Need to buy new (to me) car. Budget is $6,000 cash. Advice?
November 1, 2014 8:17 AM   Subscribe

I know very little about cars. But now I find myself needing to buy a car to replace my decrepit 1999 Chevy Prizm. I can pay cash up to a maximum of $6,000 (including all surcharges, taxes, etc.). I'd rather not get financing, as we're still paying-off my wife's car.

This car will be used mainly for commuting to work (round-trip of about 30 miles, mostly highway). My wife has a better car that can be used for any longer trips.

I don't care about any frills—I don't need a car alarm, air conditioning, good stereo, etc. I live in a cold, snowy climate (in Upstate New York), and the roads are heavily salted, in case this makes any difference. We don't have any kids, and I don't need the car to haul anything.

I started checking Craigslist, and I'm frankly surprised and dismayed by the high prices. I had no idea used cars are this expensive! I don't have a lot of time to research this question. Any tips or advice would be much appreciated. Thanks so much!
posted by alex1965 to Travel & Transportation (25 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
My standard approach is to buy a Civic in good condition of whatever age my budget allows. They're pretty reliable even as they age and not that expensive to fix. They don't usually have frills that increase their price.
posted by metasarah at 8:59 AM on November 1, 2014 [10 favorites]

Metasarah said all that needed to be said. Used Civic.
posted by notsnot at 9:00 AM on November 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

Buy as much Toyota Camry, Toyota Corolla, or Subaru Forester as your budget will allow. These are all pretty bullet-proof (especially the Toyotas) and are cheap to work on and maintain. This one looks alright, and is well within your budget. Not sure if Williamsville is anywhere near your part of upstate NY.

TL;DR buy a Japanese car from Honda, Toyota, or Subaru.
posted by littlerobothead at 9:03 AM on November 1, 2014 [4 favorites]

Good Cars for Under $5000.
posted by melissasaurus at 9:04 AM on November 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

Your commute is long enough that you might benefit from a turbo diesel (TDI) VW. They manage to be fuel efficient and pretty good to drive.
posted by wotsac at 9:11 AM on November 1, 2014

We buy used Subaru Outbacks at around 4000-4500$ with 100k miles (have to hunt around a little) and so far each has lasted a good four or five years before they developed something that we didn't want to deal with paying for on a well loved car. We're on our third Outback but I drove a Legacy sedan for six years and it was likewise great in the snow - better than any of the little Toyota tin cans I drove, even though they were definitely a bit cheaper and somewhat better gas mileage. I feel really safe with the heavy base and te four wheel drive of the Subaru. I think it depends on how snowy your winter commute is, but I've always had to drive 30+ miles of New England highways for my commute and I just love Subarus in the snow.
posted by takoukla at 9:18 AM on November 1, 2014 [3 favorites]

I have a good friend who is a used car dealer and has some cars on his lot he wants to sell quickly. He's in Cleveland but ships cars anywhere... I bought my last few cars from him and wouldn't buy from anyone else.

Not trying to sell you anything so I won't post his contact info here - but Mefi-mail me if you want his contact info.

Good luck!
posted by kdern at 9:27 AM on November 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

At that price, any Honda or Toyota you look at will be pretty heavily used. Instead, I would look into Hyundais and Kias from around 2005-2010. (Kia is owned by Hyundai, so the cars are largely similar and share engines and other major components.) Hyundai really got its act together by this time, and while these cars aren't quite up to the Honda/Toyota standard, they're very solid, well-made, and dependable, but much cheaper.

During this period, Hyundai was heavily pushing the Accent as the cheapest new car in America, which means that they sold a fair number of real stripper models (no AC, no stereo, no power windows/locks). If you can find one of these, it's great for you, since you don't want any features. The prices on these should be very low, because 95% of people don't want a car without AC. If you can drive a stick-shift, all the better. These cars will be even cheaper.

Also, Hyundais and Kias from this period depreciate like crazy, which is not so great if you're trying to sell one, but great for someone like you who wants a solid car without too much use at a good price.

