Which of these $3k cars should I test drive?

I’m brand new to this forum so hopefully this kind of question off the bat is allowed. I’ve decided to buy a used car off craigslist. I just need it for 6 months so my plan is to sell it at the end of the 6 month period of ownership. I don’t care how it looks or what make and model. I just want decent gas mileage (at least 25mpg or so). I’m basically looking to get the lowest cost of ownership over 6 months.

So based on hours of internet research and asking questions of car experts, my search criteria are:
-Price between $400 and $3k (anything below $400 and you get a bunch of $0 listings and $100 financing offers, and anything too much over $3k I get too many results and start to lose money on depreciation from what I understand)
-Any non-Euro make (I’m told in this price range it’s how they’ve been maintained not what make they are. So Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Mazda, Dodge, Chevy, Chrysler, Ford, GMC, Buick, Kia, Hyundai, Subaru, Scion, Mitsubishi, Acura, Lexus, Infiniti, Cadillac, Pontiac, Saturn are OK but NO to Mercedes, Audi, BMW, Porsche, Volvo, Saab, Volkswagen, Jaguar, Fiat, Mini
-Under 200k miles
-Cars listed by owner, not a dealer.
-Minimum model year should be 2000 or later, for crash safety
-Title should be clean or rebuilt but not salvage (I’m told accidents don’t matter so much at this price level and major issues will be detected during my mechanic’s inspection; Just not looking at anything that has damage that must be fixed since it’s rarely worth it.)

Based on the above search, I’ve come up with the following candidates:

1)) https://seattle.craigslist.org/see/cto/d/seattle-chevy-malibu-maxx-ls-2005/7168348314.html I was all set to go test drive it but I just noticed the listing says “Air Con not blowing cold at present.” I asked the owner if he knows why and he said “No I did not get that checked out yet.” I definitely need cold AC so is this a dealbreaker as I’m guessing it might be very expensive to fix a broken AC?

  1. Are these too light on info and pics to bother inquiring about?
  1. This one has a dented hood but is still asking $2600, so I’m going to guess you’d say skip cause with body damage it’s a $600 car? https://seattle.craigslist.org/oly/cto/d/olympia-2008-chevy-impala/7167765998.html

  2. This one has “Front bumper needs to be fastened straight, hood has a dent,small scrape on passenger door and 2 missing plastic pieces near floorboard.” but is still asking $2450 so skip? https://seattle.craigslist.org/skc/cto/d/auburn-2009-nissan-versa-130k-miles/7177907769.html

  3. This one says salvage title due to fender bender. Doesn’t the accident have to be major to make the title salvage? So they’re hiding something so skip? https://seattle.craigslist.org/see/cto/d/auburn-chevrolet-cobalt-2010/7171091047.html

  4. This one seems like maybe a good one if they reduce the price? https://seattle.craigslist.org/sno/cto/d/lynnwood-2008-kia-rio-lx-sedan/7165191015.html

  5. This 2001 Corolla seems decent but maybe a bit pricy at $2900? https://seattle.craigslist.org/see/cto/d/seattle-2001-toyota-corolla/7166013308.html

  6. This 2001 Civic looks nice but bumper has a dent and they’re asking $2600 https://seattle.craigslist.org/see/cto/d/seattle-2001-honda-civic-ex-low-mileage/7177506617.html

  7. Pics are nice on this 04 Sentra but overpriced at $2900? https://seattle.craigslist.org/see/cto/d/seattle-2004-nissan-sentra-18/7172030384.html

  8. This 04 Subaru Outback for $2900 looks nice: https://seattle.craigslist.org/see/cto/d/seattle-2004-subaru-outback-awd/7178821936.html

  9. This 03 Camry looks nice at $2900: https://seattle.craigslist.org/see/cto/d/kirkland-2003-toyota-camry/7176283578.html

  10. How about this 02 Accord at $2900: https://seattle.craigslist.org/est/cto/d/kirkland-2002-honda-accord/7174045907.html

  11. Here’s an 02 Saturn at $2900 https://seattle.craigslist.org/est/cto/d/kirkland-2002-saturn-l200-sedan-4-door/7176407544.html

  12. Here’s a 2000 Maxima that looks nice but has a dent on driver door for $2500 https://seattle.craigslist.org/see/cto/d/bellevue-nissan-maxima-2000-nissan/7172859917.html

  13. This 2002 Subaru Outback looks decent at $2300 https://seattle.craigslist.org/sno/cto/d/lynnwood-2002-subaru-outback-wagon-awd/7175070053.html

Any thoughts on the above would be much appreciated!

