How does one buy a very cheap car?
January 10, 2012 12:58 PM   Subscribe

I need a car for a daily 6-mile each way commute. There are no public transportation alternatives and carpooling is not an option. Cycling is also not much of an option. I'd like to buy the cheapest car possible ($5000 or less, preferably much less), use it for a couple of years and then sell it or just donate it to charity.

How does one buy a very very very very cheap car for light use without getting screwed on future maintenance or smog checks or whatever? I'm in San Diego, if it matters. Thanks!
posted by falameufilho to Travel & Transportation (22 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
As a cheaper option, consider a scooter or other cheap moped. The insurance and gas expenses will likely be cheaper, as well.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 1:03 PM on January 10, 2012 [4 favorites]

Not to burst your bubble, but California has very strict regulations regarding auto exhaust, etc. Don't buy a rock-bottom car and expect to be able to get license plates for it in CA without putting money into getting it up to snuff. You may find that your price point is not realistic.
posted by dfriedman at 1:05 PM on January 10, 2012

Buy a car that has a current sticker for your state. Have a mechanic you trust look it over thoroughly before buying.

$5,000 is not at all unrealistic for a used car, even in California.
posted by Sidhedevil at 1:09 PM on January 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

Honda or Toyota, and get a pre-purchase inspection. This is where you take the car to a mechanic, and you pay them to look it over for you. They'll give you an idea of the shape the car is in, and what work needs to be done on it sooner rather than later. (All cars need maintenance and repair. Do it early so it's cheap... wait and things can get real pricey.)

Also, some new-car dealers sell used cars with an aftermarket warranty... make sure it's from a reputable outfit, and that the dealer's own service department honors it.
posted by Slap*Happy at 1:09 PM on January 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Consumer Reports puts out a listing of "Used Cars for Every Budget" and it includes sub-$4000 cars and $4000-$6000 cars. It's only available to subscribers online but I think it's in the April issue if you can get it from the library, or you can get a one-month subscription for around $6.

You don't really need to worry much about gas consumption if you're only going 12 miles a day so I wouldn't worry about that, and insurance on a $5,000 car that you drive less than 5,000 miles a year should be relatively reasonable.
posted by mskyle at 1:10 PM on January 10, 2012 [3 favorites]

When I bought the car before my current one, I bought used and like Slap*Happy suggests, got an inspection. The guy met me at the dealership and inspected the car right there. The dealership didn't seem surprised in the least. It was not at all expensive and gave me great peace of mind. I think I found him through a local consumer advocate website. So yeah, inspection :)
posted by pointystick at 1:14 PM on January 10, 2012

A 250cc scooter with some under seat storage would be perfect for a short commute. 100mpg! Just get a good helmet and an oversuit and you'll be set. You'll need a motorcycle endorsement
posted by tmt at 1:16 PM on January 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

$5,000 is not at all unrealistic for a used car, even in California.

I agree with this. For example you will have a wide selection of early-2000s Hondas and Toyotas that will pass the smog check and are still very reliable. Fuel efficiency will vary depending on which model you get, of course.
posted by rkent at 1:22 PM on January 10, 2012

$5000 or less is a lot of car. I picked up my '99 Jeep Cherokee Sport for $3200. It's a project Jeep, with all kinds of Jeep-ish things in and under it, but for $1.8k, I could have stopped and had a heck of a solid daily driver.
posted by ellF at 1:28 PM on January 10, 2012

$5,000 is not at all unrealistic for a used car, even in California.

QFT. We just sold a reliable, cute mid-90sAcura. Didn't have a particularly clean body thanks to getting banged into a garage roughly once a week (my Grandma is a very enthusiastic driver who belongs on NASCAR) but low miles, just smogged and serviced by a mechanic. Less than 2k with current tags.

My recommendation is invest in a set of 5 CARFAX reports. When you get serious about a car, you can get the VIN and run a CARFAX on them. You're mostly looking for accidents, though the number of owners (and the kind of owners - e.g. leased, car rental companies) can tell you a lot about the car. Also, plan to pay a mechanic around $50-150 (depending on who they are and what kind of car it is) to give you the skinny on the car.

Last time I did this, I simply asked the owner to take the car to the dealership and told the dealership to call me with the bill and fax me the report.
posted by arnicae at 1:32 PM on January 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

In CA the seller has to smog the car, not the buyer. The seller should already have the smog cert ready to go.

