Is it possible to buy a decent used car for under $1500?
July 7, 2020 9:19 PM   Subscribe

It's been a while since I've bought a cheap car. Someone I know needs one.

They keep talking about finding a "decent $1200 car" on Craigslist. Is this a real thing that is possible, or is it basically throwing $1200 down the toilet and getting stuck with someone else's shit vehicle?

Any other thoughts or tips on finding a reliable car for cheap?
posted by Serene Empress Dork to Travel & Transportation (22 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Go drive one and see!

For me decent means, all the windows close, I have AC in the summer, and I can get to work on time.

People sell cars at low prices for lots of reasons, one of them being they just need to get rid of the darn thing.

I think the answer is yes, but you'll need to do a few test drives .

I would recommend paying for a safety inspection on a car you really like before buying. Should cost less than $100. Just tell a mechanic you trust that you need to know what work is needed to have the car be reliable and safe.
posted by jander03 at 9:38 PM on July 7, 2020 [2 favorites]

Anecdotally, a year ago I bought a 2003 Honda Civic for $1900 CAD ($1400 USD) and it works great.

I’d recommend doing some research on which car models are both affordable, common, and hold up well over time, then picking a few models to search for specifically. Honda Civic is one that usually shows up on lists like that.
posted by mekily at 9:40 PM on July 7, 2020 [2 favorites]

Honda Civic is one that usually shows up on lists like that.

You should also look at Toyota Corollas from 2003/2004.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 9:56 PM on July 7, 2020 [5 favorites]

Do you know anyone who can go with you and check it out - not thoroughly, but thoroughly enough; I bought a filthy '72 XA Falcon at auction once, took a mate along who was a total petrolhead - who didn't seem to do much more than run the engine for a few mo's, poke his finger up the tail pipe and proclaimed it ok enough. And so it proved to be. Aaah, the days of cars with no electronics (or plastics, or AC, not even many moving parts).

Parts are cheaper for Honda's/Toyota's as they're ubiquitous.

Just an anecdote but in my experience small Hondas seem to suffer from camshaft failure around 150,000km - an $$$ problem. I've had several Honda City/Jazz'es (1990's builds) and they're great and very simple/rugged - while being aware of the cam thing.
posted by unearthed at 10:05 PM on July 7, 2020 [1 favorite]

We have a 2004 Honda Element that is going mostly strong, so if you can find one of those under2 grand just buy it.
posted by vrakatar at 10:16 PM on July 7, 2020 [1 favorite]

It's possible, but be prepared to put another grand or so into the car within the first year. Seconding the mechanic once-over (AAA recommends mechanics for this service);. If you buy a car that needs a safety-critical $3000 fix you've wasted your money. Before even bothering to do a test drive, ask over email to see the title and ask if it is a salvaged or water damaged car (also check during the test drive). If so do not buy. When I was looking for a very cheap car a lot of the "bargains" were salvage cars, which are illegal to sell without disclosure for a car lot but are usually fobbed off into the owner's son to do "private sales" which are perfectly legal to not disclose it. Also check the VIN stamping on various doors/ends of the car; if they don't match the car is a Frankenstein. One other trick is to bring along a magnet to check for Bondo patches on the body.
posted by benzenedream at 10:41 PM on July 7, 2020 [3 favorites]

It's definitely possible but it's also... kind of arbitrary. My car cost me about this much money and has been no trouble at all, but I could have bought the exact same car and gotten a lemon. The two pieces of advice that I think are general enough to help are "if it seems too good to be true it might be" and "take it to a mechanic if you can."

As for cars I would recommend here, some unpopular (read: cheap) ones that are fairly reliable mechanically and that I have some experience with: the 2004-2007 generation Chevy Malibu/Malibu Maxx, GM's "W-body" cars from ~15-20 years ago (the Chevy Impala and Buick Century/Regal are probably the thickest on the ground), particularly with the "3800" engine, and Ford's "Panther" cars (the stereotypical police car silhouette—the Ford Crown Victoria, the Mercury Grand Marquis, and the Lincoln Town Car).
posted by Polycarp at 11:05 PM on July 7, 2020 [3 favorites]

