Want to help me buy my first car?
October 10, 2010 7:48 AM   Subscribe

Help a teenager buy her first car. Knows next to nothing about cars so tell me: where do I start?

So, I terrified of motorbikes and I've moved to a place far from any bus stops. I'm thinking it's time to invest in a car. Doesn't matter if it's a manual. I've got about $5000 to spend, located in Brisbane, Aus. I've got good friends who know their cars, so I'm pretty good on the negotiating front. However, thought I'd ask the hivemind to be safe. So I have a few key questions.
1) What would you recommend as a first car? Make/model/approx. age/milage?
2) What do I look out for? What should be sending out alarm bells?
3) What are my rights?
4) Any other top tips?
posted by Saebrial to Travel & Transportation (11 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Consumer Reports. They will give you the rundown on the pros and cons of all makes and models of cars, including repair records, and they have a service that tells you exactly what the car you want to buy cost the dealer. So you can insist on not paying more than a few hundred bucks over the dealer price.
posted by musofire at 8:02 AM on October 10, 2010

Mazda 626 is a really great first car. Extremely reliable, (though you should at least try to determine, via a mechanic, that a used one isn't the one lemon in a thousand before buying), easy and fun to drive. Not particularly powerful, beautiful, or feature-filled, but, hey, you need to leave yourself somewhere to go later!

As for age and mileage, that's severely constrained by your budget, so you don't have latitude there. It won't take long scanning used car ads to see which year/mileage of a given model are within your budget. There are surely web sites, too (but I can't recommend, not being in Australia!).
posted by Quisp Lover at 8:07 AM on October 10, 2010

Re: the tip to use Consumer Reports, do bear in mind that the used car market filters worse examples. Not to say you're sure, or even likely, to get a bad one. But the odds of failure, even on a sure-thing model, are greater if you're buying second-hand. Lots of people sell great cars, but the average is skewed a bit. So, again, do have a (good) mechanic look the thing over.

Also, do whatever you can to be in the good graces of a mechanic, generally. To be a car owner is to be persecuted by incompetent and corrupt mechanics. If you find a good one, treat him/her really really nicely.
posted by Quisp Lover at 8:10 AM on October 10, 2010

One thing I learned from my dad when buying a car directly from the previous owner (as opposed to a lot): looks matter. If someone has taken the time to keep the interior clean, they probably also did a good job at maintaining the car, too. You should also look for an oil change log; anyone who keeps those kinds of records is doing right by their car.
posted by Gilbert at 8:25 AM on October 10, 2010

Gilbert's right (especially re: oil changes; that's a huge huge factor in a car's health...have the mechanic take a look at the oil, he can determine its age visually). Also look closeup at the gas pedal. If it's real worn, the car's got a lot more mileage than it says.
posted by Quisp Lover at 8:27 AM on October 10, 2010

It's also hard to go wrong with a Toyota or Honda, too -- I drove my first car, a '90 Camry I inherited from a family member in 2000, for about 10 years, 'til I sold it last fall. That car was solid and mine had the V6, so it was actually a little bit spirited. My father had a used '92 MX-6 (the coupe version of the 626, and more or less the same car as the Ford Probe for the early/mid-90s) for many years, and got about 250k miles out of it As far as general recommendations go:

In general, I look for low-milage (less than 50k), about year old cars. Why about three years? Conventional wisdom is that the vast majority of depreciation happens in those first three years, so the first owner's paid for that, and you still get the majority of the vehicle's useful lifespan.

In your case, I'd go older/higher milage to get down under your $5k budget. A Honda or Toyota really ought to run 250-300k miles if you take good care of it, so you can go pretty high on milage and still get a decent amount of life out of the car. All other things being equal, I'd go for lower milage over newer, though. I might even pay (a bit) more for an older, lower milage vehicle if it were in equally good shape otherwise.

