Can I own, maintain, and insure a car without paying an arm and a leg?
October 2, 2010 3:40 PM   Subscribe

What is the absolute cheapest possible way for me to have a car? Insurance, car payments, maintenance, all that jazz?

I really want a car. I am currently making about $600/month, although I am looking for a job to augment that. I have about $2k in the bank to hopefully pay all the costs of this endeavor for between 6 months and a year. I do not pay room or board in my current living arrangement. I really do not want to pay huge amounts of my income to have and insure a car. Help me, Metafilter!

Reliability is important. One of the main reasons I want a car is so that I can jump in it, start it, and run it to a fire call on a moment's notice. I can do minor fixes and put up with it burning oil and such, but I will RAGE if it suddenly fails to get me to the station in a timely fashion after I've woken up at 3 AM to put out a house fire.

For similar reasons, PhillyCarShare and the like are not viable options for me. I am not really into driving a moped--I've seen too many accidents. A motorcycle might work but the time output for going from my permit to a full license is pretty extreme given my random work hours.

I can drive stick. I am willing to learn basic car maintenance. I know how to do basic things on a tractor, for example. No accidents, violations, claims, what have you, ever.

I would be a college senior but I dropped out because financial aid screwed me over. Now I am in paramedic school. I have only had my license for 1.5 years. I am 20 and female. Live near Philadelphia. GPA may or may not qualify for the 3.0 bonus thing some people have, but I am not a college student currently--trade school ftw.

I think I have been a named driver on my parents' insurance for some time, with Erie. It doesn't seem like that is doing much to reduce potential premiums. I am not comfortable naming my parents as the primary driver on the insurance and me as a named driver if it's my car. I don't have renters' or other insurance, just a life insurance policy through the fire department.

If it were up to me, I would have a pickup truck, but that's a little bit of a pipe dream at this point. I'd be down with anything, and at this point I'm imagining the little Geo my father drove while he was in grad school, or one of the Volvos some people seem to truck around with. Seriously down with anything.

Already read this (new car, not used), this (over budget by about $4000), and a couple other sort-of-related questions.

With all those in mind, what is the cheapest car for me to purchase? What is the cheapest way to insure it? How can I learn to maintain a car? Any MeFites feel like selling me their car?
posted by skyl1n3 to Travel & Transportation (15 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Well, other people will jump in with more advice, but there's a reason that there's a million old Japanese cars (civics, corollas etc) on the roads. I'm sure you'll be able to find a *fairly* decent one on craigslist or autotrader. Old cars have the benefit of being easy to maintain due to the lack of electronic controls (except for old German cars).

With 2k for a car and insurance for 6 months though, you're looking at a 1500 dollar car. Don't be too optimistic about what you can get for that kind of scratch. It's almost certainly going to be over a decade (probably a lot over) old and nearing 200k miles. FWIW, I'm 21 and am on my own insurance plan. I pay about 600 a year for basic liability insurance on my Miata through Geico.

And finally, learning to maintain a car is just a matter of having the courage to fix things that are broken. Most things that happen to cars aren't terrible major and a combination of google, a set of socket wrenches, and personal determination should be enough to handle most situations. I gather that you're not too familiar with these kind of things as of now, so it's a good idea to take a mechanically/car oriented friend with you when you go look at the car.
posted by Geppp at 3:53 PM on October 2, 2010

Cars are expensive. The IRS reimbursement rate of about 50 cents/mile is fairly accurate, and maybe under when you add in extra costs (like for parking, etc). You save money by buying older, not having more than just liability insurance, doing your own work, and by buying models that have above-average reliability but below-average demand.

So because everyone knows that Honda Civics and Toyota pickups are reliable, it's hard (but not impossible) to get a good deal on them. Conversely, because not many people know that (for example) the Toyota Matrix and the Pontiac Vibe are the exact same car, or that modern Fords are almost as reliable as the Japanese brands, there are possibilities for getting a good deal if you have the time to look and shop.

I love motorcycles and scooters, but I suspect you won't want one as your primary transportation all winter.

Honestly, I think you should buy a car when you can afford one, and not before. Right now, one medium-large repair bill would put you out of commission for a couple of months. Even great cars still have parts that wear out, and when you are buying old beaters you run the risk of getting a lemon.
posted by Forktine at 3:58 PM on October 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

Spend $1500 or less on a used Ford Focus with 75k miles or so on the odometer - making sure to take it to a mechanic for an inspection first to make sure it doesn't have any pressing mechanical or other issues that you can't live with. It will be super cheap to drive, get great mileage, and work just fine. It will be a little less reliable than a Honda Civic but it will cost thousands less and repairs, if any, will be relatively cheap.