It's possible but you have to be careful, and you don't exactly know what you're getting until afterwards. Here's how I did it for under $2000. I've been looking again recently as I definitely want to sell that car on Craigslist and may want to buy a nicer one there (also have the opportunity to purchase from a relative, which is likely what I will do instead). From my experience with cars on Craigslist, I'd say that for under $1000, you're probably not going to get anything okay (probably nothing that runs, possibly something that runs but with major work to be done); and for under $1500, you're likely going to get something either unreliable or ugly (or both). For around $2000, you can (with some luck) get something decent. But in the sub-$4000/-$5000 price bracket, you should expect that a car will probably need some major work within a year. Cheap upfront cost but high maintenance is the tradeoff for old cars in general (which is what you're getting in this price bracket), and you need to acknowledge that going in: it's a feature, not a bug, and doesn't mean you got a bad car. The ideal situation is to buy from someone you know rather than a total stranger with no accountability, but obviously not everyone has that luxury. That doesn't necessarily save you on maintenance costs for the car, but it might mean that they can give you some heads up about what's been done and what might be coming up. Some old cars tend to be better than others in terms of amount and cost of maintenance and repairs: I recommend keeping an eye out for Toyotas (especially Corollas) and Hondas (especially Civics).
posted by ClaireBear at 3:20 AM on July 8, 2020 [2 favorites]

Honestly my best experiences with getting cars that cheap have been via spreading the word with friends, family, and acquaintances. Eventually somebody pops up who's, like, been vaguely thinking about ditching their beater, or wondering what to do with Grandpa's second car that he doesn't drive anymore, but they haven't put effort into it because it's a hassle. The prospect of an easy cash sale to a friend of a friend is the push they're looking for to actually get rid of the car, and since their main motivation is "make this car go away with minimum effort" they're willing to sell it for way less than "market value", maybe even willing to take whatever money the buyer has available.

Word-of-mouth is also a way I've found folks who are motorheads who fix up cheap cars to be functional (but not very pretty) & resell them as a side hustle. These folks are likely to sell on Craigslist, but asking around can get you some input on which of these backyard mechanics are honest and reliable, and the "friend of somebody" social connection might get you a better price.
posted by soundguy99 at 4:29 AM on July 8, 2020 [12 favorites]

When was the last time this person bought a car? This was definitely possible a few years ago. I bought a car for $1200 in 2009 and drove it for eight years while doing almost no maintenance. My sense is that it’s not as much of a thing anymore. I think inflation has moved it more to around $1800-2000. But yeah, you should be able to find something at the low end of that range that should be perfectly acceptable. As someone mentioned, Honda Civics are going to be the most common car you’ll see, and they’re great cars. They drive well, they’re easy to maintain, and there’s generally a resale market even for cars in bad condition because people will buy for parts.

My best tip at this price point would be to ask for maintenance records. If the seller has them, they’re almost certainly responsible and kept the car in good shape. And if you buy a Civic in good shape, you could keep it for a good decade. You might still get a good car if they don’t have records (the one I bought in ‘09 didn’t, and that turned out ok), but it’s more of a crapshoot.
posted by kevinbelt at 4:50 AM on July 8, 2020 [1 favorite]

If mandatory emissions testing/certification is a thing where your friend lives, be aware that this may be the reason a car is being dumped for cheap. It is possible that it runs and drives fine, but it fails to pass emissions testing and would need an expensive repair to do so.
posted by xedrik at 5:47 AM on July 8, 2020 [6 favorites]

It is possible to find a good used car for under $1,500, but it is not the sort of thing that one can plan for. In my experience it is something that one happens upon. Two examples: five years ago my wife's then-boss knew someone who was looking to unload a low-mileage but old Subaru Forrester, and knew that my family had been stringing it together on one car when it would have been more convenient to have two, so she connected us with her friend. We paid $500 for the car and expect to keep it on the road for another five years at least.

Just last week my co-worker's daughter totalled her car in a flash flood. She happened to know someone who had vague intentions to sell their VW Passat so she asked how much to take it away. $1,400.

If your friend absolutely needs a good, reliable, low-mileage car on Monday, they may or may not be able to find that car this week for under $1,500, but if they are putting out feelers in their network and are in no hurry, I'd bet that they can score such a car by the year's end.
posted by gauche at 6:13 AM on July 8, 2020 [2 favorites]

Agreed with what is said above - I found good cheap used cars but it took a month and looking at about 20 cars to find one good bargain.
posted by benzenedream at 10:00 AM on July 8, 2020 [2 favorites]

Make sure you check out the Toyota Matrix/Pontiac Vibe sister cars. Incredibly versatile, Corolla-based, hatchback/wagons. Parts are cheap. Repairs are mostly easy. There's a whole community of enthusiasts that have already solved the most dire issues. A decent running example, maybe with some imperfect paint, would make a fine $1500 commuter car - and if you need to, you can fit a washing machine in the back with the hatch closed.
posted by transitional procedures at 10:09 AM on July 8, 2020 [4 favorites]

It's possible, but takes work looking.

