Buying a Used Car on a Very Limited Budget

I’ve been reading the posts about buying a used car, which have been been helpful, but I’d be interested in further suggestions.

In 1999, I bought a '91 Ford Escort with 116,000 miles for $700 (my first car at age 43!). I bought it from a fellow student. It was the best buy ever! The car now has 156,000 miles on it. I drive only for work and errands, and I have to make 30-35 mile trips from Tampa to St. Pete periodically.

The car is in miserable shape cosmetically. It was rear-ended and I couldn’t fix it. I can’t open the hatchback as a result. Part of the front bumper has broken off. There are no handles on the doors, and the flimsy ceiling cloth is half gone, and the rest is hanging. I’ve washed it once.

But I’m told the engine is in good shape. However, right now there’s some sputtering action going on, mostly in 2nd and 3rd gears. Also the brakes barely work, and only then when I press the pedal practically to the floor (could it be that they just need to be adjusted so they’ll catch sooner?). I have been of the mind to keep repairing the car, because it’s cheaper than buying. And while I consider a car simply a machine that gets me where I must go, even I am beginning to be irritated and bummed by the condition of this car.

People have told me not to put any more money into this car – “you’ve gotten your money’s worth” and “don’t put good money into a bad car” etc. So, I am finally considering buying another car. But I’ve never bought from a dealer, so I’m a bit nervous.

I want the smallest, most reliable, and most importantly, the most fuel-efficient car I can afford. (The Escort has gotten 28-30 mpg in the city during my ownership.) But I’m a grad student and work part-time, so I can’t afford much. I think I can afford $5000–$6000. If I took out the car loan for longer, maybe $7000, but I’d rather not.

From what I’ve read here, and researched online, I’m leaning toward the Toyota Corolla, Hyundai Accent, or Honda Civic.

What do you think? And what advice do you have about beginning this shopping excursion? Oh, someone told me that if you take the blue book value for private sale, you can haggle for that price at the dealer. Is that true? And some cars I’ve seen online are more than the blue book value, some much less. How do I know what this means? How do I know they’re not hiding some huge flaw in the car? All these things make me nervous about starting out. Help! And thanks.


I don’t have any comments on the car shopping, but I can’t believe you’re continuing to drive a car with failing brakes. One of these days (possibly soon) you’re going to press the pedal to the floor and the car won’t stop and you’ll injure someone innocent.

If you got rear ended why didn’t the other party’s insurance cover it. From what you’ve posted it sounds like you are rather negectful when it comes to maintaining your vehicle. If you cannot manage to keep an inexpensive beater together, what makes you think you’ll be able to keep a more expensive car in roadworthy condition.

Get rid of that heap and get a good safe and reliable car. Reliable and efficient cars in your price range include the Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, and Toyota Echo. Aim for something made in 1998 or later.

Oh, and this time make sure to actually maintain the vehicle you buy!

I recommend another Escort or maybe a Mazda Protege. With the amount of driving you do, you do not need a car that will last >200K miles. The price premium on Toyota/Honda used cars is not worth it in my opinion, especially if you’re borrowing the money. I own a '97 Mazda and a '98 Escort and they have been amazingly trouble free. You should be able to get a nice Escort for less than $5K.

Sometimes, you may be able to haggle down to a private sale price at a dealer. Depends on your negotiating skills, those of the seller, and how badly they want the sale. On smaller, fuel efficient cars that are in high demand today, I suspect you will not be able to haggle that low.

As to car condition, take the car of your choice to a trusted, independent mechanic and let him look it over, as a pre-sale inspection. That will cost around $100, but will provide you with some input and possible leverage to get the car price reduced. Keep in mind it is not a guarantee that the car is 100% OK, but it is better than nothing. Finding (and potentially pay a bit more) for a one owner car that is about three to five years old can yield you a pretty good used car value.

Others may disagee, but I think you should also look at Ford Focus, and some US made small cars. They depreciate faster and at the used car sale level, cost you less than a Corolla or Civic. Much of the time you are paying the their reputation as well as for the value of the car. I have found it is best to purchase Corollas new, because they retain their used car value so much that new is a better deal than used. However, you indicate your finances aren’t to that point, so finding the best used car is what you need to do. Good luck!

In your price range, the condition of the car means more than the make. However, there are a few dogs to stay away from. The April issue of Consumer Reports notes the real lemons. In fact, Consumer Reports April issue does note cars worth considering that are in your price range. In buying a used car in the $5000-6000 price range, spend $1000 less than your top dollar and put the $1000 in an interest bearing account for any repairs that are needed. You may have to buy tires or have the brakes relined. On certain cars the timing belt should be changed to prevent the engine from self destruction.

Since you are a graduate student and around a university, check bulletin boards for cars. Often a faculty member going on sabbatical or an international student leaving the country may have a car to sell.

Since you don’t drive a lot of miles, you might consider a Buick Century. The gasoline mileage won’t be as good as your Ford Escort, but the Buick Century model seems to hold up well.