Or do the same procedure with some other un-loved but usable car, like a Buick.
posted by The World Famous at 4:03 PM on October 2, 2010

Is the $2k in the bank your total savings, or just special car savings? If that's your total savings, do you really want to put it all to a car? Given the economy, and the way cities are slashing budgets, including those for emergency services, blowing through all your savings isn't a great sounding move.

Also, you didn't include gas in your question. The cost will obviously depend on what car you have and how much you drive, but $50/month is very much not a particularly high figure. A pickup truck will get substantially worse mileage than a small car.

Normally, I'd be inclined to say you can't afford a car. However, given that you don't pay for room and board, your situation is a bit different. Is this a situation that you can expect to last for the foreseeable future?
posted by zachlipton at 4:04 PM on October 2, 2010

Best answer: I don't have the auto expertise to suggest a specific car, but my thought is that you just buy a beater for cash and carry the state minimum insurance (no collision). Do not buy new or take out a loan, because that's not cheap... new means you take that depreciation hit as soon as you drive it off the lot, and loan means you pay interest and also have to carry collision on the car to protect the lender.

You should ask everyone you know if they have a car or know anyone with a car they want to get rid of. When buying a beater, you can't afford to be too picky about the make or model, but you should be picky about the condition. You aren't looking for cosmetic perfection, but whether it will get you where you want to go reliably. Make sure it's inspected, and drive it around (in the city and on the highway) to make sure there aren't any quirks. If you know someone who knows cars, take them along.
posted by MegoSteve at 4:06 PM on October 2, 2010

Best answer: I saw a cheap car technique described many years ago in Whole Earth Catalog / Whole Earth Review / CoEvolution Quarterly. Look for cars selling for under $400. (Adjusted for inflation, maybe $800.) Check it out, see if it starts at ambient temperature, see if it stops, see if it starts when warmed up. If it passes those tests, buy it. Then (here's the cheap part) never buy anything for it except gas, oil, and tires. (And maybe wiper blades.) If it breaks, sell it. If it starts leaking oil or other fluids, sell it. If the defroster goes out in the winter, sell it. If you wreck it, sell it.

This is obviously an option only if you seriously have more time than money.

Also, second what Geppp said about old Japanese cars, including pickups. I have an '82 Toyota pickup with 278,000 miles on it, and it still runs.
posted by Bruce H. at 4:13 PM on October 2, 2010

Response by poster: I have no fear about tackling mechanical problems. I fix broken fire equipment and tractors pretty regularly, I like building computers, and I have access to a pretty wide variety of tools. I just have zero experience with cars specifically.

The living situation should stay the same for the foreseeable future. I tutor in exchange for room and board at a scholarship house for disadvantaged high school students. The income can only go up as I find more night work.

The $2k is not my only savings. It is savings put away specifically for a car.

I will not have reason to be driving it more than a tank of gas a month without carpooling with someone who can help pay for gas.

All of these are good but rather general suggestions. Thanks so far!
posted by skyl1n3 at 4:13 PM on October 2, 2010

"Spend $1500 or less on a used Ford Focus with 75k miles or so on the odometer"

What you're talking about does not exist any longer. Having just spent the last 2 months in the used car market I can tell you that $1500 will buy you a 1990 Ford Thunderbird with 200K+ miles that just barely runs.

The cash-for-clunkers program has seriously messed up the under $5000 market and messed with the under $10,000 as well. If you can stay out of this market for the next year or so, your money will go a lot farther.

Seriously dealers were starting 2000 Honda Accords with 160K at $8000 in my market, and I actually watched the prices of a particular group used CRV go from $5500 UP to $6500 over the course of the summer. Generally used cars never appreciate, but in this market they have. The premium on Hondas is just ridiculous in my market right now.
posted by 517 at 4:21 PM on October 2, 2010

I have to second forktine.

I've HAD $1500 cars. You will NOT find a Civic, Corolla, or any of those lovely reliable Japanese cars for that much because everyone knows they're wonderfully reliable and people can charge twice that for them. There are two cars in my local paper for under $2000 now. One is a 1992 Buick Roadmaster with 250,000 miles on it, the other's a 97 taurus without a transmission.

$1500 cars usually became, in very short order, $3000 cars when the muffler falls off, the starter dies, the alternator and battery need replacement, the tires go bald, and the brakes get soft. None of these are issues you can avoid with maintenance. They ARE maintenance. And they're really, really expensive. Even if you do the work yourself you'll be looking at, say, $250 or so for an alternator from the parts store. Car parts are expensive and a bunch of them will require a lift, or at the very least ramps you can drive onto.

