Wednesday, February 24, 2016

How to Buy a Beater Car for $5,000 or Under

You feel smug don’t you?  Those tinted windows, that sound system, the leather seats, that victory at beating the car next to you at the green light.  Don’t lie: you have an unnatural connection to your car, like it somehow defines or compliments a part of your lifestyle – never mind that’s exactly what the marketing people want you to think.  Wear LL Bean and drive a Subaru? Pine for Edward Cullen (Twilight) and have a Volvo in your garage? Trust fund tushy only comfortable atop German-sourced leather? 

America has a problem: people spend more time thinking about their ride then planning their retirement.  How do you stop being a car diva?  That’s your problem, but get a grip: a car is a depreciating asset (i.e. it won’t make you richer) and  will one day: A) end up in a junkyard; B) sold to some weirdo on Craigslist;  or C) worse case, traded-in far below market value for a newer model.   The purpose of this post isn’t to shame you into trading your metal idol for something insanely practical – you’re way too much of a car diva for that.  Instead, this article is meant to provide a quick how-to guide for someone that needs/wants transportation, but would like to minimize depreciation expenses. Welcome to the world of beater shopping.  

Car divas have lots of excuses for eschewing beaters:
D for – definitely need to spend more money to get something reliable.
I for – I wouldn’t be caught dead driving that!
V for – Very unfair, I work hard and want to treat myself to something decent
A for – Am I going to fit in with the rest of the neighborhood/company/family?

My response to these excuses:   Yes, you can (an AAA membership can give you peace of mind).  Get over yourself. Put your money into something that will work for – not against – you. And lastly, who cares?! 

Again, this article is a life-hack shortcut to choosing a beater (read: used) car. The information presented is based on years of personal research, ownership experience, and review websites such as,, and Consumer Reports.  Note about Consumer Reports:  they mostly cater to snobby New England car divas who prefer new or slightly used vehicles with “soft touch” interior materials.  Additionally, their reliability statistics have subtle inconsistencies and I believe the organization and its readers (who provide the reliability data via survey) have an unfair bias against domestic automakers. 

(Dave purchased a 2001 Toyota Sienna van for $1 (pictured).  Yes you read correctly:  a functioning vehicle, with wheels an engine, transmission, doors, seat belts and 2 air bags.  It was acquired from family who would have otherwise donated it. With nearly 240,000 miles, the van has been on the road for almost 2 years after its $1 valuation.  The Silver Bullet, as it’s called, can handle 7 passengers, swallow tons of cargo, and take a collision with minimal damage – it was in a low speed accident last winter.  Dave’s other vehicle is a 1999 Buick Park Avenue (PA) purchased for $2,700.  The PA currently has slightly over 170,000 miles.  Dave has performed most repairs and all basic maintenance on the vehicles by reading online forums, visiting junk yards, and watching YouTube videos.)

How do you go about finding a used car for $5,000 or under?  
·         Always pay cash
·         Buy directly from the owner (no middle man). Find owners who: are trading up for a larger vehicle for growing family, are moving, have service records, and/or have snow tires (it’s shows they’re responsible)
·         Yes, you’re going to be the Craigslist weirdo
·         Create a checklist before you test drive and push every button – horn, radio, trunk release, etc.  Come up with a driving route and routine before testing the vehicle.  My favorite maneuvers simulate desperate scenarios: panic stops – do multiple, slalom, and peddle to the metal.  Does the car make any strange sounds, pull to the side, emit blue, black or white fumes, or clunk like it has arthritis? 
·         Bring a flashlight, find the hood release and *gasp* open the engine bay.  Funny thing, you don’t need a mechanics license to do this – get used to it: you’re going to be doing the majority of your own car maintenance after you buy the beater; YouTube and free online forums are great for this.  For added peace of mind, a pre-purchase inspection is highly recommended; check out this past Practically Frugal Family post.
·         Search the internet for common problems and maintenance intervals for the model(s) you’re considering: focus on these areas.  Do the records indicate completion of significant maintenance (e.g. timing belt) and common repairs?

Generally sellers of $5,000 and under cars just want to make a quick sale.  In their eyes, the car is on its last legs and they’ll likely feel sorry for the buyer – “they must be desperate if they’re considering driving this.”  Use this mentality to your advantage and barter.  Does the car need new tires – subtract the cost from the purchase price.  Dented fender or body panels; light surface rust?  Perfect – you’re likely not going to fix them, but each one decreases the value further.

