How screwed am I?
February 18, 2012 1:25 PM   Subscribe

How do I buy a car as cheaply as possible?

I'm in a bit of a panic right now. My car is very broken and it will cost more than it's worth to fix. I can't NOT have a car. I live in Phoenix, 15 miles away from my job. I work until at least 10pm, sometimes until midnight. I can't bike 30 miles round trip every day (sometimes after midnight!) The buses stop running at 9. Phoenix has a light rail, but it doesn't go where I live. I can't move without paying a lot of money to break my lease. I'm currently in a rental car, but at $32 per day, this isn't sustainable for any great amount of time.

The problem is, I have NO extra money. My job has had to cut my hours severly and I'm currently only working about half the hours I used to. I can't afford the bills I have now, much less a car payment and the higher insurance I'd have to carry if I had a loan. Collection people keep calling me, and I'm basically living paycheck to paycheck. I just don't know what to do. No car means I can't get to work, which means I can't earn money, which means I can't pay rent.

So. I need a car and I need it to be cheap. Like, really cheap. Less than $2500 cheap. But I also have very little time to car shop because right now is one of the times I actually have work for the next week and a half. (I have work for 3ish weeks, then I don't for 2-3 weeks.) Right now, this doesn't seem possible, and, like I said, I'm panicking. Help! What do I do? How do I find this magical cheap car? Fast? Without getting ripped off?
posted by Weeping_angel to Travel & Transportation (22 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Right off the bat, you want this thread:

Cars worth having are still available at your price point, though not always fast. You are probably looking for Japanese cars or light trucks, with under 200,000, as few owners as possible. If the ad says, "customized," "lowered," "invested $(ludicrous amount); will sacrifice," or "needs work/TLC/(name of part that already should have been changed)," YOU DO NOT WANT THIS CAR.

look in craigslist for your price point. then go see the car. talk to the owner and see if you would trust him or her to watch your kids/elderly parents/spouse for a long weekend and buy accordingly. when you buy a used car, you are buying the owner.

Do you have any friends who can help you look/triage/call on cars?
posted by toodleydoodley at 1:47 PM on February 18, 2012

Some ideas...

Can you carpool with coworkers, or maybe with friends who live nearby? Even if you can only carpool part of the trip it may put you where you help yourself - like carpooling to/from the lightrail? Offer to split gas with them, etc.

Also, Phoenix is pretty good motorcycle weather, what about getting a small scooter or motorcycle. In WA, if it's <50cc then you don't need a special license (but you still need a helmet). Yeah, motorcycles may be suicidal and city driving is the most dangerous and a <50cc scooter has a max speed of ~35mph, but it'll be cheap and takes very little gas and it's lots faster than walking/biking. And you'd still need to by at least a helmet to go with it.

Bicycling 15mi will take you 1-1.5hrs when commuting. OTOH, many people actually choose to bike commute that distance, and they make it work. This is an option worth re-examining, especially in flat & dry Phoenix. Yeah, biking home at midnight sucks, I've been there and done that, but sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do.

What about bicycling to the lightrail? Or some combination of lightrail+bicycle?

Do all the busses stop at 9pm, or just the direct/convenient ones? Here in WA after 11pm the busses become very infrequent, but if I timed it right it was still better than biking 10mi at midnight. Do the busses have bike racks? Again, you can combine bussing and biking to make a workable solution.

Finally, cars. Are you mechanical at all? Buying a cheap car means sorting through lots of lemons. You don't want to buy a car for $1000 and then have to spend $500 on the transmission or clutch the next week. Ask a car-saavy friend to help search for cars. Search craigslist, want ads, and even auto auctions for deals. Have cash on hand to help the sale go through. Research what are the brands/models that get >200k miles and still run well - then go find one with >200k miles and buy it.
posted by jpeacock at 1:55 PM on February 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

You could definitely get a car for under 2500, how mechanically inclined are you? Can you do basic repair work?
posted by narcoleptic at 1:59 PM on February 18, 2012

Look at ebay and police auctions, and see if you can get lucky. As other said, you have to be extra vigilant on doing due-diligence when buying direct from the owner. If you have the skills to do that, or can develop them (get a book), it will save you money in the future whenever you have to buy a car.

Consider getting a scooter or a small motorcycle instead of a car. Scooters especially, have vastly cheaper than car, and don't need a special licence.

