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After 1 year of working my situation changed and I found myself in situation when I need to buy car (for shopping/commuting/...). When I shopped around on web reasonably used cars (<7 years and from manufacturer known for cars which don't have problems) in my area seems to be ~70% of the cost of a new car - probably as I'd be interested in smaller new car then are usually available so I would pay 'premium' for that in case of used car.

Currently I have quiet a good cash flow and I'm able to save/invest about 50% of my payroll deposit (80% including automated savings like 401(k)) so the difference would be equivalent to about 3 months of post-tax savings. I don't know much about cars and I got conflicting messages when I tried to Google it. Are that any rules for deciding when buying a new car make sense? I plan to use it as long as possible.

PS. Because of good cash flow I'd be paying cash in both cases leaving ~6 month of expenses in liquid funds.

  • Because you are paying cash, you may find that you have more leverage buying used cars from owners, rather than dealers. The owner is willing to sell you the car for a price above the trade-in they would receive. And the dealer is not providing the services (financing, etc). – ChuckCottrill Dec 5 '14 at 2:28
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This is my opinion as a car nut. It depends on what you want out of a car. For your situation (paying cash, want to keep the car long-term but also save money) I recommend seriously considering a slightly used vehicle, maybe 2 or 3 years old, or a "certified pre-owned vehicle". Reasons:

  1. Much less expensive than a brand new car because the first two years have the biggest depreciation hit.

  2. Cars come with a 4-year warranty, so a 3 year old car will still be in warranty.

  3. Yes, a certified pre-owned car will have a bit of a premium compared to a private-party used car, but the peace of mind of knowing it's in good shape is worth the extra cost considering you want to keep it long term.

Consumer Reports will have good advice on the best values in used cars.

  • 1
    Amen. Perfect advice. – keshlam Dec 1 '14 at 1:00
  • 1
    Great advice - and normally cars that are about 3 years old have depreciated 30%-40%. – ChuckCottrill Dec 5 '14 at 2:19
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Hard to say in general. It depends on the actual numbers.

First you need to check the suggested retail price of a new car, and the price that you can actually get it for. The difference between these prices is between non-existing and huge, depending on the car. Some dealers will sell you a car that has done 50 miles for a huge rebate - that means they can't sell their cars at full price but don't want to reduce the price. Used cars can be quite expensive compared to a new car or not, also depending on the brand.

Estimate that a brand new car should drive 12 years and 200,000 miles without major repairs (go for a car with generous warranty or check reviews to make sure you are buying a long lasting car). Calculate the cost per year. Since you prefer driving a nicer new car, increase the cost for the first four years and reduce the cost for the last four years. With that information, check what the used car costs and if that is reasonable. Assuming 12 years life, a six your old car should be quite a bit less than 50% of a new one.

You can improve your cost a bit: If your annual mileage is low, you might find a rather new car with huge mileage quite cheap which will still last many years. Or if your annual mileage is excessively high, you can look for a car that is a bit older with low mileage.

Anyway, paying 70% of the price of a new passenger car for a used car that is six years old (you say <7 years, so I assume six years) seems excessive; it would mean the first user effectively paid 30% of the new price to drive the car for six years, and you pay 70% to drive another six years (estimated). You'd be much much better off buying a new car and selling it for 70% after six years.

  • I quite like the answer as it gives the numbers (12 years and 200,000 miles). A minor point - "You'd be much much better off buying a new car and selling it for 70% after six years." is not exactly the situation I'm in. The problem is that new small cars are available while only larger old ones seems to be on market (though technically the 'larger' are still 'sub-compact'). So the owner still took a hit of ~50% of value (or larger) - it's just that the starting value is higher then one of new ones I'm considering/need. – CarBuyerNewbie Dec 2 '14 at 8:54
  • The numbers are pretty good (though they vary by location), but depreciation is not linear it is a curve that starts out steeper, and levels off over the age of the vehicle. – ChuckCottrill Dec 5 '14 at 2:22
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In a perfect world scenario you would get a car 2-5 years old that has very little mileage. One of the long standing archaic rules of the car world is that age trumps mileage. This was a good rule when any idiot could roll back an odometer.

