Used car buying tips for the economically challenged

my girlfriend and i currently live in Brooklyn, NY. we do not own a car. in fact, i have not owned a car since 1996 ('87 Subaru wagon). we are moving to Asheville, NC in September. we will then need to own a car. i have a brand new student loan, and more school in the future. considering i am economically challenged, how much should we be prepared to spend for a reliable, fuel efficient (at least 25mpg) used car? any suggested make/model/years?

I’d wait until you moved to NC to buy a car. Why buy a NY rust bucket? If all you want is basic transportation, any Asian car will do well – Toyota, Nissan, Honda or Hyundai. No need to waste money on AWD for NC. The Hyundai Sonata is a pretty good used car deal. Drive as many cars as you can and find the one that fits you best. Then, find a low mileage, one owner car with all the service records. Pay a qualified mechanic to do a PPI. You did not mention your budget, but around $5,000 - $8,000 will buy a decent used car that will be reasonably reliable. Most used cars in that price range will need some work – tire, brakes, service, etc. Budget an additional $500 and you should be OK. Check, and craigslist.

I think that the important question is this: How will you use the car? If the car is going to be used for around town transportation, that is one thing. On the other hand, if you are going to use the car for trips back to Brooklyn, that is a horse with a different undershirt.
If you just need around town transportation, check the bulletin boards on the unversity campus in Asheville. There may be some student going abroad or some faculty member going on sabbatical who needs to dispose of a car. If you are financially challenged, don’t pay attention to the make or model. If you find a good used Ford Crown Victoria at a good price, even with the lower gasoline mileage, it may be cheaper to own than a high mileage Asian car that you not ony pay a premium price to obtain, but costs more for parts and repairs.
When I went to graduate school back in 1962, I purchased a 1947 Pontiac for $75. With careful driving, I made the 350 mile trip with all my worldy possessions to my destination. I used the car for around town transportation and used public transportation to get back home. I was on a $200 a month assistantship. My room cost me $8 a week and a week’s meal ticket at the student center cafeteria was $14. I graduated two years later debt free.

If you are willing to sacrifice your dignity, there always seems to be bargains in the odd colored mini vans and cross overs. The pink Mary Kay cars became yard art when parked with a FOR SALE sign on them. Copper is a color that is showing up occasionally on some models but on the used car market it would likely be a $low seller. And I once bought a car with a mismatched fender, paying less than the value of the tires on the car. And the streets are full of cars, trucks and SUVs with pealing clear coat. If you leave your name at some dealerships they might refer one of their customers to you when the car they want to trade in doesn’t interest them.

A 4-cylinder stick shift P/U truck with a topper will usually provide very low-cost transportation and value for your money…

To avoid dealer markup and gain more car for your dollar,
buy from a private party and intend to do some of the cosmetic prep yourself.

Consider unpopular models that will sell at a discount. Chevy Cavaliers from 2000 to 2005 come to mind. A 2000 to 2005 Ford Taurus is another. You could buy a 2005 Pontiac Aztek, the quintessential unpopular car, for less than $5000 - probably less than $4500. And older ones are less. I find that used Asian cars are much more expensive than similar Detroit 3 cars. You typically have to get an Asian car that is 2 years older (25,000 miles older) before the price is similar to the 3 I mentioned above.

With older cars, condition is much more important than the brand. All 3 I mentioned above have decent reliability. The Taurus and Cavalier were at the end of a long production run, and the Asian cars offered a lot more when new. Given your circumstances, I’d shop for unpopular cars in excellent condition, and wait until you get to Asheville. If you can’t find something there, Greenville, and Spartanburg are just a couple of hours away; Charlotte about 3 hours.

To repeat part of what Caddyman said, look for a manual trans car. Fuel mileage will be better, resale and therefore your buying price will be less and you can avoid the risk of a dying automatic trans in the later years of a car’s life. A clutch may need replacement but you could possibly find some gearhead students to do that task, if needed, for a little beer money. Yes, buy what is less popular and therefore in less demand and therefore will have a lower price. I, personally would prefer compact size Chev or Ford products. Older VW and Chrysler cars can be more problematic.

Everyone has given good advice, but another good thing to know would be what kind of budget you will be looking at. To some people, only having $15k to spend on a car makes them feel “economically challenged”. As for me, I currently have two vehicles, and the more expensive one cost $900, which was a stretch for me to afford. Advice can change with key variables.