Most likely you can leave your apartment without having to pay any extra fee, so long as you can find someone else to rent it. In most states the landlord is obligated to accept any replacement tenant who would normally qualify for the apartment. In some states, the landlord is legally obligated to help you find a replacement. The exact rules for Arizona are here. Read through to see what rules applies to you.

Can you ride your bicycle to the light rail? If buses and trains don't allow bicycles, get two bicycles and lock them at your two stops.

Biking 30 miles every day is definitely possible. The trick is to get a quality touring bicycle designed to cover these kinds of distance. Expect to pay $100 to $200 for one. If you go that route, it might just change your life. You'll be vastly healthier, more fit, and quite possibly happier, since exercise tend to make people happy -- that's just how bodies work.

Your situation was extremely precarious when you started. Anyone living paycheck-to-paycheck who depends on their car for work is one mechanical failure away from falling into your situation. It's essentially a given that it will happen. Don't let yourself return to that position. You'll have to combine two solution: get a car and move; move and fix your credit; get a car and a touring bike.
posted by gmarceau at 2:14 PM on February 18, 2012

Best answer: Do you have any friends or relatives in the area with a car they use infrequently? Could you borrow it for a week or two, or perhaps rent it for less than the rental car?

Also, if you ask everyone you know, you'd be amazed at how many people will hold on to a car that's almost but not quite a junker cause it's not worth selling, but they're too attached to just get rid of it. They'll be thrilled to let it go for very little money to "a good home". This is not a permanent solution, but it could get you through a few months. Similarly, people may prefer to sell their old Corolla to a friend of a friend rather than go through the hassle of selling on Craigslist, and give you a better price as a result.

Most all suburban neighborhoods in the United States are literally awash in underutilized cars. You can find a solution if you ask around and are creative.
posted by psycheslamp at 2:29 PM on February 18, 2012

Honestly. This is crazy. I went into Honda, test drove a used one, told them what I'd pay and sat there four four hours of running back and forth,negotiation attempts until they came to my number. Signed and left. Yes... Long but worth the 5k.
posted by femmme at 2:36 PM on February 18, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks for the answers so far. I wanted to pop in and add a few things. I am not mechanically inclined at all. (and my apartment doesn't want people working on cars in their parking lot.) None of my friends live near me so carpooling doesn't really work. And I often get done with work at midnight and have to be back at 8 am, so adding a 1.5 hour bike ride each way really doesn't seem feasable.
posted by Weeping_angel at 2:53 PM on February 18, 2012

With regards to "more than it's worth to fix" - would the cost of repairing your current car be less than the cost of buying a replacement car? And would making the repairs leave you with a fairly sound car? If so, fixing what's wrong with your current car may still be worthwhile, even if the book value on the car isn't all that much.
posted by zombiedance at 3:05 PM on February 18, 2012

If there's a military post by you, someone there who's getting restationed might be trying to sell their car. There should be a place in the PX (the shop place) where people post ads. Or, you could check on Facebook to see if there's a local military wives group, and post there.
posted by spunweb at 3:18 PM on February 18, 2012

If your credit will allow, lease with no money down. If you can find an econobox (base model Honda Fit, Ford Fiesta), the payments should be very doable - your $2500 should last well over a year. You don't seem to run the risk of going over the standard 12k miles a year. Do three years, and you're turning it in before new tires/brakes/etc are due. Maybe by then you'll be in a better position to buy something cheap and reliable.
posted by schoolgirl report at 5:54 PM on February 18, 2012

Definitely doable on CL. I once bought a car there of $1500 I think. It was an older Mazda 323- one of the crappiest cars you ever want to meet, you I got a good three years out of it if I remember correctly.

You probably want to have a mechanic look it over for you before you buy. Two advantages:

1) he will tell you if it's in imminent danger of falling apart
2) If he points out some flaws but you still want it, this is a bargaining point to haggle a lower price

It's definitely worth the ~$75-100 a mechanic might charge for a basic inspection.
posted by drjimmy11 at 8:04 PM on February 18, 2012

Motorbike? A good quality used bike is really affordable
posted by Cosine at 8:05 PM on February 18, 2012

Here's a search for you if you like.

