How to get the most bang for my used-car buck?
March 26, 2012 2:05 PM   Subscribe

What should I look for/value in a used car when shopping on a tight budget?

This will be my first car purchase, and I'm looking for some advice.

I have $6,500 cash (firm limit) with which to buy a used car. I want to get the best car for my money, but I don't know how to determine "best car."

When comparing cars with money as the only hard and fast requirement, what should I be valuing first: make, mileage, or year? I have access to Consumer Reports, so I know the general makes and models to avoid from a reliability standpoint, but I'm having trouble sifting out the signal from the noise with the results of the dozen models or so that remain and that I can find within my price range.

I am already ruling out anything that gets poor marks Consumer Reports' used car reliability list, along with any cars that have accident histories or salvage titles, but that still leaves me with many viable options. Apart from money, which is the major determining factor, I don't have too many druthers about the car itself: automatic transmission, reasonable gas mileage, and reliability.

I see many late-90s/early 2000s Toyotas/Hondas in my price range, is it worth it to get the Toyota/Honda name and associated reliability that means means buying a 15-20 year old car with 160,000+ miles?

Or should I be looking more toward a maybe slightly less reliable model if it's newer and with fewer miles? I can find some 2005-2006 Ford Focus or Hyundai Elantras in this price range with 80,000+ miles.

Or is year most important? Sometimes I can find a pretty new car (say, a 2007 Ford Focus), but which has high mileage (160,000+ miles); in that does year trump mileage or --?

Sorry if I sound completely clueless; I am. Thanks for helping me form a rubric/frame of mind with which to approach my search!
posted by gavagai to Travel & Transportation (18 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla

Toyota Echo (if in Canada), which is the same thing as an earlier version of the Yaris.

If given regular basic maintenance Corollas will go to 250,000 miles on their original engines. For 6500 you should be able to get a pretty decent car that has a lot of life left in it.

In 30 seconds of eBay searching I found this which seems typical for a $6000 Corolla. If you look around a bit you'll be able to find one with much less mileage than that (maybe 110 to 120k miles) for the same price.
posted by thewalrus at 2:12 PM on March 26, 2012

I see many late-90s/early 2000s Toyotas/Hondas in my price range, is it worth it to get the Toyota/Honda name and associated reliability that means means buying a 15-20 year old car with 160,000+ miles?

Or should I be looking more toward a maybe slightly less reliable model if it's newer and with fewer miles? I can find some 2005-2006 Ford Focus or Hyundai Elantras in this price range with 80,000+ miles.

I think it's a wash-- both will last the name amount of time: you'll get about 60,000 miles out of them before they start to become a maintenance headache. So, on balance, I'd get the Hyundai, whose interior features will be more modern (eg, auxiliary jack for your stereo). That said, I think you can do a lot better than a Honda or Toyota with 160,000 miles with a $6500 limit.

The only remaining consideration is the resale value of the car. My guess is that you could sell an early 2000s Toyota/Honda with 200k+ miles on it for more money than a 2005 Ford Focus with 150k miles on it.
posted by deanc at 2:12 PM on March 26, 2012

You think you're clueless? Please learn from my mistakes: shop at a reputable dealer and consider only cars that are warrantied.
posted by scratch at 2:13 PM on March 26, 2012

Another one to consider: One of the Nissan Versas which were selling for $10,500 to $11,000 (new) a few years ago may be cheap with relatively low mileage now.
posted by thewalrus at 2:14 PM on March 26, 2012

i've found that the higher end models sold to middle age folks aren't beat, and when they want to sell them they are looking for something more ($) than they are offered as a trade-in for the new car they are after. my basic rule is to never pay more than the loan value (blue book category). take your time.
posted by goutytophus at 2:19 PM on March 26, 2012

If it were me, I'd avoid used domestic cars. Based on my varied history with used cars of various makes and models, the domestic (Ford, and GM in my cases) disappointed me, whereas the used Asian makes (Datsun/Nissan and Hyundai) exceeded my expectations in terms of reliability. And I know people who have Focuses they bought brand new and are having problems with them (in one case a serious problem), so that's just one more strike in my book against Ford.

I'm a big fan of Hyundai over the last decade or so, on the reliability front they've come so far since the days of the rolling joke named Pony. If you can find a used Hyundai in your price range with less than 60K miles on it (and you should be able to) I would probably go that route. Honda and Toyota are also very reliable, especially the Civic and Corolla.

Also, as an anecdote I was able to scoop a Hyundai Excel back in the late 90s off a dealer's lot for $8000 with less than 10K miles (15K KM) on it and had it for years running reliably until I sold it. Perhaps visiting a Hyundai/Honda/Nissan lot or two and seeing what they have for low mile resales in your price range may turn up a similar gem.
posted by barc0001 at 2:25 PM on March 26, 2012

Or is year most important?

Never. Mileage always trumps model year. If you are concerned with reliability, I'd recommend a Honda or Toyota, even if it means a 2001 Camry or Accord.
posted by mattbucher at 2:32 PM on March 26, 2012

I know the general makes and models to avoid from a reliability standpoint.

