Please help me buy my first car! Snowflakey details inside.
June 9, 2014 7:50 PM   Subscribe

I am, unfortunately, in the market for a (used) car. I know nothing about cars. I need a car for upcoming PhD research travel to inaccessible places, but, being a PhD student, have very little money. I need help figuring out: a cheap but reliable car model, a price bracket to spend that will have me driving something that won't literally fall apart on the road, what my deal-breakers should be, and a game plan on where and how to actually purchase a used car. Help?

My situation is that I'm an advanced PhD student with very little money, and my stipend is going to be ending in the late summer, at which point I will obviously have even less money. Nevertheless, in order to be able to finish my PhD, I have finally decided that I need a car for the extensive research travel that I have coming up over the next year: I slogged it out this past year without a car and it wasn't workable, and I don't actually think I can finish my research and write-up without having a car and the flexible transportation that it will give me. I'm an inexperienced driver (working on that right now!), and know nothing about cars. I'm hoping you all can give me some of your usual great advice:

1. What kind of car should I get? I don't care about stylishness at all: I want a reliable workhorse car that is as cheap as possible, and that can be driven into the ground. Ideally something that is as low maintenance as possible, even when it is old and has a lot of miles. It needs to be good on both the highway (I'll be road-tripping to various research locations all over the country) and within towns/cities. The car can be quite small, and I think I only need two doors. Basically, I need to be able to fit myself, possibly another person, and luggage. I also need as good mileage as possible, to save on gas costs. My parents have a Honda Civic, and they have recommended this as a reliable car with good gas mileage. Are there other makes and models that you would suggest I check out?

2. What price bracket should I be looking in for a reliable used car? I browsed Craigslist today, and it looks like there are potentially drivable cars (Honda Civics) with problems for $500-1000, and perfectly drivable (according to the sellers) cars with high mileage (130,000+ miles) for $2000-4000. There are cars with lower mileage (40,000-100,000 miles) for $8000-12,000. Obviously I would like the cheapest car possible, but I would like to minimize my chance of breaking down in the middle of nowhere on the highway, given I'm going to be doing a lot of solo traveling far from home. What is the cheapest price bracket where I could expect a reasonably decent car? How many repairs would cars need with what frequency in which price bracket? I was planning on getting a Civic for $2500 or $3500 that had around 150,000 miles on it, and my dad thought that car is at the very end of its life, and that that is pouring money down the drain - he said that I'm going to be spending $10,000 anyway, so I might as well get a low-mileage car rather than getting something with 150,000 and then pouring $5000 into it. Is he right? Do I really need to spend $8000+? (I'm on the East Coast, if it matters in terms of pricing.) I am totally happy with my car having even extensive cosmetic issues and general ugliness that doesn't affect functionality (peeling paint, scratches, dents that don't hurt performance, etc.), but I'm concerned about things that would harm the function of the car. Also, some of the cars in the $2000-3000 price range appear to have new engines that only have, say, 50,000 miles on them, but the car itself has 200,000 miles - how do I factor that into my calculus of the condition/value? I really don't have $10,000 to spend, and what I can comfortably spend is more in the $3000-4000 range (if not lower), but if I have to spend $10,000 to get a workable car to finish my PhD, then I guess I'd rather start out with something reliable rather than get something cheap and have it break in the middle of nowhere and have to spend the money anyway.

3. Where do I get a used car? I've had a look on Craigslist and Ebay, but obviously there are no guarantees on those two sites (Craigslist in particular), and you really have no way to know what you're buying. Is a used car dealer any better? Should I be trying to find something with a warranty? Would I be better off buying an expensive used car ($10,000) in the expectation that it has been well maintained, or should I get the cheapest thing possible and use the remaining money to take it to my parents' mechanic for a complete overhaul? Is Craigslist totally a bad idea?

4. What should I consider deal-breakers when I look for a used car to buy? A certain mileage number? A certain age of car? Rebuilds from salvage? Lack of maintenance records? A car that isn't up on its inspections? Etc.

5. What are the logistics of actually buying a used car? Can I have my mechanic check it first (even if I'm buying from someone from Craigslist)? How do I do this - should I try to bring my mechanic there, or will the person be willing to drive it to my mechanic? How much can/should I negotiate on price? How do I know if the asking price is fair, or if it's massively inflated? Can I drive the car home once I purchase it, or do I have to have it towed or something? Presumably it won't have a license plate on it? Do I need to get the person to sign anything like a transfer agreement before handing over the cash? If I buy the car in another (neighboring) state, does that make the title transfer etc. much more complicated?