For me, the definition of decent is:
- Windows close and are not broken
- Doors work, close, and lock
- The wipers work
- No crazy electrical problems, and all lights work
- Engine seems reasonably sound, no major or headed toward major oil leaks
- Alignment is ok, and it doesn't shake
- Tires that will last until replacing them can be afforded
- Heat is important for defrosting if needed in the winter or defogging, AC is utterly irrelevant if the windows work. If it needs a heater core, it is a no. It's either expensive, a hassle, or both to replace.
- It will pass whatever is required in your area to have it legally registered and titled. (Title is good and on hand for sale, no excuses or delays.)
- The way it looks or what kind of car it is, is pretty much irrelevant to me, too, provided it has enough seats and working seatbelts as I need.
- MPG probably matters for expenses, and takes a priority imo over the "coolness" of the car.
- I've probably forgotten a couple things, but you get the drift.

And then a REAL mechanic looks at and drives it. If a shop, it better be one of the rare honest ones. *** Not just someone who thinks because they constantly have to work on their "cool" beater car that's always breaking down, that they're an "expert". [sigh]

(Can't tell that this is pretty much my normal car shopping experience for my whole adult life, can you? Even though I'm finally on my first "good" car myself, I'm still dealing with this nonsense for my kids. Car insecurity is just as bad as housing insecurity, and I'd have to say it's even more stressful. Wondering if you're going to make it to your destination every single time you get in the car is horrid.)
posted by stormyteal at 10:17 AM on July 8, 2020 [2 favorites]

One other thought - looking in very wealthy suburbs for cars with extensive cosmetic damage but good guts may be your best bet. These are usually cars that someone doesn't want to deal with the hassle of getting fixed and just wants to unload.
posted by benzenedream at 11:13 AM on July 8, 2020 [2 favorites]

It's possible, but it's location dependent and it helps a ton if you know your way around cars. Two factors that are important to remember are that through inflation a $1500 car today was a $1250 car in 2008, or a $1000 car in 2001 - so people that are working from their memory of what was possible back when they were broke may have inaccurate ideas about what's possible. And the cash-for-clunkers program took a lot of cars that would have filled this niche over the last decade off the road - the market is recovering, but I'm not sure if it's what it used to be.

As someone who haunts the low end of craigslist for fun, your best chance at getting a winner is something like a Corolla, Camry or Matrix, and the next best is some old Ford or Chevy -- a Cavalier for instance has a reputation for running like garbage longer than most cars will run. Other common cars at the low end are traps: Hondas are well loved on the green, but the late-90s-early 00s Civics had fragile engines and the Accords in that price range ALL have bad transmissions (also applies to most other Honda and Acura models in the price range). Subarus ALL have blown head gaskets. Audi, BMW, Mercedes: NO - just NO. Nicer Nissans prior to 2006: will run, as long as you don't have to pass an emissions test. Older that 2000: worn out.
posted by wotsac at 11:14 AM on July 8, 2020 [6 favorites]

The decent ones that used to cost $1200 cost more like $2500 these days, speaking as someone who has never owned a car less than 15 years old.
posted by slidell at 5:40 PM on July 8, 2020 [2 favorites]

Clairebear has one.

I got my Prius, which I love, from a used car place that buys cars at auction and fixes them up. It has a salvage title, reflected in lower price, but I've had it for a year and it's a great car.
posted by theora55 at 6:27 PM on July 8, 2020

IME yes depending on what you mean by decent.

I've bought two sub US$1500 dollar cars in the last three years. A 98 Ford ZX2 coupe (C$750) and a 93 Ford Probe (C$1800). I needed to buy the Probe because the ZX2 was attacked by a mountain; it still ran fine but the boulder that hit the car took out the airbags and windshield and at that price level that's a write off.

The ZX2 needed tires and a driver's mirror. The cruise control didn't work. Body was in good shape and white colour hid some minor scratching.

The Probe is in excellent surviour shape in and out except for one of the plastic sills which is busted. It needed two tires. It is a Canadian car but spent at least a decade in California. I've put 30K on it and did plugs, distributor (a not impossible to find used one shared with some Mazdas), and plug wires. I also repaired the muffler a few months after purchase which would have been a $200 repair if I'd taken it to my muffler place.

Both had about 180K kilometres when purchased. A/C worked on both. Both had stock radios which were marginal sound quality wise. Both equipped with manual windows and locks. Neither had any rust.

The ZX2 I needed and bought within a week. The Probe I spent about 5 months searching for (not a Probe specifically but a small 2dr hatchback coupe with a stick).

Pricing on cars varies quite a regionally. Hondas and Toyotas for less than $3000 here are beat to crap or have 450K+ kilometres or both. (Seriously, I've seen Hondas that need tires with rusty dented body panels and 400K going for $3500. It's looney).

Many of the small Fords of that vintage share platforms with Mazda but go for Ford money.

My search was harder because of the fuel efficient, 2dr and manual requirements; automatic sedans are easier to find with lower miles and/or in better shape and mostly get only marginally worse mileage.

