What's the best car for car idiots?
May 13, 2014 5:25 PM   Subscribe

I am moving to the SF South Bay in a few months and need to buy a car. I've read previous car-buying askme's, done a bit of avoid-scams/how-to-haggle online research, but mostly I'm overwhelmed. Step 1, I think: make, model, new or used?!? Please help me choose a car!

Some questions going 'round 'n' 'round in my head:

1) For a young first-time car buyer, is it better to go with a new car? I know nothing about cars and would prefer to learn the minimum amount possible about them, but I'm willing to pay other people reasonable amounts of money to fix my car if it breaks in an obvious way, or to follow a maintenance schedule that's spelled out for me.

2) Where/how do I find a "trusted mechanic" if I'm new to the area? It seems like this is a must if I'm shopping for a used car. For instance, buying a used rental car seems like a good way of avoiding new-car depreciation while getting mechanical reliability.

3) How much car can I "afford"? I have decent credit--low 600's, no late payments, no debt of any kind, ~3 years of credit history--and will be making an entry-level software engineer's salary. But I also might be going back to grad school in 1-5 years, back on the East Coast, at which point I'd have to figure out what to do with my car. If I'm going to splurge on something, I'd rather get a nicer apartment close to work than have a nicer car. Still, I can afford to buy something that isn't an old clunker.

3) How do I choose the make and model? I definitely want 4 doors, existent trunk space, good gas mileage, adjustable seats (my significant other is a foot+ taller than me). So probably a compact with decent headroom; what about hybrids? Automatic keyless ignition would be nice, to save digging my keys out of my purse, but it's not worth thousands of dollars if it comes to that. The last time I remember being in a car dealership, power windows was a fancy new option.

Ideally I want to buy an inexpensive car (factoring in gas costs) with minimum maintenance/repair hassle. The upper end of my price range is in the low twenties, if I give up on "maximizing" and just buy a new Prius, but I feel like I'd be overpaying for the very small luxuries of picking my favorite paint color and ooh'ing over "power button" ignition. OTOH, if I buy a cheaper used car under 10k, I could probably pay cash (but maybe a loan will actually be better for building my credit history).

Can someone who knows about cars please help me sort through all these competing factors? What are the most important points to think about? Thanks in advance!
posted by serelliya to Travel & Transportation (13 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I think you want a 4-5 year old (under 50k miles) Honda Civic sedan.
posted by Kriesa at 5:39 PM on May 13, 2014 [4 favorites]

Civic. Corolla. Perhaps a Fit if you want to go smaller. Mid-to-late 00s gets you around the 10k mark depending on mileage. You need to factor in insurance as well as maintenance, and you want both decent resale value and to be sure of potential buyers if/when you move back east. If you really want to get a loan for credit agency display purposes, then get it from a bank for maybe half the purchase price, in the knowledge that if you sold it in a year or had it unexpectedly crushed by a passing truck while parked you wouldn't be underwater or have to faff about over the title.

Basically: start with a "dull" car that won't surprise you and has the fewest possible gizmos and gadgets to break.
posted by holgate at 5:44 PM on May 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

I drive a 2007 Toyota Carolla. It is the best car.

It's a little older than what I would prefer, but seven years is a good sweet spot between "loses a third of its value when you drive it off the lot" and "clunker". I've taken it to the mechanic exactly once, because the brakes are a bit squeaky and I don't know anything about brake maintenance. I was told they have another 10K miles on them, so probably another year.

Also, it's old enough that it was pretty affordable and the car dealership stakes weren't that high, and I'm not that deep in hock over the thing. I was leery of going into $15-20K of debt over a car.
posted by Sara C. at 6:00 PM on May 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

mmm. I'd say get the loan, money is very cheap right now. Car loans are great for credit easier to get than almost anything else because of built in collateral and they report monthly like clockwork.

As for the car, I'd say new... Because warranty and having free oil changes thrown in (I got 5 at n/c)

As for brand it really doesn't matter. Go with what tickles you. There are nearly limitless fun, technically advanced cars with push button ignition and cool Bluetooth type stuff all under $20k.

The two best that come to mind are the Mazda 3 and the dodge dart. Full disclosure the dart is what I bought after researching for months. Excellent value. Really good mileage and starts at like $15k with lots of good options. In this case you CAN pick color and pref of features and still end up at like 19k... With a just a few G down you'll have a tidy payment and a nice car. And still have your cash in hand for life or savings or whatever.
posted by chasles at 6:21 PM on May 13, 2014

I think the big question is how long you are going to keep the car. If you are going to keep for as long as it is running well (10+ years), I would compare the cost of buying one new car (picking a super reliable, holds it value car like Toyota or Honda) vs. two six year old cars (for 12 years of car owning life). Example from California, new Toyota Corollla LE = $20k, vs 2008 Corolla for $11k. For me, the certainty of getting new car makes it an easy choice.

However, if you think that you would be trying to sell the car when you go back to school, you should do the compare the price of new car with the resale value of one that is a 2 years old and then do a similar calculation in the difference between say a five-year old car and a seven year old car. I don't know but I'm guessing you lose less with used cars (but please check it out for yourself - "everyone knows" how much prices drop in the first few years but that wasn't true for the highly reliable cars I was looking at the last time I went shopping.
posted by metahawk at 6:51 PM on May 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

Consider an electric or a plug-in hybrid for the silver or green sticker HOV lane access. Like chasles says, money is really cheap right now. Leases on the tiny electrics (Spark, Fiat) and even slightly larger (Focus, Leaf) start at $199/mo. The green sticker access (plug-in hybrids) might not be extended past Jan 1, 2019 (yellow sticker normal hybrids already expired), but silver doesn't have a sunset. If your employer has EV charging or it's available nearby, you don't need a high power/high speed charger at home. A 120V overnight top-off could be enough.

