Buying a used car on a 'budget' in 2021
August 23, 2021 7:56 AM   Subscribe

Family will likely buy a car later this year. Our budget is probably $15k, but if a $5 or $7.5k bump gets us a much better vehicle will go so. You would love to get a smaller hybrid SUV/station wagon or even a hybrid sedan. What tips do you have to make this seamless as possible but without paying a huge premium? How far back in years should we go (I know there was a year that lots of safety improvements came in)? What is a good budget?

Car will not be a commute car but a once a week 30 mile round trip car and a couple times a year 5 hour trip car for a family and (eventually probably ) 2 kids living in a large east coast city.
posted by sandmanwv to Travel & Transportation (11 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
There are severe new and used car shortages currently. Used car prices have skyrocketed.

If they want used but fairly new, cross shop with new, the prices aren't as different as they traditionally were. Inventory is super low on new too of course.

My suggestions, be extreme flexible on what make/model of car. The less popular models have had less drastic price increases than popular models, so maybe investigate those.

Get a handle on what the inventory & pricing looks like at some reputable dealers and monitor it.

It's going to be a long time before things normalize.

Don't expect to go in negotiating lots of savings, with the tight inventory they have no need to negotiate.
posted by TheAdamist at 9:33 AM on August 23, 2021 [2 favorites]

What tips do you have to make this seamless as possible but without paying a huge premium?

It's probably not reasonable to get a hybrid. What you're describing is a very low mileage use case - about 2K miles/year by my count. For that distance, the difference between a 25 mpg "normal" car and 50 mpg hybrid car adds up to a whopping 40 gallons of gas per year. From a price perspective, hybrid price premiums and potential battery replacement cost probably don't add up for you. From an environmental perspective, that's less than $4 in carbon offsets per year (from From a manufacturing perspective, the battery in a hybrid car has a significant amount of rare earth materials that are hazardous to mine - if you want to minimize impact to the planet and to miners, it'd be preferable for that battery to go to someone who actually drives their car a significant number of miles.

How far back in years should we go

The vast majority of cars sold after 2016, and all cars sold after 2018, have backup cameras. Cars sold after 2011 have electronic stability control. Autonomous emergency braking started to be common after 2015 (although its still not required in the USA, so far as I know).

What is a good budget?

Looking around you, a low mileage Hyundai Sonata/Kia Optima in the $15K-$18K realm (including taxes/fees) seems very easy to achieve. SUVs are popular now. Sedans aren't. Station wagons also aren't popular, but they are so unpopular they're pretty hard to find. Popular cars like small SUVs right now increase your costs, and if you have no particular reason to want them, I'd suggest getting a boring sedan.
posted by saeculorum at 10:06 AM on August 23, 2021 [5 favorites]

I have purchased both of my last two cars using Copilot. It's a search that finds listings but also gives you more information about how good a deal it is and ways you might be able to negotiate the price down. I would probably make some decisions about makes and models before you start on Copilot but I've been very pleased with the prices/cars I've found.
posted by emkelley at 10:27 AM on August 23, 2021 [4 favorites]

A friend of ours gave us a meticulously upkept 15 year old Hyundai Tucson with 367k kilometers on it. That sort of day trip situation is exactly what we use it for. I don't necessarily suggest you get a junker, of course, just that you can probably look for higher mileage cars because you won't be pounding miles on it. The other relevant point is that you also won't be "screwed" if your car breaks down, from what it sounds like. I wouldn't want to rely on this car for a daily commute. Cars these days are much safer than yesteryears, and yeah, you just don't have a huge amount of road-hours to worry about.
posted by aggyface at 11:46 AM on August 23, 2021

It's the shortage of new cars that's driving the spike in used car prices, so that spike is concentrated among late-model cars that are attractive to buyers who would really rather purchase a new car. So a $15,000 budget may get you a car that would have sold for $9,000-$10,000 before the pandemic.

But a $4,000 car pre-pandemic is still going for about $4,000, and you can certainly find one of those that will do 2,000 miles/year safely and reliably -- for maybe half as many years as a once-$9,000 car that's currently available at $15,000.

2021 is a tough year to buy what you're looking for. But if you can stomach putting 10,000 miles on a cheap "bridge" car over the next five years, you can pose this question again in much better circumstances.
posted by gum at 11:50 AM on August 23, 2021 [5 favorites]

I'm sure you're right, spitbull -- I'm sure you're right that these market situations are very regional. I'm in the high-priced San Francisco Bay Area, and I've never paid more than $1,700 for a car. I have two of these: one (cost $700 twelve years ago) and another (cost $1,700 eight years ago). Both have been totally reliable with no major repairs so far.