I'm a car guy whose owned a lot of super cheap cars over the years but not a professional mechanic or anything.
posted by Mitheral at 10:27 PM on July 8, 2020 [2 favorites]

I just scored a solid well running 22 year old pickup in need of minor work (from a fellow mefite!) for just a bit more than that. Yes it’s possible. You have to KNOW cars. Like, work on them yourself. You can’t be taking too many $1500 cars to a mechanic for a $150 inspection. They’re almost always a risk that is mitigated only by the purchaser knowing her shit. There are indeed real deals out there to be had, although it’s a seller’s market for used cars right now. Big time.

A $1500 car presents two paths forward. One is that you treat it as a beater. You make sure its basic safety systems are functional, ignore all other problems, and pray you get a year of service out of it, in which case you come out ahead of having to make payments on a newer car or amortizing a more expensive cash purchased used car. $115 bucks a month to own a car is superb.

It will be a shitbox, you’ll need to suffer. And you will absolutely need to be able to do basic diagnostics and minor repairs yourself. Guaranteed. Take a true beater to a decent mechanic and they’ll usually refuse to work on it for liability reasons unless you agree to a list of all major safety related repairs (which to be clear you should, which is why doing some of them yourself at least is a major economic variable). An honest mechanic is hard to find, and when you do, cherish them. Because the key question will be: can I keep this on the road for another year for less than $1000, and most mechanics won’t get bent out of shape or take risks for money that low. Nor should they. It’s your problem, not theirs. $200 a month is still not a lot to pay for a working car. ($1500 plus $1000 in repairs.)

The other path forward is financial insanity, you’d have been better off spending more up front.

In my experience, you’d be better off aiming at the $3000 mark these days for the sweet spot of cheap and decrepit but still functional econoboxes with high mileage but solid drivetrains and suspensions — what you really care about. The “if it gives me a year I break even” price is really like $250 a month up front. Sorry. And at that point you’d be close to a payment on a new econobox that comes with a warranty, although of course that’s per month and doesn’t factor in the enormous depreciation hit of buying new or financing used, which adds a hidden several-thousand-dollars a Year cost to owning anything newer than about 5-6 years old. That depreciation gets replaced by increasing repair and maintenance costs as a car ages. The real sweet spot is a car that has nearly fully depreciated and is only losing 5-10% or so of its book value per year (those first years it’s like 15-20%), but which is stout enough to be unlikely to require major structural repairs within a few more years, only expected ones and maintenance. Know what hose repairs are and what they cost and factor that into total cost of ownership for the real price point.

$3000 gets you a 10-15 year old Japanese or Korean compact car with 100-150k miles. If it’s been well maintained that can be a solid deal. You will certainly have to sacrifice things like aesthetics (rusted body panels, paint damage, dents and dings, ripped seats) and likely some functions (someone above said non-working AC was their dealbreaker, I can tell you that failed AC is often a reason people sell decent cars for less than they’d otherwise be worth because it’s often very expensive to repair and not safety critical, so if you can live without it your good options go up, especially in mid-summer).

$5000 gets you closer to 10 years/100k and better shape with lower immediate repair costs (a lot of stuff that SHOULD get done at 100k can be deferre a while, but that’s why people sell cars with 110k, because they’ve deferred and now have cold feet about doing the timing chain and the transmission service and the struts and shocks and brakes and tires and coolant flush and....). You buy it, that’s on you. Budget accordingly or expect the car to last just a year or two.

Personally I think $5000 is the bare minimum “comfort with the risk” level I’d look to spend up front on a compact car that was going to be a daily driver and needs to work, or was for a young person or inexperienced driver. If you want anything bigger than a compact, that number is $7500 in my mind, and I am a car buff and spend lots of time browsing Craigslist and autotrader and looking for needles in the haystack as a hobby. If it isn’t a daily driver, you can take bigger risks. But why?

You pay one way or the other. It costs a couple hundred bucks a both at a minimum simply to own a car that works. No way around that. You can pay it up front or pay it as you go. Or pay it when you replace it every year or two with the next shitbox.

You have to sort of like driving a shitbox, whether for automotive passion reasons or environmental ones (keeping an old vehicle on the road offsets its higher carbon emissions in almost every case under 25 years, cash for clunkers was bullshit). And anything less than a $5000 compact means you rally do have to know at least basic maintenance skills and possibly be able to do ore major work yourself to see a real value proposition.
posted by spitbull at 6:29 AM on August 7, 2020

3000 gets you a 10-15 year old Japanese or Korean compact car with 100-150k miles.

I should have said 150-200k miles.
posted by spitbull at 6:39 AM on August 7, 2020

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