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What kind of car can I expect for a certain price?

Pretend I’m looking for budget transportation (I’m not; someone I know might be). Requirements are simple: 1) low initial cost (no more than $5000 tops; preferrably $3000 or $1500); 2) good gas mileage; 3) will run reasonably reliably for at least 2-3 years. AC and automatic transmission are VERY big pluses, as well.

Now, the question of what’s the best used car has been answered ad nauseum on this site. I want to know something a little different: What kind of car can I expect for $5K? for $3K? for $1.5K?

Put another way, all the used car buying guides, if followed will lead one to a late-model, low mileage car that drives perfectly, looks perfect, has maintenance records since birth, has only one owner, has no mechanical issues, etc. That’s great, if you can afford such a car. If you can’t, what do you give up? i.e. at what point will you take a car with no maintenance records, or with a small oil leak, or whose engine idles a little roughly? Conversely, what’s nonnegotiable? What do you always look for in a car, no matter how low the cost?

As a related question, where is the best place to look? Craigslist? Local newspaper?


I’d look at or the local paper. Craigslist is full of scams ( ie: cloned cars etc.)

As for a car for 5k, I’d look at a Ford Focus. They have low resale, are relatively reliable, get decent mileage and are cheap to maintain.

Buying a used car is always a minefield and in my opinion, the price is not always the prime consideration.
One can find a great car on the cheap or a clunker for an inflated price.

As a long time tech I can get a pretty good feel for a car with 10 minutes worth of lookover and test drive. It’s a bit more dicey if you’re not mechanically inclined.

While it’s common to rip car dealers for palming junk off on the public (and it does happen), buying one from an individual is no better as a private seller is all too often willing to cover things up and play dumb if a problem is uncovered by a potential buyer.

In my opinion, there’s not a lot of difference between Craigslist, eBay,, the local paper, or whatever.
A used car is a collection of used parts subject to fail at any time and they all carry certain inherent risks.

One should always figure on a few things. There’s not a used car around that does not need something. The key is to make sure that the basic building blocks (engine/transmission/suspension/no rust issues) are good first and go from there.

If a mechanical inspection is not possible and if you lack mechanical expertise, the best way of determining if a car is worthy is with a lengthy test drive.
This does not mean the usual 2 mile round trip. This means 30-40 miles and you pay for the gas if need be. Turn the radio, AND the seller, both off and concentrate on transmission shift patterns, A/C operation, and listening for noises from the engine and suspension while paying close attention to any tendency for the car to pull or vibrate.
A lengthy drive gets the car up to operating temperature and may uncover a problem that is easily overlooked on a 2 mile hop.
Hope some of that helps.

It would be easier to say what to stay away from than what to seek.

I read today that cars in your price range are getting harder to find and prices are inching up.

Perhaps are car from a friend or family member that has a known history.

Forgot to add,walk away from any car that has a “check engine” light on.

Hondas and Toyotas come at a premeium.

For GM cars pay attention to Dexcool problems and intake manifold leaks. Subaru’s have their headgasket problems,FORD has their ignition switches,all have automatic transmission issues,the list is pretty long.

For $5k or less I would be looking at domestic cars like the Neon, Cobalt/Cavalier/Sunfire and Focus. You may also be able to score a low miles Buick which all seem to manage decent MPG with a comfy midsize car.

Skip anything foreign except maybe 7 year old or less Hyundai which are also decent cars with heavy depreciation.

Don’t waste your money on a Honda/Toyota, I sold a 180k 96 Civic in need of timing belt, tune up, struts, brake work, heater only worked while moving to a happy buyer for $3000. People are nuts over a brand name.

Two of the most reliable, trouble-free cars I’ve owned cost me less than $1,500 initial purchase price. I bought one of these cars from a private seller who advertised in the local newspaper. The other car was sitting in someone’s front yard with a “For Sale” sign in the windshield.

Both cars had no maintenance records, but looked nice and drove correctly, with no unusual noises, no alignment issues, no brake problems, etc, etc, etc. Neither was fancy, or loaded with options, but each provided reliable, inexpensive transportation for several years, at which point they were sold (still running well) to someone else.

I’ve also had good luck with used cars in the $3,000-5,000 range, although these days it’s getting more and more difficult to find a decent car at these prices.

