Small budget, big car?
December 22, 2012 8:27 AM   Subscribe

How should I go about buying a car with a $2500-3000 budget?

I am in need of a car. I am in Indiana for the holidays, and am looking to buy something here and drive it back to the east coast where I live. (I could also buy one on the east coast but registration/inspection would be much more expensive and once I start working again chasing down cars will be a pain.)

I am looking to spend up to $2500 cash with an absolute upper limit of $3000 if I found the perfect car. My credit is good and I could finance a car, but I really don't want to be locked into that payment. I have a couple questions:

-- What makes and models should I be looking for? I am pretty open to anything that looks like an okay deal for such a low price range, but have especially been keeping my eye out for late 90s Hondas and Toyotas with mileages in the 150k range and Fords with mileages up to 120k (Fords are what I was raised on, old habits die hard). There are a fair number of listings in these categories.

-- I have been looking on craigslist private seller listings and on little tiny used car lots whenever I pass one. Anywhere else I should look?

-- I plan to take anything to a mechanic to get it checked out first, and I know some things to look out for when I see the car. But what should I ask on the phone before I waste my time to go out and look at it? Initial questions, I guess.

Any other wisdom on the subject would be much appreciated! (I've seen this question, but it was from 2006, so I wanted to get updated thoughts.)
posted by geegollygosh to Travel & Transportation (19 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Honda, Toyota, Nissan. Start checking craigslist!
posted by oceanjesse at 9:03 AM on December 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

Any of your Indiana contacts have a good relationship with a mechanic? Sometimes auto repair shops sell cars.
posted by Iris Gambol at 9:12 AM on December 22, 2012

You will probably need to re-inspect and re-register your car in your home state in a fairly short time period after your return.
posted by DarkForest at 9:27 AM on December 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Carfax might not be a bad idea, either. Some unscrupulous car dealers engage in a practice called 'curbstoning', where they'll sell one car at a time from a home or office location. Since you only see the one car, your assumption is that it's theirs, and that they're familiar with the car's history. In fact, they may have bought it at a wholesale auction and only 'owned' it for a month or so. Ask to see the maintenance records. There are more buying tips in that second link, too.
posted by jquinby at 9:43 AM on December 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: A slightly counter-intuitive suggestion I often make when looking at lower-priced used cars: don't ignore mid-sized and large American sedans. Although the Japanese cars have better reliability in general, once you are looking at higher mileage older cars, the condition of the specific car makes a lot more difference than statistics.

The good news is that frumpy American sedans are very often better maintained than smaller sportier cars. You may pay more per mile for gas, but in exchange you get room, comfort, and generally a lot of "luxury" accessories that the smaller cars of the same model year lack.
posted by The Deej at 10:07 AM on December 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Likely any of the honda/nissan/toyota typical, decent used car in good condition is likely out of your price range, and if it is, is likely to have been modified by the tuner crowd (stay far, far away from them).

However the two wheel drive trucks made by nissan/toyota are a different story and probably even more durable. A well maintained for ranger from about 2000 on are also pretty good transportation. A pickup may not be suitable for your needs but if it is they make great 'beater' cars to use as basic transportation and the small compact two wheel drives actually get respectable mileage, parts are cheap and readily available (new and in junkyards), easy to work on and really, really useful when you find that great antique furniture piece (or other awkward large item) on craigslist and can't get it home.

The first thing to check for is rust. Most other things can be fixed readily (if expensively) but rust is tough. Best way to check quickly is get down and look at the muffler/exhaust-if it is rusty/patched or hangely loosely it is a sign the scourge has set in. Just inside the wheel wells is also good. take a good magnet and if is doesnt stick to the body panels in places it should they have either painted over the rust or bondo-ed it.
posted by bartonlong at 10:52 AM on December 22, 2012

Best answer: The advice you have received (Toyota, Honda, Ford) is pretty decent and the answers you have gotten here are good, too. As someone who has owned many a car near your price range, I have a few other thoughts.

