Help! Want to buy an used car with $2500, trouble finding reliable car. Looking for Advice

Hi. I am a student with not a lot of money. That being said I know that without a lot of money I am usually looking at older cars with high miles. Two things I would like to avoid. High Miles (will just eat my money) and old cars (waiting to eat my money)
These are just my thoughts. As a side note I want to buy from an owner directly, and have been checking craigslist for Honda or Toyota cars as they are always talked about as being reliable (owned one of each so far a Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla and they have been great!). The only problem is these cars are expensive and those type of cars in my price range are either old or have high high miles.

The city I live in Milwaukee, essentially requires me to have a car. Big enough city… and public transit isn’t all that great. Now I do plan to start work after I get the car and may be able to do some repairs on the car and/or maintenance which it probably needs. Also I can do all simple car repairs myself and anything over that I have found a reliable mechanic through the car talk mechanic files that is extremely reasonable.

Any and all advice is welcome. I feel like I’m caught between a rock and a hard place. It’s like being stuck listening to the car talk show.

Thanks in advance, and I look forward to reading your responses!

You are caught, and there you shall remain. $2500 and reliable are a tough sell together. You are now in used motor bike territory for reliability. Consider the used pick up market. Expect rust, high miles, poor gas mileage and Toyota prices. Perhaps an older Nissan PU ? Next would be older Focus, Cavalier, Kias and Hyundais. Remember that any car can be reliable, if you only use occasionally and use public transportation the rest of the time…best of luck.

Just keep looking. You might want to broaden the search to include Ford Focus and some other small cars. To expect “reliable” spending $2,500 isn’t easy. Hopefully your $2,500 allows you something like $1,000 for new tires, brakes, and some reconditioning repairs. Likely whatever you buy will need something in way of repairs.

Good luck. I spent 45 years in the MKE area and for that amount you’re looking at a rusty beater. Either that or a gun will be involved in the “transaction”. :wink:

You need to find a friend or friend of a friend who is buying and not happy with the dealer’s offer on trade in. Got some of my best deals that way.

Look for reliable cars that are not in high demand: Buick Century, Chevy Malibu, Chevy Cobalt, Ford Focus.

Honda and Toyota are very overpriced in the used market due to perception of quality.

Avoid Korean cars, Chrysler products, and second tier Japanese (Suzuki, Mitsubishi, Isuzu) like the plague and you should be fine.

When you find a car you might want to buy, pay for a pre-purchase inspection by an independent mechanic. Well worth the money.

Champagne Taste. Beer Budget. Tough Love.
The Words $2,500 And Reliable Don’t Belong In The Same Sentence Unless You Are Buying From A Sympathetic, Charitable Relative.

I bought a “reliable $2,500 car” four years ago, but it cost me $4,000 and I know quite a bit about cars and the search took a long time and I lucked out finding the one that I fianally purchased. I immediately spent $400 on it fixing everything it needed to put it in perfect condition.

The problem now is that the used car market is much tougher on buyers now than it was just a year or two back. You are shopping for a reliable car for a price not too far above scrap value.

Just curious, if the Toyota and Honda you had were great then why don’t you still have one ? Why’d you get rid of them ?

I’d have to say that if you can only spend $2,500 on a car purchase then you can’t afford to drive a $2,500 car. Buy some new comfortable shoes and a back pack and save your money until you have enough for a car.


There is no reliable used car for $2,500, let alone a new one with low miles. Either wait and save more money or be prepared for some breakdowns and repairs. My vote would be to stick with public transportation for a while and maybe use Zipcar occasionally when you really do need a car.

I’ve been in your position as a student without a lot of money. Your best bet is to make the public transportation system work for you. I didn’t have access to a car when I was in college. I learned the bus schedule. When I was a few dollars ahead and wanted to go on a date off-campus, I used the taxicab service. If a Zipcar service is availabe to you, use that when you need a car.
I’ve seen students flunk out of college because they were working to support a car. Don’t become a slave to your possessions–make your possessions work for you.

My neighbor got a nice, reliable car last year for $2500; my old Civic.

In the sub 3k range, reliability rest solely on the previous owners, not the badge on the hood. Honda/Toyota have a reputation for reliability, but if the person you’re buying from drives 12k miles a year delivering pizza, but only changes the oil once a year, it’ll be a headache shortly. May even be why they’re selling it.