Most important before you purchase any car, take it to a trusted mechanic for an evaluation. Spending $100 for the mechanic’s time may keep you from buying a lemon and he can point out things that may need attention so that you can bargain down the asking price.

If I had the same budgetary restraints as you have, I would look at:

  1. Hyundai Accent; best value for oney
  2. Toyota Echo; if you can find one
  3. Hyundai Elantra
  4. Mazda Protege
  5. Nissan Sentra
  6. Ford Focus, less than 5 years old.

The best selling compact cars such as Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla are overpriced, and you don’t want one with a lot of miles on it.

The Hyundai Elantra and Accent are the best buys; the public has not caught on yet how good these cars are.

I agree with the suggestions made by others. Don’t spend any money on the Escort other than to maybe fix the brakes if you are not going to buy another car today.

I also agree that the Hyundais do tend to be under-valued as used cars while the Hondas and Toyotas tend to be over-valued. However, there is a reason why the Korean cars have shaky reputations, and it is not all the car’s fault. It has been my personal observation that people who buy Hyundais tend to buy based on sticker price alone. The most features for the fewest dollars. To that type of car shopper, routine maintenance consists of filling the car with gas. People who are willing to pay more up front with the perception that they are getting a higher quality machine are more likely to take care of it.

It is not uncommon to see a BMW with a half-million miles on it, and it is not uncommon to see a low end Chrysler crushed before it hits the 100k miles mark. Are the BMWs better? Sure. Are they THAT much better? No. They are just much better cared-for.

Manolito; what you say was defintely true in general in the past. Hoever, times change,and Hyundais now have quite knowledgeable owners who take basic care of their cars, and Hyundai service is not that expensive. I would have no hesitation buying a used Elantra, but I would need proof the maintenance had been performed, as with any car.

If we must generalize, buyers of domestic compacts (Cobalt, Neon, Focus) probably do the least maintenance, and accelerate their vehicle’s demise.

As we go up the value chain, owners can afford more maintenace and genmerally the more expensive cars get better care.

The insurance did pay, but not enough to repair the car. In fact, the car was considered totaled, because it was only worth about $400 at the time and the damage was WAY more. As for maintaining the car, for $700 and having it still get me where I need to go after 9 nine years (and it’s a 17-year old car), I don’t think I could do much better. I’ve had relatively few problems, and while I haven’t been extremely vigilant about seeing to the car’s needs, I have done what I needed to do. And the brakes do work, and I will have them checked…TOMORROW. Okay, everyone???

Also, thanks to everyone for your suggestions.

Boy I thought I got on the wrong site; you guys/gals sound like Morality Central!! I don’t happen to revere cars. I do what I need to make it go. I mean, how far do you think I should make this car go? Actually, I think I might be able to keep it going for three or four more years, if I want to keep repairing it, considering I drive less than 5000 miles/year (at least I’m doing my part to maintain the environment; doesn’t that count?).

Okay, folks, what do you think of these two possibilities – a 2005 Hyundai Accent, with ~63000 miles, $7999 price, $9400 out the door or a '99 Corolla, ~67000 mies, $5500, $6900 out the door? Hurry, I’ve got to talk to my credit union car advisor about these possibilities tomorrow.

Thank you thank you.

That Corolla seems too good to be true given today’s market for Toyotas (at least compared to my area). Have you had the car checked out? That low price makes me think it’s had some problems in the past, especially with low miles.

I’d go for the Accent, personally. However, that price sounds a little high to me. Did you check Kelley Blue Book? I saw much lower values for private party and slightly lower ones for the suggested retail price. I’d offer less and see if you get it.

Also, why are the out-the-door prices so high? That’s more than just tax, tags, and a document fee. The tags fees add up to maybe $170 (according to and sales tax is 6.5%. On that Accent, I get $7,999 (list price) + $170 (motor vehicle fees) + $520 (tax) + $100 (estimated doc fee) = $8,789. Where’s that $600+ coming from?

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Part 1

The main problem with your car ownership prowess is that we are forced to share the roads with you. It sounds like Morality Central got you to have a basic brake inspection.

I prefer sharing the roads with people from Morality Central over sharing them with people from Mortality Central!

Part 2

(at least I’m doing my part to maintain the evironment; doesn’t that count?)
ANSWER: No, that’s what you are supposed to do. Also, I think I’ve seen some of the parts that fell off your car and some fluid puddles, too.

If you like the Corolla, your love the Prizm. It’s the same car, but a Chevy. Toyota and GM have a joint venture in Cali that built both cars until 2002. You can get a 2002 Prizm for way less than $6000, though the equivalent Corolla would cost over $7000.

Having been going to school for 43 years, I would hope you could earn enough money to drive a decent car…What were you studying all that time?

But back to your question, look around for a used Sentra (Nissan) or Focus, the car that replaced the Escort you are driving. Figure on spending $4500-$5500 for anything decent.