How to decide what used car to buy

I was raised by a man who’s philosophy was that you buy a reliable car as inexpensively as possibly, and then maintain it so it costs you less than buying from a dealer.

My wife was raised that when you need a new car, you go to the dealer and buy something that “you like.” They tended not to pay attention to things like gas mileage, maintenance costs, and quality of production.

So, here’s the issue. Yesterday, our car’s transmission went out, and I’d rather get a new (to me) car, than spend the $1500 to get the tranny replaced (wasn’t a fan of the car anyway).

So while looking for a car on Craiglist, I found a few that I thought looked decent, but my wife disliked them all. She wanted a newer car that looks good, not an older car that needs to be maintained.

Any suggestions for a compromise? She wants a family car, preferably a sedan or crossover, so we can get our three year old (and any additional children we may wind up having) around. I want a car that gets great gas mileage (at least 30 hwy, though more is better), low maintenance costs, and high level of reliability.

That said, our budget is $7000. It doesn’t have to be new, but preferably post 2000.

Any ideas?

You’ve got a tough criteria. $7K 30mpg hwy, safe, big enough for family, good looking, low maintenance. I’m not sure anything exist, so something is going to have to bend here.

Have you considered leasing? If you drive about 12K miles per year you can get a nice new car, Civic, Corolla, Camry and spend about $7K over the next 3 years. Safe, good mpg, low maintenance, good looking.

With your $7K budget anything new is out of the question. Used you are looking at 2000 Camry’s, and perhaps '02 Civics. There are some newer American cars, Buick say '03 or '04 but you won’t get 30 mpg. All the used cars of this age are likely to have some problems (this is the prime age of cars which have problems that has people posting on this site). Does your $7K budget include $1,500 for putting the used car you buy in top shape? If not you really need to look at $5K priced cars and have some money to fix whatever it is they need fixed to be safe cars for the family.

I’ve seen plenty for under $7,000, but I just wanted to make sure I wasn’t getting something that would turn into a huge money pit. For example, I found a 2002 Corrolla with 87K for $4700, a 2000 Neon with 170K for $1600, a 2005 Forenza with 32K for $6000, and an 2003 Protege with 80K for $4500, just for a small example. I’ve seen LOTS of cars in that price range. However, I’ve gotten reviews all across the board on all of them, so I was looking for a little more help as to what to look for.

And we have $2000 for getting it up to shape.

Skip the Neon and the Forenza. A Corolla or Protege is a much better car, and significantly more reliable.

You shouldn’t have too much trouble finding a decent used car for $7,000. If you can get a copy of the recent Consumer Reports Auto Issue it has some great information on which used cars are best and which are not so good.

'05 Forenza seems possible, low mileage. Corolla with 87K is due for 90K service and likely needs timing belt change, not bad if in good shape. No way for the Neon, one of the few to get to 170K miles, pass on that one. '03 Protege with 80K about the same as Corolla, definate possible. Due for service, and timing belt unless you have service records confirm it has been changed already.

Having the $2,000 means you can buy the car and then deal with the reason the car was for sale in the 1st place. One of the benefits of buying cars “off lease” is the reason for sale is the lease expired, not a problem with the car. These cars are usually sold as “certified” and above your $7,000 budget. If you can get an off lease car for $9,000 you might be ok with that if there is a warranty for another year or so.

Looks like you’re doing fine, what does the wife think?

I won’t say a thing about specific cars. Frankly IMO there is little difference between any of the car once you get the top 5% and lowest 5% off the list.

Where there is a significant difference is between cars that have been cared for and those which have not.

The statement not an older car that needs to be maintained. leads me to believe that there may be a history of not providing proper maintenance, leading to more total cost than maintaining the cars to begin with.

 Pick a car that is within your comfort zone as far as price.  Other than that pick the one that you and your wife like best.  

 That comfort zone should be low enough that you will take the bus before you tie up so much money in a car that you are paying interest on credit card debt.

Well, let me suggest that you make your wife happy. I know you don’t want to buy new, but now is certainly the time if ever there was one. For the $7000 down payment, or $9000, you could get a brand new Hyundai Elantra or Sonota with a fairly short loan and 5 year 60,000 mile bumper-to-bumper warranty. And, they cover everything during that time. My daughter got an Elantra 6 or 7 years ago and they replaced a headlight bulb somewhere around year 4. She’s still driving it with no real problems. About a year ago it needed clutch master and slave cylinders replaced, but that’s the first real expense she had and it was only $400 or $500 as I recall. With the way the economy is now you might also find good deals on Hondas and Toyotas, but the warranty won’t be as long. 5 years with no repair expense guaranteed is hard to beat.

You’ll have the car paid off well before the warranty expires. Just a thought.

Good point by Ranck. Several articles lately saying used car prices are going up and prices for new cars coming down. You have a good down payment, credit will not be a problem, good time to consider a new car.

Used car demand is up, trade ins (which is the supply of used cars are down), and rental companies are keeping their cars in service longer (another source of used cars down). More demand and less supply is driving used car prices up closer to the prices for new cars.

New car prices are down due to increased incentives to move the inventory that is building up on dealers lots. Less demand and lots of supply makes shopping for a new car a better deal in todays market.

Add the warranty and more control of maintenance costs for the 1st five years of ownership and perhaps you can afford a new car after all.

Don’t restrict your shopping to used cars, check out some of the deals on new ones too.

otterhere has a used Yaris (~ 2 months old) that she’d like to sell. ;’)

I wouldn’t be so concerned about a specific brand as a car that has been meticulously maintained. You need to find a car with all the maintenance and repair records, and looks like the owner really cared about it. I sold a VW Rabbit many years ago. The buyer noticed that I painted the scrapes on the car and that it was exceptionally clean. A car that is well maintained is your best bet for anything in your price range.

How about a Honda Fit? There are some in your budget. They are small inside, but more versatile than you would think.