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Buying a car on a small budget


I’m looking at buying a used car, but I have a small budget. $3000 max.

I’m ok with getting up to a 15 year old car. I have consistently heard that Toyotas and Hondas are good as well Mazdas. I’m seeing 93-97 models on Craigslist for that much. Can I get a decent car for that? Right now I only plan to use it on weekends and occasional evenings as I walk to work.

I wouldn’t get an old Mazda, but thats just me. One of the most important things when buy a car in this catagory is how well it has been maintained. If it hasn’t been maintained, any car, including a Honda or Toyota can turn into a money pit nightmare. Check the condition of belts, hoses and fluids. If for instance the transmission fluid is brown, or black, assume the car hasn’t been maintained. The same goes for any of these areas. If you notice an area of neglect, its pretty safe to assume everything has been neglected and if the car is still running well, don’t count on it lasting. If the vehicle has a timing belt, find out when it was last changed. A timing belt can set you back $500-$800, which is a huge amount of money to spend on a $3k car.

toyotas and Hondas carry their reliability reputation with them even when undeserved at a very old age. That said, I would look carefully at car condition and an assurance that maintenance requirements on such an old car has been kept up. I would not confine myself to Honda/Toyota, but include nearly any model where the maintenance condition can be verified. 15 yr old cars all come with issues and needed repairs, regardless. Age makes a difference as much as mileage.

Strongly recommend you have a mechanic you trust pass judgement on any car, so that you can evaluate price vs car condition logically. You may have to review quite a few opportunities before finding the right combination of price and good working condition.

Toyota and Honda have great reputations for reliability…deservingly so. But I’d take a Chevy that was extremely well maintained over a Honda or Toyota that was beat. How the vehicle was maintained (especially a 15yo old car) over one that wasn’t.

Thanks for the response, I am finding that most people don’t keep the maintainence records, so when I ask “when was the timing belt changed” they say “I don’t know” or "I’m pretty sure it was, but I don’t remember when,"
I suppose there’s no substitute for a good mechanic check

In the low budget category, concentrate on the condition of the car as opposed to the make. With a budget of $3000, plan to spend no more than $2500 so that you have $500 for any necessary repairs or items such as brakes or tires.

When I purchased low priced cars, the question wasn’t “Does this car burn oil?” but rather “How much oil does the car burn?” I never asked whether or not the car was in an accident, but rather “How bad was the accident?”

Look for a car that the undercarriage isn’t rusted, where the transmisison functions correctly and the engine doesn’t have a cracked block, cylinder head or need a head gasket. Faded paint and a few dings don’t hurt the performance of the car. Odometer readings probably don’t mean much in this category. If the car consumes no more that 1 quart of oil every 1000 or 1500 miles, you are probably o.k.

There are many cars to choose from in your budget category. New car dealers don’t really want them because they have no loan value. You will probably find the best deal from a private party selling a car.

The most basics of cars also seem to hold up the best. Roll up windows Stick shift etc… less things to fall apart.

No matter what you look at, pay a mechanic to inspect it BEFORE you buy. Yes you may wind up spending several hundred dollars taking a few cars to the shop, but, you can potentially save yourself thousands by doing this.
Look for an older Crown Victoria or Impala for a decent bargain

You need a car that is in excellent shape; maintained well by an oldster who is selling her car. Condition is everything, not make and model. If you are willing to buy an unpopular car, you can find a newer model at the same price. Maybe look for a Buick with a 3.8L engine. I have a 1998 Regal with that engine, and it’s done well for us. You have to be very particular about the car. Find an immaculate car, with repair and maintenance records if available, and get it checked by a mechanic you trust. Find out how much your mechanic will charge for this checkout first. That will tell you how tough you need to be on the candidates.

$3000 is going to get you a very old and/or a very high mileage Honda or Toyota, whereas you can probably get a halfway decent domestic car for that much. I’m partial to the various yawn-boxes produced by GM such as the Impalas, Malibus, the entire Buick line, etc. They’re “boring” so they’re cheaper, but once drive one you’ll be pleasantly surprised by how comfortable, powerful, efficient and generally pleasant to drive they are. You can probably pick up one of the newer old-generation Tauruses for your budget, which are also very nice cars.