You've got the most important thing covered!

If you have to go to a dealership for service or the parts are exotic, the costs for repairing your car will be much higher. Here are the cheapest cars to repair.

I also tend to think low mileage is a good deciding factor. If a car is older, but doesn't have many miles on it, it's probably in better condition than vice versa. Just riding around in a car puts a lot of wear and tear on it, as opposed to having it sit in the garage.

And if it were me, I'd consider who I was buying it from, too. If you go to a dealership, you might still get a warranty on a used car. Cars sold by seniors tend to be the best maintained. My FIL chooses to buy from rental car companies that put their cars up for sale, because he figures those cars have been maintained well (I'm conflicted on that one--the rental companies do service their cars well, but people have also been driving them around with a, "Pfft, it's just a rental!" attitude).
posted by misha at 2:38 PM on March 26, 2012

This is so...individualised. If there really were hard and fast rules about these things most of us would be driving the exact same car.

The first time I bought a car I turned it into a two-week full-time job. I got a Honda Civic. I carefully scoured the city for the right one, beat down the price at the dealership, beat down the financing at the bank, called eight insurance companies...

Then there was a mild accident which resulted in the airbags deploying and the 4yo Civic inexplicably being a write-off. I did not have two weeks of free time. I went to a childhood friend's Dad's dealership and asked to be shown something in my price range. Test drive. Thanks, I'll take the car. It was a 2005 Ford Focus wagon, bought at 55km, which is now coming up on 170km (105m) with no problems at all.

My take on car purchasing at this point is reputable dealership + reasonably common car + colour you like + bit of price research and firm "I'll pay $X or buy elsewhere." Seconding "a wash" on a lot of the stuff you're pondering. The two weeks of Civic-buying research was not a total waste, but I wish somebody had told me to chill a bit back then.
posted by kmennie at 2:41 PM on March 26, 2012

The c.2000 Corollas are bulletproof if they were maintained enough.

One that gets overlooked is the "Chevrolet Prizm" (not Geo Prizm), 1998-2002, which is identical to the Corolla except for colors, the radio, and the nameplate. It was made in the same factory at the same time as a co-venture of GM and Toyota. It usually sells for less than the identical year/mileage Corolla and gets overlooked. By now should be well under $6500.

Whatever looks good, have it checked out by a good independent mechanic before buying.
posted by caclwmr4 at 2:45 PM on March 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Toyotas and Hodas have high resale values for a good reason. Nissans are almost as reliable and sell for less. Avoid Mitsubishi. Older Acuras are surpisingly similar in price to Hondas (they are made by Honda and have more options, eg leather seats are very common).

You wont get a good car with a warranty from a dealership for $6500 total.
posted by twblalock at 3:02 PM on March 26, 2012

Definitely choose cars with good reliability records. That's priority 1.

A car that's both newish and low-mileage is good, but it gets more complicated if you have to choose one or the other. To an extent I'd say that age is more important than mileage. Highway miles, where the car travels long distances at fairly constant speeds, wear a car out much more slowly than city miles, which necessitate constant braking and acceleration. If a car is newer but has more than typical mileage on it, then a lot of those miles are likely to have been highway miles that didn't hurt much. An old car with low mileage may have been through thousands of short trips, not to mention that some components become compromised with age even if the car isn't driven much at all.

Pay a mechanic to do a professional inspection of any car you're otherwise ready to buy. Also, know the value of what you're buying before you start negotiating. Go to the lot, pick a particular vehicle that you're interested in, and write down everything you can about it (mileage, features, exact model and year). Then go home and look up its typical value ( is good). Pay attention to the trade-in value, which is approximately what the dealer paid for it, and the dealer retail figure, which is what such cars typically sell for. This will help you look past the sticker price. Dealer sticker prices are almost always inflated. If you assume that the price on the windshield is the price you have to pay, you will come away with a much worse car than you could've had.
posted by jon1270 at 3:02 PM on March 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

I totaled a car (no injuries, thankfully) a few years ago and needed a quick replacement. I decided to get another one of the same thing I'd totaled, a Toyota Sienna. I paid for a one month membership with Carfax, checked out all the possibilities in the area and finally got one from a dealer, a trade-in, it had stains on the carpet and a couple of minor scratches, low miles, 7 years old, $5,500. Great deal and it's been a gem. It doesn't have all the bells and whistles, no power seats, or stereo jack, but I don't have a stereo anyway. So, my recommendation is to find the simplest model of a really good car and find one that has minor cosmetic issues but that has never been in a major accident- Carfax gives you those records.
Good luck.
posted by mareli at 3:28 PM on March 26, 2012

that has never been in a major accident- Carfax gives you those records.

