I don't know how to buy a used car, but I need to buy one soon.
September 12, 2013 4:14 PM   Subscribe

The family's cars all got busted around the same time. They need to be replaced. I, individually, need to buy a used car. This will be the first car I buy on my own account. I have a tight budget, and I can't afford a mistake. I don't want to buy a money sink, but I don't want to sink all my money up front, either. I don't know cars at all: How can I find a good deal? What should I avoid? Details inside.

Last week, it became clear that two of the family's cars would have to be replaced. One had been hit by my father's neighbor across the way while parked, and the insurance company declared it a total loss. The insurance company will send us a check for $3400. The other car was found by a mechanic not to be worth fixing. He fixed it enough for it to last another three weeks or so, he said, but it's on its last legs.

In addition, my brother got a new job last week. Since he wants to move out, he's getting a car of his own. Our parents got a new Honda; my brother and I will split the check from the insurance company. With my own savings, I could make my $1700 from the insurance company into $3500, though I could stretch it to $4000. If I took a loan, I think my budget could go as high as $5500 or so.

I live in Massachusetts, specifically the Woburn area, so I'll need to get insurance. Previously, my parents paid the insurance for the total loss, which was registered in my name and my mother's. I'm looking into USAA, since both my mother and father are members there.

I make $15/hour and pay about $550 each month to my student-loan creditors. I also pay $330 each month to my parents as rent. I don't have much room for car-loan payments and insurance payments, but I can only minimize the car-loan payments by making sure I pay enough down.

I'm looking for a decent automatic four-door sedan with front-wheel drive. I don't drive much - 18 miles/day most days, with a more-or-less weekly trip to Boston, which is about 36 miles round-trip. Sometimes I go to the city twice in a week, but I try to minimize that. I want it to last at least two years so I can save for a better car.

A friend of mine wants me to look at old Volvos, Mercedes, etc., and there are some good deals on those, but I hear that they cost a lot to fix, and that worries me. On the other hand, I worry that a Honda Civic, an Accord, or a Ford Escort in my price range will have been worn out by the time I get to it. That friend of mine knows cars and is willing to help me look at available ones in the area.

Since my options are limited, how can I ensure I don't get cheated or otherwise wreck my finances? What are good ways to look for cars in my area? What should I avoid doing at all costs?
posted by Rustic Etruscan to Shopping (25 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
I bought a 1999 Toyota Carolla for 5000 (including a loan). They are one of the most reliable cars in the world and my mechanic says he's seen them make it to 300,000 miles. Mine's at almost 200,000 with no serious issues.

Not sure about safety of driving in the snow...
posted by latkes at 4:33 PM on September 12, 2013

Start with this thread. As I suggested in that AskMe, a mid 2000s Toyota Corolla will be cheap and reliable.

Your friend's advice is bizarre, particularly given your budget.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 4:33 PM on September 12, 2013 [7 favorites]

1998-2002 Toyota Corolla... Seriously... Have you priced Volvo or Mercedes repair parts? Also, old Volvos get terrible gas mileage.

Make a deal with a local mechanic to inspect two cars for a fixed rate (two hours of labor). Pick the two best Corollas you can find via craigslist or other direct sale by owner and arrange to have the owners meet you at the mechanic's shop. Buy the one that is in better condition relative to its price and whatever repairs might need to be done on it in the near term.
posted by thewalrus at 4:37 PM on September 12, 2013 [2 favorites]

Do not under any circumstances get an old Mercedes. My first and second car were both elderly Mercedes and while the second one was a diesel that had made it to an astonishing amount of miles, they are EXTREMELY expensive to fix. Even if you have a nice mechanic that will source used parts for you.

On the other hand, my most recent car, a 1989 Toyota Tercel that I bought for $1600 was a dream. I drove it from Philadelphia to California and happily ever after until it was impounded recently. Great car, and even the one biggish repair it needed cost me hundreds of dollars less than another make of car would have.
posted by Aubergine at 4:37 PM on September 12, 2013 [2 favorites]

For about $5000, I'd get a used Honda or Toyota from the late '90s through mid-2000s. Have it checked out by a mechanic. If there's a lot of miles on it, you'll want to know if major things have been recently replaced (e.g., the fuel pump, etc.).

