So you’re in the market for a car, and you need a reliable one. The only problem is your budget is tiny. I totally get it. I have young children and they are NOT getting into a worn-out beater with the doors falling off.
That said, if I may be so frank, I hear a lot of excuses as a coach from people who buy unaffordable stuff, and I gotta say, the need for a reliable car is the most common and LAMEST excuse for keeping or buying a pricey set of wheels.
Sure it takes extra effort and you need to know what to look for, but cheap, reliable, used cars are plentiful. It’s like anything else you’d buy second-hand. People get tired of what they’ve got and sell perfectly good washer/dryer sets, dining tables, and all other kinds of furniture and appliances simply because they’re bored and want to upgrade.
Be one of those people that takes advantage of this, especially when it comes to cars. Whether you’re getting out of debt or you just don’t have a lot saved and need wheels ASAP, here’s how to get a reliable car for $3000 or less.
Buy from a private party, never from a dealership.
A car salesman has one job: to get you to buy a car, whether it’s a good deal for you or not. I’m not knocking on salespeople, just saying that you’re on a mission and can’t afford to be smooth-talked into buying (or worse, leasing) a car that doesn’t meet your price-point. Not to mention, the SAME car will be more expensive at a dealerships than from a private seller. This is mostly from overhead expenses they need to cover and extra fees attached to the car’s base price.
You don’t have to bother with any of that with a private seller, who is going to give you a much better deal. They usually have a reason to get rid of the car (moving or upgrading their car, for example), and don’t want to take a long time to sell, so they’ll be more willing to negotiate. To get a great deal without hassle, be aware of the Kelly Blue Book value and make a fair offer.
Use autotrader.com to filter your search.
I have to confess, my husband and I disagree on this point. And that’s okay. In my personal experience, I’ve gotten higher quality results from searching for used cars on autotrader.com than on Craigslist. My perception is that only serious sellers post to Autotrader… Craigslist is kind of a catch-all. Again, this is a matter of personal experience and preference, and if you stumble on the right car somewhere else, that’s fine too. You do want to be strategic, though, about setting your search parameters; a quick five-minute search of your zip code and criteria can show you what’s in your neighborhood and what you can expect to get for the money.
Be diligent about comparing cars and don’t desperately make an offer on the first car you find. Another thing to avoid: buying from a friend or family member as a favor to them. It can seem convenient: they need to sell a car, you need to buy a car, problem solved. It’s really important to stick to your budget here and only move forward IF the car and the price point meet your needs.
Oh, and for safety, always meet a seller in a public location like a sheriff’s station parking lot (our county sheriff actually ENCOURAGES residents to use their parking lot for buying and selling from sites like Craigslist).
Look for ugly, older vehicles…
The uglier, the better. Hail damage? Score! Green-brown with pink polka-dots? We’ll take it! You definitely want a car that’s been well-maintained (and has maintenance records to prove it); ugly paint and normal cosmetic damage lowers the price even if the functionality is superior. The one and only purpose of this car is to get you from point A to point B safely. Top-notch stereos, leather seats, and custom paint are NOT priorities.
Remember this mantra: the uglier, the cheaper, the better.
Don’t discount older vehicles, either. There are plenty of 10 to 15-year-old cars in top running condition, and newer doesn’t necessarily mean a car is more reliable. It’s helpful to research the make and model by year on sites like Edmunds.com to see if that car tends to have any major issues with the transmission or motor. If you see any glaring red flags, try excluding that one from your search.
One of our favorite cars was a 1998 Honda Civic, which was 12 years old when we bought it (its name was Marvin). That thing had hail damage, bits of rust on the hood, broken speakers, and a boring gray cloth interior, but it was faithful and drove beautifully. We bought it for $2500. And we loved it.
…With lower mileage
Even though older cars will help lower the price, a real gem will have low mileage for its age. Although this is a solid guideline, context is everything, which is another reason why it’s important to be familiar with the reputation of the car’s make and model. For instance, I’m more comfortable buying a Honda with 180,000 miles on it than a lower-mileage car that made Edmund’s Worst Car List.
But generally speaking, an older car with fewer miles will be more reliable than a not-as-old car with more miles. The bottom line is it’s worth searching with these guidelines in mind, and taking the time to learn about the car before you buy it.
Make sure it’s mechanically sound
The car will ideally have a clean title, meaning it’s accident-free. Even if the car has been fixed, you never really know how an accident will affect a car’s longevity. I once purchased a car that had been damaged in a hurricane, but I didn’t bother to look into it until later, and the car died unexpectedly after only three years of owning it. Learn from my mistake: pay for a title check.
After you check out the car and test-drive it, take it to an independent mechanic (not the seller’s mechanic). You’ll shell out around $60, but that’s okay because this is crucial insurance to have. A basic inspection might save you from buying a lemon, and he (or she) can tell you if it’s due for any maintenance.
If that all checks out, then congratulations! You are the proud owner of a hidden gem of a vehicle.
This isn’t going to be your dream car. It’s your so-I-can-achieve-my-dreams car. It’s going to be a scratched up, dull, nothing-special piece of metal that gets you to safely from home to your destination and back. But it will be reliable AND cheap. Who says you can’t have both?