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September 28, 2010 11:13 AM   Subscribe

Car-purchase filter, and Cincinatti-area filter: I plan to parachute into Cinci this weekend and help my sister buy her first car. Help me do this right.

My sister just took a job in Cincinnati, and moved out there last week. She needs a car. She has a driver's license, but she has never owned a car, and has never purchased one either. She knows nothing about any of this. Big brother is now dropping into Cinci on Friday morning to help with this task. Note: I have not purchased a car in 6 years, and haven't dealt with a dealership in over 15. Plan is to pay in full, no financing.

Pre-plan: Scour Craigslist, ebay, possibly other sites for appropriate cars this week. Get in contact with owners to schedule time to see these cars. Investigate insurance options.

Friday morning/day: Fly out to Cinci, pick up rental car, immediately start evaluating options while sister is still at work. Hope to boil choices down to 2-3 viable candidates.

Saturday: Bring sister back to inspect options, see if we can negotiate an agreement with seller. Begin to arrange insurance options.

Monday: I fly out Monday AM (gotta get back to work). Sister will have to be responsible for payment/registration/etc, but in theory the legwork is done and we're good to go.

Budget is $3-5k, looking at basic commuter cars (e.g. basic Japanese econoboxes).

Suggestions on reputable dealers (yea, yea), reputable mechanics, and any notes on the local realities of used cars in the Cinci area would be a huge help. For one - I keep seeing 2000/1/2-era cars with 150-170k miles - is that par for the course in the area?

Any other tips, advice, etc would be hugely appreciated. I stopped paying attention to cars ages ago, and I live in NYC where cars are more of a hassle than a joy.

Mechanic question - I know the basics in terms of checking fluids/colors, exhaust, tire condition, etc. I have a rough sense of what seems ok or is a cause for concern. Trying to find something that is as close to hassle-free as possible. What else would you do? Compression test? Anything else?

FWIW, she's living in Northside.

Thank you!
posted by swngnmonk to Travel & Transportation around Cincinnati, OH (8 answers total)
If you're going to a dealer, Confessions of a car salesman is a good read. It's longer than it needs to be, and is focused mainly on new cars, but provides a good description of some of the deceptive tactics car dealers use, and how you can avoid them.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:25 AM on September 28, 2010

My first stop is always CarMax. The one in Cincinnati has a car for $9,000, but that's the cheapest I see. It might give you a realistic idea of what you should be looking for, at least.
posted by MrMoonPie at 11:42 AM on September 28, 2010

The age and miles on what you are finding seem like average for the Cincinnati area but I would be surprised if you would not find a lot better deal once you get past $3500-definitely $4000. One suggestion for your preplanning is to use sites like and Kelley Blue Book (, but I would caution that kbb will be near the top of the price range. However, you can input the zip and then search in a price range, which keeps drilling down, and then also sorts the cars by badge.

Personal experience (but 200 miles north of Cincinnati) is that Autotrader gives the widest available range of private and dealer used car sales. I'd not recommend that you try to check the car out yourself but call a couple of mechanics in the area and ask what a prepurchase inspection would run. We have a local shop that does an extensive check for $100. Recently selling a Toyota, I paid that fee myself to have a report for potential buyers justifying my mid-range private seller price.

Use Edmunds and KBB and NADA (and sure, eBay Motors and AutoTrader) to triangulate prices to get a feeling for what you will feel comfortable spending. Honda and Toyota both have factories within 75 miles of Cincinnati, and so it looked to me that prices for these were at the high end from private sellers.

Consider locating a car of the type you want with the miles, condition and so forth, at a dealer--and even if it is north of what you want to pay, they are highly motivated to deal, especially as they try to justify their continued employment. A good one will typically provide CarFax and if you find a really good one, the repair and maintenance history, and (again in my experience) paying cash they will knock hundreds of dollars off to get the sale. Don't be afraid to ask them if you can have an independent mechanic look at the car--all they can do is say yes or no.

Don't be afraid to look for cars that fall out of what you perceive to be the Japanese Econoboxes. For example, AutoTrader has a black 2000 Saab 9-3 with 97K for 4995, that you could probably get for 4400-4500. The 9-3 gets around 29-33 mpg and would be a pure joy to drive around those southern Ohio hills in the winter. (caveat--I am a repeat Saab owner, and each time got a considerable deal on them b/c GM was cutting them loose--the 2000 is under GM ownership, but before any of the Americanization took place).