Of course, have it thoroughly checked over before you buy.
posted by Leatherstocking at 9:43 AM on November 1, 2014 [5 favorites]

As with any potential used-car purchase, try to get the service records, and make sure everything was changed when it was supposed to, especially the oil and timing belt. Most cars built in recent years have a timing belt and interference engine, which means that if the belt snaps, the pistons and valves usually crash into each other, wrecking the engine. So it is very important to know when the timing belt was last changed and how often (in months/miles) the manufacturer stipulates that it should be changed. If there's no record of its being changed on a car that's five years old or older, assume you will have to do this immediately and factor it into the price. Timing belts on most small cars run about $500-$700.
posted by Leatherstocking at 10:15 AM on November 1, 2014

I just bought a 98 mercury villager for $1700, popped a $400 alternator in and expect to get 3 years use. It really is a Nissan quest and rumor has it that they get 300k. Of course I bought it from a 80 year old man who was anal about maintenance. The deals are out there.
posted by JohnR at 12:02 PM on November 1, 2014

My 2000 Honda Accord just got its third timing belt and is purring like a kitten at 214k. I bought it at 167k and it has never needed more than routine maintenance.
posted by Madamina at 12:36 PM on November 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

Thirding a Subaru, for your winters, especially. We had a similar dilemma last year, after an accident left our car totaled and us with a check for $6000. We went with a 7 or 8 year old Outback with close to 100k miles on it. Best decision ever.
posted by marmago at 3:46 PM on November 1, 2014

FWIW, I have a used VW TDI that I bought at about that price point ($5500) 4 years ago; she's a 2001. The MPG on the highway is healthy; I'll hit 50 on long trips. She is a dream in snow and ice; heavy and low slung for her size, as long as I'm willing to creep along in third gear at 20 or 30 miles per hour, I can drive in whatever I want. With the rear seats folded flat, I have all the cargo space in the world (which I know you said isn't an issue, but it never hurts.)

However, at this point, every living thing on her is broken and they're not routine maintenance issues. The spoiler is cracking where it attaches to the car. The door electronics in the driver's side door have shorted out, so my remote doesn't unlock the doors anymore, or pop the hatch, and my fuel door doesn't work anymore (VW built in a failsafe in the even of this eventuality, which both boggles me and I'm grateful for). There's a panel in the back that you can punch out, then go in and pull the cable by hand.) The material covering the passenger's side door is falling out. I have a serious seal leak somewhere, which is becoming problematic in the rain. My rear brakelight fell out and had to be replaced. That's in addition to things like the started that I reasonably expected to have to replace with 180k miles on the car, like the starter.

I love my car (seriously, I am going to cry when she finally dies, which is likely to be soon), and I'm not saying you'd necessarily have every VW you might look at fall apart around its engine, but... my next car is going to be a Honda. :)
posted by joycehealy at 5:12 PM on November 1, 2014

VW TDIs have a terrible bang/buck ratio. you end up getting an older one, with a lot more miles, than you'd get from another car. The argument is that they're more reliable and well... you're still buying a VW. Everything else falls apart around the engine. And as much as i love subarus, i have to say the same thing. They retain value really well which can make them kind of a bad deal in this price range for what you get. Those are more "change oil and tires" cars though.

What you want in that price range is a toyota yaris, or a nissan versa. both of which you could probably get as new as even a 2010 for that much depending on your local market. I saw ones around that price out there with as little as 50k miles.

These will also totally fit your criteria of having no fancy features. Manual windows, manual locks, etc.

Avoid stuff like the honda fit even if it's attractive, it has the same problem of costing more than it really should.

The hyundai/kia thing is also a good suggestion, but if you hunt around you should easily find a 2 door yaris hatchback or versa sedan.
posted by emptythought at 5:44 PM on November 1, 2014

Stay away from VW. Get yourself a Civic and make sure you maintain it well.
posted by pyro979 at 6:04 PM on November 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

Depending on where you live, government auctions can be a really good option. I'm not talking about the kind of cheesy things you see advertised (buy a drug dealer's Corvette for $50!); most government agencies buy fleet vehicles for their motor pool, and sell them after a few years.

For example, here in Minnesota, I've bought five cars over the last 15 years, and they've all been between 85K and 105K miles, and the sedans have been between $4K and $6K.

They're always clean, well maintained, any known problems are actually listed, and you can be sure there's no problem with the title.

Your area may differ, and there's no guarantee that they'll have something in your price range, but it's definitely an avenue to check out.

