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Yet another which used car to buy question

I apologise in advance if you all are annoyed by these kinds of questions, but I’m in a bit of a pickle so your help is greatly appreciated.

First off, I’m buying my first car at the age of 23, and I don’t have much funds (about 6 grand), as the rest goes for college related expenses.

I’ve been looking at the following years, makes, models, miles:

'03 Hyundai Elantra with 64k Miles.

'03 Ford Focus with 100k+ Miles anything under 100k miles always seems to exceed my budget, and I wouldn’t know if the extra costs for lower miles would be a wise decision.

'05 Chevy Cobalt with 60~100k plus miles.

And lastly.

97~00 Honda anything with 90~100K plus miles.

I just moved to Illinois from Oregon so funds are tight. Which of these vehicles would give me the least hassle right away if something goes wrong so I have enough money right away to fix it if need be. Or should I look for something else entirely?

I also plan on taking the vehicles to get inspected by a professional, and evaluating their service records as well before making any final decisions.

Your first task is simple…

Stop using dealer asking prices to determine what you can afford. If you can truly afford $6k, you should be considering vehicles that the dealers are asking more for - in reality as much as $9k.

For example, a 2003 Ford Focus SE with automatic and only 10,000 miles has a private party blue book value of $5,445 in good condition. With 100,000 miles, the value drops to $3,920. Almost none of the cars you list will ever be found in what really qualifies for excellent condition. You should really be pricing out the vehicles based on private party values in good condition. That broadens your choices significantly, and selling a car at that price still will leave a good hefty profit for the dealer.

Your question doesn’t annoy us at all - we’re here to answer them - but it’s impossible to answer with any degree of certainty. Of the cars you listed, I would be looking at the Hondas first, but at 100k+ miles, you have absolutely no way of knowing how well the car was maintained, or what was done to it that has since been hidden. Any one of those cars could have been in a flood, and then salvaged and title-laundered so that even with Carfax you might not know it. Or they could have been wrecked. Or just abused. In short, even if you get the Honda, which is most likely to be hassle-free, you could still get burned and end up with a bad car.

And as eraser said, quit looking at the dealerships. With your budget, you shouldn’t even go near them. For 6 grand you can get a much better car from a private seller. Hell several years ago I managed to pay 3 grand for a 93 MR2 that was in fantastic shape, and is still a great car today (for the few non-winter months of the year I can drive it, that is). A dealership would have charged me more than double what I paid.

Above and beyond the purchase price…
think SERVICE of any of these cars in the years to come.
Check around your area to see who can work on which at reasonable prices.

( for example, here in my small town I wouldn’t buy the Hyundai for lack of serviceability. There are no Honda specific places here either but I’d expect more indies to be Honda equipped and they have a better reliabilty track record too. )


You want to make sure that any car you look at will be able to handle the snow and ice. 4wd is always nice if you can find it. Small trucks are also an option and are more likely to have 4wd and are generally simpler to service, and at 4 to 5 years old will fall into your price range.

4wd? In Illinois? Why? That’s an extra maintenance hassle and cost that the OP doesn’t need to deal with, and getting a sub-$6,000 4WD/AWD vehicle is just asking for trouble.

There’s entirely too much thinking that 4wd is necessary or even desirable in winter. Unless you’re a volunteer firefighter or something and have a need to be able to get literally anywhere at any time no matter what the weather conditions, you don’t need 4wd. All 4wd does is help you not get stuck in the snow. It won’t help you turn, stop, or avoid spins and slides. A very small percentage of the people driving 4wd/awd cars actually need them.

Based ONLY on the information you provided, which is not nearly enough, I’d say:

  1. Honda with 90-100K miles, as long as the timing belt has been replaced. Proof is REQUIRED, otherwise knock $750-1000 off the asking price.

  2. Focus, although there are LOTS of them in my area with less miles for that kind of money.

  3. Elantra, with the same advice about the timing belt. The replacement interval for this engine is 60K miles, so it’s probably overdue.

