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Looking for guidance - my first car

Hello all car afficionados out there,

I’m a college student looking to purchase my first car. Nothing fancy, just a simple sedan to get me from point A to point B in safety. Decent gas mileage is a plus as well. I’m am definitely working with the traditional broke student budget and looking for a used car I can find for around 5k.

Any suggestions or guidance would be much appreciated.

I would look for the best maintained vehicle you can find (don’t worry so much about make) for >$4000. Then you will have a cushion in case of unexpected problems.

I would pay attention to make in addition to maintainence. (Anyway, maintainence will be hard to know about unless they kept receipts for oil changes etc). Get ahold of the April issue of Consumer Reports, the annual car issue. They have lists of recommended used cars, cars to avoid, etc. These lists are based on the averages of comments from many of their readers on cars. I have found them to be a fairly reliable guide to the amount of maintainence problems I am likely to have.

My choice would be a low-mileage Honda or Toyota. You can get a better price on a Ford Crown Vic or Mercury Grand Marquis from the late 90’s, with decent reliability, but they are not easy on gas.

While the Honda/Toyota would be a nice idea, you’re gonna get an older model. My 99 civic has almost 90k miles on it and still books for almost $6k private party. While I doubt I’d get it, I’m just letting you know how much these cars hold their value.
for the same price, you could find a 2002 Chevy Prizm LSi sedan with about 72k miles on it, which is basically a rebadged Carola

I agree, in this price range condition is more important than make/model. Look for something that’s not in high demand (boring) to get a better deal and have a trusted mechanic check it out before you buy it. Look for maintenance records and buy something simple (less stuff to break).

You can get a better price on a Ford Crown Vic or Mercury Grand Marquis from the late 90’s

I did a quick check on Kelly Blue Book and they show 2001 Crown Vics in my area should go for around $3500 in private party sales. In town mileage will suck, but highway mileage is reported to be around 25MPG, so not too bad. The Crown Vics (Grand Marquis) are big cars with lots of room in the trunk to haul all your crap home for Summer breaks (or camping/skiing/whatever gear). They are generally owned by older folks who take good care of them. Ford has made that same basic car for more than 30 years and every mechanic in the country has probably worked on one and can easily find parts. It’s not a “cool” car if you want to project sporty image, but it will carry you and several friends in comfort on any road trips.

The current vehicle that I have if a 99 Ford Ranger. I bought it 2 years ago for $3200 when it had 42k miles on it. It is a 4cyl 5spd regular cab and is in very good condition. I have had no problems with it and almost all of the regular maintenance can be done with a few standard sized sockets, a C-clamp, and a pair of pliers.

You can still get these vehicles go for relatively little money, although the 4cyl are becoming more popular now that gas is around $4 a gallon. Simple vehicles are really good for a starter car, not only is there little to break, but they are easy to maintains and great to learn on.

Wow, thank you for all of this great advice! I didn’t expect such an enthusiastic response. Here’s what I’m getting out of this so far:

  1. Maintenance and make/model should both be considered, but make/model is rather less important. At this price range it would probably be a better idea to get a car under my budget and have cushion for maintenance costs which will be inevitable no matter what I buy.
  2. Go with a simple vehicle - less to break.
  3. Get someone (a mechanic) to check over the car before I buy it.
  4. Crown Vics might work. (I’m definitely looking for more function than form here so no complaints about that)

Now I have more questions.

  1. How can I roughly guess the maintenance/upkeep of a car? I guess just eyeballing it will give me some indication, though that leaves a lot. Is mileage roughly equitable? I noticed jsutter and bscar both indicated vehicles with significantly less than 100,000 miles on them, and many of the sedans I have looked at so far have a lot more. Should I focus on finding low mileage?

  2. I’ve never really been into cars and don’t so much have a trusted mechanic to go to. How can I find someone to check over a potential buy for me? Perhaps just go with the owner to a car place and have it looked over?

