Permit me a small sob story
October 13, 2006 9:48 AM   Subscribe

How do I get a reliable car for not much money?

Permit me a small sob story that I'd like your advice on.

I'm a graduate student, in my fifth year of a PhD program. As you might guess I'm growing weary of the indentured labor and voluntary poverty. I'm about a year or two away from being done. Praise God.

I own a nice little house with house payments that are actually less than most rents in town, and I had a little car which I liked very much and was almost done paying off.

I HAD a car. This weekend a guy ran a red and smashed into the side of my sweet little car. Thankfully no one was majorly hurt, though I'm still (a week later) sore, achy and getting treatment for it. That will be paid for by the insurance company.

The car was a good, reliable car, but not a valuable one. So my insurance just informed me that it's worth $3100. I've fiddled with numbers and tried to see how I could raise that amount given previous mefi comments, but it's about right. $2600 payable soonish and another $500 once they get the deductable back from the other company. Oh, and I still owe $1500 on it still - though I paid off the bank with a 0% apr credit card.

A few details: I don't use my car a huge amount, but I do sometimes drive to campus and to the store. I also take trips to visit family that are a few hours out of town. And I've used my car to take longer trips to keep my sanity in grad school. I prefer driving when I go out at night (especially recently, I've been too sore to bike). I live about 4 miles from campus and bike there sometimes. But I don't have a contingency plan for rain days - the bus takes twice as long and there's no one else around with a car that I know. I think I probably want to have a car, the idea of biking to the store to get paint etc for home improvement projects/groceries etc doesn't sound appealing. I do have a roommate but she relies on her bike primarily, and so has often relied on my having a car for longer transport.

So what do I do? How do I get myself a car? Anyone have ideas? What can I expect to get if I spend the $3100 on a private party car? I'm guessing the rental car they gave me is going to run out soon. But frankly, the thought of buying a car sounds incredibly tiring to me. I just can't afford to spend more money per month than I already do (which is just the minimum payment on a credit card) without eating only ramen for the rest of my days here and not ever going out for entertainment (which is believe me minimal). So I'm not too keen on going to a dealership and having them try to sweet talk me into a car I honestly can't afford.

I could take more money out in student loans but being as overly educated as I am means that I've taken a lot out already. Plus I tend to use student loan money to take care of house emergencies (such as backed up sewer pipes on the day after a car accident). I've thought about selling the house, but it's not a great market for selling at the moment and I'm not sure I'd be able to find a cheaper place to live if I rented.

If I do buy a car, I don't know how I'll get one that is as reliable and as reasonable to maintain as my smushed up friend in the insurance lot. Do you know how? What do I do? Please tell me!
posted by mulkey to Travel & Transportation (24 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Disclaimer: I have not yet bought my car.

I am exactly in your financial situation, down to the cost I'd like to spend on the car. Here's my plan-of-attack for buying a used car.

1. Find a friend who knows automobiles. This is the most important thing, ever.

2. Pick a couple of models you're interested in. When you actually start looking for cars, there will be way too many choices for you to just say "I'll see what's out there." Right now I'm checking out Hondas (especially the Honda Civic) and Toyota Corrollas based on my auto-knowing friend's recommendation. They offer a good balance of relability and fuel-economy.

3. Look on Craiglist,, autotrader, etc for models in your area. Decide how far you're willing to drive to pick out a car, and unless you find the most sweet-ass deal in the world stick to it. Otherwise, you will be spending a lot of driving time on possibly useless cars.

4. When you find the cars you like, email the owners for information about the following:

Type of transmission
Type of engine (this will let you know if they know anything at all about their car)
State inspected?
Accidents (are there any and how many)
Do they have proper documentation of maintenance history (records of oil changes, etc) - first owner? Owner history?
Made any repairs? What kind?
Information about airbags/power locks/power windows/other safety features/anti-theft/anti-lock brakes/automatic seat belts

Accidents aren't an automatic no-go, but you do not want anything that's had frame damage, no matter how well the owner says it's been fixed.

While you're doing all this, go to your state's DMV website and figure out the laws for buying a used car and transferring the title.

5. Weed out the cars into top 5, top 10, top 20, etc. Focus on your top 5, then move down the list. Visit the owner and take the car for a test drive. Take your auto-knowing friend with you. They will check out the engine and talk all their fancy auto-knowledge talk. If they're really cool, they may even haggle.

