What's the best time to buy and sell a used vehicle?

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | Nov 01, 2001

Dear Tom and Ray:

My beautiful, normally intelligent wife of 24 years and I disagree mightily about the best timing to buy and sell a vehicle. We're absolutely positive we're each right, and we're absolutely positive the other is wrong. The argument involves economics -- how to spend the least amount of money. I say you should buy a car with about 60,000-80,000 miles on it and drive it into the ground. She thinks it's better to buy a 1- or 2-year-old car and keep it only for two or three years. It's time to replace my "driven into the ground" '87 Nissan pickup, and we need your advice. -- Kurt

TOM: It's great to get letters from lovebirds like you two, Kurt. If this is all you've got to argue about, things must be pretty good.

RAY: Here's the story. Speaking from a purely economic point of view -- how you spend the least amount of money on cars -- you're more correct than she is. If you buy an old car, which has already taken the bulk of its depreciation hit, and then drive it into the ground, you will spend the least.

TOM: We actually wrote a pamphlet about this very subject, called "How to Buy a Great Used Car: What Detroit and Tokyo Don't Want You to Know." In it, we lay out several money-saving used-car strategies, and we prove mathematically that the "heap strategy"is the cheapest. If you're interested, you can get a copy by sending $3 (check or money order) and a stamped (57 cents), self-addressed, No. 10 envelope to Used Car, P.O. Box 536475, Orlando, FL 32853-6475.

RAY: Of course, there ARE downsides to the "heap" approach, Kurt. The biggest one is reliability. While the repair costs on a jalopy will never add up to the costs of new-car payments, breakdowns can be inconvenient and, in some cases, unsafe. So this strategy isn't for everybody -- your wife, for one, apparently.

TOM: So another strategy we lay out in our pamphlet is to buy a car that's 2 or 3 years old. The ownership costs still come in way below those of a new car, but you get an almost-new car that's very reliable. Other advantages include getting most of the newest safety features, having a car that doesn't smell like someone else's b.o. yet and possibly getting some time left on a factory warranty. That's the strategy for your wife.

RAY: And you guys just happen to be perfectly compatible. Let your wife buy a 2- or 3-year-old car and drive it for two or three years, and then she can sell it to you!

TOM: Then you can drive it into the ground, and everybody's happy. You guys were made for each other, Kurt!

Get the Car Talk Newsletter

Got a question about your car?

Ask Someone Who Owns One