  3. How does a car being state certified/inspected work? Is this as good as it being looked over buy a mechanic?

  4. Where should I look for cars? I’ve been trying and, which have given me some ideas but not a whole lot. Are there any other places I should be checking out?

  1. Ask the owner if they have documentation of all maintenance and repairs. If they have the bills, they have the records. Anyone can say they changed the oil every 3000 miles. But bills for materils or the service make it obvious. And make sure that the car in question is the one on the bills; check the license plate on the car and the service invoice.

  2. Ask your friends and neighbors for recommendations on a mechanic. Tell the mechanic that you want an evaluation before sale and that you don’t know much. Tell him that you also need a mechanic for the future. If you like the response from one among at least 3 mechanics, try it out.

  3. In MD the state inspection is performed by a private garage licensed to do the work. Since this is your first car, buy one with the inspection already done. You will know it’s done if the seller has a certificate of inspection. It is not the same as the pre-purchase inspection becuse it is largely a safety inspection. The steering or transmission could be in poor condition and still pass state inspection.

  4. You can use those sources to check cars out, but you need to use local resources like the newspaper and Craigslist (if it’s in your area). Test drive a few cars before you commit to a serious search. Get used to the action before you dive in. Do tell the seller that you are seriously interested in a car, and it could be his, but don’t jump immediately.

Good luck, have fun, and keep in touch. We all want to help you make a good choice.

While low mileage is usually good, if the mileage is extra low it might mean that the car was stored for an extended length of time. Which can be just as, if not more damaging than having higher miles. Look for something ranging between 6k-12k miles per year the vehicle has been on the road.

The next thing to look at, when you find a car you like, is the colors of the fluids. Generally the fluids should be transparent to semitransparent for the most part, with no sediment in it. You can go to a local auto parts store and check out the fluids themselves to see what new fluid looks like. Very dirty coolant, and oil that looks like chocolate milk are huge warning signs to walk away!!

For the body: Dings, scratches et cetera are not a problem unless they are into bear metal and rusting. Thin surface rust in an area less than a dime in size can have touch up paint applied and will probably be of no consequence. Large areas of rust or bubbling paint are no good. Pay special attention to the areas around the wheel wells and the bottom of doors.

To find a mechanic: there is a very nice feature on this forum’s parent site; the mechanic files. Check them out here:

Many times state certified means that the car was in a wreck and has spent some time on a frame machine. If you are buying a car from a shop that has repaired it expect this. You can get great deals this way, look to pay 60-70% of blue book value, no more. Make sure that the place in question has a good reputation. I have owned 2 vehicles purchased this way and was very satisfied with both.

As for finding a car, I still think that one of the best places to look is in the local paper’s classifieds.

The Crown Vic/Grand Marquis/Town Car group are nearly the same. The Town Car is a little bit longer, most of that in the back seat. The best year for the Town Car for you is 96 (they were cheapened a little after that). Don’t buy any of these later than about 99, reliability began to decline. Now, the 25 mpg figure is only believable if you drove on a freeway at 55 or so. I go over 70 and got about 20-21. About 12 mpg in town.

Figure out how much you will drive and then how important gas is. Estimate your yearly expense if gas was $10 a gallon.

Insurance and repairs are much cheaper on these cars.

Rust has not been mentioned. It is very important, depending on where you live. Mechanical work is much cheaper than body work.

There was a college student who posted here several months back who said that he and some of his friends owned Chevrolet Cavaliers. Cavaliers are cheap to buy and reliable enough. I recommend one with a manual transmission for a lower price yet and better on gas as a bonus. I can easily get 35 highway mpg with mine.

Conventional wisdom says Honda or Toyota so resale values as a result are higher for those brands.

My Cavalier, for example, had a recall for computer reprogramming and also a computer replacement under warrenty but beyond that I have not had to repair anything in 125,000 miles except for front brake pads and rotors which can be considered normal maintenance. It has a tough engine that is easy going at 70 mph. If a Cavalier has had a few initial problems taken care of, it should be good to go for many miles after that.

Chevrolet dealers are easy to find if you should need parts or service while on a trip.