CarTalk.com Blogs Car Info Our Show Deals Mechanics Files Vehicle Donation

College Student Desperately Seeking Used Car Advice

I am a 21 year old college senior. I attend school in Vermont and am looking to buy a used car in the area that can handle our winters, ideally a Subaru. I am woefully uneducated when it comes to all things car related, but I don’t want to get stuck with a lemon. Can you give me some tips on what to look for when buying a used car? My budget is that of a college student, but I am willing to spend a little more if it means buying something that will last. Thanks for your help!

The sad reality with used cars is that you are often buying “a pig in a poke”. The only way to have some assurance of getting a decent car is to only buy one whose maintenance records you can examine. Naturally, you need to compare those maintenance records with the mfr’s maintenance schedule, so that means spending a bit of time looking at and comparing the records and the maintenance schedule.

Why is this important? Well, since your budget is limited, that probably means that you will be looking at vehicles with a lot of miles on the odometer, and a poorly maintained vehicle’s problems mount as the odometer miles increase. Just as one example–and potentially the most expensive one–if a Subaru’s timing belt has not been replaced on schedule (every 8 years or 105,000 miles, whichever comes first), then the engine has the potential to incur a HUGE amount of damage when that timing belt snaps with no warning.

Other problems will result from not changing the transmission fluid every 30k, and not changing the motor oil every 4k-5k.

If you can locate a car being sold privately, you have a much better chance of finding one with both maintenance records and an intact maintenance schedule. And, no matter how good a car may seem, be sure to have it examined by a mechanic of your own choosing. You may have to pay $100 or so for this examination, but it would be money well-spent in order to avoid a car with problems that are not visible to the naked eye of those who are not car-oriented.

I agree with everything VDCdriver said. I will only add this: don’t spend every penny of your budget on the car. Every used car I’ve purchased over the years, and there have been plenty, has needed SOMETHING within a few months. Either the former owner has postponed necessary maintenance or a new problem develops. Keep some money aside for this purpose.

Also, a matching set of four tires is critical on a Subaru. If you’re looking at used Subarus and they have tires that don’t match, or two new tires and two old tires, look elsewhere. Mismatched tires will damage the AWD transfer clutch in the automatic transmission, which is very expensive to repair. The tires should all be the same make and tread pattern, and should be worn evenly. It will be your job to keep them that way with periodic rotation as per the owner’s manual.

mcparadise has added some really good advice.
Take everything that both of us have stated and use this knowledge to find a good used car.
Don’t jump into any purchase unless it meets all of the criteria that we have both suggested.

Good luck in your quest!

I agree with all of the above. I will only add that to change a poor winter car into a good winter car simply involves putting winter tyres on it. All season tyres are really three season tyres.

Any car with snow tires is a good winter car. Subaru’s AWD is good but requires more in maintenance and matched sets of tires. In a Subaru is one tire blows out you may need to buy a new set of 4 tires to protect the AWD system, that gets expensive.

Look for a 5 to 10 year old domestic car in good shape with a documented service history. Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla are great little cars but they are expensive to buy compared to domestic.

When winter comes see how your car handles the bad weather. Some cars do fine with all season tires. If you need more traction then you can get a set of snow tires.

I’m going to suggest a Ford Focus. You can get a much newer one for the same amount of money than you will a Subaru, especially in Vermont. With 4 good snow tires and front wheel drive you will be able to get through anything that doesn’t close your school down. The Focus is a reliable small car that has lousy resale value, which is good for you. Just remember to keep enough money back to get 4 snow tires, preferable on rims.

Be aware with Subaru there are severe restrictions on what is allowed when you need to replace a tire, you could get stuck being forced into 4 tire replacement when only one is bad.

I don’t view Subaru as a good choice for someone on a budget. I never owned one and have only limited experience repairing them but this intolerance to small differences in tire size excludes then from my list.

Though I would never recommend an AWD car to a student on a restrictive budget (look for a compact FWD car), you guys are taking this, “be afraid of loosing a tire with a Subaru” WAY too far. I’ve owned AWD cars ( incl. Subarus) for many years with 150K+ miles and have never had any more problem than the usual advice for ANY car. Keep the tread wear/overall diameter and tread design similar for safety for ANY car. Modern AWD can handle some variations short term, of different wear and tire pressure which is MORE important. That concern should not be a factor in deciding to buy an AWD car.