Good grief , I probably could have purchased a vehicle in less time then it took to read the post.

Not going to even look at the listings . At that price point if it starts , stops and everything works then just buy it and hope it lasts for 6 months.


+1 to Volvo-V70
I really did want to help the OP, but I refuse to wade-though all of those sites.

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Sorry for posting so much. I figured it was better to post a bunch of options but I guess not. ; ) From the list, my top picks based on my little knowledge are: 6, 9, 10, 11, 12, 15. Any thoughts on those?

I think you’re making this too hard, perhaps even engaging in Paralysis By Analysis. Meaning too many choices to choose from.

If you’re going with an owner-owned car (as opposed to dealer)…mark any off your list that cannot or won’t provide maintenance records.

I’d mark off any with known and/or major existing issues. Such as the A/C not working.

You might remove any using an engine timing belt, especially if the owner can’t provide a receipt showing it’s been changed recently.

I think these criteria should narrow it down for you significantly. Good luck.

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Thanks @ledhed75 for the tips! Ok so with your criteria and plus a thorough test drive, are you saying I don’t need to get a mechanic to do a pre purchase inspection, given the price point? I assumed I needed to cause that’s what everyone says online when buying a used car but maybe that doesn’t apply here?

No, I’m not saying that at all.

Unless you are confident in your “diagnosing” abilities… pay a mechanic $100 or so to have a look at any car you decide to check out. At your price point, chances are high that you’re going to be “buying” some problems…but a mechanic can likely steer you away from major problems.

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In addition to the advice above, since you’re only going to keep the car for 6 months then sell it, you might want to not look too heavily at Toyota and Honda. Due to general perceived reliability (and I’d say fairly earned most of the time if we ignore Honda’s automatic transmissions and the annoying pickiness of fluids in all of the Honda’s) they are going to be priced higher “because it’s a Toyota/Honda”.

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Did not look at every single one but my vote is for the '03 Camry. Offer $2500 and maybe settle for $2700. Good luck!

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Regarding the analysis paralysis thing, I know 15 options seemed like a lot but from my experience in contacting sellers so far, some percentage will have already sold and another percentage will not respond or will lose interest once you tell them you need a pre purchase inspection. So my plan is to choose 5 to 6 candidates, contact them all, and then just buy whatever pulls through first. Does that make sense?

Regarding the prepurchase inspection, what would be the logistics of it? I go test drive the car, if it checks out then I tell the seller, I will call a nearby mechanic to make an appointment ASAP, and either the seller drives it there them self at the time of the appointment or I ask them to just let me borrow the car and trust me to return it? Some sellers have told me to have my mechanic come to them. Would this work too, or does the car need to be brought to a garage where it can be put up on a jacklift?

Last, about the service records. Are you assuming I know what to look for on the records (cause I don’t : )? For example, let’s say they show me records showing the tires and oil were changed last year. Don’t I need enough car knowledge to think to myself, well, the brakes and the spark plugs should also have been changed but weren’t?

I’d say just work out something with the seller in terms of the inspection. If the seller won’t let you have it inspected, that’s a red flag. He may be hiding something.

And having the records, to my way of thinking, indicates the car has been taken care of. At the very least, you can see if/when the oil has been changed regularly, and any other regular maintenance.

If you luck into a really nice mechanic, he might review the records for you during the inspection and give you his thoughts.

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Hiding something ? How about just not wanting to let a stranger go somewhere with their vehicle . And does not want to spend the time on someone who might not buy it after all .

If I am selling a vehicle in that price range you either buy after we take a test drive or you go away.


My thought is that YOU need to narrow your choices down a lot more, before expecting people to wade through your six semi-finalists.

@ledhed75 Might it make sense to also consider a reputable small local used car dealer? That would make it a lot easier to get the inspection done as I’m sure they’re used to people taking their cars for inspection before purchasing. Since I’m looking to buy in the next day or two, it might make the whole buying process faster and easier and I’m ok if I have to spend a couple hundred more for the convenience. I did a search of car gurus and this one is my top choice if you have any thoughts:

2004 Nissan Sentra 1.8 S - $2,900 Mileage: 107,401 https://www.cargurus.com/Cars/link/276430128

Here’s the thing: If it’s a good car at a really good price then by the time we get around to telling you our thoughts on it, it’s been sold already. :wink:

Have an idea of what you want, then jump on it when you find it.