I have had very good luck with my '98 Ford Escort, purchased 5 years ago for $3500. No unscheduled maintenance in 100,000 miles except for alternator replacement. It currently has 170,000 miles on it and is still a good driver. I have had similar good luck with a $2000 '97 Mazda Protege that I bought for my daughter. I concur with others that Honda/Toyota is not the way to go in that price range. Find a one-owner car with maintenance records, at least for a timing belt change. Be patient if you can.

You Don’t Say!

Chris, you don’t say if you live in a climate zone where cars are likely to rust badly, like where they dump salt on the roads in the winter. Ten to fifteen year-old cars in these areas can suffer from rust damage. Some people get rid of cars in this age bracket because of corrosion. Should you be living in one of these locations, I would try and find a make and model that is less likely to be a rust bucket. Repair shops in your area may be able to advise you which ones to steer clear of. Also, if you’re not good at checking for rust yourself, take along someone who knows what to look at. At any rate, I would look for a car with little to no rust damage, before pursuing a mechanic checkout. Rust can become dangerous and/or expensive.

I haven’t seen anyone recommend the venerable Crown Vic as yet, so let me be the first. They’re usually cheap to purchase used and every mechanic in the country can work on them easily. Yes, they’re big, but if you aren’t using it much it won’t matter. Other full-size American cars are also worth considering. As others have said, at this price point condition and upkeep are more important than brand. Ask around your family and friends if any older folks are looking to sell off their old car.

The next category to check out is Hyundai. They have a terrible resale value, so you’ll find a much newer one for your price than any Honda/Toyota/Mazda. The good news is, despite their early bad reputation, they are very reliable cars.

Finally, if the seller can’t show you a dated receipt for a timing belt replacement, then assume it hasn’t been done. Budget for, and have it done right away. This only applies to cars with timing belts, of course. Many do not.

Ranck, You Nailed It!

" … at this price point condition and upkeep are more important than brand."

I like the recommendation of a car anybody can work on. I might add that parts (new and used) are probably easy to get and inexpensive on this type vehicle, too.

In addition to Crown Victoria, its sister the Grand Marquis. They are good on rough streets too.

I agree with all my previous posters on the emphasis on condition. 2 notes from my side.

  1. When I search Craigslist for a car I occasionally search for a keyword instead of a make or model. Try searching for “records”, “maintained”, “family”, “single owner”. I occasionally even search for “grandma”, “mom”, etc. A few people on there really go to great lengths in describing the history of their vehicles(always in the same family) and really have all repair records available. As people previously wrote, that’s more important than anyhting else. I have bought a couple of 500$ cars for fun events (silly, low-budget road trips) and I have sat around kitchen tables with original owners of 1988 Plymouth Voyagers or 1987 Buick Park Avenues that could show me the receipt for every single repair. For a 500$ car that had a 400$ brake job 3 months prior! These people are out there and you can find them by looking for the clues I mentioned above. I stay away form anyone who does not know.

  2. I refer pretty much anyone I know in search of a car to For your special case they maintain a list of partyicularly reliable vehicles in the sub-4000$ range:

This list contains a few of the suspects that have been mentioned above:

Acura CL '98
Buick LeSabre '99
Chevrolet Prizm '98-00
Ford Crown Victoria '98-99; Escort '99; Mustang (V6) '98
Honda Accord '98; Civic '98; Odyssey '98
Mazda B-Series (2WD) '98; Millenia '98; Proteg? '98-00
Mercury Grand Marquis '98; Tracer '98
Nissan Frontier '98; Pathfinder '98
Subaru Impreza '98; Legacy '98
Toyota Corolla '98-00; Echo '00; Sienna '98-99

I think those are perfect!!! The only downside may be gas mileage but if the OP does not drive as much it may not matter. Sure makes for a heckuva ride compared to a Civic.

I recommended both a Crown Vic and an Impala in my last post

12/11/2008 8:20:31 PM
Re: Buying a car on a small budget

I live in California, so no salt on the roads

Searching by those keywords is a great idea. I have been hesitant about domestic brands as I know two foreign mechanics with great reps but no domestic ones and the gas mileage.