Some key characteristics about your $5,000 or under beater before we begin.  Ideally it must meet all (if not most of the following criteria):

·         Mass produced – meaning many were sold – there should be enough in junkyards to provide cheap, plentiful parts
·         Use engines/driveline systems in production for several years – longer time to work out bugs
·         Reasonably reliable (engines, transmissions, electrical systems not prone to catastrophic failure)
·         Does not require premium fuel and gets decent mileage based on your driving characteristics.  Fuel economy is better compared in the form of the inverse of mpg (as gallons per mile). Unless you drive significantly more miles than average, the difference between 20 mpg and 25 mpg is negligible at current fuel prices, especially at the $5,000 and less purchase price.  
·         Has an acceptable amount of life left (end of life is likely 250,000 – 300,000 or 18 – 20 years)
·         High depreciation and reasonable alternatives should not cost significantly less
·       Priced at a point where you can self insure for collision and comprehensive insurance (i.e. you’re only going to carry liability and if the car is totaled, you’ll get a new one)
·        Minimal mechanical complexity - avoid AWD, 4x4 or any other marketing derivative of all four wheel propulsion –it’s complex, costly to maintain/repair and overrated. Get snow tires if you need good winter traction.
·         Has a good safety rating, equipment (air bags, ABS, etc.), and won’t crumble like a tin can. It needs to “take a licking and keep on ticking.”  Translation: if you get in an accident, you want something that can still operate with minimal rehabilitation cost because the insurance you buy will not cover collision.

Vehicle that best exemplify the above requirements:

·         Buick Park Avenue (avoid air suspension)
·         Buick LeSabre
·         Buick LaCrosse (with 3.8 liter V-6)
·         Ford Crown Victoria – avoid police interceptor version
·         Mercury Grand Marquis
·         Toyota Avalon
·         Toyota Sienna (pre 2004)
Runners-up: consider if you can get a good price on a low mileage model in better than average condition and your circumstances warrant it:
·         Buick Century/Regal - price is the only selling point over above list
·         Chevy Lumina – ditto above
·         Honda Accord (1999 and before)
·         Lincoln Towncar  - only if you can’t find a better deal on a Ford Crown Victoria or Mercury Grand Marquis – avoid air suspension.
·         Toyota Camry ( avoid models with 2.4 liter 4-cylinder engine)

Below is a highly opinionated overview of various car companies highlighting models of particular interest/disinterest.  Maserati, Mini, Porche, and Tesla are not even discussed; if you have to ask why at this point in the article, then you shouldn’t be driving in the first place.   

Acura/Audi/BMW/Cadillac:   Most (if not all) require premium fuel.  If regular fuel requirement didn’t exist, I would recommend Acura TSX – it’s a Japanese and European spec Honda with a high price markup for people who buy on brand.  Audi & BMW are notoriously unreliable and expensive to maintain as they age.  Avoid.  Cadillac’s have spotty reliability and Buicks are reasonable alternatives that cost less.

Buick:    Yes, people are going to assume you’re an old person. Find one with the ubiquitous 3.8 liter V-6 which has been in production for decades.  Best models are: Park Avenue and LeSabre – likely to be good in a crash, mass produced (lots of spare junkyard parts). Considering their size, they get reasonable gas mileage. Avoid Park Avenue models with air suspension – it will fail and is costly to fix.    LaCrosse is worthy mention too.   Consider Century or Regal with 3.8 engine if you can get a really good deal, but be warned that Century and Regal models are dreadful to drive and generally have cheap interior parts that fall apart easily. 

Chevy:  In the majority of cases, the Buicks mentioned above are better alternatives. Trucks are generally reliable (except S-10) and parts plentiful, but they are gas guzzlers. Although Impala shares 3.8 liter V-6 engine with Buicks mentioned above, it’s not well built.  Lumina with 3.8 engine might be a good bet if it can be found for $2,000 or less.  The venture vans have bad crash test ratings for a family vehicle and are not reliable.

Chrysler:  Only vehicle worth considering would be the Chrysler 300 with V-6 engine, but you’re unlikely to find one $5,000 or under.  Buick Park Avenue and LeSabre are reasonable alternatives and much less costly. Trucks suck fuel and front wheel drive cars are cheaply constructed and are typically rated among the worst vehicles: 200, PT Cruiser, etc. 

Dodge:  Cars are same as Chrysler: low rent.  Trucks guzzle gas and Jeeps are just dumb. 

Ford:  the Crown Victoria is built like a tank, mass produced, engine and drive train have been around forever, and can probably take an accident better than anything.  Highly recommended given low maintenance, repair and operating costs. Two caveats: 1) avoid any Crown Victoria used for police duties (interceptor) – it likely had the crap beat out of it; and 2) snow tires are a must if you live in a cold climate.  Other car, SUV and van models, though mass produced, don’t make sense due to reliability issues.  Ford trucks are generally reliable, but like GMC and Chevy trucks, they do not get good gas mileage. 