I'm probably missing a whole bunch of important things here, so I'd love any other advice for things I've neglected to ask. Please school me like I'm totally ignorant about this subject, because I am. Thank you!
posted by ClaireBear to Travel & Transportation (29 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
Do you live where they salt the roads?
posted by sebastienbailard at 7:52 PM on June 9, 2014

Response by poster: sebastienbailard: I believe I do, and I'll be driving all over the country, so I imagine I will probably be driving in areas where they salt the roads in any case? Could you tell me how that changes what I should be looking out for?
posted by ClaireBear at 7:58 PM on June 9, 2014

How often will you be doing these travels? How long is each individual trip? Would it at all make sense to limit yourself to rental cars when you need them? You'd be much more likely to end up with a newish, reliable car, and you wouldn't have to worry about long term costs like insurance, parking and maintenance.
posted by BlahLaLa at 8:06 PM on June 9, 2014 [3 favorites]

salt the roads in any case? Could you tell me how that changes what I should be looking out for?

I think it means the undercarriage and body of the car has the potential for lots of rust, compared to a car with the same mileage from Miami or San Diego.

(I don't know much about cars.)
posted by sebastienbailard at 8:43 PM on June 9, 2014

Best answer: Oh man, I have so many things to say I don't even know where to start.

I used to sell cars for a living and have answered a lot of similar questions in the past. I'll try and post some of the most relevant ones here in the morning.

In terms of the lowest cost of ownership, something is the $500-$1,000 is the way to go. The insurance will be cheap, you'll be able to sell it for about what you bought it for, and even if you have to fix some stuff, that stuff will now be new and won't break again. HOWEVER, it is totally going to break down and leave you stranded somewhere. A mechanic might be able to point to a few things major or otherwise to fix but they won't be able to anticipate everything. With as much traveling as it sounds like you'll be doing, it is totally going to break down on you.

In fact, especially since you know next to nothing about cars, it's possible that ANY car will break down on you. Get a AAA membership for the year, just in case.

Craigslist is a totally fine way to buy a car. I'd stay away from eBay since you'll want any car you might buy to be local where your mechanic (once you've found one) can check it out. Dealerships are nice because they'll handle pretty much all of the paperwork for you. Yes, you'll be able to drive the car home even with a private party purchase from someone on Craigslist. Your state's website probably has a guide somewhere about how to sell a car and transfer the title. There usually isn't all that much to it but it can vary from state to state.

Just about any well cared for Japanese compact is going to be a good fit. The Honda Civic would be at the top of my list along with the Honda Fit (which is probably too new to fit in your price range), Toyota Corolla, Maybe an older Mazda 3. You basically need a small car with an automatic transmission, front-wheel drive in case you need to drive in the snow (almost all cars are front-wheel drive), and a working air conditioner.

For the kind of car that you're looking at, $10,000 would be nearly new. I'd bet good money that you could buy any $10,000 Honda Civic and it would get all over the country with no problems. But $5,000? It depends on the car.

Mileage is kind of tough. In general, mileage is more important than age but there are specific instances when mileage doesn't tell you much low mileage is bad while high mileage is good. On average, people drive 12,000-15,000 miles per year and a car could have first been purchased 6 months before it's model year (a 2010 Honda Civic could have been sold in June of 2009) so a Civic with 60,000 is about average. 30,000 is better and I would expect it to be in about the same condition as a 2011-2012 Civic. But if it only had 10,000 miles, I'd really want to know why. If it's because the person mostly drove it to work and back and only lived 3 miles away, I'd worry that the engine didn't have a chance to warm up causing a lot of extra wear. On the other hand a 2010 Civic with 120,000 might not bother me that much if it was because the person did a lot of highway driving (maybe they were a PhD student that need to drive all over the county, as an example) and they made sure to keep up with all the maintenance. I've seen cars used that way that have less wear than the same car with half the miles. The general trends with miles drive most of the pricing but it's by no means the whole story.

A car, especially something like a Honda Civic with over 100,000 miles wouldn't scare me off as long as I could get the story behind it and have a mechanic check it out.

I'm off to bed now but I'll probably have more to say tomorrow.
posted by VTX at 8:57 PM on June 9, 2014 [9 favorites]

Best answer: Cut your shortlist back to small and Japanese in the $2500-$3500 price range. Don't put anything on your short-short list unless it has a documented maintenance history (people who care about their cars keep that stuff). Get anything on your short-short list inspected by a mechanic.

Rust and gross body damage are really the only dealbreakers in small Japanese cars; anything else is properly fixable for under $2000, which is why it's not ever worth spending more than $5000 on a used car.