There's no way I'd get a Volvo, Mercedes, etc. if you will be on a tight budget for future repairs and maintenance.
posted by scody at 4:38 PM on September 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

I hate car shopping SO MUCH, but will say that the first car I bought all on my own was a 1998 Honda Civic. I drove it until 2008, when I gave it to my parents to use as their Florida condo car. Hondas are pretty durable.
posted by maryrussell at 4:45 PM on September 12, 2013

I've been driving for 24 years I've never spent even $3K on any of the... uh, 11?... cars I've owned. More than 2/3 of them had 3-digit price tags. Take that for what it's worth.

I think you can do fine in that price range. I'd try to go for a private seller instead of a dealer, because the dealers who sell cars at that price point only sell crappy cars. The two best things I can suggest you do to get a good price and avoid getting screwed are to buy from someone who has no incentive to screw you, e.g. a relatively affluent person just trying to get rid of an older but well-maintained car, and pay a mechanic to inspect it thoroughly.

Don't deceive yourself into thinking any car you can afford will be free of problems. Don't spend everything on the initial purchase and leave nothing for repairs. If you get a loan, don't plan your budget down to the nickle, leaving nothing for the unexpected.

I would not go for an old Mercedes or Volvo unless you personally want to learn to work on it. New parts for them are very expensive. There are decent sources for used parts, and enthusiast's forums to help you figure out how to do the work, but none of that matters if you aren't mechanically inclined.
posted by jon1270 at 4:45 PM on September 12, 2013 [2 favorites]

The wife and I have a 2001 Toyota Echo that we've owned since we drove it off the dealer's lot and haven't done anything to it other than routine maintenance. We've driven it across the country multiple times. It turns over faster than my much-newer Honda and goes like a top even now. Looks like they're juuust at the top of your price range and they're much rarer than the Corolla or Camry so you may not want to look into it, but wanted to reassure you that the Toyotas and Hondas are pretty much the definition of reliable cars you can drive into the ground. Seriously, our plan is to keep the Echo until something needs fixed on it that costs more than it's worth.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 4:50 PM on September 12, 2013

As I mentioned in the other thread, some years for Honda (in particular) are better than others, because of their release cycle.

A friend has an old Merc. It seems to spend a lot of time in the shop.
posted by holgate at 4:50 PM on September 12, 2013

Admiral Haddock: "Your friend's advice is bizarre, particularly given your budget."

5 grand will get you an old Mercedes that still has a hundred thousand miles or more in it with only minor repairs and regular maintenance, at least around here. That said, the few people I know who drive used Mercedes all have the resources to pay for a $2000 repair if it came to that, which it rarely does.

Right now my boss is driving a 1988 300TE (the station wagon) with at least 300,000 miles on it. He might replace it before next summer because he's tired of being without A/C, but I doubt it. That said, I think when most people talk about a reliable Mercedes, they mean one with a diesel engine. Those things do not die. My neighbor still has a late 70s/early 80s model that he drives almost every day.

That said, look at the Pontiac Vibe. It's a Toyota Matrix, but since it's got the Pontiac badge, they usually go for less money than the ones with the Toyota badge. There are a couple near Boston listed on Auto Trader.
posted by wierdo at 6:06 PM on September 12, 2013 [3 favorites]

I drive a 1985 Mercedes 300td, which I love a lot. I'm not sure I can recommend it based on your parameters (I'm pretty sure the old diesel ones hate cold weather anyway) but just some anecdata:

-I bought my car from a guy who took extremely good care of it for $1,800. I am the third owner.
-I've had it since August '09 and I'm averaging about $4,000 a year to keep it on the road including gas, insurance, and repairs. I drive about as much as you do. The repairs can be pricey, but if you are disciplined enough to put away the money you're saving on gas and insurance (430 miles per 20 gallon tank, woohoo!) then it's not that bad.
-HOWEVER, I have THREE mechanics that I regularly consult for various weird issues, and I can pretty much count on something putting the car out of commission for a few days every 3 months or so. This has made me increasingly furious in the past year, almost to the point where I'm considering getting something more practical like a Corolla :(

Good luck choosing your new ride!
posted by justjess at 6:45 PM on September 12, 2013

Sorry, should add that I bought the car with 180k miles on it, and I'm currently pushing about 250k!
posted by justjess at 6:46 PM on September 12, 2013

jon1270 is spot bloody on.