Nevertheless, I've been casually looking at Craigslist in the San Francisco Bay Area for a potential replacement for one or both of these. I don't see any price inflation below $5,000 here in this market.

There is no or little low-end inflation in my market, but I respect your evaluation of your market.

My major point is that high-end used cars are terrifically overpriced right now, and you need to look at alternatives if you really, really need to buy a car in this terrible buyers' market.
posted by gum at 10:45 PM on August 23, 2021

The trick is finding that needle in a haystack that still has plenty of life and no major problems.

In my experience, severe body rust is the only major problem I'd consider a complete dealbreaker. It's generally prohibitively expensive to transplant working running gear into a new body, but pretty much anything else can be replaced; and I've never understood why so many people seem willing to spend $15k on a vehicle in order to avoid needing to spend $3k to put a reconditioned motor into a $2k vehicle that also wants another $2k spent on assorted issues to get it to the point of being reliable.

My advice is to buy something quite old, made in Japan or Korea where they appear to understand how to make a car body that lasts, with the best service history you can find, and then just keep putting in the money to replace bits that fail, preferably with second hand parts in reasonable condition from wreckers if you can find them.

The prevailing wisdom is that it makes no sense to spend more than a vehicle's current market value on repairs to bring it back to a reliable standard, but I've never seen the relevance of current market value as a benchmark for this kind of judgement call. I'm all about spending as little as possible on maintaining access to reliable personal transport. All my life I've done that by keeping my beaters going for whatever it costs to do that until somebody else has destroyed them for me, and in 35 years of doing that I've spent well under a quarter of what's typical for family and friends and acquaintances and had completely satisfactory service from my cars.

The trick is giving no shits at all what other people think of your car.
posted by flabdablet at 3:41 AM on August 24, 2021 [1 favorite]

Further to reliability: the main trick there is finding a good mechanic, having them service your car regularly, taking their advice about which bits look like they're on the way out so that you can get them replaced before they fail in use, and reminding yourself whenever this process starts feeling a bit expensive just how much further ahead you still are than somebody whose initial acquisition cost was five times yours (or, if they bought new, twenty times yours).
posted by flabdablet at 3:50 AM on August 24, 2021 [1 favorite]

Toyota and Honda don’t magically make machines that don’t wear out.

No. But they do make machines with better engineering and higher build quality than most; machines that often comfortably outlast their expected design lives given a modicum of careful maintenance, which translates to notably lower total cost of ownership, especially once "fully" depreciated.

Daihatsu likewise. Very robust machines with outstanding simplicity.

Stories of old Corollas that never need work at 250k miles are exceptions, exaggerations, or lucky breaks

or come from impoverished students who prefer to put their heads in the sand than to spend the money to do the work their cars actually need, instead just choosing to run them into the ground until they die.

And to be fair to Corollas, they are legendary for their ability to run like crap for what seems like forever.
posted by flabdablet at 6:32 AM on August 24, 2021

Another option for you to consider is buying an EV for your weekly needs and renting a vehicle for the fee road trips you take a year. Internal combustion vehicles do not typically respond well in the long term to sitting around a lot. There is still time based maintainable to perform which will increase your cost per mile. There are a lot of EVs on the market right now that are not very desirable to the mass market due to limited range in the 100 mile or less range. They are being displaced by the next generation that have 200+ mile range. The Kia Soul EV is a good example. I did not even know they existed until a friend bought one. It is a nice little vehicle perfect for a short daily commute or to pick up groceries, but pretty much useless for a road trip. A 2017 is typically in the $15k range and most of them have very few miles on them, probably less than 20k. No oil changes. Nobody stealing your catalytic converter. Just a basic city car. Then for your road trips you rent what you need without a long term commitment for a bigger vehicle.
posted by Short End Of A Wishbone at 8:46 AM on August 24, 2021

Now let’s talk about catalytic converters. Very likely to need replacing at 15-20 years. $700-1000 for the part alone unless you are able to source a junkyard one, which isn’t easy anymore.

Yes, and they are not expected to last 15 years anymore. Mine was replaced for $1500 at 140k miles and 9 years old. They said that's right in line with the maintenance schedule for Honda.
posted by The_Vegetables at 7:38 AM on August 27, 2021

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