So you decide to skip the car loan and scrape up enough money to pay cash for a cheap used car. What’s the least you can spend? And will that really get you a reliable used car?
Auto experts say the lowest price for a reliable used car is about $2,500. But they’re quick to note that every additional $1,000 in your budget will allow you to get a newer car that’s been driven fewer miles.
“There are diamonds out there,” says Mark Scroggs, an independent used car dealer in the San Francisco Bay Area who buys 10 to 15 used cars a week. “But it takes a lot of legwork to find them.”
Phong Ly, CEO of classified used car website iSeeCars, agrees but says the process is much easier if you know how to maximize use of the Internet and phone before physically inspecting any cars.
Mark Holthoff, manager for a community website for used car enthusiasts called Klipnik.com, says your $2,500 will buy more if you look for a vehicle with minor exterior flaws such as faded paint, which lowers the price but doesn’t affect the mechanical performance.
Set your expectations
With a limited budget, you should look at cars that are at least 10 years old — models from before 2006 — and have been driven at least 100,000 miles. While that sounds like a lot of miles, Scroggs says that in the past, if “a car had 100,000 miles it was done. Now you don’t change your spark plugs until 100,000 miles.”
Where to look
By carefully filtering searches of Internet used car listings, you can find what you want, nearby, and usually with photos. Increasingly, vehicle history reports, such as CarFax, are included for free, particularly on sites such as eBayMotors.
Craigslist is the best source for cars in your area, Holthoff and Scroggs say. AutoTrader.com is also good, but most ads are from dealers these days.
The search filter on iSeeCars customizes results to match your budget and tastes, Ly says. His site compares the asking price to the average price of other sellers. If the price is lower, it’s labeled a “Best Deal.”
Setting search terms
When shopping for a used car for $2,500 or less, these search terms will give you the best possible results:
• Price: Set the maximum to $3,500. You can bargain some sellers down into your price range.
• Distance: Start locally and broaden the search area if you don’t find what you want.
• Mileage: Set a maximum of 150,000 to begin and then increase if necessary.
• Models: Start without making a selection just to see what pops up. Then narrow the field by selecting brands known for reliability.
Begin by searching for Japanese cars, because they have the highest J.D. Power satisfaction ratings, Ly recommends. However, Scroggs warned of the “Toyota or Honda tax” — a premium placed on these top Japanese brands because of their reputation for reliability. Instead, look for second-tier Japanese brands such as Mazda, Nissan or Mitsubishi.
You can find bargains if you’re open to buying an American car. Scroggs says his auction experience has shown him you could snag a Ford Focus, a model that has a strong history of reliability, for less money than Japanese cars.
Holthoff started Klipnik to repost great used car deals he’s found on other classified sites. Auto enthusiasts then comment on the listings, sharing their expert knowledge of the cars for sale. To prove that cheap used cars are readily available, Holthoff quickly located a one-owner 2000 Toyota Camry for only $2,000.
Cars to avoid
Steer clear of European cars because of the high cost of maintenance and repairs, Scroggs advises. Also, don’t expect to be able to buy an SUV, because everyone wants one these days. Avoid cars with salvage titles, which are those that have been in a serious accident, flood or fire. Although such a car might have been fully restored and run well now, you’d have a lot of trouble reselling it.
Test-driving and inspecting used cars
Begin by looking at the general appearance of the car and how the present owner has maintained it. “If there are hamburger wrappers all over the interior, they probably weren’t changing the oil,” Scroggs says. It’s especially important to look at the tires, since a new full set could easily cost $350.
If the car passes your inspection, spend the $50 to $100 to have a mechanic look at it. Expect the shop to recommend a long list of repairs both to avoid liability and perhaps drum up business. You might be able to use some of the repair recommendations as leverage with the seller when negotiating.
Finally, don’t spend all your savings buying the car in case you do need new tires or other equipment. And remember, you’ll also need money for registration and insurance.