Repeated for truth: "Don't spend everything on the initial purchase."

I was in almost exactly the same situation and needed to get a car, pronto. Overpaid a little for something fun, had to spend ~$600 right away to flush and replace all the fluids and get the engine de-tuned to run better rather than run loud. Another $200 for random stuff physical. Another $300 to replace the muffler. Had to spend another $1000 completely replacing the stupid aftermarket exhaust that got ripped out after I bottomed out. Could have saved myself the $200 if I had replaced the entire thing in the first place.

But I was kinda lucky, the car's aftermarket stuff covered some of the model's weaknesses, like overheating, but I still need to scrounge up $400 for new tires. Winter's going to be scary without. Got swiped in a garage but I'm not going to spend $1000 on a new paint job on a couple of side panels. But the car runs great, now, and I'm kinda confident that it'll last me through my postdoc with only regular maintenance.

Given $5500 (my own budget was $5k), I'd look for something in the $3000 range and bank the remainder for emergencies/inevitable repairs/maintenance. I really regret paying $4k upfront.

Have you factored in car insurance? I know it's hella cheaper in the US, but even at a deep discount, it was another $1200+ for the year (I think I only paid ~$420 for the year when I was in Iowa). But that was cheaper and a lot more convenient than buying month-to-month or for 3-months at a time.

In retrospect, I probably vastly overpaid for most of that work because I didn't have a relationship with a real mechanic and went to chains/franchises for the work.
posted by porpoise at 7:52 PM on September 12, 2013

Grandma cars, like Buicks and Oldsmobiles depreciate quickly (and are thus undervalued in the used car market) and are reliable. They often have low mileage, regular maintenance and only one or two owners.
posted by FiveSecondRule at 10:25 PM on September 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

Find the most boring, minimally rusted Toyota or Honda that is 20% less than your maximum budget. Have a Honda or Toyota specialist mechanic check it out for you. Buy car. Keep that 20% around for surprises. Drive that car into the ground.
posted by zippy at 10:31 PM on September 12, 2013 [5 favorites]

Honda civic or accord
posted by fieldtrip at 10:42 PM on September 12, 2013

There's a reason why everyone is telling you to get a honda or toyota. That's what you get when you have sense. They are reliable, even with many miles (provided you don't get a modified racer).

You get a car with "personality" when you have money or time to deal with that personality.

Find a boring Japanese car, take it to a mechanic and have him do a pre-purchase inspection for like $100. He'll tell you what kind of maintenance is likely in the next few years. You also won't have a problem selling it when the time comes.
posted by danny the boy at 11:59 PM on September 12, 2013

I'll chime in with the chorus for a used Honda or Toyota. They can pretty much run forever and mechanics are easy to find.

You also want something on the smaller side so you don't spend a fortune on gas.
posted by bondcliff at 6:30 AM on September 13, 2013

That said, look at the Pontiac Vibe. It's a Toyota Matrix...

Which is to say that it's a Toyota......Corolla wagon.

The reliability of cars in that price/age/mileage range will be more about how they were maintained and the condition they're in now than the individual model. I'd take a well maintained and cared for Ford over a neglected Toyota.

You will, however, tend to find that small Toyotas and Hondas were maintained better and are in better condition than just about anything else.

It's a car that you can find at a dealer but that price range is in really high demand so the really nice examples tend to disappear really fast. The advantage of going to a private seller is that you'll be able to find out more about the past of the car. What you're hoping for is someone that is affluent because they're frugal so they bought the car new and maintained it well and now they're selling it so they can buy another one or something like that.

