I am, unfortunately, in the market for a (used) car. I know nothing about cars. I need a car for upcoming PhD research travel to inaccessible places, but, being a PhD student, have very little money. I need help figuring out: a cheap but reliable car model, a price bracket to spend that will have me driving something that won't literally fall apart on the road, what my deal-breakers should be, and a game plan on where and how to actually purchase a used car. Help?
posted by ClaireBear to Travel & Transportation (29 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
My situation is that I'm an advanced PhD student with very little money, and my stipend is going to be ending in the late summer, at which point I will obviously have even less money. Nevertheless, in order to be able to finish my PhD, I have finally decided that I need a car for the extensive research travel that I have coming up over the next year: I slogged it out this past year without a car and it wasn't workable, and I don't actually think I can finish my research and write-up without having a car and the flexible transportation that it will give me. I'm an inexperienced driver (working on that right now!), and know nothing about cars. I'm hoping you all can give me some of your usual great advice:
1. What kind of car should I get? I don't care about stylishness at all: I want a reliable workhorse car that is as cheap as possible, and that can be driven into the ground. Ideally something that is as low maintenance as possible, even when it is old and has a lot of miles. It needs to be good on both the highway (I'll be road-tripping to various research locations all over the country) and within towns/cities. The car can be quite small, and I think I only need two doors. Basically, I need to be able to fit myself, possibly another person, and luggage. I also need as good mileage as possible, to save on gas costs. My parents have a Honda Civic, and they have recommended this as a reliable car with good gas mileage. Are there other makes and models that you would suggest I check out?
2. What price bracket should I be looking in for a reliable used car? I browsed Craigslist today, and it looks like there are potentially drivable cars (Honda Civics) with problems for $500-1000, and perfectly drivable (according to the sellers) cars with high mileage (130,000+ miles) for $2000-4000. There are cars with lower mileage (40,000-100,000 miles) for $8000-12,000. Obviously I would like the cheapest car possible, but I would like to minimize my chance of breaking down in the middle of nowhere on the highway, given I'm going to be doing a lot of solo traveling far from home. What is the cheapest price bracket where I could expect a reasonably decent car? How many repairs would cars need with what frequency in which price bracket? I was planning on getting a Civic for $2500 or $3500 that had around 150,000 miles on it, and my dad thought that car is at the very end of its life, and that that is pouring money down the drain - he said that I'm going to be spending $10,000 anyway, so I might as well get a low-mileage car rather than getting something with 150,000 and then pouring $5000 into it. Is he right? Do I really need to spend $8000+? (I'm on the East Coast, if it matters in terms of pricing.) I am totally happy with my car having even extensive cosmetic issues and general ugliness that doesn't affect functionality (peeling paint, scratches, dents that don't hurt performance, etc.), but I'm concerned about things that would harm the function of the car. Also, some of the cars in the $2000-3000 price range appear to have new engines that only have, say, 50,000 miles on them, but the car itself has 200,000 miles - how do I factor that into my calculus of the condition/value? I really don't have $10,000 to spend, and what I can comfortably spend is more in the $3000-4000 range (if not lower), but if I have to spend $10,000 to get a workable car to finish my PhD, then I guess I'd rather start out with something reliable rather than get something cheap and have it break in the middle of nowhere and have to spend the money anyway.
3. Where do I get a used car? I've had a look on Craigslist and Ebay, but obviously there are no guarantees on those two sites (Craigslist in particular), and you really have no way to know what you're buying. Is a used car dealer any better? Should I be trying to find something with a warranty? Would I be better off buying an expensive used car ($10,000) in the expectation that it has been well maintained, or should I get the cheapest thing possible and use the remaining money to take it to my parents' mechanic for a complete overhaul? Is Craigslist totally a bad idea?
4. What should I consider deal-breakers when I look for a used car to buy? A certain mileage number? A certain age of car? Rebuilds from salvage? Lack of maintenance records? A car that isn't up on its inspections? Etc.
5. What are the logistics of actually buying a used car? Can I have my mechanic check it first (even if I'm buying from someone from Craigslist)? How do I do this - should I try to bring my mechanic there, or will the person be willing to drive it to my mechanic? How much can/should I negotiate on price? How do I know if the asking price is fair, or if it's massively inflated? Can I drive the car home once I purchase it, or do I have to have it towed or something? Presumably it won't have a license plate on it? Do I need to get the person to sign anything like a transfer agreement before handing over the cash? If I buy the car in another (neighboring) state, does that make the title transfer etc. much more complicated?
I'm probably missing a whole bunch of important things here, so I'd love any other advice for things I've neglected to ask. Please school me like I'm totally ignorant about this subject, because I am. Thank you!