I know people love Toyota and Honda but they can have a price premium on them that might make them a bad value (i.e. why not a Mazda, Ford, Nissan, or Chevy for less?). I wouldn't buy a thief magnet Civic for sure.

Need more details about your situation (i'm in San Diego too!) but you may be able to get away with a 50 cc scooter. Don't need a m lic or registration to be street legal.

(First post!)
posted by just sayin at 1:52 PM on January 10, 2012

Older Hondas and Toyotas are still selling high, given the knock-on from the Japanese earthquake and tsunami: people who were going to buy new bought nearly-new, raising the prices all the way down.

Moped? Perhaps, since San Diego weather is pretty clement, and decent mopeds have very good resale value, but it depends somewhat on the craziness of your commute and your ability to keep it safe from thieves.
posted by holgate at 2:00 PM on January 10, 2012

Beater Review?
posted by easilyamused at 2:12 PM on January 10, 2012

A couple of years ago, I bought my "top of the line" Mazda 5 new for 17k, I'm willing to bet that used mazdas are much less expensive than toyotas. (to be fair, I love making car salesguys cry, your mileage may vary.). But mazdas get great mileage, are cheap to insure, and are the safest car in their price point. All that said, if you aren't afraid of two wheeled things, a vespa or similar is prolly all the vehicle you need for that kind of commute. (unless it rains a lot, then I think it would just be a pain.)
posted by dejah420 at 2:28 PM on January 10, 2012

I have bought two used Ford Escort ZX2's in your price range and had very little trouble with either (well, no trouble at all with the first, a blown head gasket with the second, but that was probably driver error....). There are always a bunch on craigslist in the $2-4000 range. My daily commute is in the 3 mile round-trip range and I still see a ton of these on the road, even though they were only manufactured from 1998-2003. And they've actually got a ton of room for a tiny car -- I've moved cross-country three times in mine!
posted by jabes at 2:30 PM on January 10, 2012

I just sold a 2000 Ford Focus for $2200 on CraigsList, it easily has another 3 years in it, I'd say another 5 years with reasonable maintenance. I know cars need more maintenance as they age, but all I ever had to do was basically the scheduled maintenances and replace the tires. (My car was one (female, boring) owner and had two fender-benders to its name, bumper replaced both times, never missed a scheduled maintenance, so that's a fair amount of well-cared-for car for $2200.) There should be plenty out there, even if you look used at dealers rather than private-party sales.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 2:33 PM on January 10, 2012

(and had only 80k miles at 12 years old. The well-loved, lightly-driven, cheap cars are out there!)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 2:34 PM on January 10, 2012

All I will say is, at your price point, avoid all VWs.
posted by Thorzdad at 2:39 PM on January 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

I sold my '92 volvo last summer for about 1100$ and as other mefites have said, in California, the seller has to get the car smogged before handing it over to the buyer. i think that if you are only commuting 6 miles each way you will easily be able to find a car for less than $5000. I sold my car on craigslist and I am pretty sure that my volvo probably has another 5 years on it at least.
posted by ruhroh at 2:40 PM on January 10, 2012

Japanese cars hold their value for too long (my 2001 Civic is is still pretty much worth what I bought it for in 2007). Definitely look for a Focus. It's one of the most popular cars in the US so there's tons of them around, and you can easily find one less than 10 years old for less than $5k. We nearly bought a 2003 with 90k miles for $5500 a couple weeks ago, but ended up getting a Mazda3 (for a lot more money) instead.
posted by elsietheeel at 2:43 PM on January 10, 2012

If you don't need to take the highway, I definitely also agree with getting a scooter. 250cc can go up to 70MPH and you *can* take it on the highway if necessary, but will be more than enough on normal roads and streets. 80MPG+, storage of stuff under the seat, bag hooks, top case, etc. Insurance is cheap as well. A used Vespa GTS250 can be had for around $4k or less, and other Japanese/Taiwanese scooters can be had for even cheaper and are reliable.
posted by xtine at 3:27 PM on January 10, 2012

Under similar circumstances, I bought a used small pickup. It had 100K miles on it when I bought it, and I sold it again with 250K miles on it. 4-cyl, standard transmission, 28 mpg, cheapest insurance in the book. Low maintenance, easy to pass inspection. Low theft stats. Not worried about parking it anywhere. Useful on weekends!
posted by halfbuckaroo at 5:24 PM on January 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

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