GMC:  With the exception of the Sonoma, GMC trucks and their carbon copy Chevy twins last a long time.  However, they have uncomfortable and cheap interiors and generally do not get good gas mileage. Additionally, there’s little sense in dealing with an uncomfortable truck with a cheap interior unless you own a contracting business.    

Honda:  I think Hondas are generally overrated and command unjustifiably high used prices.  1999 – 2005 Accords are among some of the most problematic vehicles (see  Transmission issues abound in Accord and Odyssey models. A pre-1999 Accord is probably best way to go, but may be near end of life.  CR-V feels cheap to drive and commands too high of a price; reasonable alternatives exist for much less.  Civic and Fit have questionable crash resilience when compared to the average SUV driven on America roads. Element is an appealing concept, but the 600 lb load capacity is a serious shortcoming.  Ridgeline and Pilot have mechanical complexity of 4WD and are too overpriced.  The Passport is a rebadged Isuzu product and although Isuzu did not receive any mention in this article, I’m here to tell you it’s not pretty: questionable reliability and manufacturer has left US.

Hyundai:  Hyundai used to produce trash, but has improved its models considerably in the recent past. This presents a catch-22: older models are unreliable and newer models suffer from high depreciation (good for us) given past reputation. At the time of this writing, there aren’t enough in junkyards to warrant making our beater list.  Additionally, they are difficult to work on – replacing headlight bulb requires removal of the entire headlight assembly.    

Infiniti/Jaguar:  Low production volumes, premium fuel, avoid.

Jeep: Almost all are 4x4 – transmission issues, avoid.

Kia: Somewhat related to Hyundai models, most are unremarkable.

Land Rover:  Laughable.  Expensive, not economical, and not reliable.

Lexus: Reliable, but too many characteristics violate our rules: premium fuel requirement, Toyotas offer reasonable alternative for much less, not mass produced.

Lincoln:  TownCar is the same as Ford Crown Victoria and only Lincoln worth considering. Look for one without the air suspension – it’s prone to leaks.

Mazda:  I think most Mazda cars have a cheap factory finish/construction and develop significant rust and suspension issues over time.  Millennia and 626 models in our $5,000 or less price range are plagued by problems. Protégé models may be the only exception to the bad Mazda lot.  Depreciation on these vehicles is likely to be high (better prices).  However, I consider the Protégé to be too small to provide adequate crashworthiness. Overall, our mass produced requirement casts a cloud over the whole Mazda line as there are not large numbers of these vehicles on the road. 

Mercedes-Benz: Don’t make me laugh.  Any Benz model you can find for $5,000 or under is going to either be a complete piece of trash or over 20 years old.  These vehicles violate most of our requirements.

Mercury:  All models are Ford posers.  Only one worth consideration is Grand Marquis. 

Mitsubishi:  Automaker is likely to be the next manufacturer that leaves the US market.  Very low production volume on models translates into sky high replacement parts cost.  Reliability for Outlander models is enticing and pre-2007 models can be found for less than $5,000, but beware replacement parts cost.

Nissan:  Trucks guzzle gas, the Quest in our price range is unreliable and has low production volume.  Buying other Nissan models is like spinning the clunker roulette wheel. Although the company may be associated with reliability due to its Japanese heritage, it is aligned with French company Renault, which has questionable reliability; vehicles share many components.  Maxima models 1999 and earlier are reliable, but are likely too close to end of life.  Altima is a mixed bag not worth the risk when better alternatives exist. 

Pontiac:  Although many models can be found in our price range and are mass produced, crash test ratings on most models are not good and interiors are embarrassingly cheap.  Buicks offer better alternative in most, if not all cases including: Grand Am and Bonneville.  A notable exception to the Pontiac line is the Vibe.  Underneath the body cladding is a Toyota engine and drive train which is subject to higher depreciation on the basis of its Pontiac nameplate.  If considering Vibe or Toyota Matrix, go for a Vibe model and avoid the following: 1) the 2.4 liter 4 cylinder engine in model years 2009 – 2010 easy to do because it’s likely out of our price range; 2) AWD – these models are less reliable and have a frequent maintenance cycle.  The Vibe did not ultimately make our list due to relatively small size and scarcity of junkyard parts availability.

Saab:  Weird, not mass produced, high cost of replacement parts, manufacturer has left US market- enough said! 

