Buying a beater

We’ll be buying our niece a car this summer while she’s staying with us and she’d be perfectly happy with a beater…to her, the beatier, the better. I know that we can save a lot if cosmetics aren’t an issue but what makes and years should we be looking at so that her safety isn’t compromised? Also, what’s the best way to make sure the car is mechanically sound if its a bit dinged up?

Grandpa’s car is always good. Look for a car you associate with sedate, boring drivers who go too slow in the left lane. They are often well maintained and cheap.

Boy, am I experienced at buying old, beat up cars. You may not want to hear this, but the best way to make sure it’s safe is to have a good mechanic check it out. Some other tips - look carefully at the car - see if the gaps on the hood and back end are the same width - if they aren’t it was prob. in a bad accident. Get down on the ground and look up underneath (take a flashlight is good too) - see if brake lines look rusty or smooth, see if you can see wrinkles on the frame where it was straightened. When test driving, find an empty parking lot, go in reverse quite fast then stomp on the brakes - if it pulls one way or the other it has issues. Oh yeah, and if the body is put together with duct tape, stay away. Don’t get her a pickup they have no passenger safety requirements cause they’re a work vehicle. Year and make aren’t so important as condition - also year depends what part of the country you live in - the northeast eats cars with rust - don’t get anything over 9 years old there.

The most recent Consumer Reports Auto Issue has a list of reliable used vehicles, including cars for less than $4,000. That would be a good place to start.

I’m a fan of the Geo/Chevrolet Prizm. The older models can be bought for next to nothing and can still be very reliable. The Prizm (no longer being built) was a Toyota Corolla sold by Chevrolet dealers. A Corolla is also a good used car, but often sells for more than the identical Prizm.

Try to find a car that comes with a verifiable maintenance history. Regardless of make or model, a car that has been correctly maintained is a better bet than one about which you know nothing.

I don’t agree with Dustmouse’s 9 year limit on cars in the northeast states. Both of my personal cars are older than that, and neither is rusty.

Rust is something to look for when buying inexpensive cars, but there’s no magic age at which a car disintegrates from rust.

Oh, it’s true you CAN get a car in the northeast older than 9 years that is ok - but they are REALLY hard to find used; and maybe I’m guessing, but it sounds like they can afford something newer. If the car has been undercoated, washed regularly in winter and spring and well maintained, yes it can be just fine - but it is truly rare to find those beauties for sale - or that’s what I’ve found anyway - maybe with the bad economy there will be more available.

Unfortunately, only a qualified mechanic can give you the answer. Otherwise, a beater often indicates that it was beaten mechanically. EVERYONE assumes that as long as it’s alright mechanically, it’s safe. Consider poor body integrity as a safety issue too. How about a hole in the floorboard above a leaky exhaust ? Look for a high mileage car that was well maintained both body wise and mechanically; then have it checked.

One other question - do you have explicit approval of your niece’s parents for the beater? If she has an accident, all hell can break loose - just sayin’…

p.s. - who’s paying for insurance?