How to Buy a Really, Really Cheap Car

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Mar 09, 2015

Everybody knows that millennials aren’t getting driver’s licenses; what’s lesser known is that they’re clueless about entry-level cars. It’s possible to buy a running car for very little money—I know, because I was the proud owner of a series of $50 cars when I was 16 and 17.


I can still remember them all: a Nova with four flat tires and badly oxidized paint; a Dodge Dart with trunkloads of hay and a broken rear window; a Volvo with rust in the rear quarters. None was a beauty, but they all ran reliably and served their purpose.
Thanks to inflation, it probably isn’t possible to buy a good $50 car now, but for, let’s say, $1,000 you should be able to get a safe and reliable ride. Here are a few thoughts from a lifetime of buying used cars.

Shop the Ads. Not that there’s anything wrong with used car lots, but you'll have to look carefully to find one that deals in what used to be thought of as the affordable “back row” cars. Not everybody does, but I actually like dealing with classified ads that lead me to just regular folks and their vehicles. Some of the best deals I’ve found have been leads from local weekly newspapers. My favorite was an ad that just said, “Mercedes-Benz convertible, $500.” I was on the phone in five minutes—there aren’t any Benz convertibles that a) I wouldn’t want; and b) I wouldn’t be able to sell at a big profit. I got an elderly woman on the phone who said, “A nice young man just came and bought the car.”

Get Underneath. Some cars look great but are actually falling apart. I remember a convertible I came close to buying before I threw down some newspaper and got a look at the undercarriage. There was a thick layer of undercoating, but water had gotten underneath it. When I poked at it with a stick, huge chunks of the floor almost hit me in the face. Look particularly at crossbeams and structural members, because once they go the whole car is dangerous.
Mind the Gaps. Look for even joins between hoods, fenders and doors. If they’re out of line, it could be because the car was in an accident and bent. While you’re at, get out on the road and, at a moderate speed, let go of the steering wheel to check for drift to one side or the other. And hit the brakes hard to see if the car stops within a reasonable distance and in a straight line. (Tell your passengers to put down their cappuccinos first!)

Look for Classics. Especially cars that are likely to become classics. As I've reported, old cars are great investments these days--better than art, real estate or collecting coins. Avoid the crazy-price cars like early Porsches and look for, say, 1950s sedans, which are just starting to appreciate. The Buick Special and Nash Metropolitan in the photos here are good examples of appreciating cars.

Running and Driving. Does the engine run quietly and evenly, without valve rattle or blue smoke from the exhaust pipe? Any exhaust leaks? Does the oil look clean? A check for worn valve guides is to accelerate down a hill, then suddenly back off; a puff of smoke visible in the rear-view mirror indicates wear. Look also for vibration in the steering wheel at speed.

      by dno1967b, on Flickr
" " (CC BY 2.0) by dno1967b

Don’t Sweat the Cosmetics. Chrome or hubcaps missing? Trim discolored? Stains on the carpet? Maybe unsightly, but not important to the main purpose here, which is to put you on cheap wheels. Worn tires and brakes, now those are a concern. The other stuff you can replace when you get that inheritance from Aunt Matilda.
Don’t be Afraid of High Mileage. The best thing you can do for a car is to use it. The proverbial “low mileage” car that’s been sitting for decades is far more likely to need everything done to it than a 150,000-mile daily driver. Today’s engines are very robust, and if well cared-for a couple go-rounds on the odometer won’t kill them.
Under Water. Some owners may balk at you doing this, but I often test cars with a garden hose: I hate water leaks! Also check for damp carpets or trunks, fogged-in headlights and other signs of rampant moisture. Dried-out rubber seals are a bad sign.
Four Doors Good; Two Doors Bad. The market treats four-door sedans like poor relations to sporty coupes, so bargains can often be had. The same is true of entry-level trim lines, and cars with four- or six-cylinder engines instead of V-8s. Bread-and-butter cars are also less likely to have been driven in anger and put away wet.
Don’t Get Too Exotic. A 12-cylinder Jaguar for just $1,000? What a bargain, right? Wrong! Why do you think so many of those cars now have Chevrolet power? In cars like these, with complicated mechanicals, the purchase price is just the down payment. That $5,000 Rolls-Royce is probably a worn-out wedding car, and the first trip to Bob’s British Car Service will send you reeling.
Negotiate. Don’t be embarrassed to make a lowball offer; it’s just the starting point for discussions. Them saying no is the worst that could happen. Now’s the time to point out any obscure flaws you spotted—often the owner is unaware of existing problems and will make price adjustments accordingly. Oh and be sure and ask about any spare parts they may have lying around.
If you’re a typical millennial and know more about playing Tetris than you do about car mechanics, bring along a handy friend when making the inspection, or arrange to have your local garage take a look. And don’t get too attached to any one car—they’re made of metal, they’re not like pets. If the news is bad, move on to the next ad. Craigslist has plenty of used automobiles for sale.  

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