Reliable cheap used car

Daughter, 23, lives in Boston area. Commutes to Boston on the T. Needs a car for grocery shopping, trips to the Y, that sort of thing. She doesn’t have a lot of money. Suggestions?

Define “not a lot of money.” This can mean many different things to many different people. To some, a cheap car is $20,000, to others, $500. The most expensive car I own right now cost me $500, for example (getting a good $500 car is a daunting task and not for the faint of heart, by the way). Give us a number to work with, and we can give you excellent advice.

92-95 Honda Civic. Older Honda Accord 4 cylinder. Geo Prizm (which is really a Toyota Corolla.)

Good suggestions Goldwing. Though they can turn into repair magnets too, they are a good place to start.

Avoid anything fancy or something a teenager would like. The basic family car is the best bet.

Most important would be picking one that the prior owner(s) did the recommended maintenance and did not beat it up too much.

She may also want to consider something like a zip car (short term rentals).

A pink station wagon or a sedan with one junk yard door that doesn’t match the car are usually priced low. A safe and reliable car that no one else would even consider buying, or even stealing, makes for a bargain.

A reliable and cheap used car are conflicting objectives. A cheap used car will need repairs and maintenance and even then reliability is an unknown. In MA a car has to pass an inspection that can be a big hurdle. Best to pay for taxi and bus fare as needed. If she must have a car she’d better have the budget and funds to pay for it; cost to buy it, cost to repair it, cost to maintain it, cost to register it, and cost to insure it. A car that cost $-0- can still be a hefty expense.

Uncle Turbo is correct.
Even if someone is “lucky” enough to find a used car that looks decent and is very cheap, it is still necessary to assume that the car will require AT LEAST $1k per year, just to keep it running. If it winds up costing less, consider yourself very lucky indeed.

Once you enter the arena of car ownership, it is not possible to get a free ride, and in fact, the ride can wind up being quite costly–no matter how low the original sale price might have been.

Car sharing services like zipcar combined with supplementation with cabs is a much cheaper and more reliable method for someone who commutes via public transit. There’s no parking space to worry about, going to the mechanic, car payment, etc.

You should look for an unpopular car. Newer ones will be less expensive than popular models. While any car can be beaten badly, newer ones are likely farther from their end than older ones. You can get a well optioned 2005 Chevy Cavalier LS with auto transmission and about 75,000 miles for about $4600 from a private party, and less than $6000 from a dealer in your area. A similar Honda Civic LX would cost about $2000 more. The Honda is a nice car, but is it worth $2000 more than the Cavalier?

I guess part of the answer would depend on where “Boston area” is. If parking is an issue, then I 2nd the cab/rental/zipcar combo. Owning a car requires a lot of commitment and has indirect expenses attached. The acquisition price is only part of the equation.

“the Honda is a nice car, but is it worth $2000 more than a Cavalier ?”

Equally maintained…yes. With a few exceptions, many of these unpopular cars are unpopular for reliability reasons. The Sebring comes to mind. Neighbor was very fastidious with maintenance…it was still always in the shop for something. His old Vette was too…but he didn’t care ; it was too much fun !

“Equally maintained…yes.”

I’m skeptical. I bought several new cars for significantly less (thousands each) than an equivalent, popular car. In every case, the less popular Chevy, Buick or Olds did fine and I have never made up the difference in initial cost. They were all new cars, but the Olds is 9 years of and the Buick is 14 years old. 2005 was the last year for the Cavalier. I think they fixed all the bugs after 16 years.

I used to work with a guy that owned a 1986 Corvette. He was frustrated that it needed to go into the shop, but always forgot about it after 2 blocks when he picked it up. BTW, this was less than 10 years ago.

From what I have seen of the Cavalier, I really don’t understand why it is such a despised little car. They are easier to work on (for me, anyway) than a comparable Honda or Toyota, need less maintenance to keep them reliable (including no timing belt to worry about), parts are cheaper than most anything else on the road, and they are easy to find for sale. My father bought a 1990 Cavalier 11 years ago. The car had 60k miles on it and he paid $1800 for it. He finally got rid of it last month due to severe rust. The car then had 208k miles on it and still had the original clutch (although the clutch hydraulic components had to be replaced at some point, but these were easily accessible). The only significant repair during his 11 years of ownership was a head gasket replacement at 80k miles, which is easy on a 2.2L Chevy. Pretty much everything else was maintenance and wearable parts like tires and brakes. The only time the car left him stranded was right before he scrapped it. It lost its serpentine belt to a bad tensioner. I told him of a decent car for $700, also a GM vehicle, and he decided to scrap the car rather than spend $50 on a belt and tensioner to keep driving his rusted out hulk, which would have failed a safety inspection years ago if our state had one.

Yeah, I really hate them because they’re everywhere and I think they have all the appeal of a turd sandwich, but a Cavalier isn’t bad.

Still, I’d assume repairs on any cheap used car no matter the reputation or reliability. For that reason I’d look for the early 90’s Civics, hatchbacks are really handy. Great fuel economy, pretty reliable, but for me the big thing is that they are really REALLY easy to fix and the parts are dirt cheap. You could almost buy her a jack, manual and set of tools to go with the car for the inevitable repair. Just get it checked over by a mechanic before you buy and (at least I always do this) assume you’ll put another 1,000 into in repairs and maintenance in the first few months. Maybe you won’t, but you’ll be glad you had the cash ready.

“…I’d look for the early 90’s Civics”

I don’t consider any 20 year old car reliable, and wouldn’t pay more than $800 for it no matter what the brand is. It would also be very surprising to find a car that old with less than 175,000 miles on it. A car this old is very likely near the end of its useful life. A 7 year old car likely has several more years before it becomes a liability.

@jtsanders: Nonsense, those cars are troopers. Is it going to be more reliable than a 7 year old car? Of course not, but OP did ask for “cheap” used cars, but without specifying a price range that’s what I threw out.

My second choice for a cheap used car if OP is thinking more like the 4 to 7 k range would be something like a Scion xA or maybe a … well nothing in particular comes to mind but I’m sure there are a few more. This seems to me to be an issue of what “cheap” is. If “cheap” is around or under 1 K I think a 90s Honda is a great choice, especially if holding back a grand for repairs wich I’d certainly take over any 2000 dollar used car, wouldn’t you?

@MCBMW: I consider anything around a grand a big risk. Someone like you can perform the repairs yourself, bu the OP’s daughter is not likely to make any repairs herself. Otherwise, I doubt that the OP would have posted this request. A Cavalier is a solid choice in the $4000 to $7000 range, and doesn’t every get close to $7000. Civics are excellent cars, But I would not pay 33% more for a Civic of the same age and mileage as a Cavalier. Condition is everything in a older car, so I’d hold out for anything in great condition. Unpopular cars are just less expensive, even if they are in great condition.