Laura's One Year Car

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | Jul 16, 2015

Dear Car Talk:

We are a happy one-car family but need to expand to two vehicles for a short while so I can do data collection toward my Ph.D. dissertation. I think I'll need a vehicle for about a year, and then I'd be ready to let it go again. What's the most affordable way to do this? I need something that's reliable for winter travel, and I don't mind having a payment for the short term. I just hate to get a three-year lease when I need a car for only 12 months. Of course, I will have a committee ... so maybe I'll need three years after all.

-- Laura

Judging from how long it took my brother to finish his dissertation, I think you might need one of those 84-month leases, Laura. Maybe two of them.

Actually, I have several options for you. The time-honored option is to borrow a car from a relative. But if that's not in the cards, the best solution is a late-model used car. Cars that are 3 to 5 years old tend to still be very reliable these days (assuming they've been checked out and OK'd by your own mechanic).

Because depreciation has already taken a huge bite out of the value of the car during its first few years, cars that are 3, 4 and 5 years old tend to be good deals: You'll probably pay less than half of what the car originally cost. And because depreciation slows down as the car gets older, you'll lose less when you sell it.

So, let's say you buy a 4-year-old Subaru Impreza, just as an example (with all-wheel drive for the winter). And let's say you find one with less than 60,000 miles for $12,000. If you don't beat it up too badly (if your data collection doesn't involve chasing polar bears around glaciers), you might be able to sell it a year later with 75,000 miles for $9,000 or $10,000. So that's the general approach I'd recommend.

A second option depends on the age and condition of your current car. If it's older and will need to be replaced in the next couple of years, you might consider buying a new or newer car as the "family car." You would use your existing car for a year to do your data collection. Then you'd sell the older car and keep the newer one as the family car when you finish your dissertation -- or in 2027, whichever comes first.

Good luck, Laura. Send us a copy of your tome when you're done. Like your friends and colleagues, we won't read it either, but I'm sure we'll be impressed by its heft.

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