At your budget, I think you are really hoping to get lucky. Unfortunately for buyers, the recession has generally risen the values of used cars, because people can't afford new cars or get the credit for them as readily as in the past. I daily drive a 1995 Ford Escort station wagon. the value has actually risen over the past three years from around $1750 to around $2250 for it. The Escort is definitely no-frills, which I prefer. It is mostly reliable, but I am also just enough of a shadetree mechanic to keep it going. An example : I went out one morning to go to work and noticed that there was a weird colored spot on the ground. Thinking it was just oil, I drove it to work (only 9 miles) hoping to inspect it later. I got REALLY lucky, as it was actually transmission fluid dripping out of a rusted line to the radiator. Thankfully, I didn't burn up the transmission on such a short drive. I had to go to a junkyard to get new lines and was able to get them on myself. Lots of little things like that crop up on a car in this price range, not because of mileage, but because it's OLD. A car from Indiana will be even worse off, because of more road salt. My car came from Kentucky and now I live in North Carolina, so my junkyard has non-rusted Escorts for me to salvage parts from.

I would recommend getting a small loan to add to your money pile. I don't know what your monthly budget is, but financing a $2500 loan from a credit union shouldn't be too bad.

Our other daily driver car, for my wife and daughter, is a 2003 Mazda Protege 5. We bought it for around $5000. We have had it for almost three years now and put around 50,000 miles on it. The only problems it has had were replacing the tires and the rubber air intake tube tore and had to be replaced. We did do the timing belt and water pump at the recommended mileage.

At around $5k you will have many more choices and you can expand your brands to newer Mazdas and Hyundais which should be good bang-for-buck basic transportation. I think there are also several threads on here with recommendations in that price range.

Good luck!
posted by Slothrop at 11:29 AM on December 22, 2012

Best answer: Stephen Lang at TTAC is a used car dealer/writer, and has written an excellent guide on the subject:

How To Buy A Used Car

not sure which part of Indiana you are in, but you might be able to find some less winter-abused cars in your southern neighbor, Kentucky.

I agree with your assessment regarding sticking to those brands. In that range, the Korean cars weren't very great until recently. Ford has improved dramatically, but older ones still can be iffy. I won't say don't go American, but I've found that generally the Japanese tended to use slightly better quality parts/suppliers and that's a big part of the Japanese durability equation.

I mean, do you care about cars, or do you just want transportation? The other places you can check are model/make specific car forums, where there are very often 'car for sale' sections.

in your range, you will probably be looking for anything between 1988-1998 for these models
Honda Civic
Honda Accord
Toyota Corolla
Toyota Camry
Nissan Sentra
Nissan Altima (maybe)
Nissan Maxima

there are more, but there are so many of these models out there that you should be able to find something..
posted by ninjew at 11:57 AM on December 22, 2012 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I was recently in your shoes, also had my eye out for late 90's Toyotas and Hondas, and did OK.

A few things I found:

It was hard to search for Corollas, Civics, Tercels, Echos, etc. because I found that a lot of people wanted piles of money for cars that were in comparatively worse condition than more full-sized/family-oriented models from the same year range. The people who buy those cars are teenagers or college kids and they don't typically treat them well. Which isn't to say you can't find a deal, but you have to really look.

It was easier to scan the classifieds (including Craigslist and Autotrader) for Camries, Accords, and the like. I also looked out for the lower end Lexus and Acura models and other luxury makes that are really just rebadged Camries and Accords. These tend to be maintained a little better, or at the very least, you're not clicking through on Craigslist ads to discover that the car is lime green with outrageous rims and it has a bunch of stupid mods.

The Ford Taurus from around those same years are a lot less desirable due to hideous body design and thus typically cost less. Not sure whether reliability is comparable to a Camry or an Accord, though. If you're willing to drive an ugly car, you could get a deal on one of these.