I particularly agree with shopping domestic names to get better bang for your buck. In my neck of the woods, a rusted out '92 Honda Accord with 300k miles will still fetch $2-3k, while a friend of mine recently snapped up a '02 Pontiac Sunfire (everybody seems to hate these things and says they’re junk, but I’m not sure why. They’re pretty reliable and very cheap to fix) with 150k miles for a grand. That car looks and drives pretty good. By the way, the Sunfire is mechanically identical to the Chevy Cavalier.

Wait until you get to NC to buy a car. You might need to rent a car for awhile as you get settled and get an NC driver’s license.

As to the type of car, I’d get a compact (Civic, Corolla, Cruz, etc.) since going from no car to a car means added expenses you aren’t used to for insurance, fuel, maintenance, and repairs. If someone has an income you might consider a lease for the next few years. You’ll get a new car and therefore have to deal with few unexpected expenses, ie repairs. A used car is cheaper but you need to figure it will have breakdowns and need some repairs.

I’d go for a lease on a new Civic for a couple of years. Then you can make some decisions in 3 years about your car needs and how to provide for them.

There are perfectly good Asian cars that don’t command the premium of Honda, Toyota and Subaru. About the only popular Nissan is the Altima. Others can be good values. Recent Kias are mechanically identical to Hyundai’s, but an Optima is way less desirable than a Sonata (which isn’t all that expensive to begin with.) And there is always the Pontiac Vibe if you’re lucky. Same as a Toyota Matrix but with the badge of a dead domestic make. Likewise Geo Prizms, if your budget is even lower. It’s a restyled Corolla.

I you are on a limited budget, DO NOT LEASE A NEW CAR unless you have a means to deduct the lease cost on your income taxes. Leasing a car is just like renting a house. It’s all money down the drain. It’s nearly always a bad business decision. You don’t need a new car. You need a good used one. After you are out of school, you can sell your car to one of the next year’s grad students, upgrade, and recoup a good portion of the money you spent buying a used car. Most of the other advice above has been good.

The most reliable used cars (and multiple sources for this information) are those from Honda followed by Toyota and Subaru and Nissan. Top of the list is the Honda CRX 4WD SUV and Honda Accord and Civic sedans. Use and other websites to find book value for a car sold by a private party and look for a 5 year old vehicle with less than 70K miles and one from outside of the snow country (where salt is used on the roads in the winter).

I have used to scan all the craigslist “by owner” car listings in an area. I would look for a car being sold by the original owner who has all the service and repair records for the vehicle. Problem with a used car dealer is that you do not have access to this information and you will pay 10-20% more for the car to cover their profit margin.

If I found someone selling a 2007 or later model year Honda or Toyota Corolla and could see from their service records when they last replaced the battery and tires and any and all maintenance done on the car I would feel comfortable after a test drive that I was buying a car in good condition.

Consumer Reports online costs a nominal amount and provides access to their reliability reports on cars by make, model, and year and you can see for a given one what problems were most often reported by owners which can be related to the cooling system, transmission, electrical, engine, etc. and this helps to avoid a particular model and year that had more than its share of problems.

If your budget is less than $8k, I still recommend looking at domestic names and avoiding the popular models from companies like Honda and Toyota, where you are pretty much paying for a name that gets lots of positive ink in Consumer Reports and similar publications. Somebody also mentioned the Geo/Chevy Prizm, a rebadged Toyota Corolla. The Corolla is a reliable car, as long as you get one that does not have a sludged up engine. The 1ZZFE engines made before 2005 had a major issue with a tendency to sludge up the oil control rings in the pistons, resulting in gross oil burning problems, usually in the neighborhood of 2-3 quarts every couple hundred miles. The solution is to rebuild the engine with updated pistons with additional oil galleys to prevent sludge issues. Based on what I have seen, I would guess that about one in ten late '90s-early '00s Corollas and Prizms have a gross oil consumption problem. Some people just accept it as an attribute of the car and continue to sing the praises to it. Those engines do, however, seem to last forever if you can keep them full of oil. I have known people to just carry a case of oil in the trunk and pour in three or four quarts whenever they stop for gas and it seems to work out fine for them that way.

I can’t add much to the advice you’ve been given except for one thing.
A lifelong friend of mine moved to NC and has lived in Asheville for about the last 15 years. The hilly countryside there combined with some nasty wintertime weather (much ice) can make things pretty treacherous so you really need to put some thought into not only the type of vehicle but the tires that are on it.

My friend bought a 4WD truck and he said there’s days he sits at home because the old truck just won’t make it uphill; 4WD or not.