6. Once you're ready for the car, do all the title transfer. Hopefully there's some way for you to get your insurance all ready to be applied to the car as soon as possible after you've bought it.
posted by schroedinger at 10:12 AM on October 13, 2006 [2 favorites]

If you get a little creative you can find exceptional deals. The best one I ever had was my little Honda Civic - it had been donated to a dance company. They didn't want to be in the car sales business, so they let it go quickly. When I bought it for $600 - in 1995 - it had 110,000 miles on it. It finally broke at 279,000 miles.

So look around at where cars are turning up, don't be afraid to pay less than your max, and take someone who's well informed with you when you check out any car.
posted by jet_silver at 10:27 AM on October 13, 2006

hi mulkey, sorry to hear about your accident, kid. unfortunately in the wee hours of this japanese morning, i don't have the time to recommend makes & models & places you might begin your search (besides, others are already chipping in as i type), *but* i found it interesting that you mentioned your roommate in your question. perhaps you could sit her down over breakfast one morning (always the best time to talk money matters, i find, don't you?) & see how she feels about chipping in half & half for a one or two year old scion xa (that's a rebadged toyota 'ist' - a lovely car which i too poot-poot around in) &, as you may already know, 'toyota' is a japanese word which roughly translates as 'bloody reliable'! is the bee's knees for advice & information & all kinds of scion buying help. oh, & long hot baths for those aches & sores, poor you. sincerely, best wishes.
posted by n o i s e s at 10:30 AM on October 13, 2006

I think thats too little to spend on a honda. They retain their value too well and the ones that go for 2500 dollars or so are pretty beat up. I'd check out Saturns. If you can find one with less than 100k miles and in good condition for 3000-3500 or so dollars I'd snatch it up.
posted by damn dirty ape at 10:32 AM on October 13, 2006

I once worked for an auto insurance company, but I just programmed the computer so I'm no expert.

However, one of the claims adjusters once told me that if I ever found myself in a similar situation that I should invoke a little known clause found in most policies. Instead of getting a cash payout on a totaled car, you can get the insurance company to replace the car. Apparently they have to do this if you ask for it. They have to find you an equivilent car. The same year/model if they can find it or something similar if they can't.

Now don't know if he was pulling my leg or if this is just an Illinois thing (where I lived at the time) but take out your policy and read the whole thing, you might have this option.
posted by Bonzai at 10:45 AM on October 13, 2006 [1 favorite]

My second year in grad school, I bought an '86 Accord with 155K miles for a few hundred bucks. It ran fine for two years, after which I sold it for what I paid for it. I still see it around town sometimes, so apparently it still works.

Now, admittedly, I was lucky. But, since you can afford to be carless -- that is, you don't NEED to own a car -- I'd just buy a cheap one, junk it when it breaks irreparably, and repeat as necessary. Even if you have to buy a replacement car every year you come out ahead.
posted by myeviltwin at 10:48 AM on October 13, 2006 [1 favorite]

Thanks to all -

Schroedinger - Some great advice!

noises - The roommate really hates driving, so I don't think that's going to work. I'd totally be up for a car share type of thing if I could find someone!

damn dirty ape - what is a reasonable low price to spend on a honda? If I were to add in some student loan money, how much would allow me to buy a good honda? The car before this one was a honda and I adored it.

So what kind of car COULD I get with this kind of money? Is it reasonable to expect that a car could last a couple of years if I spent $3000? Also the last car I bought was a geo prizm (made by toyota). what other cars have that same quirky made by someone else quality?
posted by mulkey at 10:52 AM on October 13, 2006

$3100 can buy you reliable transportation, but it probably won't be pretty. There are 2 keys to buying a used car inexpensively. First, buy a car that is less popular in the resale market than the most popular cars. Second, shop carefully for an older car that is well maintained.

Cars that were very popular when they sold new tend to remain popular, and sell quickly as used cars. Toyota and Honda models are examples of this, and because of their popularity, it is hard to find these makes at great price points in the used market. On the other hand, very cheap cars like Hyundai and Kia don't maintain resale value as a percentage of their new value, because the perception of the market is that they are not as desireable in the first place, and may not last as long as the more popular makes. So, if you are willing to drive a less popular car, you may find your money goes a lot further. A 2000 Kia Spectra GS 4 door sedan with 80,000 miles, in fair to good condition would be in your price range. And if you can drive a stick transmission, or find a car with very minimal option equipment, or an unpopular color, you may do better still on price.