If you're buying at the $2500 end of the spectrum, expect to put about another $1500 into the machine to get reliability. If at the $3500 end, about $500 will probably cover it.
posted by flabdablet at 8:58 PM on June 9, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Kind of car: the most reliable choice for cheap used car is older small Japanese cars (only Toyota, Honda, Nissan). Avoid ones that have been modded.

Price bracket for reliable: There are no guarantees as far as price & reliability, unless you go new or nearly new, but there are models of cars which are known to be more reliable than others. The Civic is a good option; the Toyota Corolla is another. It is entirely possible to find a reliable older small car with around 120,000 miles for a few thousand dollars.

You can have a car checked out by a mechanic before you buy it, just tell the seller to drop off the car at a nearby mechanic of your choosing, and you pay the mechanic.

I've found Craigslist to be a pretty good source for cars, but you have to ask a lot of questions to weed out the scammers and cars that don't fit your needs. This old post of mine has more on that:

Dealbreakers: If you're buying in a region where they salt the roads, cars older than about six years may have rust, and cars older than 8-10 years may have serious problems with rust. You will have to look under the car to see how bad it is. I would not even consider a car older than 10 years in this case. But the main dealbreaker is shifty sellers. If you get confusing answers to your questions, or any kind of long story, especially about the title, don't buy the car. Avoid el cheapo used car dealers like the plague; their entire business model is knowing how to make a crappy car look good, along with hard-sell tricks.

Specific logistics of buying the car: we need to know what state you're in for this. But generally, you have the seller sign over the title to you when you pay them, then you have to get insurance and plates for the car before you can drive it. Insurance can be done over the phone if you're near a fax machine (a bank will let you borrow theirs), and the plates require a trip to the dmv.

Whatever model of car you decide to buy, learn what the common problems for that model and generation are. If you buy a car that is not new or nearly new, just be aware that issues and repairs may be necessary and should be expected. There may have been deferred maintenance that you will have to take care of. Being diligent with maintenance is how you avoid expensive repairs and breaking down on the road.
posted by the big lizard at 9:19 PM on June 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: On the cost of repairs: lots and lots of people will spend $10000 on a used car solely for fear of needing to spend $2000 to fix a $3000 car. In my experience, the latter is the better bargain, in small Japanese cars (I'd add Daihatsu to the big lizard's list of reliable brands, having been the happy owner of two of them).

I've only owned three cars. All of them have been used cars bought for around $3500. All of them have been fine reliable machines; the last two, being Japanese, more so than the original Leyland Mini. Keeping them that way has indeed cost a little more than would be necessary for a $10,000+ car, but I'm still way in front. And the only reason I have owned three is because other people crashed the first two.
posted by flabdablet at 2:29 AM on June 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Like VTX wrote, all older cars with lots of miles on them break now and then. There's no such thing as a car that operates perfectly until some knowable expiration date and then harmlessly evaporates. If you're not an experienced driver then you're much less likely to notice emerging problems; you'll miss the warning signs, which is how you'll get stranded in the middle of nowhere.

Consider what happens when your car breaks down in a rural area far from home. You have very little choice about what repair shop you have it towed to, because towing mileage is expensive. You can't read reviews of the one or two repair shops in range because small-town business are much less likely to have online reviews at all, so you're just crossing your fingers and hoping to be treated fairly. You're in a terrible negotiating position. You're also late to wherever you were going -- possibly days late -- and you have to pay for extra restaurant meals and a hotel. This situation sucks and is expensive, so don't flirt with it by repeatedly driving a halfway worn-out car far from home if you can possibly avoid it.

I think there's probably a happy medium somewhere between your ~$3500 comfort level and your dad's $10K suggestion -- something not so new that it depreciates rapidly and not so old that you have a lot of maintenance headaches. I've owned a bunch of (initially) cheap cars over last 25 years, and in retrospect the cheaper ones were more trouble than they were worth. Because you are going to be driving far from home and don't know much about cars, I think the upper end of your comfort level is the absolute least you should consider spending. Once you own it, resist this urge you have to keep maintenance costs to a minimum. Instead, do whatever maintenance your well-reviewed, highly-recommended mechanic tells you it needs, even though it pushes your total costs beyond your comfort level. Reminiscent of that line from the Princess Bride, car ownership is expensive. Anyone who says otherwise is selling something.
posted by jon1270 at 3:06 AM on June 10, 2014

Best answer: This graphic (from /r/whatcarshouldibuy, originally from 4chan) has a great breakdown of cars available for under $5K and the pros and cons of each.
posted by melissasaurus at 4:54 AM on June 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Here are a couple of answers that deal specifically with the mechanic's inspection:

Negotiating a used car directly with owner

Some questions on purchasing a used car

And some more general car buying advice:

Baby, you can drive my car, but I have to find one first

Purchasing a mid-life crisis

Buying a user car

A lot of that is geared towards buying from a dealership but applies just as well to buying from a private party.

