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I'm looking at trying to save money by purchasing and driving a used car. However, I have no idea where to start other than the realization that the total cost of ownership is far more than just the purchase price of the car - insurance, fuel, and probably most important for a used car, maintenance. At some point I assume that maintenance costs will increase to the point where the cost of owning a used car won't be substantially different from owning a new car.

There are lots of resources (such as Edmunds) that I find when searching for things like "lowest TCO used car" but none of them are actually for used cars. They generally seem to assume that you will buy the car new and will sell it after five years. For personal finance reasons I am interesting in purchasing a car that is probably at least five years old and holding on to it for at least 7 years.

I drive around 4,000 miles per year. I am not mechanical nor do I have any insides on the automotive sector so I would be paying full price for maintenance and repairs - no fixing it myself or relying on friends to "help" me. The car also has to be fairly reliable and in good working order. Buying the proverbial $100 pick up truck and driving it until it falls apart probably will not work for me. I don't particularly care if I find the least expensive car, but I want to at least be in the ballpark.

What resources can I use to find good candidates for the least expensive used car to own?

  • If you only drove ~4000 miles, depends on the place you stay, you should consider a rental car. – mootmoot Jul 31 at 11:09
  • The problem with your question is that as vehicles get older, it becomes harder to predict reliability. Add to that the fact that many new vehicles are sold with warranties (and sometimes even service contracts) which essentially remove even more variability from the TCO for the beginning of the vehicle's life, and you're left with the fact that the older a vehicle gets, the harder it is to reliably understand the TCO. You're pretty much stuck with anecdote and assumptions. Edmunds and other resources don't publish TCO for older cars because it would be incredibly challenging to do it well. – dwizum Jul 31 at 18:18
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    For that little driving (~30000 for the desired 7 years), maintenance costs should not be much at all. Pick a 3-5 year old car from the Pacific Rim area (brand-wise) and be done with it. The S.K. brands come with 10yr/100K warranties even so anything major should be covered anyway (assuming they do honor their warranties). – topshot Aug 1 at 12:01
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When I bought a used car, I went with the following characteristics:

  • Under 100k miles.
  • Cheap.
  • Reliable model.
  • Newer than 2000.

I bought from an actual person instead of a dealer, and was willing to wait a while for a good deal, which also helped keeping things cheap. (And obviously ran a vehicle history and then an inspection before buying.)

You don't want to restrict yourself to a single model or even manufacturer, because the used market doesn't have that kind of selection. Instead, you want to see what's out there, pick any that look interesting, and then research the models.

I recommend under 100k miles, because that's when maintenance gets a bit more likely and expensive. (Newer cars are better at this than older cars, though you still don't want to go too far over.) As for cheap, I'd aim for $5k-$10k. Less than that, and you're likely buying a car that has something wrong with it. (Which can be all right, if you know what's wrong with it, and find it acceptable.) More than that, and you're overpaying for your transportation. You want a newer car because this is a quick proxy for mileage, safety, features, and so on.

Once you have your car, drive it until you start spending real money at the mechanic multiple times a year. A few hundred dollars every few months will add up to the price of another car quite fast.

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I'm 60 years old and I've only bought 2 cars new in my life. I think a used car in good condition is a much more cost-effective option.

I don't know where you live so I can't be too specific, but I'd just search for "used cars", "cars for sale", and the like on the Internet. There are plenty of web sites out there for used car dealers, and sites where private sellers can post cars they have for sale.

I wouldn't go looking for a particular make and model. Just search ads or postings and see what's available in your area.

A lot depends on how much money you have to spend. If all you have is $100, well, I guess you have to buy a $100 car. I wouldn't expect such a car to last long.

A fact of life with used cars is that you can't be entirely sure what you're getting. The odds are that it will turn out to have some sort of problems. When I buy a used car, I make sure I set aside some money to repair anything that might turn out to be wrong with it. Last 3 used cars I bought I set aside $1000. That is, if I have, say, $5,000 available to spend, then I say I can spend $4,000 to buy the car and I put aside $1,000 for repairs. Then I'm prepared both financially and emotionally. If ... when ... some problem turns up, I have the cash to fix it. And I don't freak out that I've been cheated and the world is going to end.

I bought a car for my daughter, wow, probably 10 years ago now, that cost I think $3,000. It had some serious electrical problems that cost about $1,500 to fix. I thought that still ended up a decent deal. A year or two ago the problems started to multiply and it was time to retire it. She has a decent job now and while I helped her out a little, she mostly paid for her own car. She spent about $10,000 and got a "certified used", which is another option. Used but has a warranty. You pay for the security, but it may be worth it.

On the other hand, a few years ago I bought a pick-up truck for $5,000. It quickly needed a new transmission, new transfer box, major front end work ... and then the engine blew up and it needed a new engine. I debated dumping it or replacing the engine, ended up paying $4,000 for a new engine. In the end I paid like $15,000 for that truck. I've got some decent use out of it so it wasn't a total disaster, but I considered new at the time and I found I could have gotten a new truck that had the features I wanted for about $17,000, so buying used in that case turned out to be a mistake.

But the thing is, you don't know.

Oh, I should say that I have some modest mechanical abilities. I can replace spark plugs and I've replaced starter motors and alternators and put on a new muffler and that sort of thing, but that's about as far as I go.

Side note: It can really pay to learn to do some work yourself. Like a month ago my son's car had trouble, mechanic said the integrated power module needed to be replaced and that would cost $1500. I said forget it, bought a refurbished one for $100 and put it in myself. Turned out to be a very easy job, my son and I did it in less than an hour.

  • Youtube has a lot of car repair tutorials. More than you might think. Even if you don't know how to do something, a quick search later, and you might. – user3757614 Jul 31 at 16:07
  • Absolutely. Finding a good video for the job can be tough. I've had a few where I watched a video for a different model year and it turned out to be totally inapplicable. But I've had a number of jobs that these videos were extremely helpful. – Jay Jul 31 at 18:32
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You can't go wrong with a used Toyota Tercel (or Camry, if you want something a bit bigger).

Use a VIN searching company (like CarFax) to see how many (if any) accidents the car has been in, and try to arrange with a repair shop to bring it by for a quick inspection.

And, of course, use the Kelly Blue Book used car price estimator.

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