Since you don't drive the car a lot, you may find that an older, larger car is suitable for your use, as gas mileage and repair costs are going to be less of an issue for you, than they would for someone buying a car to make an 80 mile a day round trip commute. Something like a 1998 Dodge Intrepid with 85,000 miles, in fair to good condition, would be in your price range, and yet likely be a car with a lot of good service left, if it has been reasonably maintained (brakes, tires, oil changes, etc.) Mileage is less an issue in older cars than maintenance history, particularly if the current owner has reciepts for major maintenance items done recently. If the car had 110,000 miles, but the brakes had been recently redone with new rotors and pads, and a major tune up had been done, with belts replaced, and throttle body cleaned, the additional mileage would represent little risk to you, for the value of the maintenance done. But the additional maintenance dollars spent by the previous owner shouldn't materially increase the price of the car to you.
posted by paulsc at 11:14 AM on October 13, 2006 [1 favorite]

Forgot to mention, you can use the online Kelley Blue Book to compare, price, and shop for cars in your area. "Private party" values are what you'd expect to pay for a car purchased from a private owner. You should definitely spend some time researching there, and get a local paper and "Under $5000" Swap Book (Car Trader) available weekly at most convenience stores in your area.
posted by paulsc at 11:18 AM on October 13, 2006

$3,000 will get you a perfectly fine used car that will easily last for a few years. Look at older Toyotas or Hondas, or perhaps newer Hyundais, Nissans, etc. I would avoid American or European makes if you're looking for optimum durability and reliability. Pay a mechanic $100 or so to do a pre-purchase inspection, with special attention to transmission, engine compression, etc. You'll be fine.

The Prizm was one of several cars built at a joint Toyota/GM plant, but probably the best bet in that price range. The same plant builds the toyota matrix/pontiac vibe now, but they're newer, and will be more expensive than what you're looking for.
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 11:23 AM on October 13, 2006 [1 favorite]

Oh man, you guys are great!

Bonzai - I'll check my policy - it's worth at least looking.

myeviltwin - It might be worth it to get junkers that can last a year or so, but the last thing I want is to be car shopping while defending my diss. Still, it's a good point to consider.

paulsc - Awesome points - I need to think more about it, but you're right that even though I hate paying for gas (who doesn't) I don't NEED a car with exceptional gas milage. And I didn't think much about cars like Kias or Intrepids. I'll have to do some research.

mc low carb - I loved my little prizm but there seems to be almost no one selling theirs so that I could get another one. It's very sad - it was a really good little car.

Thanks again all! Keep the ideas coming! Particularly more offbeat cars that I could get in this price range. I don't need it to look pretty and I do drive a stick (actually prefer it).
posted by mulkey at 11:33 AM on October 13, 2006

Volvo 240 or 740.
posted by sourwookie at 11:39 AM on October 13, 2006

I bought my car a few years ago using information I got from two books that any public library should have: The Consumer Reports used car ratings and the Kelley Blue Book. First look up reliable cars in the cheapest category in Consumer Reports, then see how much they sell for in Kelley Blue Book.

I wound up spending $5,000 for a three-year-old car with 30,000 miles on it, using the information I got from these books. Now it's a seven-year-old car with 114,000 miles on it, and it's only had relatively minor, standard repair issues over that time.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 11:43 AM on October 13, 2006

If that "have the insurance company find an equivalent car" thing works for you, please post here and let us know.
posted by 4ster at 11:46 AM on October 13, 2006

I see that some people are recommending brands that others are specifically recommending away from... I think it doesn't matter so much which brand you buy, it's more important that you get a well-maintained version of whatever type you pick.

Working the social network is probably going to be the best way to do it. Definitely find a friend who knows cars; depending on what field you're in (any science??), someone in the department may have tinkered with cars in the past. If not, see if anyone you know has someone like that in their network, etc. The important part is to get someone you trust to look at whatever car you pick and tell you HONESTLY what needs to be fixed and how much it'll cost.

In looking for a seller, you'd really prefer someone along the lines of "little old lady who used the car to drive to the grocery store 3 times a week for 15 years" than "guy who's selling his cousin's car, who moved out for grad school after driving it for 6 years." Towards this end, maybe the azstarnet classifieds would serve you better than craigslist, at least as a first effort.