I'd also mildly advise against getting one with lots of options. If it has power windows and they quit working, it can be expensive to fix if it's an electrical issue that needs to get tracked down. You might be able to just live with it but you won't be able to lower your windows at all. However, if the car is immaculate and everything works flawlessly, you'll probably be okay, especially if you only need the car for the next two or three years.

A bit tip-off that the owner maintained the car well is if they tell you that they always used a full-synthetic motor oil when they did the oil changes. After that, a mechanics inspection should give you some piece of mind.

posted by VTX at 8:29 AM on September 13, 2013

A Honda or Accord in your price range should serve you well. I just sold my 2004 Accord for $5,500 and it was in tip top shape with new tires, engine mounts, timing belt etc. Only 74k miles on it. The guy that got my old car got a BARGAIN!

Save out about $200 or $300 of your money to have your mechanic evaluate any of the cars you're thinking of buying to insure that a massive repair isn't necessary. It should cost about $100 for your mechanic to hook up a car to determine if it's worth the money and won't have any huge repair costs in the future.

If you finance your car, the lein-holder will insist on comprehensive insurance, which is expensive because it coveres both liability and your actual vehicle. So buy what you can with cash and avoid extra charges.

It is much less expensive to drive a beater, and have only Liability insurance, especially for a young driver. It will suck if your car is totaled and it's your fault, because you'll have to come out of pocket for a new one, but if you can save a few bucks into a "car emergency fund" you may be able to save whatever the insurance company would have paid you anyway. Also, you'll need to save back cash every month for inevitable repairs.

DON'T get a Volvo or a Mercedes. I had a Mercedes and the service schedule was murderously expensive. Shit, price out the tires, you'll see what I mean.

Look for a Civic, or a Corolla, or even a Yaris. Cheap to run, cheap to repair, reliable as the day is long.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:15 AM on September 13, 2013

Response by poster: Thanks for the answers, guys.

Some follow-up questions:

How do I find mechanics who specialize in Hondas and Toyotas?

How do I arrange for a mechanic to inspect a car I'm interested in? What's the usual procedure when I'm working this out with a dealer? With a private owner?

Thanks again.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 3:11 PM on September 13, 2013

Car Talk Mechanics Files Find a good mechanic and talk to them ahead of time to find out how they'd like to work it.

Just say you want to have your mechanic (not their mechanic) inspect the car before you buy it. THEN DON"T SIGN ANYTHING that doesn't explicitly say something like, "contingent on inspection by Rustic Etruscan's mechanic."
posted by jon1270 at 3:37 PM on September 13, 2013

Response by poster: Update: I'm still looking for a car (I had a reprieve: My brother got a car before I did, and he didn't move out until this weekend, so I could use his car while saving for one of my own). I re-read the advice here and found it still helpful. If it affects anything, my cash-on-hand is now about $8700, thanks to some savings and some money my family gave me. Does this give me as much breathing room as I think it does?

My friend is still pushing Saabs and Volvos sold by private dealers out in Hartford. How to deal with his obvious offense at any mention of a dealership, or even of a Honda sedan, is an AskMe of its own.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 4:07 PM on May 5, 2014

You can absolutely buy a good car for $8700. You can also buy a junker at the same price, or overpay for a mediocre car. The advice stays the same: choose a practical model, have it independently inspected, and save some money for inevitable repairs. Ignore your friend about the Volvos, Saabs, Mercedes, etc. He is in love with fine old cars, which I am totally sympathetic with, but he is shopping vicariously through you instead of giving you good advice.
posted by jon1270 at 6:28 AM on May 6, 2014

Response by poster: Update: I bought a 2007 Hyundai Sonata with 85,000 miles on it for $4500. It needs some small repairs, and there's some damage on the body, but that damage is cosmetic, and I can live with it if I can't find a body shop that can fix it inexpensively enough. I got it from a private seller and I hope it has a lot of good years left in it. Thanks for your advice, everyone.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 2:00 PM on June 18, 2014

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