1. What kind of car should I get?
Here is a primer on the various generations of Honda Civic. I'd probably look for a 2005 model in the "DX" or "LX" trim. Use that site to check out some of the other suggestions.

One thing to consider is that a slightly larger car will be more comfortable as you start to rack up the highway miles. Something like a 2005 Toyota Camry should have a smoother ride and be quieter inside without costing that much more in either the initial cost or in gas mileage and might be cheaper on insurance. If you end up driving 20,000 miles, the difference between averaging 28mpg (the Civic) and 25mpg (the Camry) is only $300 and might leave you less exhausted from driving. I think it would be worth a test drive (especially if you can do the Civic and Camry back-to-back), then try to imagine how much of a difference the larger car would make after a 5-hour drive.

2. What price bracket should I be looking in for a reliable used car?

I think $5,000-$6,000 will be the sweet spot but I wouldn't be too rigid about it.

As I said before, mileage is just one part of the story. With the price range that you're looking at, you'll should end up looking at private party sales and trade-ins where you'll be able to get some or all of the story behind it. Low mileage is good so long as it wasn't a ton of short trips and/or stop-and-go-traffic and city driving. An '05 with 50,000 miles like that would be in rough shape but if it only had 50,000 miles because the previous owner worked from home and only drove it on an hour long highway trip twice a week or something, it might be nearly new. Same deal with much higher than average miles. Lots of highway trips cause very little wear on a car so high mileage that is almost all highway is not a big deal.

I wouldn't be too concerned with a high-mileage car (150,000 or more miles), just make sure that all the maintenance has been done. A lot of car's maintenance schedules call for some pretty major work at the 100,000 or 120,000 mile mark. They might need a new timing belt (though a lot of engines use timing chains that last forever), new spark plugs, or even more major stuff like an engine rebuild that involves replacing compression rings and various gaskets and bearings. You might be able to find the maintenance schedules online so you can figure out what work that model should have had done and when so you'll be able to ask when you to look at the car.

3. Where do I get a used car?

Craigslist is great, eBay probably won't work all that well. There are often local/regional websites that let people post car ads (for a small fee) that you can use for free. Here in Minneapolis, lots of people use They are nation-wide but I don't know how many listings will be in your area. and are both similar sites.

And, of course, you can look at dealerships and their websites. Lots of dealers are owned by the same company (the Luther Auto Group is the largest in Minnesota) and they'll have one website that will let you search through the used car inventory of all of their dealerships or just the ones within a specified mileage of your zip code. I wouldn't be afraid to buy from a dealer.

4. What should I consider deal-breakers when I look for a used car to buy?

Salvage titles would be a deal-breaker for me if I were in your shoes (but can be a good deal for someone who really knows where they are doing). Maintenance records are good but not having them wouldn't be a deal breaker for me. Though it would be nice to get some of the story behind the maintenance. They might be able to describe for you how they maintained it or they might really know their way around cars and do a lot of the maintenance work themselves. I don't have records of oil changes in my cars because I change the oil myself but I didn't save that stuff even when I had professionals do it for me. But, I can still tell you that I put full-synthetic oil in both of my cars every 6-months or 5,000 miles, whichever comes first.

Anything else is just going to be looking at the car and comparing it's condition to the other cars you've looked at and listening to what is known about the car's history.

5. What are the logistics of actually buying a used car? and are good starting points for figuring out what a car should be worth. You'll also be looking a lot of similar cars and you'll start to see a pattern in how they're priced. If all else fails, you could look at the private party value for a specific year/make/model in "fair" condition, maybe subtract a few hundred dollars depending on the condition of the specific car you're looking at, and use that as the basis of an opening offer. The worst anyone can do is say, "No."

If the say in the ad that the price is "firm" or "non-negotiable" or something like that, then they probably won't come down on the price. Though you'd be surprised what can happen if you tell someone that if they sell it for $X you'll buy it right now. Otherwise, it's safe to assume that the price is negotiable.

