Am I insane for considering a 1998 honda Civic?
January 4, 2019 11:45 AM   Subscribe

I need a new used car. My sister's friend is selling a 1998 Honda Civic, 120,000 miles, new transmission, looks to be in good condition from the pic. Says no wrecks or flood damage.

Price seems a bit high, 3500, according to Kelly blue book value. I'll see if they will negotiate the price.

Are there any particular traps in Honda's that old?

What should I be looking at and asking?

Will a 4 clinder engine keep up with 65 mph freeway traffic?

Is this reasonable or utterly insane?

My current car (2000 jeep, 177k miles) is still running, but starting to feel like she's wearing out. So not horribly urgent, but. Ugh, I hate adulting.

posted by Jacen to Travel & Transportation (33 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
That's pretty low mileage for a 20 year old car. I say this as someone driving a 10 year old car and my partner drives a '99 Camry. The big thing with Hondas is the timing belts are an expensive repair and should be done at 75-90K if I am remembering right. This is an expensive bit of maintenance. If it's been done, good. If not, presume you're looking at another $900-1500 in work pretty soon. At that age I'd mostly be looking at rust (the killer of older cars) and tires (just because it's a few hundred if you need new ones). Those are good cars, they're not super powerful on the highway, a little pokey on acceleration, but they go decent speeds and get good gas mileage.
posted by jessamyn at 11:53 AM on January 4 [8 favorites]

The best rule of thumb I've ever heard about buying elder used cars is that the car you buy should be half of what your budget is, because you should expect to spend the other half in repairs. So if you have a $4000 total budget for a car, your actual car budget is $2000. Which would line up real well with jessamyn's timing belt replacement prediction.

No other advice to offer you except that $3500 seems way high for a vehicle that's old enough to drink.
posted by phunniemee at 12:04 PM on January 4 [11 favorites]

I sold my 98 Civic (bottom of the line trim level) 3 years ago for 1/3 of that when the a/c went out, and it only had about 110,000 on it, though I did have a minor wreck in it once..

I LOVED that car, and had the a/c not gone out (black car) then I would probably still have it now. That said, that price is too high I think.
posted by pixiecrinkle at 12:07 PM on January 4 [3 favorites]

I wouldn't say there's "traps" so much as there's just the reality of time. I really think at this age people can overstate the amount to which "low mileage" helps. My 1992 Honda Accord was past 21 by the time I gave her up, and probably mileage-wise not much higher than this, and there were so many things that were just wearing out over the last year or two that I drove the car? I finally gave her up because when the power steering went out it was literally going to cost more than any of the KBB estimates for the car to get it fixed. I like phunniemee's rule, here--the timing belt might well have been done by now, but even besides that, it's not just that something might go wrong, it's that there's not a bad chance of it being two, three, four different things in the course of the same year. And I say this having been there--if you're shopping for a car this age, I know there's a fair chance you might not actually have the savings to make it through that or to go car shopping again in six months. If you cut down the car price further, make sure you're safeguarding that money so it doesn't get spent on other stuff.

I would not drive a car that old again unless I felt like seriously taking up the hobby of doing my own car repairs. I know people who do this--actually, the person who bought my Accord was turning it into a project with his son--but as I'm vanishingly unlikely to do that, yeah, I probably wouldn't do this again.
posted by Sequence at 12:12 PM on January 4 [4 favorites]

The assessed value for tax purposes on that model is $1500.

Timing belt (and water pump) is number one priority. If it hasn't been done by 120k, ask for $1000 off the price or walk away. If the AC compressor fails and you need summer cooling, that's a $900 repair unless you get a properly rebuilt model, and even then a mechanic won't be able to offer a warranty on that work. The exhaust is a periodic but cheap issue, and the exhaust manifold may end up needing work. The CV joints need work periodically. The switches can fail on the power windows, and the wiring that runs through the driver's door can wear out, affecting window and side mirror control. Otherwise, it's a low maintenance car, the engine is bulletproof, and it can trundle along at interstate speed just fine.

I wouldn't pay $3500. I might pay $2500ish with a newish timing belt, working AC and a service history that inspires some confidence.
posted by holgate at 12:13 PM on January 4 [9 favorites]

The best thing you can do is to have a trusted mechanic actually check it out, including a full computer scan, and get their advice.
posted by davcoo at 12:15 PM on January 4 [1 favorite]

Price seems high. I sold my 2005 Civic with 60k miles a year ago to a dealer for $4000; private party price would have been maybe $5000.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 12:18 PM on January 4 [2 favorites]

Expensive things to repair on a Civic of that age include timing belt, engine mounts (which if not dealt with immediately will take out your exhaust manifold), A/C (if it even works at that age), suspension and transmission. Think I had all of the above changed on our Civic.