I say this only because you have a partner who might have a (gas) car and because traffic here is bad & getting worse with the tech economy boomlet. If you want to be able to drive to Stinson beach & there will only be one car between you, electric won't work unless you're willing to rent. Last two times I've driven to L.A., I rented, but I wasn't staying long so the unlimited mileage on the rental was cheaper than the depreciation on my car.
posted by morganw at 6:53 PM on May 13, 2014 [3 favorites]

How often and how far do you think you'll be driving it? If you get a used car with say 50,000 miles, you should be fine (i.e., low maintenance costs) for at least another 50,000 miles if it's a reliable car. Japanese cars still probably have the best reputation for holding up well over time, although recent American and European cars are no longer far behind.

Purchasing directly on Craigslist might save you a few thousand dollars compared to buying from a dealer. But buying a "certified" used car from a dealer might get you into a vehicle that has been previously leased for three years and has about 36,000 miles on it (typical leases are 12,000 miles per year without a penalty) and has been depreciated about 40% or so, which means you get good reliability and a decent discount off new.

You can look at Kelly Blue Book for used car pricing, and I think at JD Power for reliability statistics. Edmunds is also a good resource for reviews and pricing.

Test drive some cars, see what you like. Everyone has subjective opinions about ride quality, road and wind and engine noise, seat comfort, visibility, handling, acceleration, braking, etc. Regardless of reviews, you have to drive a car to know whether you like it or not, and you'll know pretty quickly after you get behind the wheel.
posted by Dansaman at 10:28 PM on May 13, 2014

Where will you be living, and is there any possibility that you can live close enough to work/other necessities that you could consider biking instead (or public transit)? I know it's more common for people in the South Bay to drive than in, say, SF or Oakland, but the weather around here is really very good for biking almost all of the time. Better for the environment, better for your physical and mental health, etc. etc.
posted by three_red_balloons at 6:37 AM on May 14, 2014

There are a lot of good compact-but-roomy new cars in your price range. When I was in a very similar position and mindset to you last year - except my budget was a little lower - I ended up with a 2013 Hyundai Accent GS (hatchback). I love it. In your position with the higher budget, I might've gone with an Elantra GT, which is another hatchback but roomier and with some better specs than the Accent. Hyundai has a very good warranty also. Those are worth checking out if you end up going new.
posted by wondermouse at 7:12 AM on May 14, 2014

I used to sell new cars for a living.

The buying process is a little easier and you can be more confident that you're not getting ripped off since every new car is in the same condition (new), has all of the factory warranty left, and there are lots of placed online (kbb.com, edmunds.com, etc) that will tell you the invoice prices of the car you're looking at and any rebates that exist so it's a little easier to haggle.

However, you pay a big premium for those advantages. Enough of a premium that I think basically everyone should buy a used car instead.

Certified used cars are nice because they come with a little extra warranty, are easy to compare because all certified used cars are in about the same condition (gently used) and the haggling is usually not too hard because they are often high volume cars which keeps the window price pretty close to the price that most people actually pay.

I also think rental returns are a good fit for a lot of people for a lot of the same reasons. Rental companies take really good care of them so they are often in better shape than their miles would suggest and the higher mileage drives the price down a bit.

Edmunds.com is a good resource for narrowing down choices on make/model/year and figuring out what's in your price range. The rough estimate that we used for budgeting when I was a salesperson and the customer knew what they were comfortable with for a monthly payment but not what that translated to in terms of price was 2% or $20 per $1,000. So, if you want to pay about $200/month, you'd want to look at $10,000 cars (assuming no down payment).

After you've got it narrowed down to a few models, you need to go and drive them. Back to back if you can. Feel free to make notes about things you did or didn't like. Try to stay rational about it. For most people who are other wise rational, this is really hard, even for me and I've sold hundreds of cars.

You can look through my ask.me posting history for TONs of other advice about how to go about buying a car or feel free to memail me if you have specific questions.
posted by VTX at 9:27 AM on May 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

Read Consumer Reports car buying guide. Most valuable for used cars -- which are usually the best value all around -- because it shows actual performance data, not just predictions (as it does for new cars).
posted by LonnieK at 9:52 AM on May 14, 2014

If you ever plan on doing much driving in San Francisco, consider getting a vehicle with an automatic transmission. I move to the East Bay a couple years ago with my 2007 Civic but spend most weekends up in SF. Driving a manual can be annoying in the city, especially parallel parking if you're not used to having to get out of a tight spot while on a steep incline.
posted by Thoughtcrime at 5:02 PM on May 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

I forgot to mention this earlier but building on what Thoughtcrime mentions, if you plan on doing much driving around SF proper, make sure the car you buy has a decent parking break and that you are comfortable using it no matter what kind of transmission it has.

You are supposed to use the parking break any time you're parked but a lot of people just use the catch built into the transmission but it's really not designed to hold the car in place if you're parked on a hill and certainly not on the kinds of hills you might find yourself parking on in SF.

Also make sure you're familiar with which way to turn your wheels when parked on a hill if you're facing up/down hill.
posted by VTX at 7:43 AM on May 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

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