  4. Cobalt. It would have to be perfect and dirt cheap before I’d even consider it.

The car with the most complete service records has the advantage.

Whatever you do, don’t spend all of your money on the purchase price. No matter what you buy it may need something within a short time, and you should hold some money for that inevitable maintenance expense.

I wouldn’t necessarily quit looking at dealerships - I was just advising not to use the dealership asking price as a criteria as to which vehicles are affordable. When they ask $6k for a 2003 Focus with 100,000 miles, they are asking WELL over what any person should be willing to pay, and they know it. They have tremendous profit margin built in at that price and they know that they can easily cut $2k off and still make a profit. As a buyer, you should really use private party values to help guide you to what you should really be paying at a dealership.

With that budget the most car for the money is Chevy Cobalt. It will be least used up so it will carry to your next vehicle without as many nasty surprises.

Agreed. Speaking from experience, 4WD is completely unnecessary in Illinois. No need at all, unless you have money to burn. The highest point in Illinois is just 1235 feet, and that’s only about 100 feet above the surrounding plains. The maximum elevation change you could get within Illinois is 956 feet, but those two points are 500 miles apart on the interstate. That’s a whopping 0.036% average grade. You would never notice that slope. :slight_smile:

In Illinois, you could be looking at significant wear to the vehicle simply because of age (this is an area where cars rust badly).

Although 97-00 Hondas can be very good cars, I’d avoid Accords of that age (significant transmission issues), and 99 & 00 Civics seem to be showing higher than normal rates of catalytic converter failure. The 97s and 98s are good, though.

But for the same price, I would have a ridiculously hard time justifying a 97 or 98 Civic over a 03 Focus. The Focus is very reliable and those extra years are worth something.

But in all these cases, the primary factor is NOT the brand, despite what some Toyotaphiles or Hondaphiles will tell you, but how the car has been maintained. I would take a well-maintained 97 Civic over an abused 03 Focus any day. But a well-maintained 03 Focus or a well-maintained 97 Civic? Give me the Focus, its a no brainer. For similar model years similarly maintained, well, I would go on price and which vehicle I liked the feeling of better…

Rust would never structurally effect a vehicle in the years hes looking to purchase

and a 4x4 in Illinois? Yes it snows

If you are concerned about saving money on your purchase in illinois, take a look at the way they tax used vehicle sales. IIRC, once a vehicle is 11 years old (and bought from a private party) you only pay $25 tax, the annual registration is about $100, and a title is about the same (but you only pay that once).

I dont recall what the taxes are for newer vehicles, but it is several hundred dollars, and if you buy from a dealer, you get to pay regular sales tax for your city (typically about 7%-8%)…so you want to buy from a private party if possible.

I try to always buy a well-maintained (preferably one-owner) car that is just 11 years old, you could even be under budget. All the precautions you mention in the last line are still wise of course.

If it was not obvious already, I would look at the hondas on your list, but also add any quality sedan from the late 90s. It seems you already understand that when you buy a used car, you are buying the previous owner too…I mean to say, who the seller is determines what you get more than who made the car sometimes, because honda or not, if it was treated poorly, it won’t last as long as it otherwise should.

Also, if you moved to Chicago, you probably really do not need a car, extensive public transportation options are available there.

I’d go for the Cobalt since it’s the newest. But whatever you look at, spend a hundred or so and have a mechanic(not one that works for the dealership you might be buying from) look at the car. That money can mean the difference between buying a nice used car and a future money pit. Expect to have to change out the transmission fluid on any of the cars you buy as well, unless they have records showing the fluid has been changed recently.

I beg to differ… despite modern galvanization and paint practices, most 97-00 models you see in Illinois have rust somewhere, sometimes in rather significant amounts

Yes, it snows, but you do NOT need 4x4 or AWD simply because it snows. I’ve driven my whole adult life in Illinois, Michigan, and Ohio winters, and 4x4/AWD is simply unnecessary. The roads are flat, smooth (except for potholes), and generally well-plowed.