I also did a lot of searches using "wagon" as a keyword, which, again, tended to bring up nice respectable family vehicles that looked clean and well cared for, with ads written by someone who is possibly not on meth.
posted by Sara C. at 12:55 PM on December 22, 2012

I'll also chime in to say that I drove a Nissan in the 90's, and have test driven a few in recent years, and I don't know what the hell happened to Nissan, but I'd take a '98 Altima or the like before I'd take anything they are currently putting out. Ugh. (FWIW I'm not talking about reliability, but design, comfort, handling, and things like that.)
posted by Sara C. at 12:57 PM on December 22, 2012

Likely any of the honda/nissan/toyota typical, decent used car in good condition is likely out of your price range, and if it is, is likely to have been modified by the tuner crowd (stay far, far away from them).

This was not true in my experience. I did have to weed through some "tuner" cars in the Craigslist ads, but the vehicle I ended up with is pretty much entirely OEM, looks great, and in unbelievably good condition for its age. That said, I paid at the top end of your price range.
posted by Sara C. at 1:01 PM on December 22, 2012

I'm thinking that unless you can budget another $3k for surprise maintenance, buying a $2.5k car absent being a shade tree mechanic has a decent chance of not working out so well.

In my area, reliable high mileage models like Hondas go for $10k in good condition.
posted by zippy at 1:29 PM on December 22, 2012

Best answer: This is very easy:

Toyota Corolla

If you cannot find a Corolla, then 2nd = a Honda Civic. But, you must ensure the transmission has been replaced. Hondas are notorious for transmission replacement issues (Toyota Corollas do not suffer from this or any other major issue).

Absolutely skip Nissan and any other non-Toyota or Honda brand, no matter how tempting, how colorful, how easy it is to buy the other car might be. This advice is based strictly on your $ budget and your desire to buy a car that runs and never talks back.
posted by Kruger5 at 2:08 PM on December 22, 2012

Look around as much you can this weekend, and make sure you have the cash on hand to pay with rather than needing to get it from the bank. You might have a little more room to negotiate if someone is wanting money for Christmas shopping.
posted by yohko at 2:13 PM on December 22, 2012

Forgive the piggyback, but I am in almost the exact same situation as the OP. How much does it cost to have a mechanic give a car in this price range a quick inspection to see if its got any major problems? I'm looking at a 1999 Camry XLE with 175k miles that the owner is asking $2500 for. Seems like a good deal but I don't want to take his word on the history. He's a friend of a friend of a friend.
posted by skewed at 7:19 PM on December 22, 2012

Where I am (LA area), it costs about $50 per mechanic look-over. The major issue with this, though, is that in my search, I found that mechanics were reluctant to say "buy this car" or "this car has terrible problems". But maybe I was doing it wrong.
posted by Sara C. at 7:50 PM on December 22, 2012

shopping for an inexpensive japanese car in socal is just cheating, Sara C. there are so many of them, and the climate doesn't eat them whole. i would have no problem buying a 200k mile Honda if it came from the west coast. whereas, I'd really look hard at that same car with 100k miles if it came from a midwest/northern climate. the cold and the salt fatigue the components and metal to such a degree that the car becomes almost unusable.

the other thing is.. I recently went through an inexpensive car purchase, and I built a cushion into the budget for whatever might break or already be broken on the car when i acquired it. so try to put a little bit aside for that, because in that range it will need something. maybe tires, maybe a belt or two, but it will happen.
posted by ninjew at 10:17 PM on December 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Look for a Geo/Chevy Prizm. It's a Toyota Corolla with a GM badge on it, so it's cheaper. I see a decent number in your price range on Indianapolis Craigslist.
posted by akgerber at 11:54 PM on December 22, 2012

Response by poster: Followup: bought a 120k miles, 2002 ford taurus wagon from a small-time dealer in indiana for $2400. I've had it for over half a year now and I've put 5k miles on it. The only thing I've had to fix are the rear brakes (routine maintenance) and it has an oil leak but I just keep an eye on it. So I'm cautiously optimistic that it was a good purchase.
posted by geegollygosh at 9:36 AM on July 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

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