Some of you guys (not all) are giving advice on cars with AWD and special concerns with them that you have no experience with. The only problems I’ve had with AWD/4Wd drive train have been off road and plowing related…never; oops I got a flat, the sky is falling and my car is doomed.
Now beat me up !

For “VTwintercar” your real education is now begining…“ideally a Subaru” might be if you could afford it and had a need. I live on a mountain road and travel over ice/snow roads and I feel I NEED AWD. Is that you ? Otherwise, AWD is safer in winter, compared to comparable cars, but sad to say, you can’t afford that margin of safety and have to compromise. Good winter tires and driving habits and consider only cars that have out standing, not just good reliability records. Initially cheap cars can be unsafe as they can strand you and cost you more in un-budgeted repairs.

You can’t afford breakdowns and high cost maintenance. Read CU and all their recommendations as they apply to young drivers.
Before you buy…
Toss the Volvo, BMW, Audi and VW crowd; you can’t afford the maintenance and think Toyota, Honda first, a dealer that can service them and you can trust, and a sharp, street wise, car knowledgeable trusted person that can help you shop and advise you as you try out cars before you even think about buying one.

Finally, buy a car that fills your needs, not your wants. You may fall in “like” with a car…it won’t “like” you back…neither will anyone selling you a car. You’ll have to make concessions. You don’t like red, or a car that belonged to a smoker ? Tough, you can deal with it if it’s a great car otherwise. It’s a tough business out there. Good luck.

There’s time later in your life to buy the car of your dreams…

Buy the car in the best condition within your budget, regardless of brand. Look for an older person selling a car. They usually take better care of their cars. If you won’t drive a great deal anyway, consider a larger car. My FIL has a Buick LeSabre with the 3.8L V6 and he gets almost 30 MPG in the highway. I have a 1998 Ragal with the same engine and get 28 MPG on the highway.

well, to be honest, a smoker’s car will have that lingering “can’t quit put my finger on it” smell that just doesn’t seem to leave.

One thing to look for on a Subaru before you buy is the tires. If they have different brands/treads on them, I’d skip over it

That would be a bchuick ragal? Seriously don’t avoid spending the bucks to get the car checked out by an independent source, the money you spend there could save thousands.

Thank you very much for all your help! This information will really aid me in my search!

Thanks so much, I appreciate all the advice and help!

It is looking like I shouldn’t go for a Subaru as they will cost me more both in purchase and maintenance. I had heard these cars are great in the snow, and as a California native, I am nervous about my first winter of snow driving. Most of my driving will be done on plowed roads/highways but there are some routes I will be taking at least once a week on less well-maintained roads. Is there a certain brand I should look for, or just stick to FWD and good tires?

Again…don’t be afraid of a Subaru for maintenance issues. Their AWD drive train is bullet proof and will be problem free unless abused and over all better than almost any American brand car. Non Subaru owning advice givers are blowing smoke. The reason not to own one is their worse economy compared to compact FWD cars.
I guess you didn’t read my too long previous post…Hondas and Toyotas. Used Honda CRVs in awd are awesomely reliable and great student cars, but again, less economical than compact fwd.
Son buys Honda Accords very cheaply used with 100k plus miles for Boston city traffic and trips and beats on them to 200k with little trouble and a comfortable ride. Try that with a Ford Focus. Some Hyundai models may serve you too but are a little less trouble free.

Don’t worry about it. My uncle drove a Honda Fit manual in the snow, so you should be fine.

Personally, I think you should go with a 5-10 year old Civic or Corolla, or something like that.

I agree with dagosa!

I was a VT college student. I bought a hot red Audi quattro and felt like a star in the VT snow. Then the repairs started to roll in. By my senior year, I was sick of my monthly repair costs and finally traded the Audi for a Toyota Corolla manual shift with 4 good snow tires. I never got stuck and took that thing on some pretty hairy trips, Cliff street after a foot of fresh snow couldn’t stop me. I still have the car almost 10 years later. Go for a Toyota and spend your saved repair costs on a ski pass.

Your post is a testament to why we have not bought a used car since we bought a 1971 Toytota Corolla in 1976 from our neighbor. The car turned out to be an absolute piece of rubbish. You can read about it on CarSurvey.org.

New car prices are low now. I suggest that you shop to see what amazing rebates are available now. I suppose, unfortunately, that 11 or 12k is out of your range right now for a new compact Chevrolet Cobalt or Ford Focus.