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Buy a Used Car Cheap


&creativeIf your old trusty car dies for good, most likely you will need a new one. Give consideration to going carless, first. Can you walk to work, to pick up groceries? Do you have access to public transportation? If you must have a car and can't afford a new one, then looking used is the best solution left.

Many people think to look for used cars at dealerships, which is a fine option if you can afford to buy said used one outright, or can get credit. Personally, I don't think getting a line of credit for anything but a house is an example of good thrift. You will end up paying a lot more when your loan is said and done than the car is probably worth. If you can buy something without paying interest, you will get the best value for your money and breathe more easily.

Where can you shop for a good used car? Ask your nearest car dealerships if they have any decent, affordable trade-in models. Spread the word among friends and colleagues that you are searching for a dependable vehicle. Look into eBay Motors or the cars for sale on Craigslist. Many towns have free Auto Trader magazines. Lastly, keep an eye out in your community for parked cars bearing For Sale signs. Write down the numbers of any cars that look good to you, or take photos of the sign with your phone (so you can retrieve the number later).

False Economy Thrift

Don't just look at car classifieds like Craigslist for the cheapest car you see. You might be sucked into buying a car on its last legs. The seller may not even know how bad their car is, and may have the best intentions when selling their vehicles. If you do buy a $600 car (I've done it - three times - and those cars all left me dead on the interstate), make sure you either know quite a bit about car repair - or have a good friend who knows car repair. You will want a person who can change a timing belt, replace a radiator, diagnose a transmission, or rebuild an engine.

It's a false form of thrift to buy the cheapest car you can drive home, unless you really are a first rate mechanic. Better to take an assessment of all your finances, sell off a few things you own for cash, and put together as much money as possible for this important expense. Even a car you can buy at $1500 is usually thrice better than that $600 beater. Take if from someone who has been there. :)

How to Look at Car Ads

Once you know how much you have to spend, it's time to look around at what is out there. If you have $3000 to spend, look at cars priced up to $3500. In a bad economy people are often very happy to haggle on their price. You can show up with your $3000 in cash and drive your car right home. Don't underestimate the power of cash. :)

Next, decide what kind of car you need. An economical, gas-sipping sedan? A roomy SUV for your family? Maybe you need a truck for hauling or towing. Write down what type of car works for you. Let go of preferences for color and other cosmetics - you want a dependable car in your price range!

If you are using Craigslist.org, narrow down your search parameters by price (set your maximum) and enter a search term like truck, van, wagon, jeep, Honda, Nissan, or whatever fits your categories. I like to look for ads with photos and I also try to confine my search to within a 100 miles from my home.

Make lists of the cars that seem suitable for you. Compare price and description. How old is the car? Does the ad say the price is firm? Does the ad list the car's pros and cons? Do the owners suggest the car has been cared for and have receipts to back that up? You will want to note the make, mileage, any recent repairs, tire conditions and whether the engine has been rebuilt.

Narrow down things to your short list and make some phone calls. Ask about the condition of everything you can think of if it's not laid out clearly in the ad. For private owners, usually you will have to leave a message for people to call you back, especially if the ad has been posted for more than a few days.

Research Used Cars

Do an internet search on several of the car review sites for your short list. Look at Consumer Reports, Kelly Blue Book, Edmunds, and MSN Auto. I am very fond of the owner reviews section of MSN Auto. Read about the make, model and year for the cars you like, note the mileage, and read all the pros and cons. If there are many owner written reviews, read a few pages in to get a sense of how people feel about their car. Keep in mind there will always be some people who love or hate their car. Accept that and determine if there is a general consensus on the reliability and longevity of the model. Get a sense of what common repairs are to be expected. Write everything down for your actual car visit.

You can get the VIN for your potential car (that is a serial number from the dash, doorplate and title) and pull a CarFax off the Internet. This will tell you if the car has been wrecked or in a flood. It's all good to know. There is a fee for this, but it's an example of smart thrift to make this small expense.

How to Look at Used Cars

Make arrangements to see the cars on your short list - and don't be worried if you don't like anything you see at first. New used car ads go up every day, and this is too important a buying decision to just jump on the first car you see in person. This part can be frustrating. Accept that you might not find a really good car for weeks. Keep your spirits up and keep searching.

When you look at a used car, look at everything, even if you know very little about cars. Look at the tires, the rust, whether the car is clean, whether the engine is clean, and whether the windows and doors work. Put on the wipers and the signal lights. Are the mirrors there? Does the windshield have cracks? How is the mileage? If the car is an American, look for a car with miles under

Start the car. Does it turn over right away? Does it make funny noises?

When driving the car, pay attention to everything you see, hear, feel and smell. Drive slow, fast, in reverse and in four wheel drive if the car has it. Put on the heat and air conditioning.