@dagosa Well said. I have looked in some used motor bikes after reading your comment. I think this is a good place to start looking for me. Mainly for errands and things that do require me to go farther. Although during the winter it might not be the best thing which leaves me on the fence a bit. Thanks!

@UncleTurbo Yeah I did hope to get a $2500 dollar car that needed some repairs to make it the reliable car I want. I’ll broaden the search a little bit and keep looking. Thanks

@TwinTurbo Haha, I had never even thought about bringing a gun to the transaction! Does it make it easier in Milwaukee? I do hope a friend is going to sell a car soon. That means I should probably have a little patience in the matter and perhaps something like this will come up. Thanks!

@mleich Can’t agree with you more on the avoid list. Had a mistubishi that went from great to a pile of junk in 6 months with a 160,000 on it. Some nights I was hoping someone would just steal the car and I wouldn’t have to think about it anymore. Great advice on the pre-purchase inspection, will do this. Thanks

A Geezer-owned Crown Vic, '92,'93,'94 models, no air ride, less than 150K miles, you MIGHT be able to score one of those for $2500…But at some point, the transmission will need to be rebuilt, $1800 +/- The transmission will be the weak point of ANY $2500 car…The ones in the Vics, same as F-150 trannys, are pretty stout…

I would look at an older Mazda Protege with average mileage. Something owned by a senior citizen. A Hyundai Accent would fit the bill as well.

Try to get one with a stick hift, no A/C or sliding roof. Some Chevy Cavaliers with averagae mileage will fit the bill as well. The classified ads and Auto Trader news are a good source. You won’t find anything good for $2500 on a used car lot.

Good hunting.

@common sense answer This is the answer I knew but didn’t want to hear. My last car was about the same thing. A “reliable cheap car” which cost me $5000 with $300 additional put into it. That turned out to be a great car.

The reason I don’t have a car now is because I got rid of it before studying overseas. I just came back from studying at Ajou University in South Korea.

Also I hate to agree with your comment about not being able to afford a $2,500 dollar car. Sad but true. Maybe I should just wait for the $5000 reliable car? Thanks CSA!

@lion9car Great advice on the zipcar and public transport. Waiting around a bit to get a car sounds like the best approach here. It’s sober advice like this that I need to make a better buy. Thanks!

@Triedaq Agreed on all fronts here. Again this is great sober advice to make me evaluate my need for the car in the first place. Either I can afford a good car with little or now maintenance and not having to work it off. Or I go without one. Life with a car isn’t that significantly that much better in retrospect anyway. Thanks!

arius33–I think you have thought this through well. Some 30 years ago, I had a student in my computer science classes that was also a horn player as am I. I got her a couple of gigs where an extra horn player was needed. At any rate, this student interviewed for a internship position with a GM plant, but didn’t impress the people. However, she took a job as a night computer operator. She was going to school in the day time, but not doing well. She came to me for help in a statistics course she was taking and I managed to tutor her well enough that she earned a C in the course. When she came to tell me that she had passed the course, I told her that she just had a surface knowledge that wouldn’t stick with her. I urged her to quit the job and really apply herself to her courses. She told me that she was making payments on a new car; She was also living in an expensive apartment and had purchased everything from a microwave to a television set. I told her that she would be a night computer operator for the rest of her life and probably wouldn’t earn her college degree. I told her to get rid of the stuff. After a couple of years the car will look like a used corn flake. The other stuff will be virtually worthless. She became very agitated with me and got up to leave my office. I said to her “The person went away sorrowful because she had a great many possessions”. She stormed out of my office and slammed the door so hard that I thought the glass in to door would break. I figured I would never see her again. The following summer term she stopped by my office. She wanted me to see what she had purchased. It was a bicycle. She had sold the car, given up the apartment and moved into a room close to campus. She said, “You really made me angry last semester, but as the semester went by, I decided that you were right. I’m free of everything and am really into my classes. I thought you would like to know”. She did get a good job. Had she stayed in the GM plant as a computer operator, she would be out of work–the plant closed.

mleich…“Honda and Toyota are very overpriced in the used market due to perception of quality.”

The same perception that many other car makers would like to have. It’s an easy perception to come by. Just build higher quality cars and trucks than most in nearly all their models lines for 30 plus years. That seems to have been a concept that others find hard to get. Lots of good cars built by others, but the consistency has never been their to the degree they deserve the same “myth” and perception.