$3500 is way off base for that model. If it's a stick shift, it's enormously fun to drive if not particularly fast. Some old 4-cylinder Civics apparently have an engine that's somewhat in demand with engine tuners, so might have a higher theft risk than you'd expect.
posted by scruss at 12:26 PM on January 4 [3 favorites]

That price seems very high -- as others have pointed out, though the low mileage is still a plus, at that age things are just wearing out on the car. How much of a service history do you have? If you can guarantee that the timing belt/water pump have been replaced (the reason people are pairing those is because to get to where the timing belt is, you've removed enough stuff to get to the water pump, too, and it is cheap to replace so you do it when you're in there), the tires are in good shape, and the A/C works, then I'd consider it for $1200-$1500.

I drove a 2000 Civic to 200k miles and I will tell you that around its 15th birthday everything was starting to wear out. Plastic parts break down (esp. in sunlight), glues fail (headliner, upholstery). It was a good, reliable car up until then, but then everything started to go at once.
posted by fiercecupcake at 12:27 PM on January 4

Oh, and to answer this: "Will a 4 clinder engine keep up with 65 mph freeway traffic?"

It did OK, I never felt unsafe. I was not passing anyone on a hill, though.
posted by fiercecupcake at 12:28 PM on January 4

I drive a 1998 Civic, manual drive, about 160K miles on it (bought second hand in about 2005). Love it, very reliable, I don't find it pokey on the highway at all (but it's a manual transmission), everything still works fine on it. As others have mentioned, RUST is what will kill it (and also our 1998 Subaru Forester). So really check out the rust situation thoroughly, no matter what you decide to pay.
posted by mmw at 12:31 PM on January 4

European speed limits are generally higher than 65, and average cars there are generally 4 cylinder sub 2 litre - all the way down to 1 litre in some cases.

They can all cope with freeway traffic speeds, so I think you can cross that off your list of worries.
posted by How much is that froggie in the window at 12:40 PM on January 4 [1 favorite]

European speed limits are generally higher than 65, and average cars there are generally 4 cylinder sub 2 litre - all the way down to 1 litre in some cases.

They can all cope with freeway traffic speeds, so I think you can cross that off your list of worries.

If the car itself is ok, then this is true. I can drive my 4 cylinder 1.4 litre Seat Ibiza at 80+mph easily. Acceleration is not very good above 60-ish though.
posted by plonkee at 12:57 PM on January 4

That price is crazy high for a 1998. Did you calculate it in Blue Book yourself? I had a quick try using an MA zip code and rated the condition as 'very good' and it estimated about $1600 for an average private sale.
posted by emd3737 at 1:01 PM on January 4 [2 favorites]

I think it could be a fine purchase for what it is but not at that price. Also, folks are right that the purchase price will not be the whole price; the car will need repairs, both up front and then on an ongoing basis. I drive a car that's five years younger and has 10,000 less miles on it and it needs stuff all the time. Generally nothing crazy expensive, but it all adds up.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 1:31 PM on January 4 [1 favorite]

I had a 1995 Honda Civic, which was one model generation before the one you’re looking at, until it got totaled at about 160,000 miles. It was a great car, but those last few years it had problems that I related as much to plain age than to mileage.

Electrical stuff started to get flakey. The clock died. The fuel gauge stopped working. It started stalling because the idle air control valve had some component made of wax that got brittle with age. It wouldn’t start in hot weather because the fuel pump relay failed.

Some I fixed, some I didn’t, but I wouldn’t count on even a low milage 1998 vehicle being an upgrade from your current 2000. I think you can get a better car if you’re going to spend $3,500. Or just keep your jeep going for a few more years for that money.
posted by Kriesa at 2:06 PM on January 4 [3 favorites]

If you pay 3500, I think you are approaching the cost of leasing a new cheap car. Cost of ownership I mean. Leasing a 2018 is crazy cheap right now, and you're guaranteed not to need to pay for repairs. You are basically guaranteed to pay quite a bit in repairs for the old car. I'm not sure why you would sink so much into such a late in life vehicle. There are other options.
posted by Kalmya at 2:16 PM on January 4

Depending on where the car has been for its life (an absolute no if its been in a place with snow and salted roads), I'd consider it. That price is preposterous, though. Maybe the seller has added the price of a new transmission onto the actual value? Still, I'd only consider it if the price was closer to 1/2 that and the work (belts and pumps) listed above was already done. This isn't a good deal as it stands now and you could do a lot better if you keep looking and also save a bit more.
posted by quince at 2:17 PM on January 4 [1 favorite]

With a car that old, you have to expect it to break down on you from time to time. What's the economic impact to your life if you can't make it to work because of it or come in significantly late? My boss was very laid back when I was driving an old car, so it wasn't a big deal if I shifted hours around or worked from home. If you have to burn a scarce vacation day or risk getting written up for being late, the potential cost of an old car goes way up.
posted by Candleman at 3:06 PM on January 4 [2 favorites]

