Used Car Reliability Question

Hey there. I’m a new driver, although I’m 28 years old. I just moved to Orange County from San Francisco, where I never needed a car or a license. Unfortunately I’m discovering that insuring a car is a very pricey proposition for newly-licensed drivers, regardless of age. Quotes for a new car (I was looking at a Ford Focus) were around 400 dollars a month or more from reputable insurers.

So, I’m scaling back a bit and looking for a used car that I can buy outright, not finance, and cut back on the insurance costs in that manner. A co-worker of mine has a 1993 Chevy Cavalier (170k miles) that he’s selling for 1100 dollars. The problems here is that it was previously owned by his roommate, who was broke for about a year as far as I can ascertain. It also failed a smog check in February (in California).

So, I guess my question is that whether the 1100 dollars is a good deal for the car considering the above factors. How much will it cost to get a new catalytic converter installed? What can I expect in terms of maintenance costs considering that much of it was probably delayed for the last year of ownership?

Lastly, are Cavaliers reliable at this age? My grandmother had one that lasted her a while, but I’m concerned about the mileage. Beggars can’t be choosers, obviously, but I haven’t had a lot of luck finding a cheap used car (under 3k or so) on Ebay or Craigslist, and I can’t wait much longer before pulling the trigger on this. Any advice is appreciated.

It’s almost impossible to hazard a guess about reliability and maintenance costs on an older vehicle with that many miles.
I would be very skeptical of this purchase, especially considering it was owned by a broke roommate and failed smog.

Converter prices can vary by a mile based on where the part is procured, shop labor rates, etc. BUT, one would have to also hope that the converter is the only problem and if the converter is bad that the converter was not killed by something more drastic; like a worn out, oil burning engine.

My mother in law owned a Cavalier for about 10 years and it was a pretty good car but we all knew what she had. Normally, I would be real hesitant about recommending even spending that much on a high miles Cavalier but there gets to be a point where a car is worth X dollars IMHO, no matter the age or mileage. This may be one if the converter is the only problem and the car runs/drives out well.
Price an aftermarket converter around (try AutoZone) and labor at a muffler shop. It should not be that much but I would then use that figure to bargain down the price of the car.

Ideally, if I were in your shoes I would pull the spark plugs, examine the tips for any bad things (soot, oil deposits) and run a compression test. Clean plugs, good compression, and it may be worth a go.
JMHO anyway and hope some of it helps in your decision.

How will you be using the car? If you are going to be commuting 100 miles a day on a high speed interstte, this may not be the car for you. On the other hand, if this is for around town use, follow ok4450’s recommendations.

I understand your problem. When I graduated from college in 1962 and was going on to graduate school, I was almost broke. I bought a 1947 Pontiac for $75. I bought two replacement tires and swapped the other two tires for two tires my dad had on a utility trailer that fit the car. I used the car around town for a while and found that water was getting into the oil because of a cracked cylinder block. I was able to fix this with K & W seal. When fall came, I drove the car 350 miles to graduate school with no problems. I held the speed to 55-60 mph–no problem since we didn’t have interstates-- and added oil as needed. The Pontiac lasted until I could get something better.

In your situation you want a safe car. Have the steering and brakes checked as well as the undercarriage for rust-out. When I was in your sitation, the questions were “How much oil does the car use?” rather than “Does the car use oil?” and “How bad was the accident?” as opposed to “Was this car ever wrecked?” Minor oil consumption isn’t a problem. A few dents or torn upholstery won’t affect the performance of the car. As I said earlier, make certain the car is roadworthy and drive it conservatively.

Never buy a car that cannot pass inspection!

The owner might claim that it will only take a couple hundred or so to get it to pass. You can trust him only to find out too late that the engine is worn out, for example, and nothing can ever make this rustbucket legally roadworthy again.

Turn down this offer flat. Tell the owner to make his own repairs, at his own expense, in order to enable the car to pass inspection. If he balks, run – don’t walk.

May I suggest that you find another car. Repairing a car so as to pass the California smog test will be very costly, they are picky and with good reason.

Secondly,if the owner was broke, the maintenance on the vehicle is lacking.

How much driving will you be doing?

It’s not even worth $500, even if it passed inspection. Even if it was a loaded convertible that passed inspection it would not be worth $1100. Don’t bother with it.

A 170K mile ANYTHING is a bit of a crapshoot. A 170K mile Cavalier is REALLY a crapshoot. I’d steer clear of it, especially since it won’t pass a smog test.