When planning how to spend your $5000, remember that you will need insurance, and you will need a slush fund for maintenance -- I just paid $300 US to fix a flakey door latch release! (Granted, when I sold my Camry, I bought a "fun" rather than practical car, so my maintenance costs are a bit absurd). Also, if you have access to a garage and are motivated, you can do a lot of routine maintenance yourself. If I had a place to lock up my car, I would've fixed the door handle myself, but wrenching in the parking structure is forbidden by my lease (and most others).

Seconding having a good mechanic look over the car before you buy. I didn't, and it's cost me about $1000 over the last year on silly things I missed that a good mechanic could've told me about -- and that's on top of the things I did catch and negotiated out of the price I paid for the car.

Assuming you can pay up front (either in cash, or by arranging financing through your own bank), I'd buy from a private party rather than a dealership. That's how my family's done it as long as I can remember, and we've never had a problem. My instinct is you're less likely to run into extreme sleaze that way, but your milage may vary (pun intended).
posted by Alterscape at 8:53 AM on October 10, 2010

*Try to buy a car with fairly low mileage (~50K or less if possible) - the more miles on a car, the more repair and maintainence it will likely need.
*Look up the blue book value so that you know what the price range (cherry - wrecker) is on that model/year.
*When you find a car that looks promising, take it to a trusted mechanic for a once over.
*If they find a problem but you still want the car, find out how much it would cost to repair it then make an offer to the owner minus the cost of repairs.
posted by echolalia67 at 9:59 AM on October 10, 2010

I'd make sure that she takes some sort of basic car maintenance course--how to check for coolant and add it, how to put air in tires (and change tires), why it's bad to drive a car with old oil, what all those warning lights mean, etc. Since cars are too complicated for most people to actually do all but the simplest stuff any driver needs to know what to look for and and how to tell if something's wrong. Does the RAC offer such a class?

Here in the US, there's Carfacts which give you the history of an vehicle (via VIN number.) If you buy from a dealer, see if you can get an extended warrenty. I've just got a transmission replaced--for free--thanks to having such a warrenty.
posted by Ideefixe at 10:01 AM on October 10, 2010

Most everything on a Honda or Toyota can be fixed with a Phillips screwdriver, a set of 8-16mm sockets, and access to the internet.
posted by bodaciousllama at 10:24 AM on October 10, 2010

The one bit of solid adivice handed down from my father: don't get a car with narrow tires. For control purposes, having wider tires means more contact with the ground, and helps avoid hydroplaning, where water built up on the road can cause your tires to lose contact. It's a very unpleasant experience. As you look at different cars, you'll see the massive difference in tire widths.
posted by Ghidorah at 5:17 PM on October 10, 2010

Well, I would start by deciding what kind of car you want. A little hatchback buzzbox? A station wagon? What do you want to use it for?

If you just want "a car", a V6 automatic holden commodore (probably a VR / VS / VT model for the money you've got) is a relatively safe option. You'll generally get around 250-300 thousand k's out of the engine, and if you do manage to blow it up, you can have someone fit a reco in for about a thousand bucks.

They're not beautifully made, and as they age various gadgets will stop working, but the mechanicals are generally bulletproof, and the parts are very readily available for someone to fix it for you (often just with cheap bits from the wreckers).

If you want a hatchback, there's a multitude of cars that fit the bill from Toyota, Ford, Mazda, Holden, Hyundai, the list goes on. Toyota has a great reputation for reliability, but by the time the car is old enough to be worth 5 grand or less, I've found the reputation is no longer warranted!

If I was spending 5 grand on a car, I'd be looking at a late-ish model Hyundai - because you'll get a car that's 5 or even 10 years younger and with 100,000 kilometres less travel than a Toyota for the same money. I just had a quick look on eBay and found a number of 2004 Hyundai's with less than 100,000 on the clock for less than 5 grand. I don't think you'll beat that for value.

And, if it means anything, my brother bought a late 90's Hyundai Elantra wagon secondhand and mistreated it for many many years and it held up amazingly well!
posted by autocol at 6:28 PM on October 10, 2010

« Older What would be the best way of going about telling...   |   Acting Prior to Thinking Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.