The thing is; regardless of the purchase price, if a car needs some maintenance or repair, I’m not afraid to spend the money to make it right. A few hundred dollars doesn’t go very far any more, but if a car needs some work I will do it. I expect everything on a car to work as intended, and I will spend the money to correct a problem.

If your shopping for cheap transportation what you give up is cachet. If you’re trying to impress your friends, neighbors, or your girlfriend/boyfriend, you’re not a candidate for a cheap car. You have to be willing to look at, and consider owning, cars that are neither popular, flashy, nor stylish.

Example: The Ford Crown Victoria. An old man’s car, right? Well, a nice Crown Vic can be bought for peanuts, but they are reliable, cheap to maintain, and have one of the best AC systems on the planet.

Example: Early 90s Pontiac LeMans (built by Daewoo). Widely regarded as a POS car. I bought one with less than 70K miles for $1,250. 4-spd, no air, no power steering. People laughed at it (I laughed at it), but it ran trouble free for 4 years and it got 35+ mpg.

What’s non-negotiable? Any obvious problems with a car and I walk away. The engine has to start and run correctly. No rough idle. No check engine light or any other warning light. Minor oil leaks? Maybe. It all depends on what’s leaking. Modern cars don’t leak much, so I’d be skeptical of a leak.

The owner’s manual has to be with the car. There’s no excuse for tossing the owner’s manual. If there are other records, great, but I’ve purchased cars with no records. Most people don’t keep maintenance records, but if there are records the car might be worth a bit more.

A long test drive is essential. 5 or 10 minutes doesn’t tell you much. You have to drive the car long enough to get it warmed up and get a feel for it. How does it track, how does it steer, how are the brakes?

I look for used cars in the local newspaper and those “Car Dealers” publications you can pick up at the grocery store.

In more than 40 years of driving I’ve only had one used car that was trouble. So far.

What kind of car to expect for $5K, 3K, or 1.5K is easy to answer today with a computuer. Visit AutoTrader, Cars, Ebay, and Vehix web sites and see what is out there. For $5K you should be able to get a 10 year old sedan in decent shape if it isn’t a Honda or Toyota. You’d need to spend a few grand more Honda’s and Toyota’s. For $1.5 you are looking at 10-15 year old cars with some defects, perhaps body damage or bad paint.

Any used car will need some $$$ for repairs and reconditioning. You need to expect to spend $1K to 3K on an older used car in the first year or 2. Front end parts, steering parts, brakes all need attention due to age and miles driven.

In a test drive you can assess functioning of the motor, transmission, brakes, and suspension. If the car feels loose on the road, stumbles on acceleration, pulls to the right or left, and shutters when it brakes then you’ve got known issues to deal with. If all is OK with the test drive, a mechanics inspection can reveal other “hidden” issues on the car.

Many cars are up for sale because the last owner didn’t want to spend more money on the car. Perhaps a new timing belt is due, or new tires, a new exhaust system? Sometimes dealers take care of real problems when they prep a car for sale. More often the fix the easy stuff, new tires and give the car a good cosmetic detailing.

I think there are some great used cars in the price range you mention. Yet, there are total disasters out there as well. Pay a bit more to deal with a reliable used car dealer, a lot the has been in business in the same location for instance. They don’t survive if they sell junk. Private sellers are not expert con men in general and I’d certainly consider buying from an individual. Many cars on used car lots in the low price range come to dealers via auction.

I bought 3 used cars in the last 5 years. One was a “rental car” from a Ford dealer, the other an auctioned car from a used car dealer, and one was sitting on the front yard from a private seller. All are good cars that I am happy with the deals and the cars.

I think taking your time and looking around is the key to getting a good car. If you are under a time pressure and don’t shop around that’s when you are most likely to buy a “problem” used car.

What can you expect in that price range, or what should you expect?

As to what you should expect, in that price range you should expect that anything you buy is going to require periodic repairs, perhaps soon after purchase.

In order to reduce the number of repairs–or at least the ones of an immediate nature–you need to have any potential purchases vetted by your mechanic prior to purchase. Yes, this will cost you some money, but if it saves you from buying a car with a bad transmission or a breached head gasket, it will be money well spent.

Be sure to immediately budget about $1,000 for repairs, because if you don’t do this, that car may soon wind up parked for an extended period of time until you can raise the funds to repair it. In other words, instead of using your entire budget to buy the car, keep ~$1k aside for the repairs that will be inevitable, even if the car is given a clean bill of health by your mechanic.