You probably need to have insurance on the car before you drive it so you'll want to contact an agent before hand and ask them how you need to go about doing that. You might find out that you can get the insurance later or something too. If you buy from a dealer, they'll take care of the paperwork and you'll drive the car home. Otherwise, it is probably a matter of the previous owner filling out some stuff on the title and giving you some sort of bill of sale. Then you take that (sometime in the next 30-days) to the DMV (for the state where you live no matter where you bought the car) where you'll pay sales-tax on it and some other fees and fill out some other paperwork. A few weeks later, you'll get the new title and that will be it.

Feel free to ask any follow-up questions but this should be enough info to get you started.
posted by VTX at 9:08 AM on June 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I called the mechanic of my choice first, to ask whether I could come in and get them to inspect a used car while I wait. They said it would cost $50. When I found the small Japanese car I wanted on Craigslist, I arranged to meet the seller at the mechanic. The mechanic inspected the major systems on the car, and gave some of them a green light because they were confirmed OK and some of them a yellow light because they couldn't see those parts clearly without taking everything apart, although they didn't see any particular warning signs either. That was 3 years ago, and the car hasn't needed any major repairs.
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 9:20 AM on June 10, 2014

Best answer: The Civic and Corolla are great, but you'll probably have a hard time finding a good one for cheap. You might also want to look into a 10-year-old Hyundai Accent or Elantra. Hyundai had started getting its act together by this time, and these cars, while by no means luxurious, were pretty solid. You should be able to find one with under 100,000 miles at a much lower price than a Civic or Corolla, and could probably get one from a private party for a couple thousand bucks. (Just make sure the seller has the service records, and get the car checked out by a mechanic.) If you don't believe me, check out the consumer reviews for the 2004/5 Accent on Edmunds. When well cared for, they last.

One thing to watch out for with any car of this age: Most cars have what's called an interference engine, which means that if the timing belt breaks, the pistons and valves will almost certainly crash into each other and your engine is kaput. So it's crucial to make sure the timing belt has been changed recently. If you're considering a specific model, get the maintenance schedule online and find out how often the belt needs to be changed (usually every 60,000 to 90,000 miles), and get documentation from the seller as to when it's been done. A lot of people sell right before the timing belt is due, because it's not an inexpensive job, usually running about $500 to $1,000 based on the car. So if you're considering a car that's going to need the timing belt changed soon, figure this into the price.

Spring for the Carfax record to make sure the car hasn't been in a flood or has a salvage title. No matter how cheap, these cars are almost never worth it.
posted by Leatherstocking at 10:35 AM on June 10, 2014

Best answer: I posted this question a while back. Might be helpful.
posted by geegollygosh at 6:28 PM on June 10, 2014

Response by poster: Thank you so much, all! AskMe always has good advice, but you all have really outdone yourself here. I've marked a few of the more detailed answers that I found particularly helpful, but all of you really helped me out. I've taken your advice to heart, and am currently following it: I'm looking for a Toyota Corolla or Honda Civic (or possibly other models of those manufacturers) in good condition, with no rust or gross body damage, sold by a private person/family, with reasonably good maintenance records or at least an oral history of what they've done with it, focusing as much on how they've treated it as the number of the odometer. I'll be getting the Carfax and having my parents' mechanic inspect it before I hand over any cash. I'll update with the result once I make a purchase - hopefully within the next few days if all goes well.
posted by ClaireBear at 12:39 PM on June 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: So, I'm looking seriously at a few different options. I pulled up Carfax reports on my two front-runners. One of them said it was a "total loss" in 2007 (when the first owner had it). Apparently the second owner (the current one) acquired it a few months later. When I saw the car today, the owner did not tell me about this (maybe she didn't know?), but she did say that they have had no problems with it since 2007 when they owned it. What does this "total loss" thing mean, and should I consider this to be a problem (or even a deal-breaker)?
posted by ClaireBear at 3:32 PM on June 11, 2014

Best answer: Total deal breaker. It means that car was in an accident and was written off by the insurance company as a total loss. I don't believe that they don't know about it (unless carfax has their info wrong) as the car would have a salvage title.
posted by VTX at 3:48 PM on June 11, 2014

Best answer: It actually is possible for a salvage titled car to be repaired well. You can have your mechanic give their opinion of the quality of the repairs. However, the fact that the seller didn't tell you about it is what I would consider a dealbreaker here. And salvage titled cars should be significantly cheaper than equivalent non-salvage cars.

You may also want to include the Chevy Prizm in your search. It's a Toyota Corolla wearing Chevy badges, so they are sometimes cheaper for that reason alone. '98-'02 was the last generation they did the rebadge thing. The '98-'02 Prizm/Corolla does burn oil, but this is not a problem as long as you check the oil frequently (every 500 miles or so) and add oil as necessary. Just make sure to ask "How much oil does it burn?" It's good to know the problem areas before you see the car or even talk to the seller.

