How much do I have to pay to get a car I actually want to own?
September 25, 2012 1:34 PM   Subscribe

As a rule, what is the lowest price point at which I should buy a used car?

So I received the news this morning that my beloved 150K mile, 1999 mercury sable needs a new power steering pump, rack and pinions, and rear end strut assembly... $1700 worth of work. The car has some other problems, including a permanently-on check engine light, worn tires, and is just in general rusty and leaky. So... pretty sure she is destined to be junked, RIP.

I have at this moment $3,000 to my name. I have a residential job, so I have no major expenses and don't actually need the car to get to work but for my social life and general happiness I would like to buy another one asap because I live in the middle of nowhere with no access to public transit. I am seriously thinking of relocating to a urban area or possibly overseas within the next year so I am not necessarily looking for something long term, and I don't think it makes sense to take on a car payment in this situation.

What is the least I can get away with paying for a used car that isn't a moneysink? I want a car now and I could pay up to 2500 or so at the moment, but if it will get me a significantly better deal to wait a while until I've saved more I can live with that. Or, if I could get something for less than 2500 I would love to not wipe out my savings.

ps bonus question: I just replaced one of the tires on the sable a few weeks ago for $100. I've only driven ~50 miles on it-- is it possible or worth it to sell this practically new tire?
posted by sockypuppeteer to Travel & Transportation (14 answers total)
I can't really speak to 'how much do I need to spend', but keep in mind that even if your car needs $1700 worth of work, it's probably worth at least $750-1000 for a trade-in, which is not nothing.
posted by Flamingo at 1:40 PM on September 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

I bought two cars at or just under $2000 in the past five or six years. The first one's engine leaked oil, but was otherwise reliable. (I just made sure to top it up every 3 months.) The other one was a manual. I learned to drive manual on it and I resold it later ($900). I kept each car for about 2 years without doing any repairs, but they were definitely dumpy looking and had their quirks. So if you were willing to live with that (and I don't know where you are, which would also affect your car price), I'd say $2000 is enough for a decent car for a year or two.

Also, yes, it is possible to sell a practically new tire. The easiest way is probably through CraigsList or by selling it back to where you bought it (if they also sell used tires).
posted by ethidda at 1:40 PM on September 25, 2012

Also, both of my purchases were private party sales with people who were moving out of town. I don't know if you can get something as affordable at a dealer.
posted by ethidda at 1:41 PM on September 25, 2012

At or near this price point, you do not buy non-money-sinkness by paying a certain dollar amount. You get non-money-sinkness by choosing the correct car. Most folks who don't know cars intimately do this with the help of a trusted local mechanic who will check it for a nominal fee.
posted by fritley at 1:43 PM on September 25, 2012 [2 favorites]

Dude, if you love your car, put that $3000 into it and keep on driving.

At least have a mechanic tell you if it's worth it or not.

Dealers don't typically deal with the lower end, hence the Auto Auction.

Private Party sales are going to be your best bet, but buy nothing without a mechanic's inspection.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 1:44 PM on September 25, 2012

I think your premise is flawed, and I think you should just fix the car you have.
posted by box at 3:18 PM on September 25, 2012

The cash-for-clunkers incentive program a few years ago seriously tightened up the used car market and drove prices on beater cars up by thousands of dollars. I don't think you're going to get a better deal than you would just getting the $1700 worth of work done now, or better, getting the absolute bare minimum done to keep the Sable running for the next year until you move.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 3:23 PM on September 25, 2012

You might also shop around a little about that $1700 estimate, ask if it's possible to lower the price with used parts, etc.
posted by box at 3:53 PM on September 25, 2012

getting the absolute bare minimum done to keep the Sable running for the next year until you move.

Just to be clear, the $1700 is the bare minimum to keep the thing (semi-safely) running. To get it in good condition, on top of that I would need to replace the serpentine belt, fix an oil leak, figure out what is causing the check engine light to be on, and the tires will need replaced soon. Plus whatever other problems might come up in the next year. It also has some pretty severe cosmetic damage (in terms of resale value), and the frame on the bottom is so corroded that I can reach underneath and easily pull off a handfull of metal (not sure if that denotes a serious problem...) I have put $1000 of work into this thing in the past year.

I'm not necessarily arguing with people saying "fix it," I'm just trying to give the whole picture. This car spent the first third of it's life in Northern michigan and the second third with my teenage brother driving it. It's had a kind of hard life.

But I am definitely open to keeping it if it makes sense, I just assumed that it didn't. I do love this car, but not for it's dependability :)
posted by sockypuppeteer at 3:53 PM on September 25, 2012

The danger is that a $3k used car might need all of the things you just mentioned anyway, and you're still out the $3k purchase price.
posted by hwyengr at 4:11 PM on September 25, 2012

In my experience, a good ten year old small Japanese car will end up costing about $3500 including necessary repairs, then run well with no more than ordinary maintenance for many years. Main dealbreaker is body rust. I would never even contemplate buying a rusty used car.
posted by flabdablet at 6:47 PM on September 25, 2012

I think every car purchase is a roll of the dice. Sure, if you buy a new one you supposedly have the protection of the mfg warranty, but that depends entirely on the dealership you're dealing with. Dealer shops can always switch things around so the "warranty" doesn't apply. You can try and fight it in court or through your state gov't, but good luck with that if you don't have wads of cash.

I'm tempted to recommend you get your car repaired simply because you're dealing with a "more known" entity than a car you would replace it with. As pointed out above, you really won't get squat for your current car, and then you have to take the risk of blowing a lot of cash on an entirely unknown vehicle that may blow a head gasket or rear main seal a week after you get it.

Maybe the middle ground is to put only what you absolutely have to into your car, and watch the local ads or spread the word around looking for a one owner car that was owned by an older couple. I'm not saying that you should take advantage of such people, but, many times, folks like those hate the hassle of trading in a car and would love to help someone out as long as they know their car will be taken care of rather than entered in the next demo derby.

Just my thoughts.... Best of luck! (Cars suck!)
posted by InsertNiftyNameHere at 7:08 PM on September 25, 2012

In recent years I've purchased a couple Crown Victorias for $2,700 and they were excellent. They still are excellent, in fact, because friends ended up with 'em.... They were police models--not driven by the police, but by state agencies like the Dept. of Fish and Game. Those beasts are built to take abuse and severe conditions and they're maintained on schedule. I had lotsa trouble-free motoring with both cars.

That aside, I only have some knowledge of the San Francisco-area market, which may well be higher than where you are, but pretty much everything below about $2,500 looked worrisome.
posted by ambient2 at 11:01 PM on September 25, 2012

Similar great experiences with used cars.
Most recently, I paid for a safety inspection on the car before buying it. I found out that the car needed about $500 in repairs, so I just asked the seller to knock $500 off the price, bringing it to about $1300. Though not a beauty, the car has been running fine and I know I'd be able to sell it for the same price.

Once in the past I bought a car for $2500 and sold it for the same price 3 years later.

If your car were in working order, I'm not sure that I would pay even $2k for it. But there are other people who may want a car like that and are capable of doing the repairs at discount. Post it on Craigslist for $1700 and see if anyone bites.

As far as the tire goes - only having 3 tires on your car will significantly lower your price to buyers.
posted by jander03 at 9:09 AM on September 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

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