Am I being negative?
No, I am just trying to give you some reality about cars in that price range.

$1500? I think the kids today call that a hoopty. :wink:

Even at $3000, expecting 2-3 years of fairly reliable service is unrealistic unless you get lucky, and I mean jackpot lucky. Or, you plan to only drive it 5 miles a week to church on Sundays. People’s usage varies widely- what kind of mileage are you talking about per year?

I’ve bought $800 cars that required very little work and $8000 cars that had issues crop up on a regular basis. It’s a cr@pshoot even with a good inspection. It’s always good to remind yourself- that person is selling the car for a reason. It’s rare that the reason doesn’t include some mechanical issues.

A couple of years ago when our daughter came of driving age, I went looking for a used car for her in the $2000 -> $3000 range. I figured I could do any needed repairs to make the purchase worthwhile.

It was a learning experience for me. I found lots of junk in that price range, or cars that needed more repairs than I felt were worth my time to invest.

If you do buy a car in that price range, as others have noted, make sure you get it fully inspected by a trusted mechanic, and make sure you set aside a good chunk of money for repairs.

If you drop the “good gas mileage” requirement and settle for something like 17 mpg combined many more cars and trucks will pop up in your search. I value reliability much more than mpg. My 2004 F-150 has never missed a beat (very nice truck,lots of options 78K) but i could not get $5,000.00 for it.

Hi guys,

Thanks for all your replies. OK4450: yes, that helped. That was along the lines of what I was looking for, particularly about long test drive.

Oldschool, Andrew J, yes, I pretty much figured Toyota/Honda was out of the question. And a truck is a thought, but the driver involved is not good at judging distances–the smaller the better.

TwinTurbo: likely the user’s looking at around the typical 12-15K a year. No two miles to the grocery store, sadly.

More later–I’ll keep you all posted.

P.S. I didn’t mean to post this in repair/maintenance–realized I’d done so just after I pushed the button.


The trick to buying a beater is in learning to spot a bargain in a car that has a very obvious issue that makes it undesirable to the general public.

For example, my experience (25 years of buying and driving used cars) shows that high milage means absolutely nothing on an older car. Many people will stay away from a used car with 150K-plus miles on it, but as long as the vehicle has been maintained properly and is in good condition, the numbers are nothing but a bargaining point.

Same thing with cosmetics. Can you live with a small dent or two, knowing how much you saved? Or a cracked windshield (a big turn-off for buyers, but frequently a reason to discount a car much lower than it would cost you to replace). Such things can make a big difference in price.

Another obvious thing is that dreaded check engine light. The reason it is on can be major - or very minor. Don’t run away screaming from such a car like most people would, have your mechanic check the codes. It could be just a $150 oxygen sensor, but you can lead the seller to believe it’s a major repair, and bargain the price down $500.

All of this doesn’t mean that you have to settle for a car with any real problems. Stay away from anything with serious mechanical or structral issues, look for ones that need a cheap and easy fix. As someone said, budget $500-1000 up front for any such repairs and take care of them immediately after buying the car.

Okay, the complete story:

My eternally poor brother’s much abused, much neglected 1991 Toyota pickup w/well over 200K miles overheated Wed. My brother has no mechanical skills whatsoever–it’s a miracle he noted the overheating. My dad noted a leak on the radiator, had it towed to his place, figuring he’d have the radiator patched, put it on himself, get it running again. He did so, then found out it was still overheating, and, according to him, making a “funny” noise. This was the point at which I posted–I figured whatever the root cause of the overheating, it had been run long enough to toast the motor. I also figured with a lot of help from us, he might be able to afford a 3K or 5K car. BTW, my brother is also totally uncoordinated, the reason I specified auto tranny, if possible. And since it gets over 100 degrees regularly in the summer around here, AC is much appreciated. But of course, the Toyota has neither.

Well, apparently I was wrong about the engine being toast–my dad took it to a shop, they repaired a water pump, and, by all accounts, it appears to run fine–or as fine as it did before all this. So I hope we won’t need everyone’s good advice for a while longer.

BTW, the pickup is a true beater car–dents everywhere, parts barely hanging on or duct-taped on, paint totally faded and dull, driver’s side upholstery totally destroyed–but, cross my fingers, knock on wood, it still runs. Amazing, considering it just gets occasional oil changes–about the only other “maintenance” it gets is when something breaks, rendering it undriveable.