Remember to walk away from any deal where the seller has given you any reason to suspect they're not telling the complete truth. It's also good to ask people why they are selling their car. It's best if they have some external reason for selling, like if they just graduated from college and need to sell their car before they move.

Something like this would likely be a good buy. One thing to avoid is freshly painted wheels or hubcaps like this; car flippers seem to do that a lot.
posted by the big lizard at 4:58 PM on June 11, 2014

Best answer: Reposting my last paragraph with links that won't break within weeks:

Something like this would likely be a good buy. One thing to avoid is freshly painted wheels or hubcaps like this; car flippers seem to do that a lot.
posted by the big lizard at 5:14 PM on June 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

The Big Lizard is right, salvage titled cars can certainly be great. I just wouldn't buy one if it were the first car I even bought or I was a person that didn't know much about cars. I personally wouldn't buy one unless I was the one doing the repairs or having the repairs done so that I knew with 100% certainty what work was done and what condition it was in before.
posted by VTX at 6:59 AM on June 12, 2014

Best answer: Clearcoat cancer like what's on the hood of the big lizard's first good buy is only really an issue for people who care how good their cars look as opposed to how reliable they are. However, it's often a clue that the affected panel has been repainted, probably due to having been replaced, probably due to having been damaged, probably due to some kind of accident.

If such a car ends up on your short-short list - especially if the clearcoat damage is limited to one or two panels - make sure the owner has a plausible story, preferably with supporting documentation, that explains how that happened.

My own little car (1995 Daihatsu Mira) has clearcoat cancer on the hood due to it having been replaced after a sign fell on the original one from a shop verandah I was parked outside; the rest of the paintwork still looks almost as-new.
posted by flabdablet at 7:24 AM on June 12, 2014

Response by poster: Thanks, all! Super helpful! I passed on the salvaged car, especially as it was the pricier option. The car that I am hopefully buying (with various similarities to the first one that the big lizard linked) apparently does have clear-coat issues across the entire top (the paint is patchy looking, so I guess that's what it is) - that's its major problem, along with scratches on the bumper from city parking. The owner said it's never been in an accident, and Carfax and Autocheck seem to agree (I know their info is limited). He said it's because it has never been garaged and has been in Southern California for all of its life except the last few years. Some googling tells me that sun can cause this - is that right? Is it only a cosmetic issue, or will I need to have it repainted (?) so it doesn't rust etc.? I don't care about aesthetics, so will keep it as-is if it won't cause damage to the car, but I wouldn't want to damage the car by doing so. I'm hoping to get the car either way, though, assuming my mechanic gives it the okay, as the price is right!
posted by ClaireBear at 2:16 PM on June 12, 2014

Best answer: Eh, I'd say it's kind of a minor issue. Yeah, the sun could totally cause that. As long as it's just on the hood, I wouldn't worry too much about it. It's pretty much just a cosmetic issue. It might rust, maybe, eventually. But probably not while you own it. And the worst case is that you need to replace the whole hood. A quick search shows me that a brand new hood costs about $200 plus whatever it costs to have it painted. Or, you'd be able to get one from a junk yard. But, as long as any rust that forms (and it might not) should stay relegated to the hood, it shouldn't be a big deal.
posted by VTX at 4:29 PM on June 12, 2014

Best answer: If by "across the entire top" you mean the roof: probably still not an issue, even though replacing a roof is hella expensive.

If a car body is going to start rusting, it will start in places where water collects (especially salty water, if you live near the sea or somewhere that gets salt dumped on the roads). Clearcoat is there to make the paint look all shiny and spiffy, and protect it to some extent against being scratched off; the paint itself is what keeps rust-making moist air away from the metal. If paintwork is deteriorating from sun exposure, that will typically be happening in places that sunlight has better access to than water, and the paint job will still have plenty of years of metal protection left in it.

The warning sign to watch out for with car paintwork is bubbly-looking bits in and near nooks and crannies, which show that corrosion has started creeping in under the edges of the paint and is now lifting it. When you start seeing that, it's time to find the place where water is getting access to metal, then deploy the rotary wire brush to cut that spot back to corrosion-free bare steel, then patch it with rust-preventing metal primer and a bit of gloss topcoat to slow that process down again.