Sorta. Carfax can tell you that a car has definitely been in an accident, but it's not so reliable an indicator that it hasn't.
posted by jon1270 at 3:32 PM on March 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

I would focus on a late 90's or early 00's toyota camry or honda accord. I would take the accord/camry over the civic/corolla. The former are nicer cars. And because they were more expensive when new, they were more likely to have been driven by an adult than a kid, more likely to have been garaged than street parked, and more likely to have been properly maintained. I would look for a 4-cylinder (not a v6) because it should be cheaper and get better gas mileage, and also because the v6 car will have been sold with a host of other optional gizmos and automated nonsense that will break and cost you money. The v6 car will also have larger wheels so the tires will be more expensive to replace and it will likely have leather seats that will be worn or cracked or split. I would buy from a private owner over a dealer because any reputable dealer won't be selling cars in this price range - just the sleazeball lots on the wrong side of the tracks. Besides, I would expect to get a better deal by about $1k from a private owner. I could get a feel for how the car had been taken care of while with that owner because I would be visiting his/her house to test drive the car. I could aslo ask about recent maintenance and repairs.

Most cars should have some major maintenance items addressed by around 100k that will be good for 50k miles, so I would try to find a car with anywhere from 90k to 110k miles that has had the timing belt and water pump replaced within the last 10k miles (not "belts" but "timing belt" - the timing belt keeps all the metal engine bits moving in time, and if it breaks the bits slam together you now have lawn sculpture, not a car. it's expensive to replace $500-$1000 and will probably need to be replaced on just about any car you might find in your price range) . You also want to see regular receipts for oil changes. You want to see an automatic transmission fluid change at some point in the last 25k miles. Check the tires. Is there enough tread that you can get your finger tips wedged into the tire? If so, good. If not, they'll need to be replaced in the next year. If no tread, they will need to be replaced now.

Next, test drive it. Does it clatter loudly on start up or blow nasty grey smoke out the exhaust? If so, don't buy. When you drive slowly around sharp, 90 degree corners under power, not coasting, do you hear any click-click-click or pop-pop-pop? If so, it's probably the CV joints and they'll need to be replaced (not sure how much). On several roads, see if the car pulls to the left or right when you take your hands off the wheel. Contant pulling to the same side may indicate that an alignment is needed ($125, but if not done you'll ruin a set of tires). Find a freeway on ramp or open road, and step on it - all the way down - from about 30mph to 80mph. There should be no clatter, clunks, etc, just smooth acceleration punctuated by smooth shifts. Slow back to speed limit, and then feel for any vibrations at a constant 65, 70, 75. When you exit, or when you have nobody around, stop very hard (look in the rearview first), just short of skidding. Does the car pull to either side, is there any jerking of the steering wheel? It should stop really hard and do it quite smoothly.

You should be able to get such a car for $5500 - timing belt replaced, tires about 50% worn, pretty clean, pretty smooth. I would then expect the $1k left over to go for tax, title, license, an oil change, and any other minor repair or necessary scheduled maintenance. If the car was otherwise in good condition, absent the replaced timing belt, I would still buy it but I would replace it very soon after purchase.

YMMV, of course. Also, if you can take it by a mechanic, then by all means do so.
posted by everythings_interrelated at 4:10 PM on March 26, 2012 [5 favorites]

You kind of get what you pay for. A Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, etc. will hold value and you'll pay more for a 2004 Honda than a 2004 Ford Focus. There should be a sweet spot formula for make, mileage, year, but I don't have such a formula. I just bought a 2004 Honda Civic from the previous owner. I took it to a mechanic who said it looked in good shape. I took another car to the same mechanic who strongly recommended against it - lots of trouble, including quite a bit not disclosed by the seller. I drove quite a few cars. Under 10K or so, the bigger lots don't have much. I found some okay cars at smaller lots.

Use, Edmunds to get an idea of pricing. Don't be afraid to make a low offer.
posted by theora55 at 5:00 PM on March 26, 2012

I would say that an iron-clad rule in car buying is "Don't pay more than the car is worth." It sounds really simple, but it's a lot harder in practice. In other words, don't pay more than the amount for which you could turn around tomorrow and sell the car. All of a sudden, the great story from the salesman or the color that is just like your stuffed animal don't count for much, and the key question is, If I put this car on Craigslist tomorrow, how much could I realistically get for it?

If you are following that rule, then it doesn't matter if you buy a Ford or a Honda, except that because Fords are seriously undervalued right now (look at how people in this thread are describing American cars) and Hondas are overvalued, you are far more likely to be able to buy a Ford for a great price.

Also, don't discount things like tires and timing belts -- on a cheaper used car, $500 in tires or $800 in a timing belt represents the difference between a great deal and getting kind of fucked. Buy a car that has decent tires and has had all of its maintenance -- or where the price is low enough for you to do the work and still come out ahead. Since putting $500 in new tires on a car will raise its value about $25, you are almost certainly better off buying a car where someone else has done that work, but YMMV.
posted by Forktine at 5:52 PM on March 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks guys -- I see some common themes (and some discord!) but these are all helpful in helping me frame considerations.
posted by gavagai at 10:48 AM on March 27, 2012

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