Finally, after you've tracked down a few choices and dragged your automotive friend to look at 2-3 of them, pony up $20 or whatever it costs to get unlimited Carfaxes for a month, and run each VIN to be completely sure it hasn't been in a serious accident or is otherwise a salvage vehicle.
posted by rkent at 11:46 AM on October 13, 2006

Mazdas are undervalued by the used market in the US and are very reliable.
posted by crhanson at 12:23 PM on October 13, 2006

We actually called a Ford dealership and surprisingly many of the mechanics work on cars for fun and fix them up. We have bought a few cheap reliable cars that way. Tip top shape, and very well maintained. It's just an may try calling a body shop at a dealership and ask, you never know.
posted by Gooney at 12:26 PM on October 13, 2006

I'll agree with rkent that finding a good car through savvy friends can work, if your network includes such people. But if you don't travel in circles where car folks congregate, it can be less than productive. No one wants to jeapordize a friendship or an association by recommending a lemon to you. But yes, if you've got a mechanical mensch or menschette in your social orbit, by all means, make 'em your hero. Otherwise, you have to assume the responsibility for evaluating a car reasonably, and picking between likely alternatives.

The Consumer Reports suggestion is good, as far as it goes. Over 5 years, or 75,000 miles, make and model averages become less useful evaluation criteria, than individual car condition. If you focus on a particular model, it's useful to read some of the bigger Internet message boards for that model of car, to see if repetitive, well known problems keep coming up. Volkswagen Jettas for example have more frequent than usual clutch replacement issues, compared to Japanese cars with equivalent mileage.

If you know what to look for, a car can tell you a lot about the kind of service it has seen, but if you don't have this experience, you have to go by reciepts and service record. An owner who is careful about maintenance will generally be careful about paperwork. And that's the advantage of dealing with private sellers, if there is one. So, if you're buying a car "as is" from a private seller, spend the time at their kitchen table, going over their reciepts, and listening to their story. Watch their face as you would a poker player. Ask questions, and wait for answers (first one that talks after you ask a question loses ;-) ).

In general, you are looking for a 1 or 2 owner vehicle, not an ex-rental car or fleet vehicle. It's true that rental car companies and corporate fleets do turn over their fleets routinely, and that some people have done pretty well with used fleet cars, in terms of value for money. But frankly, a lot of rental cars are driven badly, filled with cheap gas, and minimally maintained for the time they are in the rental fleet. So unless you are pretty good at carefully looking over a given vehicle, I would steer away from such cars, were I you.

I'd also recommend you run CarFax reports, but recognize that if the car hasn't changed hands in a couple of years, or has been repaired in the meantime at private body shops without an insurance claim, the CarFax report may not indicate actual damage. The value of CarFax is to alert you to cars which have had major insurance claims paid on them, such as for flood damage or major impact damage. You don't want to get a car that has a salvage title, or has been put back on the road with a rebuilt/reconstructed title, having been pieced together out of a couple of wrecks.
posted by paulsc at 1:00 PM on October 13, 2006 [1 favorite]

cheap cars like Hyundai and Kia don't maintain resale value as a percentage of their new value, because the perception of the market is that they are not as desireable in the first place, and may not last as long as the more popular makes.

The perception seems likely correct for a Kia. Nearly everyone I know personally who has bought one, new or used, has come to greatly regret that decision.

I reiterate the consumer reports stuff. It led me to my current vehicle, a very reliable and affordable Geo Prizm.
posted by weston at 1:36 PM on October 13, 2006

For $3100, your best bet may be a used Mazda Miata -- they're built like tanks, and are wicked fun to drive. Either way, bring any car you're serious about to a mechanic for a checkup first; you may burn 50 bucks, but could save yourself a bundle in the end.
posted by turducken at 2:47 PM on October 13, 2006

Take a week or two to notice the old cars being driven around your city. Chances are, you'll notice one or two models that are far more prevalent than others. That model is likely to be more reliable than other old cars.
posted by Lucie at 2:57 PM on October 13, 2006

I would buy an older Toyota Camry, even one ten years old should have a lot of reliable life in it. Whatever you buy, go see a mechanic, don't let yourself be pressured into a decision.
posted by LarryC at 4:37 PM on October 14, 2006

What about a scooter? You can easily find one for $1000-2000.
posted by k1ng at 10:07 AM on October 15, 2006

Just to follow up, I'm slowly getting into looking for a car. I think I've found a mechanic to check the cars out through a friend of mine. Yay. And the engineer boyfriend will accompany me to see the cars once I get the check from the insurance.

FYI, I asked my insurance company if they could replace the car and they said that the provision for replacing cars is only in some states and not in others.

In any case thanks for all the advice and if you know of a good car that costs <$2600 in Tucson, AZ please let me know!
posted by mulkey at 12:47 PM on October 19, 2006

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