Older cars built in English-speaking countries often have creeping corrosion issues around window seals and door sills, and once these become bad enough to be noticeable they're a pain in the arse to fix. In my experience, the paintwork on small Asian cars is good enough that this doesn't happen until the rest of the car is pretty much falling to bits.

By the way, I've realized I was telling lies when I said I'd only ever owned three cars: I'd forgotten about Rufus the Wonky Bus - who was fine for his intended purpose, but absolutely not something I would ever even contemplate keeping for more than the year I had him for.
posted by flabdablet at 11:14 PM on June 12, 2014

Response by poster: Happy update: everything is signed and I am now the proud owner of a car - a 2001 Toyota Corolla! The whole process went surprisingly well. I found the seller on Craigslist, and he was a PhD student like myself, and had just finished and was moving and won't need the car in the future. He seemed kind, honest, and fair, and he was willing to have a mechanic of my choosing inspect it before I agreed to buy. My mechanic checked it out and said that it was in great shape (and he said that he'd only say that about a handful of used cars out of a hundred, and had warned me that I'd probably have to bring him a lot of used cars before he gave me the go-ahead to buy one of them). No rust (it had been in SoCal for most of its life until the past few years), no collisions/accidents. The only issues were basically cosmetic (bumper scratches from city parking and clear-coat ugliness, which my mechanic agreed did not need to be fixed at present). It did need an oil change, inspection, and the struts replaced ($800 for the latter!), but I figure that any used car would need some work. The engine and everything else apparently are in great shape. We agreed on a price of $1900, which I thought was fair given the $800 non-routine-maintenance work required, which brought the price up to around Blue Book value (maybe a little higher, but for a reliable car that has never been in an accident that my mechanic gives the thumbs up - I was happy to pay it). Huzzah! Thank you all for all of your help - the advice all was excellent! I love Metafilter!
posted by ClaireBear at 9:06 AM on June 20, 2014

Best answer: Fantastic! Well done you.

Now, to keep the car running well, do not skimp on the servicing and do keep an eye on the oil level especially and the other fluid levels as well. Get in the habit of eyeballing those every time you put fuel in the car.

If you've not owned a car before, you'll be dismayed at how much it costs to keep one running. Grin and bear it: as long as you're working with a good mechanic who's not out to rip you blind, just let it be expensive, and keep reminding yourself that compared to the guy whose $25,000 new car still has four years of warranty to run, you're still way ahead. When the mechanic says something looks like it will need replacing soon, erring on the side of sooner rather than later will keep your transport reliable.

I can recommend the same rule for budget-constrained PhD students as I used with Rufus the Wonky Bus as a budget-constrained traveler: every time you pay for fuel, get out as much cash as you've just paid for the fuel, stick that in a tin or an envelope that you put away somewhere secure, and forget you've done that until it's time to pay for servicing or registration or oil or replacement parts.

Doubling the price you pay for fuel will do several things: it will remind you how glad you are to be running a little Corolla instead of some hideous guzzler; it will encourage you to learn to drive economically, which will in turn reduce wear on your car; and it will almost certainly cover all the non-fuel costs associated with owning the car and might even give you a thou or two left over once you're done with it. Basically, you'll be choosing to endure the financial equivalent of a series of annoying but non-damaging slaps in the face in order to avoid a periodic kick in the guts.
posted by flabdablet at 9:35 AM on June 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Oh yes: keep all your mechanic's receipts. Could easily be worth $500 to you when it comes time to sell.
posted by flabdablet at 9:38 AM on June 20, 2014

Response by poster: Thank you, flabdablet - those are great tips! Definitely will do. Meant to add that the car has around 135,000 miles on it, which seemed to be on the low end for a car that old, from what I saw (although, as you all said upthread, it's not just about the number of miles). Also, the Carfax and Autocheck reports were clean (obviously they may not always catch everything, but a good sign anyway, especially because the seller told me he didn't know of any accidents, and my mechanic didn't see anything fishy). All in all, I'm very satisfied. Thanks so much again for all your advice, everyone!
posted by ClaireBear at 1:20 PM on June 20, 2014

Response by poster: For anyone reading this thread who is as clueless as I was/am about cars and is in a similar position as I was, I thought it might be helpful to update a bit more fully with my method and some reflections:

My method:

- As was suggested above, I found Craigslist to be more helpful than Ebay, because I wanted something very local so a mechanic of my choosing could check out the car before I purchased it.

- On the advice of my mechanic, I decided to try to buy from a private seller rather than a dealer (the brand-name certified pre-owned vehicle dealers were pretty expensive, and many of the other dealers seemed not to be all that forward about what exactly they were selling and why). I wanted to buy from an individual who had owned the car for some years, had maintenance records, and had a good reason for selling it (so they weren't just passing a lemon on to me).