The local used car dealer wouldn’t be a bad idea, co worker found her Sentra at a local dealer that’s tiny but upfront about what they’re selling.

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All of the cars you posted are a bad deal, except for the 2002 Saturn L200. Many of these cars have too many much body damage, or too many miles to justify their asking prices. The Saturn has low miles, no body damage, and is being sold for good condition Blue Book. Assuming it really is a 4-cylinder, this is a good, reliable engine which uses a metal timing chain. (The 3.0L V-6 offered on this model is an interference engine with a rubber timing belt, and expense that you don’t want to deal with.)

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For a 6 month purchase at this price point, the only ones you should consider are the ones that are fully operational, clean title and can be immediately tagged. Otherwise, there’s a good chance that you’ll find yourself the owner of a car that can easily cost you another $1,000 to simply get on the road.

So first look at the Title. Is the name on the title the same as the Seller’s? Is the Title from another State? Is there a Lien on the Title w/o a Lien Release attached? Is the Tile marked Salvage or anything else? If so, run don’t walk.

Is the car being sold with a clean Inspection? If not tell the Seller that you’ll pay for the State Inspection ($100 and another $100 for the mechanic’s opinion) and pay full price for the car if it passes.
It will cost the Seller nothing so an honest seller should have no problem with this if the car’s “clean” but will probably eliminate 90% of the “deals” right off the bat because the Seller knows something that he’s not telling you.

Another poster mentioned a small used car lot, which isn’t a bad idea.
Although it will cost more, if you buy the car fully tagged and ready to go and at least you know that it’s passed State Inspection, the title is good and it’s driveable.

Bottom line, Craigslist can be a good site to buy a “Grandma died and the kids just want to unload it” used cars but it can also be used by Curbstoners selling cars “fresh from the bottom of the lake” with an equally “washed” title and Deadbeats trying to unload a “Soon to be Repo’d” car on an unsuspecting buyer.

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It is clear to me that you should have any car inspected by a mechanic. I would prefer a small operation that talks to me directly. Be sure to ask the mechanic if he/she knows of a car for sale. Buying from a private party who does not want to advertise often saves a few bucks.

Well things moved quickly and I’m now the owner of a 2002 Saturn! Thanks to everyone for their help. I texted the seller last night. He confirmed no issues, everything works, he has maintenance records, and clean title. I asked if he’s willing to negotiate and he said yes. He was asking $2700 and I offered $2200. He countered with $2400 and we settled on $2300. I saw test drove the car this morning and I checked every item in the checklist including the fluids (except the transmission fluid which in this car doesn’t have a dipstick). Everything was fine except the brake fluid was brown. The car drove great, with no odd engine sounds, shifting was smooth, no vibrations, or creaks. The one issue was that when I did a hard brake from 30mph to a stop, after resuming gas again there was a weird sound like the brake was sticking or something. It went away after getting up to speed again. I called the mechanic I looked up on google maps in the morning and told him that and he said to bring the car in. After a 2 hour inspection, he said the car is in good shape though he did find two things to be fixed immediately and a few down the line. But he said it’s a good car at 90k miles and should make it to 250k miles.

Immediate needs:
Serpentine belt is cracked: $140 to fix
Brake fluid dark with 4% moisture: $110 to fix

Future needs:
Wiper motor is noisy and maybe failing: $420 to fix
Tune up due at 96k miles: $320
Inner CV boots cracked, right side leaking grease: $480 to fix
Front tires are down to 30% tread and back tires are mismatched: $520 to replace all 4
Rear brakes down to 4/32: $330 to fix

I wasn’t sure how much to ask the seller to discount the car further for the above, so I figured I’d ask for all the immediate needs of $250 plus a bit more, so I suggested to knock down the price from $2300 to $1900. He said he really didn’t want to go below $2000, and I asked the mechanic on the side if $1900 was a fair price and he said it was in the ballpark so I just agreed to $2000 since the seller was a super nice guy and had already come down in price so much. Did I do ok?

I left the car at the mechanics to get the immediate fixes done, but I haven’t decided on the future needs items yet. Any thoughts there on when to get those done and the prices quoted to fix? Thanks!