Used Car Buying Advice
October 13, 2016 10:23 AM   Subscribe

I want a car that is roadtrip-worthy and reliable. I can spend about $2700 cash and could maybe spend $100/month on a car loan, though I'd rather not. I don't care about what the car looks like, just that it's reliable and roadtrip-worthy and automatic transmission. I would be purchasing in the SF Bay Area but potentially moving to colder/snowy areas next year. What should I be looking at and what should my expectations be for that price range? ( Plus bonus q about my current car inside.)

Is a used old Prius (if I take out a small loan) a good bet? Should I choose an older lower-mileage Prius over a newer high-mileage one?

Does it make sense to buy privately if I have to take out a loan? It seems like there are better deals to be had buying from car owners directly, but it seems harder to get loans for those. I have good credit but very low income (hence not wanting to spend more than $100/month on a loan.)

Banking the $100/month for a few more months is probably not practical because my current car probably needs work to make it safe and it doesn't seem worth putting much money into because when I get rid of it I will do the Cash For Clunkers program--and those folks don't care about new tires or brakes, just that the car starts/drives. (The car's blue book value is less than Cash for Clunkers will give me.) In general this car is not worth fixing up for the long term--it gets me around town but has engine issues that mean I don't trust it for long trips, hence wanting to get something new.

I'm having my current car's brakes evaluated today because they started making a grinding sound (obviously bad news). But in addition to that, the front tires got unevenly worn pretty suddenly because it was (I am suspecting) out of alignment so it probably needs new tires and an alignment. I'm not sure how to evaluate how safe it would be to keep driving it for a bit longer--I need to drive about 40 miles a week for work/school until mid-December, at which point I could deal with being car-less for a bit.
posted by needs more cowbell to Shopping (22 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
(Apologies for throwing the whole kitchen sink into this question--I've been having a hard time figuring out how to proceed because of all the moving parts, and in the interim was driving a car with brakes that I didn't really trust because I didn't want to put hundreds of dollars into a car that I'm gonna get rid of soon. I came to my senses yesterday and made an appointment to have the brakes assessed, but I'm still a bit overwhelmed.)
posted by needs more cowbell at 10:29 AM on October 13, 2016

My husband refuses to take out a car loan or pay more than $3000 for a car. He also has a high tolerance for annoying car issues. I've slowly seen the light in buying a very used car and driving it into the ground. Our goal is to make it last two year without major repairs.
How far of a road trip are you talking?

Our last car budget was $3000. Our must-haves were: inspected through the end of the year and clean title. We wanted a truck or something good in the snow but weren't holding our breath. We wound up with a 99 ford ranger with 4wd with 150,000 miles for $2200. It's a handy little car for around town but I wouldn't ride it too hard or too far. It's also not super comfortable. We got it about a month ago. No major issues so far.

Our "road trip car" is a 03 Cadillac deville. My husband got it in Florida last February (home of the retired luxury full sized sedans) for $2600. It didn't have working windows but he replaced them. It does give us quite a bit of trouble and we are constantly adding oil and transmission fluid. My educated guess based on the cloud of black smoke that follows the car around is that this car is not going to last much longer, but hopefully it will make it another year or so. Before that we had a 98 buick that my husband got for $500 and had for 6 years. So, our luck ebbs and flows.

You can definitely get a car for under $3000 that isn't a total shitbucket. Look at Cadillacs and buicks. The gas mileage is terrible. If you aren't a little handy, you need a very reliable car and you don't like polluting the environment (I'm only half-joking, this is a real issue for us) then get the loan.
posted by pintapicasso at 10:39 AM on October 13, 2016

Basically: I want a car with which I can feel comfortable driving across country. I like to understand how things work but I am not handy with cars and now is not the time to learn. My current car (2000 Corolla with broken A/C, and engine issues not worth fixing per multiple mechanics) would be fine for continuing to get me the few miles to work and school and the grocery store if I replace brakes, tires, and do an alignment, but I've spent *years* feeling sad that I can't just take off on a road trip, plus I will probably move across the country next year and would want to drive. Given my tight budget, I don't want to pour $500+ more into a car that will still not be able to do that.
posted by needs more cowbell at 10:45 AM on October 13, 2016

You aren't going to get something with long term reliability for under $3000. Cars that cheap have problems. If you are mechanically inclined you can find them with easy to fix problems, but that doesn't sound applicable here. When I bought a car for my daughter in college a couple of years ago I was looking at Corollas and Civics mostly. I ended up spending about $8000 on an 06 Corolla (this was 2015) with around 80K miles. Two years later we've replaced the battery, otherwise no problems at all. If you really want something road trip worthy that will last I think $6000 is going to be your floor, unless you just get lucky and buy a 12 year old car from a little old lady that put 4000 miles a year on it.
posted by COD at 10:46 AM on October 13, 2016 [9 favorites]

From your comments, I'd suggest the prius and a loan.