- When I sent an initial email to potential sellers, I asked for the VIN number and whether they had maintenance records. To me, a seller keeping maintenance records was a likely sign of a reasonable degree of care for the car and money spent to upkeep the car. Only a few of the people I contacted on Craigslist actually responded affirmatively to my request for maintenance records, and I crossed off any who didn't. How forthcoming a seller was with the VIN number was also important to me: I immediately checked out any VIN numbers I got out on Carfax and Autocheck, and (on the advice above!) I considered major accidents a red flag and a car having been totaled a deal-breaker. If a seller didn't respond with the VIN and say that he/she had maintenance records, I ruled it out, and if the VIN pulled up major red flags I also ruled out those cars.

- I was left with one option at this point (which I eventually bought). All of the above only took a day or two, so I could have waited for more possibilities, but I wanted to move forward with the option I found as it seemed promising. I had decided that a deal-breaker for me would be that I wanted a seller to be willing to take the car to a mechanic of my choosing, so that he could look over the car before I bought it and give me a thumbs up or down. My seller agreed to do this, and my mechanic gave it a thumbs up, aside from about $800 of non-routine-maintenance work. The seller was willing to knock down the price a bit to cover this (he hadn't known that such an expensive job was needed), and we agreed on a fair price based on the Kelley Blue Book estimate minus a bit of the cost of the repair work (i.e. he kicked in 1/4 of the cost of the non-routine-maintenance repair work by lowering his initial price for the car).

- I looked online at my state's website to see what the seller and I needed to complete the transaction, and I gathered the necessary items (documentation that I have car insurance, permit or driver's license number, possibly an ID, lots of cash, etc.). He brought his necessary items (I think the title to the car, etc.). We went to an Auto Tag place, and they had forms for us to fill out. We did a title transfer form, and they also gave me a license plate since I am a first-time car owner. They notarized everything, including a documentation form of the sale and the cash that I paid. The whole transfer cost me approximately $150 to the tag place (for the title transfer, new plate, notary, etc. - this probably varies by state, and slightly by which Auto Tag place you choose), and then my state tax on the sale price of the car (which I also paid to the Auto Tag place and I guess they submit it to the state). The seller took his license plate off the car and handed over the keys. I now owned the car - yay me!

Some reflections:

- I'm pleased I went with a private seller rather than a dealer. It instilled more trust in me to know exactly why he was selling the car, and for him to be able to tell me the car's history for the latter half of its life. If I had had more money to spend, I might have wanted to go to a real Toyota dealer and get a Certified Pre-Owned Vehicle with a warranty, but that was outside my price bracket. In my price bracket (sub $5000), I think a private seller was the way to go.

- The process on Craigslist was very rapid: while the less desirable deals lingered for days/weeks, the best cars appeared to be sold within a day of being posted (and often within an afternoon). A week is a *really* long time in terms of Craigslist car sales. This was nice because it meant that even if I knew I needed to buy a car within a week, that still gave me lot of new and different options each day; but it also meant that I had to be prepared to jump immediately if I found something good.

- It seemed to be a seller's market for the most desirable deals: if they could sell to someone who would buy it immediately, they would prefer to do that rather than drive it to my mechanic who might give it a thumbs down. I still stood my ground, since I didn't want to spend $2000+ on something before I could have an expert assess its quality - I really didn't want to spend thousands of dollars buying a pig in a poke. But it did mean that I was limited in selection to sellers in my immediate area, and also sellers who were willing to work with me on the mechanic thing.

- I'm really pleased I was so discriminating, and insisted on maintenance records, the VIN number, splurged on both Carfax and Autocheck, and had my mechanic check out a potential purchase. In a way, it's like online dating: the goal isn't to get the most number of possibilities (regardless of how far-flung and improbable), but to winnow the playing field down to a manageable number of really promising matches. I ended up with one possibility that worked out fabulously, which was really the perfect scenario.

- I'm also pleased I focused on the car's mechanical condition and less on cosmetics/aesthetics. For a cheap used car, you probably can have only one or the other (or neither!), and having it run well is the most important thing.

- Pro tip: my seller (who just finished his PhD) said that he picked me out of the other people who wrote in with interest because I was polite, wrote in complete sentences, and used actual English words (rather than text-speak). This may be the only time in my life that my humanities background has remotely assisted me in getting something tangible, but it can't hurt!
posted by ClaireBear at 4:51 PM on June 20, 2014 [6 favorites]

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