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Used car for around $5,000

I am going back to school and need to save some money. I would like a reliable used car for around $5,000 that I hopefully will not have to put much money into over the next few years.

What should I look for? When does low mileage in a less reliable make trump high mileage in a reliable make of car? Any tips are appreciate!


It’s Like D?j? Vu All Over Again. Have You Tried The Car Talk “Search” Feature ? We’ve Beaten This Dead Horse Into Dog Food.


The consensus among many here (or not) is that CR is as reliable a resource as you’re going to get for used cars in any price range. Have you looked on the news stands or subscribed on line yet with them ?

Spend $3,000 for the car and keep $2,000 for repairs, maintenance, new tires, etc. You are going to be looking at older cars so have a mechanic inspect it BEFORE you buy it. There is no such car you can buy for $5,000 and not put much money into and keep for several years, regardless of make of car. If you like a car that has a timing belt you can figure to use some of your $2,000 for a new belt, and water pump.

I believe you can find a car for 3g’s that can be a decent car if you have the money to put it into good shape. Used cars for sale for a reason. Often someone doesn’t want to put new brakes on it, or a new exhaust, or a new timing belt. A mechanic can help you avoid a car with a bad motor but you’ll need to spend money on some repairs.

Get a copy of the 2009 Consumer Reports annual Auto issue. It contains a list of “Good Bets” and “Used Cars to Avoid.” You should read both.

The “Good Bets” section is broken down into price categories, which should be very helpful to you.

You CAN get a decent car for $5,000 or less, but you have to be careful and you have to do your homework. Good luck.

In your price range, don’t shop for the make. The condition and maintenance record of the individual car is more important. There are probably some really bad cars to avoid (a good friend has great stories about her first car when she was a senior in college–the car was a Renault LeCar), but don’t shop exclusively by make.

Thanks for all of the responses!

CSA: I’m sorry if my post was redundant. It is very time consuming to try and find the right key words to search for and wade through the unrelated threads. So I thought I would be more direct and start my own. If it makes you feel any better “It’s like Deja Vu all over again” is also redundant.

dagosa and mcparadise: I am a Consumer Reports subscriber, but I wasn’t sure how respected their list was by people that actually know stuff about cars. Thanks for the vote of confidence to start there.

UncleTurbo and Triedag: thanks for the wise advice! It is very helpful as I start my search.

Thanks again!

I can’t speak for everyone else, but my philosophy with respect to CR is, "I’m a fool if I don’t use them as a resource, but I’m equally a fool if that’s my only one."
I respect them for their methods and their integrity, but I equally respect the personal experience and opinions of those here and others with a shared enthusiasm for the automotive world. There are cars out there, not recommended by CR, but are enthusiastically enjoyed by lots of owners, many from here, for the specific traits they offer…like some years of the Corvettes, Ford Focus etc.

Personal experience should be a last resort. This has nothing to do with the thoughtful people that offer their experience, but that it is typically a very small sample. CR offers a much wider view, and that’s great. But in an effort to sell magazines, they compress the good, so-so, and ugly categories to a mere 3% failure rate. That is fine for a new car, but as cars age, depreciation comes into play. An astute buyer can find a great deal on a reliable car that doesn’t say Honda or Toyota on it. Great cars, but it’s hard to justify the extra thousands they cost over comparable cars with slightly less reliability or just less cache. A Geo Prizm costs a lot less than a comparable Toyota Corolla, despite being nearly identical. Again, CR is a great source of information, but I would add Edmunds and MSN Autos to the list, since you thoughtfully suggested using more than one resource. All 3 together can provide a reasonable basis to make decisions.

BTW, I know that Ford has great reliability, and interesting cars. But my bad experiences on three Fords have soured me on them. Sure, I haven’t owned a Ford since 2003, but I can’t bring myself to look at them because of my bad experiences. It’s irrational, but I choose to avoid them anyway. Hey, if I wasn’t irrational some of the time, I wouldn’t be human!

"Personal experience should be a last resort. This has nothing to do with the thoughtful people that offer their experience, but that it is typically a very small sample."

To the contrary…many have a very logical reason to buy a Ford Ranger. Cost of repair, availability of parts and reputation and proximity of dealership are all personal experience related.

The advice, NOT to take a car to a particular area, to consider the performance of a Corvette over it’s repair record, the towing capacity and availability of options from a GMC or Dodge that may not test as well as a Tundra are paramount reasons to consider a brand over a highly recommended one from CR…all legit reasons to take personal experience in special circumstances to heart in plowing, towing etc…

I drive Toyotas…but have at one time owned Subaru, Granada, Suzuki, Saab, Chevy etc. I have found Toyotas may not be cheaper to own if the dealer and only service agent that some non mechanically inclined are taken advantage of and a valid reason for another less recommended purchase from a “better” dealer. Personal, local knowledge is at work here.

I am a devoted subscriber to CR and yearly contributor to their surveys. Excellent info, but I make the final choice and there are other important factors to consider on equal footing…all based upon personal, subjectively related circumstances that even Toyota can’t foresee …
We stand divided on this issue regardless of how irrational my arguments are as well. :slight_smile:

For a used car as basic transpotation, buy just that… BASIC TRANSPORTATION.

Buy ugly and plain, you will get more functional mechanics for your money.

Be concerned with engine, transmission, suspension, etc.

Dents, scrapes and fading paint are just fine. When you need it to work right don’t worry about the looks.

Forego amenities like power everything and automtic computerized this & that. ( no used Mercedes, Lincoln, Caddy, Lexus, etc. )

But a brand that has easy access to reasonable service in the area you’ll be living.

( ex. In this small town we’re 140 miles one way to service anything other than Ford , Dodge and GM brands, Toyota, and Nissan. That’s it. I’d have to check my local indies’ capabilities before buying ANY other brands. )

Buy the best stick shift 4-cyl P/U you can find for 5 grand…A Toyota would be nice, but don’t get hung up on that…A Nissan or Ranger will work too…

You make many good points. Thanks! But I addressed my comment narrowly; only to reliability. The comment had to do with CR specifically, and they can’t really tell you a whole lot about what’s right for you on the other issues you mentioned.

Another issue with CR reliability ratings: It seems to me that they are skewed. They only account for information in the returned surveys. Since there are many devotees like you, I’m sure that most car buying decisions of folks like you are heavily influenced by the ratings. That would mean, for instance, that there would be a huge number of survey responders with Toyotas and many fewer with a Dodge, for instance. That could significantly influence their ratings. I think that the main problem would be with new cars that are now highly reliable but were no as reliable a few years ago. It’s not a huge problem, but someone might miss out on a great car if they are influenced by CR more than you are.