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Shopping tips for used car shopper

Hello Car Talk World. I am beginning a search for a used car and am looking for some advice. I’d like to spend about 2,000K for a reliable used car. I’ve been told Volvo with 100+ miles would be a good car to look for. Any advice on other make or models that have good reliability record? Is Volvo the way to go? What should I look out for (with Volvo or other make/model)? Is there a website that you’d recommend? Any reason not to use Craigslist? Any other advice would be much much much appreciated. From Baltimore, MD, Jill M.

Volvo would be one of my last choices. They are money pits after they age. Same goes for BMW, Audi, VW and others. Find a Corolla, Accord or Sentra and have it checked out by a good, independent mechanic. That’s where I would start.

“I’d like to spend about 2,000K for a reliable used car.”

I have to assume that this was meant as a joke.
Once a used car gets to the point of costing only $2k (I have to assume that you didn’t really mean $2,000k, as that equals $2 million!), all bets are off regarding reliability, as this is essentially the bottom of the barrel when it comes to used car prices nowadays.

“I’ve been told Volvo with 100+ miles would be a good car to look for.”

Assuming that you meant 100k+ miles…I have to assume that this was also a joke.
Volvos are cars that are usually pleasing while under warranty, and once their warranty coverage is over, they tend to become examples of the proverbial moneypit. (Translation: Volvos are NOT reliable, and have among the highest repair costs in the industry when they break down–frequently.)

Instead of focusing on a particular make with a (supposedly) great reputation for reliability, you would be FAR better served to look for cars of any make that come with both a full dossier of maintenance records and a manufacturer’s maintenance schedule, to which you can compare the maintenance records. (Translation: With a used car–particularly one with many miles on the odometer–the car’s maintenance record is FAR more important than the specific make of car.)

I don’t blame you for falling for this “common knowledge” about Volvos, simply because other folks will say the same thing about…Toyotas…or Hondas…or possibly Nissans and Subarus. However, the reality is that, despite Japanese cars having much better reliability records than European cars, once the miles add up, the car’s maintenance record is the most important factor, and the specific make and model is purely secondary.

My best advice is to troll the ads (either online or newspaper) for private sales, preferably from senior citizens who have to stop driving. Almost always, their cars have been well-maintained and have been driven conservatively. And, their cars tend to be American makes, such as Buick, Ford, Mercury, Lincoln, and Chevrolet. A well-maintained older American car will cost you far less in the long run than a Volvo!

Phone the seller and ask if the car comes with full maintenance records. If it does, and if the car’s maintenance proves to be at least…adequate…then you need to spend some money to have a mechanic of your own choosing inspect the car in order to see if there are incipient repair issues lurking.

Unless you find a car with both a good maintenance record and the approval of a competent mechanic, if it has over 100k miles you are almost surely buying yourself a car that will still require an ongoing investment in maintenance and repairs in order to keep it running. And, even if everything seems good, you will need to budget an extra $1k per year for repairs, as that is just what you have to expect with cheap, older used cars. If you are lucky, the total per year will be less, but since that is an unknown factor when you buy an old used car, you have to be prepared for the worst.

I’m sorry for giving you harsh reality, but rather than have you labor under faulty advice from people who are misinformed, I feel that I have to be very blunt.

Consumer Reports “Used Car Guide” is what you need. Find it at your local public library. They have categories of reliable used cars — based upon their owner satisfaction surveys – by price. I’m looking at the 2007 issue. Here’s what it recommends for the under $4000 category.

97 Chevy Prizm or Tracker; 99 Ford Escort; 97 Mazda Protege; 99 Mercury Tracer; 97 Suburu Impreza; 98 Suzuki Sidekick; and 97 Toyota Tercel.

You should of course get the most recent edition before making a decision. For example, the Suzuki might not be such a good bet now, as Suzuki I believe is no longer selling cars in the USA.

Second vote for GeorgeSanJose advice. You need reliable information from the repair history for cars you are looking at. When you do start looking, do not look for one particular model. Get the best and most economical one in the best condition for the best price from those recomended in this publication. Features mean little if the car is unreliable. If you can’t afford more then $2k, you can’t afford to do many repairs or pay much for gasoline.

thanks folks! this is really helpful! grateful for the time you’ve taken to respond. don’t mind the harshness. And I did not mention, but it is apparent, I am not so good with numbers!! P.S. the car would be used only to "get around town’ in north Baltimore … not distance driving.

@Jils, you won’t find much in that price range. I would stay away from Honda and Toyota for sure. They hold their value very well and you will have to look at cars around 15 years old to meet that price. I suggest that you look for unpopular cars, like a Chevy Cavalier, Chevy Malibu, Pontiac Grand Am, Olds Alero, Ford Escort, or Ford Focus from the early 2000s.

Craigslist is a good place to shop, but you have to be very careful. Read the warnings on the first page at Craigslist well before you start looking. Don’t be in a hurry. You may have to look at several cars to find one that looks like it is in good condition. When you find a great looking car, you will need to have a pre-purchase inspection by a mechanic that knows you may buy the car.

You might also look at bulletin boards nearby. Towson University, Morgan State University, Goucher College, and Loyola University probably all have bulletin boards for advertising. BTW, when you say North Baltimore, do you mean Towson and up York Road, or in Baltimore City? If it’s the city, you might consider a motor scooter if you are adventurous. That would give you freedom to travel except when the roads are icy and snowy. Since we don’t get much of either, you’d be OK for most of the winter.

Used car buying is a minefield; especially for someone without mechanical skills or having to rely on a shop to check it out first. Even a thorough checkout is not a guarantee of a problem free car though.
Used cars are used parts and all of those parts are subject to failure at any time.

I did a thorough checkout on a super clean, low miles Ford for someone once and they bought the car.
It served them perfectly; for about 6 months. They went out one morning, started it up, and noticed smoke rolling out from under the hood.
A gas line had ruptured and the ensuing flames burnt the entire front end of the car before the fire department arrived. Shame; it was a pretty car pre-fire and crusher bait afterwards.

I agree with skipping the Volvo. That’s dealing with a somewhat out of the mainstream car with it’s own parts and service quirks.
My advice would be to buy something bland (Buick, etc) as your money would probably go further on something like that.