Used car shopping, ugh
February 22, 2017 7:26 AM   Subscribe

A car needs to be replaced. The target budget is ~$6000. This seems like it should be do-able, but it's been hard to find good candidates. The shopper does not have a lot of experience with car shopping.

The car that is to be replaced is an aging Ford Focus whose repair costs are skyrocketing. The target replacement is a similarly sized small sedan. Reliability and safety are the top concerns. Passengers will generally be an adult and two children.

1) Is this a manageable price goal? If not, what is more reasonable?
2) What are good models / model years / reasonable mileages to keep an eye out for?
3) What is the best place to be looking?
4) Any other tips to pass on to an inexperienced used-car shopper?

CarMax hasn't really turned up anything much below 10k. Not too keen about car shopping on Craigslist. I need ideas to pass on to the shopper (who is not me, but is a person who transports my kids).
posted by telepanda to Travel & Transportation (11 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
I asked a very similar question a while back now, got a lot of useful advice from helpful MeFites, and ended up with a success story. Car is still running strong!
posted by ClaireBear at 7:33 AM on February 22, 2017

Consumer Reports has an annual car issue and one of things it contains is a list of the best used cars for various price ranges. I would recommend going to the library and checking it out.
posted by Alluring Mouthbreather at 7:36 AM on February 22, 2017 [1 favorite]

Just to pull out a few things from that thread to answer your questions directly:

- I bought a Toyota Corolla that was around 15 years old, with mileage below 150,000, I think it was. I would recommend Toyota Corollas and Honda Civics in particular as reliable cars that are pretty cheap to maintain and source parts for.

- To me, the key thing was that my family mechanic was willing to look over any potential Craigslist auto purchase (for free, for me). It took me a while to find someone on Craigslist willing to have a mechanic of my choosing inspect the car, but honestly, that may have weeded out the bad apples.

- I also asked Craigslist sellers for a VIN number (I think it was called that). You can subscribe to one or both of two sites and it will tell you the history of a car (accidents, totaling, etc.) from the VIN number. Again, most Craigslist sellers wouldn't provide this, and I scratched those cars from my list.

- The whole process was very quick, as the good cars disappeared within a day or two of being posted. It took maybe a week or less for me to make my purchase. But it was like a half time job during that time - I was constantly refreshing Craigslist and sending a message immediately to things that looked like good options.

- If your friend has $6000 for the car, she doesn't want to buy a car that costs $6000. You need to assume you're going to be paying 50% to 100% of the cost of the car right off the bat for necessary repairs. I'd shoot for a reliable Toyota Corolla or Honda Civic for $2500-3500, and keep the rest for immediate repairs. Any old car is going to need some expensive stuff.
posted by ClaireBear at 7:39 AM on February 22, 2017 [5 favorites]

There's a thread about auto loans on the blue with a lot of used car buying info. Eyebrows McGee had a comment about buying used rental cars here. As a person who's going to be in the market for a used vehicle sometime in the next year or two myself, I bookmarked the heck out of it.
posted by phunniemee at 7:45 AM on February 22, 2017

In general, the best used cars are pretty much always going to be Hondas or Toyotas. They run forever, and when they do break down, they're incredibly cheap to replace. Specifically, you're probably going to be looking for an Accord, a Civic, a Corolla, or maybe a Camry. A quick look at Craigslist shows that $6000 should get you a late-2000s Corolla. I had a friend with a 2005 Corolla, and that was a very enjoyable, reliable car. She was sad to get rid of it, even after like six years.

To start, get an idea of the market on or Both of these will give you an estimated price based on a few inputs (year, mileage, condition, etc.). Tweak your inputs until you find a Honda or Toyota in your price range. KBB gives you the average mileage for a given year and model. Don't go over that - that's when you get into cars with problems. Not saying cars with lower miles don't have problems, but as a rule of thumb, they're better than higher-mileage cars, and that average mileage will be your dividing line.