I think you're underestimating what you'll pay for gas and insurance as well. You're a minor with zero history as a safe driver. I'd be surprised if you were able to get insurance, even absolute bare state minimum, for less than $75 a month. Probably closer to $100, though. In the price range you're looking you can't expect to get better than, say, 18 mpg. Figure a 12 gallon tank or so, that's under ten miles a day you can drive. If you go with a truck you could be looking at something closer to 11 mpg for a very old model.

In short: I make more than twice what you do. My car? A monthly bus pass because I've had my license for fifteen years, had cars most of that time, and know there is no way I can afford one right now. I hate to be a downer, but from all you've said it really, absolutely sounds like you can't afford a car, any car you can get will be a massive, festering pile of disaster waiting to happen of the 'deathtrap on wheels' variety, and the first major repair will be a massive financial disaster for you.
posted by Kellydamnit at 4:30 PM on October 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

The cash for clunkers has certainly messed up the market as 517 stated. But a possibility for you to consider is for you to buy one in Canada - our "program" was nowhere near as attractive and if you check Craigslist in either Hamilton or London you'll find several choices within your price bracket.

Dunno how far from the border you are though.
posted by Neiltupper at 5:09 PM on October 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

FYI $50 a month on gas is 1 tank. If you can find a car that gets 20 miles to a gallon highway, maybe 15 in the city, that will be roughly 150 to 200 miles a month.

Seconding making sure to take it to a mechanic to have it looked over for any issues before you buy. Also, make sure to see how old the tires are. 4 new tires will set you back $150+.
posted by TheBones at 5:10 PM on October 2, 2010

Just a note about tires - most big chain places now have warranties on their tires. Look for that.
posted by radioamy at 5:14 PM on October 2, 2010

As I recently discovered, used tires are also a thing. I have no idea how advisable they are, but they're cheap.

That all said, you're really going to be stretching yourself thin, and will be completely screwed if something expensive breaks, which will be somewhat likely if you've got a $1500 clunker. Also, having no health insurance, a small income, and spending your entire savings on something that you don't need seems like really poor choice. I'd strongly advise against this proposition entirely. This is not an economy where it's a remotely good idea to dump your entire savings in one fell swoop. You're not doing anybody a favor by placing yourself in financial straits so that you can continue your service to your (volunteer?) fire department -- they'll get by without you.

Getting off of your parents' insurance will almost definitely make your rates go up. Call around, and get a few hypothetical quotes if you don't believe me. It might be different for your case, but you'd be in the minority, especially if you don't have a credit history.

Have you thought about a moped or scooter? They're rather unsafe (again, with the health insurance), but then again, you'd be using it to drive to burning buildings with the intention of rushing into them, so the risk factor will be somewhat diluted for your specific case. They're cheaper, easier to maintain, and use less gas.

If you're considering buying a car to get yourself to a job that will more than cover the costs of owning the car, then you should maybe revisit this question.

posted by schmod at 10:43 PM on October 2, 2010

Insurance alone is likely to eat up much of your $2k budget. To give you a sense of scale, I pay about $50/month as a married person in my 30s with a clean record; if you are young or have some accidents in your past, it'll probably be more. You should phone around to check rates before you commit to buying the car, because you may find that after insurance you won't have much left for the actual car.

Other costs include registration and inspections -- my memory is that PA has mandatory inspections, and not only are those not free but if they find problems with the car you have the choice of fixing them or taking the car off the road.

I've bought cars for well under $1000 before, but every car that I've bought that cheap has needed several hundred dollars in work just to be minimally ok to drive. It's rare, though not totally unheard of, to buy a beater that needs no work at all. Cars are easy to work on -- if you can fix a tractor, you can fix a car -- but learning how to assess a used car takes experience. You may want to add in to your budget the cost of having a mechanic assess the cars you are considering.
posted by Forktine at 11:36 PM on October 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Kellydamnit writes "There are two cars in my local paper for under $2000 now."

This isn't representive. Practically no one selling a sub $2K car is going to spend $50-60 dollars on a newspaper ad. You want to check online sources like Craiglist or the local free or nominal fee want ad weekly.

Here for example is a 95 MX-5 for $1300obo. Lots of new wear parts but the top needs work. New top will set you back $500 or so; or you could cobble something up with thread, canvas and gaffer tape for a beater for much less.

Me I'd buy a cheap Caravan because I know them and parts are readily available. You can probably get a 89-90 2.5 for a few hundred bucks or something like this 95 would be a good deal if the timing belt has been done (recommended change on a 3L is at 135K). They aren't really sensitive to that mileage (IE: you might go 175K) and are a non interference engine but having the belt break unexpectedly can be inconvenient. If I was only going to burn a tank of gas a month I'd risk it no sweat.

This $300 94 XJ is tractor simple to work on; one would want to find out exactly what is wrong but it might be a good choice. Especially if it's just physical body work.
posted by Mitheral at 8:48 AM on October 3, 2010

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