My partner, like pintapicasso's, is anti-loan and into lovingly keeping total beaters on the road, and while he enjoys it, it's time consuming, involves frequent (small) maintenance $$, and frankly makes me anxious because I don't know anything about cars.

I'm much happier with my not-too-used japanese hatchback, and would not deal well emotionally with his car choices.
posted by sazerac at 10:48 AM on October 13, 2016 [2 favorites]

It sounds like a loan is your best bet, especially if working AC is a deal breaker, also cruise control. I would put that money down on a Camry, a civic or a corolla and take out a loan for the rest. Good luck!
posted by pintapicasso at 10:50 AM on October 13, 2016 [3 favorites]

As mentioned above, hondas and toyotas tend to be very reliable, but I am really not sure you can spend $2k and get something reliable that'll be better than your current vehicle. Years ago, I bought a used accord for $6k and it lasted me a long, long time, but I eventually did have to put money into repairing it as things started going bad. I'd expect you to have to spend closer to $4-6k to get something really road trip-worthy that'll give you at least a few years of no headaches with regards to repairs.
posted by destructive cactus at 10:52 AM on October 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

Regarding your question about buying privately, this year I bought a car from a private owner using a loan I got from Lightstream (part of Suntrust Bank). It was all online. I applied, told them the car I was buying and the amount I needed to borrow, and once approved they deposited the money into my checking account and I wrote the guy a check. I had a few days to submit the title and bill of sale back to them (otherwise they withdraw the money) but now it's just like any other car loan.

So if you need a loan but want to buy privately, there's an option.
posted by MultiFaceted at 11:13 AM on October 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

On back of the envelope math, $2,700 plus $100 per month gives you between $7,500 and $8,000 to purchase a vehicle. I'd go with the advice above to look at older, traditionally reliable cars in that price range.
posted by cnc at 11:15 AM on October 13, 2016 [3 favorites]

$2-3k is always going to be a bit of a crapshoot; a friend of mine bought one for that price with 150,000 miles on it that she put another 150,000 miles on, but another friend of mine bought one and immediately failed the emissions test. Here are three suggestions if you decide to stay in that price range—which, personally, I love driving cheap cars and not having a car payment, but your needs will vary—keeping in mind that a lot is going to have to do with the individual car and how it was treated:

1992-1996 Toyota Camry. One of the cars that solidified Toyota's reputation as bulletproof. My friend with the 300,000 mile car has one of these, and I'm always impressed by how put-together it still feels.

circa-1997 Nissan Maxima. Famously solid cars, surprisingly fun to drive. I'd still have mine if I didn't have an impromptu meetup with a deer at 140,000 miles.

2005-2007 Chevy Malibu. Ugly, weird little cars that do really well on Consumer Reports' testing, and are cheap because they are ugly and weird-looking (and made by GM).

Notice that the Malibu is 10 years newer than a lot of the Camrys you'll find in the same price range—that's the benefit of buying a car that's not from the two marques everybody tells their friends to buy. My experience is that (unlike in the 80s and early 90s, when it was entirely accurate) some but not all of the Japanese price premium is justified, so it's up to you to decide how much it's worth to you. (Climate will have something to do with it too—if you live in the rust belt, older cars are a little dicier.)
posted by Polycarp at 11:24 AM on October 13, 2016 [5 favorites]

Also check the Prius vs other Toyotas (and other makes) of that time period. You can pay a premium for the Prius which is probably not worth it in general or especially at your price range. Also, speaking from experience, Priuses aren't the most comfortable car on road trips.
posted by troyer at 11:26 AM on October 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

Moving to snowy area? Subaru Outback. AWD, lives forever, roomy in the front seats.
posted by ITravelMontana at 11:35 AM on October 13, 2016

I have a 2007 Toyota Yaris with 110,000 miles on it, a very small amount of cosmetic damage, and a serious accident in its history. I would take it on a road trip in a hot second although it probably needs a couple of new tires and it has an exhaust leak that is getting noisier and will probably need to be fixed before its next inspection.