I've never had a problem buying a car on Craigslist. I've bought a couple there, one of which I still own nearly eight years later despite paying less than $1200. It's very possible to get a great deal there. is the other place I look. If you live in a small town, check the classifieds of your local paper, too. Carmax will generally not show you much below $10k. Their inventory is newer and higher-quality used cars, not beaters.

Buying from a private party (an indvidual) is going to be several hundred to maybe even a couple of thousand dollars cheaper than buying from a dealer. What you get from the dealer is peace of mind that the car is not a lemon, but that costs you.

Obviously, if you can spend more money, you're going to get a nicer car. But as long as you're not picky about driving the newest and nicest car, $6000 should be reasonable.

Wherever you buy from, ask about what repairs are needed. As other commenters have noted, older cars are going to need repairs. If a seller tells you it doesn't, don't buy from him. Cars with minor needs like brakes, tires, spark plugs, wipers, etc. or cosmetic issues should be fine. Those generally only cost a couple hundred to fix. Stay away from cars with serious mechanical issues, like with the engine or transmission. A new engine will generally total a used car. Really good sellers (including on Craigslist - this happened to me once!) will be able to give you maintenance records for the car.

If you have someone who can accompany you to look at cars, that will be helpful. Not necessarily a mechanic (although if you can, that would be great), but just someone who's confident enough not to be overwhelmed.
posted by kevinbelt at 7:55 AM on February 22, 2017 [2 favorites]

I promise to stop commenting after this!, but I just reread my question thread that I linked above, and thought it might be helpful to pull out one more thing. The whole thread really has a lot of useful comments and info, but at the end of the thread, I described my method in detail, along with my reflections on what worked. I thought this in particular might be helpful for future MeFites in my position. but I'm going to paste it here as I still stand by it (especially as the car I bought, several years later, is still running excellently):


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
posted by ClaireBear at 7:56 AM on February 22, 2017 [13 favorites]

Lots of great advice. I found that some cars were time bombs; that is, they were on the verge of needing either an expensive timing belt or transmission replacement, and that these were flaws common to specific models. My brother had a Saturn that required the removal of the gas tank, for example, for a specific repair. So you might want to have an informal list of such potential lemons or check that the timing belt or whatever has been replaced. The other problem is that you're probably buying a car that someone else is selling because the repairs were getting too expensive. I don't know a way around that problem. We're also looking.
posted by mecran01 at 8:26 AM on February 22, 2017

Having used cars inspected by a mechanic has saved me a bunch of money, to say nothing of repair hassles.
posted by theora55 at 12:53 PM on February 22, 2017

Car repair for dummies (I forget if there's a 'buying a used car for dummies') is a really good resource for buying a car...really good lists of things to look 'stick your finger in the exhaust pipe. Is there a lot of black soot? That means the engine is burning oil and may have a cracked engine block' etc etc. It helped me buy a $1000 van and keep it running for a few years (including doing a (literally) 39-cent repair myself that I was quoted 360 dollars for) as well as a $200 car that I drove for 12 years (including cross country)...though I did have to put in about $3000 over that time in repairs and oil changes over that time, but that's kinda standard for a 20+ year old car.
Long story short, 'Car repair for dummies' will help and save you thousands. (It's particularly good at helping you diagnose is much MUCH MUUUCH cheaper to take a car to the shop and say 'I need my radiator hose replaced' than to say 'somethings wrong with my car fix it')
posted by sexyrobot at 1:13 PM on February 22, 2017 [2 favorites]

Good suggestions here, but add Kia to your list. Extremely reliable and a good feature set for the price. A 2010-ish Forte (as one example) is around your price range. I have a 2010 Forte Koup, and it has been absolutely bullet-proof (but alas, not hail-proof). It has about 80,000 miles and I the only maintenance I've paid for it oil and tires.
posted by The Deej at 6:22 PM on February 22, 2017 [1 favorite]

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