If it is evident that I love cars, guilty. I worked on the engineering side for about 20 years. My modus is to find the best car I can then turn Mrs. Bubba loose on negotiating. She is ruthless, and the sellers cave. My only major burns have come when I've found the car and didn't get her involvement. Together we've made about 10 purchases since 2000 (not all for us).
posted by beelzbubba at 12:13 PM on September 28, 2010

Cincinnatian here.

I found a 2003 used car for my boyfriend using It was a little less than 100k miles and he paid, I think, a little less than $5k. The car was sold through a dealership on Colerain Avenue. There are tons of dealerships there, and also on Route 4 in Fairfield. There's also Kings Automall on I-71. I bought my car there 5 years ago.

There are also a couple of small dealerships in Northside with cheap but high mileage cars.

You don't say how long your sister has lived here, but she should keep in mind that winters here can be brutal, it's very hilly, and since there aren't many public transportation options she will more than likely have to drive in some pretty bad snow and ice every year. Looking for a car that handles well in the snow, maybe an AWD, would be beneficial.
posted by girlmightlive at 1:02 PM on September 28, 2010

I've never bought from a dealer so can't help you there. But buying private party cars - that's my thing. Basically, the owner is the product, more so than the car. If after you talk with them you would feel comfortable spending a weekend in their house, eating food they cooked, then look at the car. If not, don't waste your time - the car will have been abused, or they will lie to you about critical details, like whether or when or how badly it was wrecked or submerged.
posted by toodleydoodley at 4:04 PM on September 28, 2010

Echoing beelzbubba, give some real consideration to buying a (carefully researched) non-Japanese econobox instead of a Japanese one. When I did my car search several years ago I found that the used Camry/Accord/Corolla/etc. market was phenomenally more expensive and had vastly higher mileage than comparable non-Japanese counterparts (this was in Chicagoland, YMMV). I ended up with a four-year-old Ford Focus with about 40,000 miles on it, while the best Japanese-econobox counterpart I could find for the price was 7 or 8 years old and had at least twice the mileage. The Focus has been a delight to own, even if I did recently have my first big repair now that it's almost 10 years old.

Of course, this is not at all to say that you should just pick a cheap American car and go to town. I also test drove some other cheap American econoboxes and was horrified - Chevy Cavaliers in particular feel like they'll crumple at any moment. But do a little research on the more reliable non-Japanese boxes, as if you can find a nice one they can be a great deal.
posted by Rallon at 4:29 PM on September 28, 2010

I grew up in Cincinnati and just bought a car (but in the South, where I now live, so no direct car buying experience in my hometown)

Keep in mind that many car dealerships in Cincinnati are not necessarily inside of the city - my folks bought some stuff from places in Northern Kentucky, and there are a lot of dealers north of the city (Fairfield area keeps sticking in my head).

Seconding the thing about the hills and the need for a car that can handle winter - Cincinnati has hills on the scale of San Francisco steepness, and your sister needs to a) know how to drive on a potentially icy hill and b) when to just stay home. Cincinnatians are notorious for flipping out over an inch of snow and raiding Krogers for 3 days worth of meals. The snow is not that bad, but the lesson here is to not go out if you can help it on those hills! The hills in Clifton (right near Northside) have seen many a fish-tailing car in their days. If you can at all test drive a car in Mount Adams, or going up either Clifton Avenue or Vine Street to Clifton/Corryville, that's the place to see how it handles hills!

Finally - although Cincinnati doesn't have great public transportation, it's a helluva lot better than most cities of its size. Metro Route 17 runs through Northside, and I encourage your sister to get familiar with it if she's ever in a position where she can't/doesn't want to use a car that day. I think there's also a new streetcar being built, but I haven't lived there for over 2 years and am a little out of the loop on that issue.
posted by mostly vowels at 5:47 PM on September 28, 2010

Apparently there are some select hills on which the Fire Department tests new vehicles. Maybe that can be your test drive!
posted by mostly vowels at 5:51 PM on September 28, 2010

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