Chances are now that if you rolled your odometer back the car was serviced somewhere, had inspection or whatever and it is on a report. If seller was found to do this they could face jail time and obviously now their car is almost worthless.

Why do I mention this? Because you can take a look at 2011 cars. Those with 20K miles go for just a little more than those with 100K miles. As an owner you will start incurring heavy maintenance costs around 100K on most newer cars.

By buying cars with lower mileage, keeping them for a year or two, and reselling them before they get up in miles, you can stay in that magic area where you can drive a pretty good car for $200-300 a month. Note that this takes work on both the buying and selling side and you often need cash to get these cars (dealers are good about siphoning really good used cars to employees/friends).

This is a great strategy for keeping costs down and car value up but obviously a lot of people try to do this and it takes work and you have to be willing to settle sometimes on a car that is fine, but not exactly what you want.


As for leasing this really gets into three main components:

  • price of car
  • how long you want to keep it
  • how good are you at buying/selling

If you are going to do EVERYTHING at a dealership and you want something new or newish you might as well lease. At least then you can shop around for apples to apples. The problem with buying a new/used car from the dealers in perpetuity isn't the buying process. It is the fact that they will screw you on the trade-in. A car that books for 20K may trade-in for 17K. Even if the dealer says they are giving you 20K, then they make you pay list price for the car.

I have many many times negotiated a price of a car and then wife brought in our car separately and I can count on ZERO fingers how many times that the dealership honored both sides of the negotiations. Not only did they not honor them but most refused to talk with us after they found out.

With a lease you don't have to worry about losing this money in the negotiations. You might pay a little extra (or not since you can shop around) but after the lease you wash your hands of the car.

The one caveat to this is the high-end market. When you are talking your Acura, Mercedes, Lexus... It is probably better to buy and trade in every couple years. You lose too much equity by leasing, where it won't cover the trade-in gap and cost of your money being elsewhere. I have a friend that does this and gets a slightly better car every 2-3 years with same monthly payment.

Another factor to consider is the price of a car. If your car will be worth over $15K at time of sale you are going to have a hard time selling it by owner. When amounts get this high people often need financing. Yes they can get personal financing but most people are too lazy to do this. So the number of used car buyers on let's say craigslist are way way fewer as you start getting over $10-12K and I have found $15K to be kind of that magic amount.

The pro-buy-used side is easy. Aim for those cars around $12-18K that are out there (and many still under warranty). These owners will have issues finding cash buyers. They will drop prices somewhere between book price and dealer trade-in. In lucky cases where they need cash maybe below dealer trade-in. And remember these sellers aren't dealing with 100s let alone 10 buyers. You drive the car for 3-4 years. Maybe it is $7-10K. But now you will get much much closer to book price because there will be far more buyers in this range.

  • it's not exactly hard to roll back an odometer now - with electronic ones, it's even easier than mechanical – warren Dec 4 '14 at 19:46
  • @warren - Yes. But the chances of getting caught are exponentially greater. With oil change places, DMV, repair shops, etc. putting odometer info in databases it is much harder to get away with this strategy. Really the only thing you can do is continuously roll it back while owning the car over a long period of time. (Funny if jiffylube asks why you change your oil every 50 miles) – blankip Dec 4 '14 at 19:49
  • psmag.com/navigation/nature-and-technology/… - and not using chain oil change places isn't that hard :) – warren Dec 4 '14 at 19:53
  • @warren - I know this happens. I also know that it is a small percent of what it used to be 20-30 years ago. And it doesn't take a genius to figure out these cars either. You can get vehicle history reports or pull up DMV stats. When these aren't available and dealer wants to sell me a car that has a large gap in a history report of lets say 7 years and only 20K miles over those years - I can ask to see the invoice (which can be altered) and with the VIN I can make a comment about contacting previous owner or just not buy the car because of the gap - which we can see now. – blankip Dec 4 '14 at 20:07

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