When you get back, look at the engine again. Pull the dipstick and see if the oil is black and burned, or is a healthy amber/brownish color. Do the hoses have a lot of black tape wrapped around them, or seem to be cracked? Does anything look jury-rigged together, or ripped apart? Hopefully everything is reasonably clean and looks normal. Even if you know nothing about engines you can still see if things under the hood look clean and in good shape. Ask what has been replaced in the last few years, and what they think should be replaced soon.

Cars might have known flaws that you are willing to fix on your on. What is important is to know ahead of time what you are buying. A cracked windshield can be replaced more cheaply than a bad transmission or leaking water pump. A full set of new tires could put you over budget, or fit easily into your plans.

Ask the owner for all the details - good and bad - about the vehicle, and write everything down. Ask to see maintenance records and service receipts. A stack of such paperwork is a good sign the previous owner was on top of their car care.

If you find more than two or three red flags, thank the owner and go home. A better car will show up later.

Keep in mind that you can always bring a more car-savvy friend or relative to look at these cars with you, but I've found it better to really look at the car myself, even with my limited auto knowledge. Do your research and feel comfortable asking questions and touching/running everything you can think of.

You can also pay a local mechanic for a full diagnostic workup before you buy. You have to pay for that inspection, but again, this is an example of smart thrift and is recommended.

Case Study - Buying a Used Car on Craigslist

I recently had $2000 to spend on a car and I needed a truck, van or SUV. I wanted something I could sleep in for car camping, or one that could easily pull a trailer. I hoped for a tow package, and roof rack for my kayaks. These were not deal breakers for me, but very strong preferences, since my lifestyle is very active. I wanted a V6 engine not older than 15 years (or at least newly rebuilt), with an engine mileage under 160,000 for an American made model or under 230,000 for Japanese models. I wanted a car with a good pile of service records for me to look through. I hoped for decent gas mileage but realized that my parameters of needing a truck, Jeep or SUV made that secondary. Living in Arizona, working AC was a necessity. 4x4 engines would be a plus, but not a deal-breaker.

I was willing to have a car with peeling or faded paint, but not a lot of rust. I didn't want a ripped interior that smelled like smoke. I wanted tires I could keep for at least a year and a fairly clean engine.

It took me weeks and a lot of frustrating ad searching, phone calls and MSN Auto researching before I found the car of my dreams. A few red flags kept me away from many possible beater cars, and my research made me feel confident in discussing price. I learned that many car owners have no idea what their car is worth according to the Kelly Blue Book (look for their 'private sale' prices), asking far under or far over the estimated value of the car. I learned to ask why, for example, one cruddy old truck was being sold $1000 over blue book. It turned out the owner just ran a sampling of what comparable cars were selling for on Craigslist and made up a price. I was glad I knew enough to walk away from that one. :)

When I looked at a certain 1997 Jeep Cherokee Grand Laredo, I had a feeling I'd found my car. The owners lived in a ritzy part of town and had a nice, clean, young family. The car was clean inside and out and the owner had a stack of service records going back ten years. Oil changes and tune ups were done on time. Engine, brake and transmission records told a story of a family that promptly dealt with car noises and rattles. The engine was clean and the parts didn't seem ancient. Everything drove well and the tires were in great shape. The Cherokee was not a 4x4, but had a nice roof rack and tow package.

When I asked why the owner was selling his car under blue book, he mentioned a stalling issue that he thought he had fixed. Apparently sometimes the engine stalled out, although he could always start it right back up. Since he was not sure it was absolutely fixed he decided to lower the price so it would sell. I made an offer of $1700 and drove it right home.

I love this car and plan to drive it for another ten years. My mechanic is on hand if the stalling issue returns, and I have a small annual budget set aside for repairs. With 153,000 miles on the engine, I expect I might need to do a rebuild around 210,000 miles. According to my internet research, this make and model of car is very reliable and well worth rebuilding. I feel happy with my purchase - it's the nicest car I've ever owned. :)

Living with Your Purchase

If you buy a used car from a dealer, you have some protection in the form of warranties and Lemon Laws. If you buy from a private party, you are essentially on your own. For good or bad, you spent your money and have your car. Hopefully you've done plenty of research on your auto model, have a reliable mechanic, have a stack of previous service records and know how to preserve the life of your "new" car. If you don't buy the first cheap beater you see, you really have done all you can do.

Help on Buying and Maintaining a Used Car from Amazon
How to Make Your Car Last Forever: Avoid Expensive Repairs, Improve Fuel Economy, Understand Your Warranty, Save Money
Used Car Buying Guide: Guide to Inspecting and Buying a Used Car
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Living in Cars Book Review
Save on Gas for your Car
Avoid False Thrift - Save Money by Spending More
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Content copyright © 2014 by Jill Florio. All rights reserved.
This content was written by Jill Florio. If you wish to use this content in any manner, you need written permission. Contact Jill Florio for details.

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