Blogs Car Info Our Show Deals Mechanics Files Vehicle Donation

Very little money, but need a reliable car

My not-my-son is needing to get a reliable car, with VERY little money to work with. Does anyone have any suggestions for vehicles that are genearlly recognized to be good vehicles (he’s gone through getting one that turned out to be described as a sort of a nightmare for some people we’ve heard from… and it turned out to be a sort of a nightmare, so that tracks)? Also, does anyone have any good suggestions as to how to go about finding something decent for less?

If you can find a Ford Crown Victoria that he can afford which looks and runs OK, that is the one.

Define Very Little Money.

Forget about brand or model of car. Your not son needs the best maintained car he can find. I suggest looking at unpopular models, like an early 2000s Chevy Cavalier, Ford Taurus, Chevy Malibu that was maintained meticulously by an older driver. Look for a car with repair and maintenance records. The real Gold Standard is finding a car that the exceedingly old owner is selling because she is too old to drive, yet has maintained well because there was never any extra for a new car.

BTW, I would definitely avoid Hondas and Toyotas. They are expensive to buy used, though they are good cars. I drive a Honda Accord (bought new) and it’s an exceptionally reliable car. But the premium for the name in a used car is just too much.

+1 to what jtsanders stated.
A make and model that is supposedly a reliable choice will absolutely NOT be reliable if it has not been maintained properly.

When buying a “cheap” car, the maintenance that it has received from its previous owners (there could have been many) is the most important factor. So–although this is not necessarily a realistic piece of advice regarding an older, inexpensive car, you should really focus on those that come with full maintenance records. That will almost surely eliminate cars from car lots, and should drive you to look at private sales.

As jt stated, a car that was owned by an older person is more likely to have been maintained properly, and is more likely to have maintenance records available. And, the added bonus is that a great many of those older folks have chosen to drive Buicks, Ford Crown Victorias, or Mercury Grand Marquis vehicles–all of which are among the most reliable cars on the road today.

Your “not” son should forget about “cool” cars and should focus on those that have a proven record of excellent reliability and requiring less maintenance than higher-performance models. Those Buicks, Crown Vics and Grand Marquis may not look cool to him, but they are much more likely to spare his wallet than vehicles that are more “hip”.

If you can locate a well-maintained model of one of the above-referenced makes, you will probably be finding the best “cheap” used car for him.

For more car for the dollar, buy from a private party.
At a dealer you’re paying prep, profit. and commision.
If he’ll concede to putting in the elbow grease he’ll save on the cash side initially, then he can add the work it may need as he can afford it. Thing like tires, tuneup, and fluid changes may be due on a private sale car.

Here’s another possibility: Are there any volunteer fire companies near you? The one in my in-laws town auctioned a cherry 2003 Ford Taurus SE a month ago. It sold for $4001. That’s a great price for one guaranteed by a dealer, and it was owned by a nice old lady, too.

The quickest way to devalue a car is let it’s appearance deteriorate. Unfortunately, rust or a minor accident can provide a very cheap but mechanically reliable car. I would look for a used compact pick up whose bed is badly rusted and in need of replacement or one with sheet metal damage. Be very careful as rust or damage in the wrong place can give you an unsafe car. But, looking for a cheap reliable car is a crap shoot.

A friend of mine has had good luck buying used Saturns for around $1000. They have timing chains, instead of belts that need more frequent replacing. He’s never had to make any major repairs and has gotten a lot of mileage out of them.

No matter what you buy, a good rule of thumb is the interior. If it is torn up, then the vehicle has probably been abused. On the exterior, look for evidence of repaint or a lot of small dents, again indicators of abuse. A single, minor dent on an older vehicle would be acceptable at a reduced price.

Also avoid anything with a rebuilt engine or transmission. It will be having other problems, that is why the owner is getting rid of it.


Yeah, and my county is auctioning off one that is listed as mechanically sound but it has rust holes all over the underbody… yet they won’t let you get a mechanic’s inspection prior to purchase, so it’s going for $204 right now at auction.

It’s a good place to look, @EyeRytStuf, but if they aren’t upfront and honest about the condition, and won’t let you take the vehicle to a mechanic or have one go to them and inspect it, you might want to be very careful at gov’t auctions…

If people in their 20’s think it’s a “cool” car, it will cost 3 times as much as an equal car that has the reputation of being a geezer-mobile…You can find major bargains at estate sales…


I apologize, I only have experience with decent, honest folks that want to continue being respected in the community they live in.

Though I recomended a little rust as a place to start, you are allowing a big safety factor to be a part of a cheap car purchase, if you aren’t careful. In addition, an old gas hog is cheaper to buy, but today’s gas prices will soon eat up much of the savings.

If there are any good vehicles out there for $1000, they will be very tough to find and putting restrictions like make, style, year or options makes it impossible to find one.

What the heck is “not my son” ?
Is he a stepson ?

Also, why isn’t the SON posting and doing his research himself?

Having bought more than my fair share of good cheap cars, here’s my advice, first don’t get in a hurry, finding a good cheap car is going to take some time. Ask EVERYONE, if you got to church ask, ask friend, see a car while walking down the street ask, they may not want to sell, but they may know someone with a car to sell. Skip anything that is “cool” look for a uncool car. back in the 80’sI bought a 72 ford LTD station wagon for less than a grand, it was perfect, less than 40,000 and nobody wanted it because it was a station wagon. Drove it for 10 years… That was back in the mid 80’s. Look in smaller towns, again asked around, there might be someone going into a home and they may have a low mileage car that nobody wants, 4 door hard top, etc. Be prepared to do some maintenance straightaway. My station wagon never had the belts or hoses change so I had them changed, the lady did change oil but that was about it. Timing chain is better than timing belt unless you KNOW when it was changed. Check out the back lots of dealers, sometimes you can find one there, again it will be a uncool model. Lastly don’t picky don’t go looking for this brand or that brand ANY car can be a good car and any car can be a bad car, so look at the car not the brand.

Had a heck of a time selling a Honda wagon,it was a sweet car,but not cool.A farmer finally bought it for his son,so look for “uncool”(Mary Kay for instance"-Kevin

I agree with RWE2000 about asking around about cars. The reason being, if you purchase a car from a friend or neighbor, they’re less likely to unload on you, or at least they’ll be honest about any drawbacks.

We just sold two vehicles - a 1997 Ford Explorer and a 2003 Taurus. We spread the word about both vehicles before listing on Craigslist, because we were comfortable with them being decent vehicles. Oddly enough, it was the Explorer that my immediate neighbor snatched up as soon as he heard about it. And that was because he was in need of a truck, and even though mine was starting to show some rust, he knew he’d get a maintained 1 owner vehicle that is a known quantity.

The Taurus did get listed on Craigslist, and the buyer was for his daughter who is a college student. Same idea as people are telling the OP - a good basic unsexy sedan, depreciated by a minor accident (Explorer-on-Taurus incident when my son was a new driver) but good mechanical condition with all the records available.