This is a case where, if you have to ask, the answer isn't just no but HELL NO. You've got a lot of rubber in the suspension and engine that's near if not past its end of life (including the timing belt, which is due for its second replacement at 120,000 miles and will ruin your day if it breaks). You've got about a 30 year old design for the car that hasn't had the benefits of a generation of safety engineering and metallurgy. You're probably missing out on driver and passenger airbags (mandated for the following model year) and antilock brakes (mandated for the 2006 model year). AND, based on the local craigslist here, you can find a ten year newer car with similar miles on it for that money.

As for that jeep? Much the same applies, but you already own it, and if it has, say, the bulletproof 4.0 engine, it will probably stay running roughly as long as the Honda would for similar cost to the Honda's repair bill (I've owned both - the Honda would be a bit more reliable, but the Jeep is dumb and brutal). So keep the Jeep and save a couple thousand more dollars for something that's really better.
posted by wotsac at 3:20 PM on January 4 [10 favorites]

Yep that’s probably a good car, just priced too high, especially for friends and family. I’d pay$1500-1800 for that no problem. One advantage of older cars is less computers and more amateur/self repairs are possible.
posted by SaltySalticid at 4:48 PM on January 4

That is priced way too high. I bought a 98 Civic, stick, bottom trim level for 1700 in 2012, with something like 160k miles.

Agree with those above about getting the maintenance history, tire condition, overall interior and exterior condition.
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 4:52 PM on January 4

We bought a 1997 Honda Accord about a year and a half ago for $1,000. It has about 180,000 miles on it. It's still going strong at the moment.
posted by molasses at 8:00 PM on January 4 [1 favorite]

Devil’s advocate: this car is a beater, just at the high end of the beater range. A beater is a car you buy for the short run hoping not to have to do expensive work. Sometimes you get lucky. Sometimes you get burned.

You don’t say what’s wrong with your Jeep, just that it “feels” like it’s falling apart. A couple thousand spent bringing it up to spec and squeezing a couple more years out of it might be a better investment than the Honda you don’t know. I would at least spend $100-150 getting it inspected by a good shop and estimating what its major issues would cost to fix.

Any 20+ year old car with 100k+ miles is going to entail the risk of major systems failing and/or their preventative preemptive replacement. If you really want to set it and forget it for a few good years of just doing basic maintenance, you really just have to spend more on a car, be able to do a fair bit of work yourself (or in the family), or replace beaters when they need repairs (works best with really cheap cars you treat as disposable but it’s a miserable way to live.)

One thing to consider is that cars get a good deal safer as you get into the mid-to-late 2000s. If you can possibly limp the Jeep along another year or two and keep saving for a better ride, $5000-7000 will buy you significantly better basic transportation that will give you longer trouble free service and more safety and comfort.

Also if you do consider that Honda and live where there’s snow and salt or ocean air, remember that fatal rust can form where you can’t see it from a casual inspection. Even though you know these people you really should have a pre-purchase professional inspection done. Then you’ll know what you’re getting into as far as necessary and upcoming maintenance and repairs.
posted by spitbull at 8:31 PM on January 4 [2 favorites]

and engine that's near if not past its end of life (including the timing belt, which is due for its second replacement at 120,000 miles and will ruin your day if it breaks)

I have 300,000 miles on my '97 Civic. The engine is fine. The timing belt cycle is at 90,000 miles. It has driver and passenger airbags and ABS brakes. Yes, buying into the late 00s gets you into different territory in terms of safety features and overall maintenance costs (although maintenance is expensive if needed, given the ever-increasing opacity of car internals) but I see a fuckload of 1996-2000 Civics on the road, and a fair few of the previous generation.

If you've owned a Civic or Accord for an extended period of time, you know all of its particular weaknesses. (My mother-in-law has an Accord that suffered from the transmission shit of cars early in its generation that was fixed in the mid-cycle refresh.) When you're buying one, you don't really know that lived history. So $3500 is ridiculous, and if you're willing to spend $2500 on an older Civic, then maybe, yes, you should put that money towards keeping your Jeep alive, because you know all of its weaknesses. Or leasing something new.
posted by holgate at 8:50 PM on January 4 [3 favorites]

Just want to reiterate spitbull's point: a car that age is significantly less safe than a more modern car. All good, if you're not in an accident, but if you are you are gonna notice that difference.
posted by smoke at 10:34 PM on January 4 [2 favorites]

I recently sold my 2002 Honda Accord EX for less than that price, and it had similar mileage, with everything in top shape (new transmission -- that generation was terrible for transmissions even with the 'mid-cycle fix', second timing belt, etc). Here's the thing though: At that age I was running into things just wearing out, particularly plastic and rubber components. One day it was raining and my car flooded because the sun roof drains had just worn out. It was starting to be expensive every time I took it into the shop. It didn't accelerate the way it used to. It was noisy. It was also possible that car safety had advanced in the past sixteen years, and I had children.