Supposedly the Edmunds private sale value of this car is $3700, but I wouldn't actually be willing to sell it for that price - it feels more valuable than that to me.

I've had this car for several years, so I know most of its history, so obviously I have a clearer sense of what might be wrong with it than if I were buying it today. But look into 10-year-old Yarises and Scions.
posted by mskyle at 11:50 AM on October 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

Previous commenters have covered much of what you're looking for, but I just want to add a couple of quick tips:

-Used car dealers generally cost more than private sellers, but you're generally going to get a car that has been inspected, cleaned and detailed. You're probably not going to drive it off the lot and have it fall apart two blocks later. (And if it does, part of that higher price is because you have legal protections against a dealer, whereas with a private seller, you're on your own.)

-The best way I've found to spot good deals on used cars is to ask for more information. Specifically, does the seller have the maintenance records? And how many owners has the car had? If they're the original owner and they've got all their records, it's pretty much guaranteed to be a reliable car. If there's been multiple owners, or there are no records, it might be reliable. You just don't be able to tell right away.

-A Prius is going to be more expensive than a gas-only car of the same model year.

-If you're going to road-trip a lot with an older car, get AAA, or see if your insurance offers roadside assistance.
posted by kevinbelt at 11:59 AM on October 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

I guess I'd heard that Priuses are particularly reliable, and the potential gas savings for long road trips seemed good. But maybe the reliability part was just the same as other Toyotas.
posted by needs more cowbell at 12:24 PM on October 13, 2016

Also, it turns out my car should be safe with just new brakes/resurfaced rotors, so I have bought myself some time for $200.
posted by needs more cowbell at 12:26 PM on October 13, 2016 [4 favorites]

I have a 2008 Toyota Corolla with 128,000 miles on it and nothing wrong with it. We were looking at trading it in and getting quotes of $1,500-$2,000. I'd be surprised if you couldn't find a similar vehicle on Craigslist for something very close to your budget.

We decided to keep it longer and I have no qualms about commuting about 100 miles a week for another year or two. Heck, I have no qualms about taking it on a road trip in its current condition... but I know I will have to do upkeep like brakes, tires, alignment, etc. Those things are not specific to high mileage vehicles.

I love how my car performs in the snow (I do have snow tires, but I also feel like it has a very good heft and center of gravity for its size). A used Corolla will give you more bang for your buck than a used Prius, I think, and probably handle better on snow just because it's a bit larger.
posted by Kriesa at 12:32 PM on October 13, 2016

"I'd heard that Priuses are particularly reliable"

I believe that's correct. I seem to recall it has to do with the electric battery having fewer parts to service than an internal combustion engine, but I might be wrong.

Either way, other Toyotas (Corollas and Camrys) are also very reliable. A step below a Prius maybe, but better than just about anything else. A Corolla should still get you over 30 mpg highway. You'd have to do a lot of driving to make up for the cost difference, without giving up much in terms of reliability.
posted by kevinbelt at 12:46 PM on October 13, 2016

If you're going to buy a high mileage car, get a Honda or a Toyota. I would avoid Priuses just because you're paying more for what it is (it has a value beyond basic transport because it's hybrid). Compare the price of a Prius compared to a Corolla, same car functionally (4 seats, reasonably drive-able) but the Prius will cost more (and it's more complicated and will cost more to fix).
posted by doctor_negative at 1:18 PM on October 13, 2016

I need to drive about 40 miles a week for work/school until mid-December, at which point I could deal with being car-less for a bit.

If this is the case, I don't think you should buy another car. That's only two months away. Even if you didn't trust your car, a long term rental or short term lease might be a better idea.
posted by soelo at 2:04 PM on October 13, 2016 [3 favorites]

Since you live in the SF Bay Area--do you have any friends at the big tech companies? They have internal for-sale lists where you might be able to find a known-history older used car, and many people are looking for quick no-hassle sale over best possible price. My company's forsale mailing list has tons and tons of cars on it.
posted by serelliya at 3:49 PM on October 13, 2016

Although not all the details will be relevant to your situation, you might find much of the info in my previous Ask useful, as well as the method (which I would still stand by). I ended up with a 15-year-old Toyota Corolla for under $2000, plus a few hundred up front for needed repairs (which I knew going into the sale). The car is still chugging along as good as ever!
posted by ClaireBear at 6:03 PM on October 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

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