFIX mountings for your child seats, make sure you do your research, as not many cars have three ISOFIX fittings in a single row, for example.
4 - Safety
Don't skimp on safety equipment, whether you're buying new or used. If going for a new car, check the list of standard safety equipment in detail and then look at what's on the options list - and invest in anything that is likely to keep your family safe, whether it's an active system that helps prevent collisions in the first place, or measures that help protect the car's occupants in the event of a crash. It's also worth visiting the Euro NCAP website to check the safety rating given to any make and model you're considering buying. It has loads of useful safety-related information to read.
5 - Finance
When you're doing your sums, it's time to consider how you're going to finance the car. Few save up a lump sum of cash. Credit Union and bank loans remain popular, but when it comes to new cars, PCP (Personal Contract Plan) finance is really gaining ground. It’s a form of hire purchase where you pay a deposit, then fixed monthly sums for an agreed upon period, then, at the end of the agreement, you either pay a lump sum to own the car, give the car back or use equity remaining in the car to roll over to a new car on another PCP. If you are going down that route, make sure you research resale values carefully to minimise the chances of coming to the end of the agreement and having no way to fund a new deposit on another car. Also, bear in mind that you won't own the car until the final lump payment is made. Nonetheless, PCP could work well for a family that might have a need for more space in the kids' younger years, and then they could move to a less expensive and smaller car later on, relatively seamlessly.
6 - Consider more than one car
It's very easy to get caught up in the process of trying to find a car that has to fulfil many roles in family life, when the solution might be to have more than one vehicle in the household. So for the school runs and pottering around, a relatively cheap petrol/electric/hybrid model would suffice, while the parents might need something better-suited to long distance driving if they have a lengthy commute every day. Also, if the kids are older and learning to drive, it pays to have something cheap and cheerful and not too expensive to insure on the driveway.
7 - History
When you've thought through all of the above and actually started eyeing up potential purchases, it's important to be vigilant in your research, certainly when it comes to used car purchases. History and condition are key rather than model year or power output… Ask a seller for all receipts and ideally proof of a complete service history. It's always comforting to see a neat folder full of paperwork, including all of a car's previous NCT certificates. That helps verify the mileage on the odometer, but it's also well worth paying for a Cartell.ie history check. Not only does it check for mileage irregularities, it also ensures that no finance is outstanding on a car.
8 - Interior trim
Something parents won't always consider when buying a car is if its interior trim is suitable for family life. Young kids, especially those between toddler and teenage years, are, we don't need to tell you, messy. And they make their biggest messes in your car, where there's an incessant demand for drinks and snacks. Never mind the potential for crayon and marker graffiti! Hence, we'd advise parents to always go for dark upholstery. Leather trim is tempting as it's easy to clean, too.
9 - Optional extras
In a second hand car, your choice of 'optional extras' is limited to what's available at that point in time in the classifieds, so it's rarely worth delaying your purchase because you really want a feature that was optional when the car was new, except perhaps for safety equipment. Don't compromise the choice of car for this reason, in essence. Buying new, however, means you can specify the car exactly as you like it. That will most likely mean a longer wait for it to be delivered, but parents would do well to invest in items such as parking sensors and maybe even model-specific child seats. Factory-fit tow bars are also worth considering to carry the family bikes on a secure rack. Roof rails may also come in handy.
10 - Visibility
Finally, a word on visibility. It's important that the driver of a car can get comfortable and has a good view all around the car through the windows and using the mirrors. Make sure you can in any car you're considering buying. It's crucial for parking and safety in an urban environment in particular, in areas where there may be other families and children running about. It's worth considering the view out of your passengers, too, as it has a large impact on car sickness, for example. Generally, a light and airy interior with plenty of glass is the way forward.