I loved that car, but had to let it go.
posted by Comrade_robot at 3:45 AM on January 5

My mom drives a 2003 Civic approaching 200k. The motor is going strong. But it's needed a new transmission, a new alternator, new window actuators, suspension work, and a bunch of other small stuff in the last few years, which she’s done because she (irrationally?) loves the car and believes in running cars until they die (for ecological reasons, and because she hates all the tech in newer cars). Luckily she has a wonderful independent mechanic who is both honest and cheap and loves old Hondas (and her). You’re gonna need one of those mechanics if you buy this car. Need. Not want.

This was the year we decided the rust has gone too far now (invisibly, on the underside, car looks sharp from the outside curb view, even the paint is still solid) to be worth fixing. It’s five years younger than the one you’re looking at.
posted by spitbull at 6:15 AM on January 5 [1 favorite]

The “leasing something new” suggestions may be worth weighing but remember that when you lease you are simply renting a car’s steepest segment of the depreciation curve for 3 years. It will be a lot more than $3500 too. You can figure $1000-2000 down and even at $130 a month (lowest lease I’ve seen on compacts), you’ll end up dropping about 5 grand for three years of rental. But you also have to carry maximum insurance on a lease — full collision and comprehensive. That gets way pricier fast compared to a beater that only needs liability coverage and that you write off if it gets wrecked.

On balance it’s the same as buying a $5000 car and running it into the ground, but you get to drive a newer car. That isn’t yours.

But if you can afford $5000 or $6000 for your car overall, you can buy a modest mid-2000s compact with under 100k miles that is likely to give you more than 3 years of service too, if you take good care of it. And at the end you can probably resell it for a grand or two.
posted by spitbull at 6:36 AM on January 5 [2 favorites]

By the way, depending slightly on the Jeep model you own, even a base model 1998 Civic will actually likely be a notch *faster,* 0-60mph, then your Jeep. My mom’s 2003 is a blast to drive on the highway, except it’s so light it gets blown around pretty easily, and it can hang at 80mph all day long and pass just fine. But you won’t notice any loss of power if you switch to a Civic unless you have a sport-tuned Cherokee or something.

Also you definitely want a manual transmission in an old Honda beater. Definitely.
posted by spitbull at 6:41 AM on January 5

In addition to Kelly, use and to research prices.
posted by theora55 at 10:02 AM on January 5

I have 300,000 miles on my '97 Civic. The engine is fine. The timing belt cycle is at 90,000 miles.

To be clear - the relevant Honda engines will go 250-300,000 miles just fine. But my partner has a low mileage 2000 Corolla, and it's a total rattle trap. Why? All of the rubber and plastics are slowly losing the chemicals that make them soft and pliable. After 20 years or so, they're going to be pretty well baked and brittle, and generally not good. So for instance, the cycle on the '98 D16 engine (Standard '98 Civic) timing belt is 90,000 OR 84 months (I'd been working on slightly different engines where the cycle was 60,000 miles). And the car has a LOT of plastic and rubber in it - belts, gaskets, hoses, seals, sensors, connectors, boots on joints, motor mounts, bushings, interior trim, seat padding, etc. Some of it may have been replaced, a lot of it can be replaced, but it's basically death by 1000 cuts.

Now, I like an old Civic, and I wouldn't be above buying one myself. But I know what I'm getting myself in to and I know how to fix a thing or two.

And if the questioner was broke and needed a car right away for $1000, I'd tell them to get a Civic, Corolla or Camry. Because that engine will go for a LOT of miles.

But here, the question is: should I spend nearly the sort of money that would buy a far safer and more reliable car to replace one tired old car with another car that's just as old and liable to be just as tired before you know it.
posted by wotsac at 2:19 PM on January 5 [2 favorites]

$3500 is way too high. Half that, maybe less.
Other than that, what everyone else said - has the timing belt been replaced? Brakes, tires? If so, the damn thing will run forever.
I had a 1990 CRX that finally died at 248k due to rust. I have a 1994 del Sol as a daily driver - 255k, still strong. (I am able to change the timing belt myself though.) My niece drives a 1999 Accord with well over 300k on it.
Like that Clapton song, "It's in the way that you use it". If there's a good record of all the repairs (both of my cars came with every receipt of everything done to the car from new), the timing belt has been replaced, and it's clean - could be a good car for the right price.
posted by notsnot at 5:53 AM on January 7

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