Why is it so hard to find a good—but cheap—used car?
Car sales tend to run in cycles, with different types of vehicles being more popular at different types of the year. Spring is a time when many people look to buy an inexpensive, used car using money from their tax return. Whether you are looking for a car for your teenager, or you just need a basic piece of transportation, finding a used car under $5,000 that is not a lemon can be a challenge. We’ll run you through the whys and hows of buying a cheap, used car that still doesn’t make you feel like you’re compromising.
Editor’s note: LeeAnn Shattuck has joined A Girls Guide to Cars as our resident car shopping columnist. A car-purchase expert, she helps her clients to get the best deals on new cars through her business, The Car Chick. She is here to also answer your questions about car buying; email her at [email protected] for her advice, insight and recommendations.
Prices Are High, Quality Is Low
Between the financial market crash of 2009, the Cash 4 Clunkers program and, more recently, the inventory shortage brought on by the pandemic, used car prices are high. What you think should be a $3,000 car is bringing $5,000 or $6,000. Even the dealers are feeling the crunch with wholesale prices reaching record highs.
The quality of used cars has also declined over the last decade. Economic challenges, especially job losses during the pandemic, has forced people to pinch their pennies even more than usual. Unfortunately, one of the items that often falls out of the monthly budget is car maintenance. Vehicles priced under $5,000 are older and have high miles to begin with, but add in mechanical neglect, and you have a recipe for problems.
Where to Look for Cars Under $5,000
When shopping for a cheap used car, you will typically do better buying from a private individual than from a dealer. While sites like Autotrader.com and Cars.com are great for finding used cars with higher price tags, vehicles under $5,000 tend to be listed on sites like Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace, where sellers do not have to pay to list their car.
Believe it or not, your local newspaper is still a great place to find good, inexpensive cars. Sellers over the age of 60, who are not as technology savvy, still list their cars in newspapers. So, if you want to find that gem of a used car that was driven gently and well maintained by an older lady or gentleman, the old-fashioned Sunday paper is the place to look.
Related: What Drives Her: Bogi Lateiner Is Empowering Women To Take Control Of Their Auto Repair Experience
What to Look For and What to Avoid
Finding a good but cheap used car starts with knowing what makes and models to look for and which ones to avoid. Avoid vehicles that have a history of problems (remember the PT Cruiser?). Instead, look for cars that are known for being reliable, like Toyotas and Hondas. Just be aware that those cars hold their value well, and you will pay more for them used than other brands. European cars are more expensive to repair, so avoid those brands unless you are prepared for high maintenance costs.
Look for ads where the seller lists recent maintenance done to the car, such as new tires, new brake pads and rotors, timing belt changed, etc. Most used cars under $5,000 will still need some maintenance and repairs, but you may avoid higher repair bills if the seller has already done some of the work for you.
Beware of Scams!
Facebook Marketplace has become the premier site for shopping for used, for-sale-by-owner vehicles. Unfortunately, the scammers have figured that out, and they have flooded the site with fake ads for cheap used cars. They steal photos of popular vehicles like Jeeps, trucks, Hondas and Toyotas and post ads under fake profiles at crazy low prices. Fortunately, these fake ads are not hard to spot, if you know what to look for:
- The vehicle is priced WAY under market value for the age and mileage, usually for less than $1500.
- The “seller” often has the exact same vehicle listed in multiple cities across the US.
- In the description, the “seller” states that he/she is helping a sister/aunt/mother to sell her vehicle and to contact her directly via an email address instead of communicating through Messenger.
If the seller of a vehicle is not willing to chat with you through Facebook Messenger and schedule a time to talk on the phone, IT’S A SCAM! Don’t fall for it.
What Questions to Ask
Contact the seller and ask some basic questions to determine if the car is even worth your time to go look at and test drive.
- Why are you selling?
- Where have you had the car serviced, and do you have maintenance records?
- Has the car been smoked in?
- Has the car been garaged?
- Do you have a clear title?
- Has the car been in any accidents?
Consider running a CARFAX report on the vehicle to check for accidents, documented maintenance, and to check for any title problems, such as salvage, theft or flood.
Get a Pre-Purchase Inspection!
Never buy a used car, especially an inexpensive one, without a pre-purchase inspection by a qualified mechanic. No offense to your brother or your friend, but unless they are a professional mechanic, they may not know how to perform a thorough inspection. An ASE Certified mechanic can check for oil leaks, transmission problems, worn engine mounts and suspension components, dry rotten tires, worn brakes, and more. A good technician also knows how to check for rust, flood damage, and can even tell if a car has had regular oil changes. Expect to pay anywhere from $65 up to $150 for a pre-purchase inspection, but it is money well spent.
Buying a cheap but reliable used car can be challenging, especially in today’s market. Be prepared to spend a good amount of time weeding through dozens of car ads. But if you are patient and diligent, you can find a decent ride at a decent price and avoid buying a lemon.