Right off the bat I see a relatively new Hyundai Elantra that might be up your alley.
posted by drjimmy11 at 8:06 PM on February 18, 2012

This is the kind of stuff you should be looking at. What I would aim for is a mid-to-late 90s Japanese economy car--a Toyota Corolla, Toyota Camry, Honda Civic, Nissan Sentra, that sort of thing. They will be rock-solid and get good gas mileage and be fairly cheap and easy to fix. Whatever you end up getting, you MUST have a mechanic look it over beforehand, and if it has any serious issues, don't get it. This will cost you $50-100 extra, but otherwise you risk flushing your money down the toilet. You should be able to get at least $300-500 for your current car, even if it's not working. Just list it on Craigslist and people will fight over it. If you tell us what year/make/model it is and what's wrong with it, we can give you an idea of how much to expect to get from it.

Best of luck!
posted by Slinga at 8:15 PM on February 18, 2012

Response by poster: It's a '98 Chevy Malibu, and the problem is with the (I think the mechanic said) cam shaft? I don't have the title to it, though. Back in September, when the work cutting hours thing started, it was unexpected and I was unprepared and had to take out a title loan to cover rent. It's still not paid off and they won't release my title until 90 days after the last time I paid with my debit card. That was on the 3rd, even if I paid the rest of it tomorrow. As a side question (I hope that's ok), what do I do with the broken car when I don't have the title?
posted by Weeping_angel at 8:41 PM on February 18, 2012

Please DO NOT EVER take out a title loan again. If you lose the title, it means you can't sell your car. Plus I think that there is no limit on the interest rates that can be charged. Stinks to high heaven of predatory lending.
posted by oceanjesse at 9:26 PM on February 18, 2012

Like OJ just said, I think you're stuck with the broken car until you get the title loan paid off, unfortunately. Sell a kidney next time!

But don't worry, you can definitely find a suitable car for 2500, without a doubt. Ask friends and coworkers. Take your time, take deep breathes, take notes, and don't take any shady shit from potential sellers. Measure twice, cut once.
posted by Chutzler at 9:35 PM on February 18, 2012

If you don't pay back the loan, do they just keep the car, or are you infinitely more screwed than that?
posted by Slinga at 6:51 AM on February 19, 2012

Response by poster: Slinga, that's what I'm wondering. I suspect it'll trash my credit, but I'll ask them. If I end up stuck with it, does anybody know what I DO with it? I live on an apartment complex with one parking spot and I don't think they're too keen on having none-working cars parked there indefinitely.
posted by Weeping_angel at 7:57 AM on February 19, 2012

You could sell it to a scrap yard, but you'd be better off finding the exact problem with the vehicle (look at the paperwork given to you by the mechanic), and then listing on Craigslist, staying the problems directly. You could probably list it for a few weeks if your car is parked in an unassuming spot and isn't leaking fluids too much. A scrap yard will give you around $500.00 I believe.
posted by oceanjesse at 9:58 AM on February 19, 2012

Yes, you can find a working vehicle for that price, but you have to be really, really diligent. Take any car you're serious about to a mechanic for an inspection - this just saved me huuuuge headaches with a car I really liked, but which needed a lot of (undeclared) work. Do not assume good will or honesty from any seller of a used car. I say this as an honest person selling a used car (in Maine, sorry). People will flat out lie, and certainly 'forget to disclose' major defects. Be willing to overlook cosmetic defects. I bought a car that was pre-dented, and drove it for 7 years, with few repairs, though I did fix some of the cosmetic issues. Use,, etc., to check on known issues. I haven't found the pricing accurate; it seems low; in my area, there's a dearth of good used cars.

If you buy from a medium - large dealer, they tend to have monthly sales goals and will negotiate more near the end of the month. When buying any large item, always be willing to walk away if the price isn't right, or the quality isn't there. You will often get a callback with a better offer. Don't accept unless it meets your needs.
posted by theora55 at 10:43 AM on February 19, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks so much, everyone! The answers I marked as best were the ones that eventually ended up working out. A co-worker ended up selling me her car (a manual transmission car that I'm slowly learning how to drive ;)). She's one of the most organized people I know, and actually gave me a whole log of all the repairs ever done to it. My mechanic checked it out, and I think I'm going to be okay. She sold it to me for cheap enough that I actually managed to pay off the title loan, so I think I'm almost out of this mess!
posted by Weeping_angel at 9:41 AM on February 25, 2012 [2 favorites]

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