First-Time Car Buyer Advice

Hi All,

I’m going to be buying a car for the first time pretty soon, and I could use your humble opinions.

What I’m looking for is a fantastic long-term deal on a 4-door. What I care about is reliability. That’s pretty much it. I don’t care about anything superficial.

I’m thinking Toyota or Honda sedan. Basically, I just want a 4-door that will give me the best mileage/cost with as little hassle as possible.

So, I could go with a new car, which is attractive because of the built-in low interest loan. But I think I will pay extra money for the flawless exterior. If you think this is the best option, please tell me how to get the best deal.

I could also go with a used car, but I’m worried about “buying someone else’s problems.” Also, should I buy a used car through a dealership, or from a private seller?

Thanks in advance!

What is your budget?

I was shopping for a new car back in October*, and this site was a huge help to me. Review cars on to see which type of car has the features you want, then check out to find out how to buy it. IMHO, that site is a must-read for anyone looking to buy a car.

  • I ended up getting a Scion xA, a cute little four-door hatchback with great gas mileage.

My budget is flexible. For the kind of car I’m looking for (practical) I could afford to pay in cash, but I have other ideas that would tie up the cash. But if there was a compelling reason to put down $20K I could do it.

I a firm believer that buying a new car is a waste of money. See here for some general financial advice.

My first recommendation would be for a Toyota Carolla or Camry, maybe a year or two or three old. Both appear to be well within your budget, and are generally considered very reliable cars.

When buying a used car, always get it checked out by a mechanic, whether you buy it from a private seller or a dealer. You can go to to find a recommended mechanic in your area, and call ahead to make an appointment to have them check out the car. It should cost you about $50.

I find buying from a person more pleasant – car dealerships have loads of experience in driving a hard bargain – but I bought my last car used from a dealer and have been happy with it. If someone won’t let you take the car to get checked out by “your” mechanic, move on.

I don’t know if there’s one in your area, but I’ve heard quite a few people say they were happy by buying from Carmax. It’s a dealer that specializes in huge numbers of used cars. There’s no haggling, so it is supposed to be less stressful. Check out

Get a secondhand car off a lease. Luxury cars are generally treated better than the plainer ones IME - fewer little kids getting motion sickness in the back, more concern over resale value. The sporty models are more likely to be run by enthusiasts, which is a blessing and a curse simultaneously. They’ll receive better care but are run harder.

Good models to consider are the BMW 5xx series, the BMW 3xx series, the Mazda Millenia, the Nissan Maxima, the Honda Accord (manual transmission only), the Lexus IS300, the Lexus GS300/400, and the Acura TL. These cars are all built very solidly and use good components that aren’t going to wear out in five or six years.

Fifteen grand should get you a good example of any of these. Get a stick shift unless you want to pay $4k for a transmission rebuild 10-15 years in.

For absolute lowest ownership cost over a while, a 96-00 Honda Civic is as good as it gets. Dead reliable and a good EX sedan goes for seven or eight grand now. Parts are cheap but nothing ever breaks anyway. 35-40 MPG with the manual box.

Buy an old Dodge Fart from the early 70’s.

With a slant six.

And the 318 ain’t half bad either for longevity–and boy is it fast!!! The best sleeper imagineable.

Will cost you maybe $200--------- (or with any luck somebody might give you one freebies–because the car looks so badly aged.)

Something strange about those old Darts. They may rust away. The interior may wear down to the springs— but they never die.

(or almost never)

My usual advice:

I’ve had good experience buying used from a new car dealer. I think that way it’s more likely that the previous owner got rid of it because they wanted a new car, rather than because it had problems that they didn’t want to deal with any more.

I question that assumption. Car dealers buy used cars at auction and they can come from any source, including flood-damaged, refurbished totaled cars, police auction, repossessed, rental fleet etc. They would like you to have that impression “Mrs. Smith down the street just traded that in for a newer model” but there’s really no reason for that to be the case.

I second the recommendations on Honda and Toyota.

Also the recommendation to have your mechanic take a look at it first. Here’s a tip. It’s not unlikely that your mechanic will find something wrong with it. Ask the mechanic for an estimate on what it would cost to fix it. Use that to negotiate with the seller, either to lower the price or let him take care of the repair, then you’ll buy it. I have had mechanics give me very useful advice on used cars, from “don’t buy that piece of crap” to “buy it, but don’t pay that much” to “get him to fix this, then buy it.”

I somewhat prefer the private seller, next choice being a fixed-price place like CarMax. As a woman, I find regular car dealers are unbelievably insulting and deceptive. Car dealers work full-time selling cars for more than they are worth. Someone selling as a private owner can also expect to get more from that sale than they will from trading it in (the dealer buys low and sells high), so it is a win-win when individuals can sell cars to each other. Avoid at all costs the “informal dealer,” who has about 20 cars in his back yard but advertises as a private seller. Hint: Is his phone number in 20 different classified ads?

Another good site to check out is by Remar Sutton. As I recall, he’s an ex-car salesman who wrote a book on how to avoid getting ripped off by unscrupulous dealers.