Used Cars

I’m looking to buy a car for college for about 2.5K but I’ve never bought a car outright from anyone and never bought a car period, from a private seller. What are some things I should look for and/or avoid to make this a good purchase?

Also, what is considered to be “high” mileage in this price range?

Anything over 130K miles is high mileage in ANY price range…See if you can score a 4cyl stick shift pick-up…You will be the most popular guy on campus (everyone is always moving) and if it breaks, it can be repaired without a lot of fuss. AVOID automatic transmissions in this market segment. At this point, they are ALL getting ready to fail and they can not be economically repaired. Shop craigslist and be able to move quickly when something interesting pops up. If your location requires a smog test and or safety inspection, have the seller provide a fresh one or offer no more than half of what he is asking. Look at e-bay too…

The list of things to look for is too long to post here. Same for the list of things to avoid.

If you’ve never bought a used car from a private seller the $2,500 range is not a place you want to be.

At $2,500 and less anything goes.

That’s not to say you can’t get a decent car for less than $2,500, but you have to know what you’re looking at, and you already told us you don’t.

No offense, but you’re a babe in the woods.

Don’t get too hung up on things like make, model, year, mileage, etc. What you’re looking for is a well maintained car that’s cheap because it’s boring and probably ugly. More specifically what you’re probably looking for is a 15 year old domestic sedan that’s been owned by an older person.You will see more exciting cars in this price range, but do not be tempted! The presence of service records would be a huge plus and get anything inspected by an independent mechanic before you buy.

However, the above are simple guidelines for buying cheap transportation. I agree completely with mcparadise that 2,500 is a miserable price range to be looking in. IMHO, a $2,500 car is not significantly less likely to have major problems than a $1,000 one and so the thing to do is get a $1,000 car and keep the rest in reserve. But this is definitely an unorthodox opinion.

I understand that the price range sucks but wheels before winter is my goal. The absolute highest I can go is about $3,500 - will this make any appreciable difference?

I’m basically looking for a small coupe or sedan of foreign build (heard they were more reliable) with less than 100K on it. I’ve seen a few already on craigslist,, etc - but the trouble is - I wouldn’t know what to look for under the hood or what to listen for while driving it. I’d even pay an expert to run me through what they would look for - but I don’t know anyone like that and am not sure how to get the knowledge.

Japanese cars are perhaps more reliable as they roll out of the factory, but they also hold their value a lot better. Therefore, $2,500 is going to buy you a MUCH nicer used domestic sedan, which likely end up being more reliable than a $2500 Japanese car simply by virtue of being a lot newer.

And, again, by the time a car is old enough to have reached the price range you’re looking at, how the car has been treated is much more important than the make or model.

Too much to discuss in one post, but the basics include:

  1. Buy from an owner rather than a dealer – I buy the seller as much as the car. A one-owner car with all the service records is worth more than a mystery mobile on a dealer’s lot.
  2. Have it checked out by a competent independent (not dealership) mechanic.
  3. Research what it’s worth (,,,, and don’t pay more than wholesale in today’s economy.
  4. Save your $ or get a credit union loan – $4,000 is about entry level pricing for a reasonably reliable Japanese or small US vehicle with some life left.
  5. Plan on spending $500/year on maintenance – oil changes, tires, scheduled service, brakes, etc. in addition to registration, taxes and insurance.

Good luck!

Since you say the highest you can go is 3500, I’d stay within the 2500~3000 range and use the left over money for possible maintenance items.
As it’s been said already, in that price range, maintenance is more important than who made it.
Ford Taurus, Crown Vic or it’s sister cars should offer the newest vehicle in that price range, as well as Buick. Though, if you took Caddyman’s advice, look for a Ford Ranger stick shift.

You need to put yourself in the hands of an experienced car purchaser you can trust. Is there a close family member in the auto business or someone you know who drives older cars they keep impeccably clean and well maintained and just maybe had to go through college on a shoe string ? Been there, done that advice can be helpful.
Some inexperience is showing with “I’m basically looking for a small coupe or sedan of foreign build” as some domestics are foreign built and less reliable than some Asian models built in America.

Locating an expert will be difficult but I appreciate the great suggestions. I’m going to hold out a bit longer and try to find somebody that knows their stuff. Else, I’ll go off of your suggestions here! Thanks!

Here is a suggestion you can use: If the car does anything strange during the test drive, don’t buy it. If a warning light is on or comes on, don’t buy it. Call a service station to see if they do pre-purchase inspections and ask how much they cost. The price should be less than $30. Agree on the price first. It will be the best money you ever buried.

Make sure that the car is being sold by the owner as listed on the title. If not, you may be buying from a vehicle vulture and paying hundreds more than he did last week.