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Car recommendations for cheap guy moving to LA

Hi. I’m a pretentious car-free San Francisco guy who’s going to be moving to LA for a couple months (3 at least) and really need a car. (Also I kind of want one for when I come back). I’ve only owned motorcycles (or rode the bus) for the past 15 years here so I’m a bit clueless about cars these days, and I need it soon so I don’t have lots of time to scour Craigslist. My first instinct was something pre-owned from a nearby dealer, but pre-owned prices are much higher than I expected (blah blah economy blah) and most inventory is just a year or two old anyway. Financing or leasing something new seems like a great deal right now, but insurance costs still make that prohibitive, and not sure I want to be stuck in a 3-year lease if I have to move again or decide owning a car was a bad idea. And while I rent cars all the time, renting for 3 months seems pricey and dumb.

I just want something cheap, compact, with good mileage and that isn’t ugly or beige, and was hoping to keep my budget to, I dunno, 7000? 8000? And my insurance as reasonable as possible. Suggestions? Is such a thing even possible or am I living in 1997?

If you look at cars with a budget of $7000, do you have another $2,000 for things like new brakes, tires, struts, and repairs? If no, then you are looking at a $5,000 car. You simply don’t buy a car for $7000 and expect it to be perfect. It will be 5+ years old and have 80 to 100,000+ miles on it.

When you find a car you like, have a pre-sale inspection done by a good mechanic. This will cost you $50-150 but is worth it if the results show you are about to buy a car with a major problem, such as a blown head gasket.

You might want to look at a monthly rental of a “Rent-A-Wreck” car.

I like Honda Civics. My '03 Civic with 120K miles now shows a value of about $5000 on Basically, this sounds like the kind of car you are going to looking at.

Well. Glad you’re not my uncle.

I guess I’d rephrase the question to something that I would think a lot of people might be interested in the answer to: what’s the best value used car under 10 grand? Other than the standard Honda Civic answer.

Good advice is good advice-its your dime -Kevin

Civics and Corollas would be first on my list.

Cars in the $10K price range and below as far as condition is concerned is more about how well the previous owners cared from them, and less about the brand and model. In general Japanese cars hold up well over time, exception perhaps is Mitsubitshi. Other Asian cars have improved (Kia, Hundai) but some models are better than others. Old Subaru’s don’t get very good mpg, and the AWD systems are expensive to repair if previous owners ran mismatched tires on them. Honda Civic is more to buy due to high resale values but do hold up well.

European cars (Volvo, BMW, MB, VW, Audi) are all very expensive to maintain and repair when they get old and have higher miles on them. If you buy one of these a multi thousand dollar repair bill is very common. Volvo’s are the worst, with $1,500+ repair bills more the norm than rare. A new or rebuilt auto transmission is commonly needed with aging VW’s and Audi’s and you are talking $4,000 for one.

Basic domestic brand small cars are your best value in terms of low cost to buy, with reasonable repairs and maintenance. Exception is Chrysler small cars, Neon, Stratus, etc. They just aren’t well made cars and need frequent repairs. Ford Focus is good. Chevy HHR, and Cobalt are OK.

Frequent and expensive problems with $10K and under cars is the auto transmission fails. A manual transmission is my preference over an auto trans for longevity. Too many previous owners did not have regular transmission fluid changes making the auto transmissions prone to fail at or before the car reaches 150K miles.

A mechanic can inspect a car and tell you if it has a bad head gasket, and other significant problems at that moment in time. A few miles down the road things can and will break down, but the inspection with pressure tests of the cooling system, and compression in each cylinder will go a long way in avoiding expensive motor problems.

You need to use web site to learn if a motor has a timing belt or timing chain. A used car with a timing belt is often due for a timing belt job (90K to 105K miles or every 7 years is common replacement intervals) which means a water pump and other parts too. Gates will tell you if it is an interference motor or non-interference motor. Interference means the pistons hit the valves when a timing belt breaks. The resulting damage means a new engine in most cases, $3000 and up. Used cars are for sale for a reason. That reason could be a big repair bill which the owner decided to avoid and get another car.

Here’s what I would do as someone who is partial to Hondas. They’ve never let me down, but you do need go avoid some model years that had bad auto transmissions.

My 10 easy steps to buying a reliable car:

  1. Go to Craigslist.
  2. Search on “Honda” in price range 4000 to 6000.
  3. Find the newest, lowest mileage car you can in your price range. And try to find a seller who seems to have taken good care of the car.
  4. Go to, “used car” section, and find owners reviews of that model and year. Make sure that model/year was not known for bad transmissions ( or bad AC compressors).
  5. Test drive the car on the freeway and listen for noises. Make sure the brakes feel solid and don’t pulse. Make sure th AC blows cold.
  6. Buy a Carfax report on it before you buy the car to make sure it wasn’t salvaged, flooded, or wrecked.
  7. Take it to a service station near the seller and have a mechanic check it out and tell you what it needs.
  8. Find out when the timing belt and water pump were last replaced. Recommended interval is 60k miles, and if the belt breaks it will ruin a Honda engine. So be prepared to pay $700 or so for a timing belt and water pump if the 60k interval is almost up. If all is good, buy the car.
  9. On the Cartalk sire, click the Mechanics Files tab and find a good independent Honda mechanic in your area.
  10. Take the car to that mechanic, along with an additional 1000-2000 and have him do the timing belt/water pump if needed, plus whatever else it might need. If it’s an automatic, have him service the transmission as that’s something people tend to neglect, and that’s how transmissions get ruined.

You’re done! Enjoy driving in LA, and say hello to the 405 for me :wink:

Don’t just rely on Craigslist. There are probably other on line resources for used cars in your area. Do a web search for “used cars san francisco”. Insert your real home if it is a different city in the Bay Area. You will likely turn up eBay,, and Yahoo as well as other sources. And pay attention to the fraud alerts on Craigslist. They can help you avoid a big mistake on that site or any other.

Small, fuel efficient cars are holding their value longer these days, so if you bump up a class to mid-sized, then you should find better deals.

Ford Fusion, Ford Taurus, Ford Crown Victoria, Mazda 6, Hyundai Sonata, Hyundai Azera, Hyundai Elantra, Ford Escape if you’re looking for a small suv.

Uncle Turbo brings up a good suggestion about the manual over automatic. The only problem is that if you decide you don’t need the car anymore, it’ll take awhile longer to find a potential buyer for the vehicle than if you bought the automatic version.

I never spent more than $2,000 on a used car when I lived in Ca. from 92 to 06 and make sure the owner has smog check paperwork that indicates PASSED on it, and not from last year either. I check Photo Ad or Trade Express from Santa Barbara to San Luis Obispo and beyond. There must be a few in San Francisco and they are free. There are numerous ones that you pay for so check before you leave the store to make sure it says Free on it before you leave with it. Oops, I paid $3,800 once and $2,900. The other eleven were cheaper and two were free.

If you ride motorcycles, I think LA would be the perfect place to ride one full-time. Rain is very rare, and the weather is almost always nice. I think a used motorcycle is the way to go.

IF you only need a car for three month, I rent one. It would cost about $200 a week and you walk away. Then if you discover you NEED a car in LA look while you rent. Also make sure it’s passed it’s smog test recently.

Rent . Three months at $50 a day = 90X50 = $4500 .

I had a similar situation once, I needed a decent car for about 6 months which I ultimately ended up keeping. I used hertz, they sell their retired rental cars and let you rent the car for a few days to try it out and get it checked out. If you purchase the car they waive the rental fee. I spent a little more than I had planned, but the car was in amazing shape and hasn’t given me any problems.