Saturn:   S and Ion models are relatively reliable, but I’d rather take my chance of a collision in a Buick.    L, Relay, and Vue models are notoriously unreliable. The Aura and Astra models are enticing for a moment, but are transplants from General Motors’ European division and as a result are low volume, high replacement cost used cars. 

Scion:  I love the concept of reliable, inexpensive, and utilitarian (hatchback and wagon-style) vehicles this youth-oriented branch of Toyota promotes.   Scions can be obtained in our price range and have fuel efficient drive systems that have been around for years, but there are a couple of flies in the ointment: the questionable durability of the 2.4 liter 4-cylinder engine found in the Tc and 2008 + model years of the Xb, and the crashworthiness of the remaining models: xA, xD, and 2004 – 2006 xB.  I owned two xBs for a couple years; they were driven exclusively on city streets in a small town.  Both were sold when commutes changed to heavier driving in a larger city (with crazier drivers). I consider the gutless performance from the dinky 100-horsepower, 1.5 liter 4-cylinder engine, small size (the xB actually bounced off the crash test barrier in an IIHS safety test) and lack of side airbags to be a major safety issue.  The 2004 – 2006 Scion xB is worth considering if and only if you don’t do much high speed driving in a low population area.  The xA isn’t worth considering when the more cavernous xB can be had for the same price. 

Smart:  No, they’re dumb.

Subaru:  Society seems to love Subarus, but I don’t.   Here’s why: Subaru has used the same 2.5 liter 4-cylinder engine in most of its models for nearly 20 years, but it has always been prone to head gasket failure – search the internet. Additionally, I don’t think they age gracefully – rust, expensive and frequent replacement of parts (brakes, wheel bearings, etc.) were my experience owning a Subaru Legacy until end of life at 18 years old and with 220,000 miles.  It was a rust bucket when I sold it, the steering linkage was leaking, exhaust system was gone due to rust, and the wheel bearings were bad and could not be replaced due to corrosion.  Granted the transmission and engine still worked well, but the engine required numerous oil leak fixes.  The cost of maintenance was not worth the AWD hype.  You have better options.   

Suzuki:  Actually fulfilled my prediction about Mitsubishi by existing the US market in the past couple years.   Models are low volume, and replacement parts are very expensive.  Avoid the whole lot. 

Toyota:  Most used car buyers worship at the Toyota alter.  However, liking all models across a brand is similar to liking all of the tracks on a band’s CD – and I like my songs and vehicles on a case-by-case basis.  The Toyota line offers some pros and cons with respect to our requirements.  Positives first: most models are mass produced and have engines and drive train systems in production for several years.  Negatives: they are popular used cars and therefore demand higher prices.  Toyotas $5,000 or less are either going to be older or have more miles than our alternatives.  That being said, I would avoid any model with the ubiquitous 2.4 liter 4-cylinder engine.  In my opinion, this power plant, appearing in many models after 2002, was cheaply engineered to increase profitability.  Stories of blown head gaskets, stripped head bolts, and excessive oil consumption for this engine abound on the internet. I briefly owned a Highlander with this engine and it was a POS. Although the 3.0 liter V-6 engine also has a bad reputation (for oil sludge), I’d say the root cause are dumb owners who don’t change their oil frequently rather than bad design.  The 3.0 V-6 has a deserved reputation for being a long lasting and reliable design if properly maintained (avoid bone-head owners or ones without documented proof of oil changes).   Large, crashworthy models with this engine and under $5,000 include: Avalon, and Sienna (pre-2004).   Ubiquitous Camry models with the 3.0 V-6 or 2.2L 4-cyclinder are worth a look as well.

Volkswagen: I like the driving dynamics of most VW models, but they are hopelessly unreliable, and difficult to work on.  Avoid the whole line.

Volvo:  Avoid: not mass produced, complicated designs (electrical issues), and replacement parts are sky high.

There you have it. Used car knowledge distilled down to a $5,000 or under price point.  Beater cars, they’re not for everybody. If you’re a car diva, challenge yourself:  is your ride really worth the total cost?

This post is written by guest blogger and friend, David Cook. Here is a little more about him:

I am a 30-something financial pragmatist: down to earth and enjoy telling it like it is.  While many of my MBA cohorts gravitated toward corporate pursuits, my path has lead to a position in local government working as an IT Business Analyst and Project Manager.   A moderate, non-corporate work schedule has afforded time in my personal life to focus on applying relatively basic financial concepts, including: paying down all non-mortgage debt, shopping for expired food, and gaining competence as an independent dividend growth stock investor.  I currently manage a 20-stock portfolio and hope to write about the experience.  

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