Oh, and I'll say that the cars with reputations for being bulletproof (Honda, Toyota, Subaru) end up with absurdly high prices because of that reputation. Also, that reputation is usually based on what they were like 10 years ago, and is not real guarantee of what they're like today. Likewise, other brands can have the opposite issue--the 2001 Ford I had was terrible, but the 2008 Chevy I have now is amazingly trouble-free and nice to drive.
posted by Ickster at 6:18 PM on November 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

Get a used Honda Civic or 2004-later Hyundai Accent.
posted by Jacqueline at 10:02 PM on November 1, 2014

Tip: Craigslist prices are not good indicators of what cars actually sell for.
posted by artdrectr at 10:36 PM on November 1, 2014

My husband just spent a lot of time researching used vehicles using the Lemon Aid and Kelley Blue Book. Surprisingly, he discovered that Nissans are a very good value for used vehicles. He ended up buying a Nissan Frontier truck because we need 4x4 capability here in snowy Canadian winters. He got a 2006 I believe, for about $6K.

If you really know nothing about cars... well this is just my advice on doing your best to conduct a thorough preliminary inspection on your own. Take a friend too, to help.

Turn on the engine, let it run. It should start easily. Listen for any sounds of clicking, rattling, squealing, grating, sputtering... get out and open the hood, continuing to listen. Under the hood, look for stuff like oil drips, anything damaged/frayed/obviously custom-wired with electrical tape, corrosion around the battery terminals (looks like granular material, may be greenish). Get down on the ground and look for evidence of leaking fluids, like any oil stains or coolant. Inspect the car for damage underneath the vehicle and in the wheel wells. Take note of any rusting. Look around the tires - how's the tread, still fairly deep? any bald spots? how's the suspension? are those bow-looking things under the car still intact? Is the muffler doing its job, and is it still secured well? is there any smoke coming from the exhaust? Check the lights, inside and out - do they all work? Ask about what kind of work's been done on the car, the person may or may not volunteer that info. How many miles on the car (lower is better)? What's the car been used for? Is anything broken inside the car?

If the car seems to pass muster from your standpoint, you should really take the car into a trusted garage for an inspection - they will tell you if anything's wrong with the car. It will cost you a bit of money, maybe a few hundred dollars at most, but it will make sure you're not buying a lemon, or at least you're aware of what problems the car has.

Buying from the used car dealer may cost you a bit more money than buying privately, but typically they will have been through a tune-up and cleanup so that the car is in pretty good condition. They may offer a warranty on several components of the vehicle as a result. This will help ensure that the car you buy is reliable. Go for a place that has good reviews, and check on the Better Business Bureau website to see if the dealer has any claims against him.
posted by lizbunny at 11:29 PM on November 1, 2014 [4 favorites]

I'm in almost exactly the same boat as you right now, and I can confirm that the Civics and Corollas that you will find in this price range are too old and have too many miles on them to make them as rock solid as they are claimed to be. I agree that Hyundai and Kia are a much better bet. I'm narrowing in on a 2011 Kia Forte with 80,000 miles on it for around $7000, as an example. You will also see a fair amount of Toyota Yarises (Yari?) and Nissan Versas which are the more recent budget-friendly models of those manufacturers, but I seem to benefit from the increased reliability without as much price inflation.
posted by Rock Steady at 2:16 PM on November 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

The 2006-2009 Civics have a problem with the engine block cracking. Yes, there is a "secret warranty" but it took a year of fighting with Honda before they replaced the engine in our 2006 Civic. Just something to think about.
posted by Ostara at 9:39 PM on November 5, 2014

A mid-2000s Scion xA or Scion xB is in your price range, if you can find one in your area. These are compact economy cars manufactured by Toyota, and they have some of the highest reliability ratings from Consumer Reports. They aren't affected by any major recalls/problems like the Takata airbag issue.
posted by mbrubeck at 6:05 PM on November 6, 2014

I actually just test-drove a 2006 Scion xA with 97,000 miles, and it's a really great little car. The dealer is asking a bit over your price range ($6950), but if you can find one with a few more miles on it I bet you can get it for $6000.
posted by Rock Steady at 3:08 PM on November 7, 2014

Response by poster: Just following-up on my own question: I ended up buying a 2008 Kia Rio LX with 51,000 miles on it. I paid $4,800 (which I think was a good deal). My mechanic said that the car is in great shape, and it certainly seems like it was well-maintained. Everything is super-clean on it.

Thank you to everyone for the advice.
posted by alex1965 at 5:08 AM on December 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

« Older Considering Real Estate investment options, help...   |   Helping Airport Extreme beat my personal faraday... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.