Finding the right cheap used car (that you don't hate)
If you've followed my past posts on cars I've owned, you'll know that I learned the hard way that expensive new cars are a stupid idea unless you've got more than enough money to pay for them. When I bought my first expensive car, I was in no place to afford that kind of luxury. Years later, I sold it for a loss and slummed it in a vehicle much less impressive, but much more affordable. Today, that decision has paid off in lots of ways. I may not have the car I lusted after when I was young and stupid (even though it would have depreciated enormously by now, if I still owned it at all), but I've been able to buy a home, start a family, and build my personal finance blog and other businesses at a rate I would never have before if I'd been weighed down by a big car loan.
If you need a car, you need a car. Since my fling with the sports car, I've owned several older vehicles, each with strengths and weaknesses all its own. I'm not going to give recommendations for specific makes and models here. Instead, I'm going to explain the techniques I used to find cars that worked really well for my finances and personal needs, all while being incredibly affordable.
Do Your Frickin' Research. If you need a car that's affordable and reliable, prepare to do some digging. These vehicles exist, but they're diamonds in the rough and you'll have to look around to find one that's right for you. The good news is that there are some car models out there which are remarkably reliable, even after ten years or more. To find out which ones those are, you'll want to talk to friends and family who know cars. Take note of their recommendations. Read online reviews by the hundred. Create a list of contenders, then look for common mechanical failures in these specific models. All older cars will need maintenance. Depending on your skill set and your financial means, you may be willing to take on the responsibility of one over another. The German-designed model might take monthly trips to a specialty mechanic that are expensive, though the effort will pay off in a car that runs forever. The American made vehicle from 2004 may have no issues at all...until the transmission falls out. You can't predict the future, but research will show you if a certain problem is an outlier or a motif.
Look in Weird Places. You're more likely to find a deal by searching for cars out in the country through sources like Craigslist. Of course, if you're not buying from a traditional dealer, you run the risk of buying a lemon or getting screwed. Nonetheless, I've found that finding a model that works for you, then looking for deals on that model from private sellers is a great method. Just make sure you follow the next step.
Get It Inspected!!!!! Car inspections aren't expensive. If you find a car you might want to buy, offer to get it inspected at your cost. If problems are revealed, ask that the repair be deducted from the purchase price. If the owner doesn't want to let you get the vehicle inspected, or doesn't want to pay for important repairs, walk away. In addition to this, look for owners who provide inspection and maintenance histories. This will show you not just what's going on with the car now, but problems it may have had in the past.
At the end of the day, you can find a reliable vehicle for not very much money. It takes research and patience while you find a deal. You might have to travel to get to the used car you're interested in. But if you have actually found a low-mileage, low-wear vehicle in good repair, it's worth the work. If you can buy it with cash, you'll have a great car that you own free and clear. If you have to finance it, the monthly payments will be so much cheaper that you'll have a lot more free dollars to spend on the rest of your life.