Looking for used car buying advice

OK, I totaled my car last week so now I’m in the market for a new vehicle in the next few weeks to couple months. The lucky thing is that I have a car I can borrow for a while (basically through the spring if I have to), so I do have a little time to shop around. I didn’t owe anything on my car and it only had liability insurance on it, so basically other than not having a car now, I didn’t come out too bad financially.

I am completely flexible on what kind of car I’m looking for. I’m most interested in getting the best deal I can. The car I had was a '95 Nissan Sentra, which I liked just fine. I’m not really looking for anything flashy, I’d guess the following features are kind of what I’m looking for (none of them are deal breakers though):

cheap to fix
reasonable insurance
decent gas mileage
mid-sized probably, maybe a little smaller
probably 4 doors

My price range is very wide. I’m considering anything from getting a short term fix for a grand or two, to something more decent for up to maybe $10,000 or even a little more. Basically I’ll have about $1500 cash to spend, and I can afford at least $300 and probably more like $400 or $450 a month payments if necessary. If I need to borrow money, my mom would be the source for up to a few thousand, and I’d also be willing to take out a loan if I went higher than that.

As of now, I’m not even considering something new. Is that a good idea? Are there any scenarios where a new car makes more sense than a used one?

As far as used cars go, I’m considering 2 scenarios:

  1. Get something cheaper and older. Basically probably similar to what I had been driving. In this scenario I’d be thinking of a more short term car, and hoping for something with better re-sale value. Basically, I’d be assuming I could be in the market for something else in less than a year, but hoping for longer (and taking anything beyond that as a bonus).

  2. Get a newer more decent used car. I’m thinking one just a few years old. I’ve heard that its best to buy a car that’s like a year or two old, is this correct? In this scenario I’d be looking for something I’d be planning on keeping for a long time, at least 5 years, probably more like 10.

I’m also trying to decide if it would be better to buy from a dealer or a private party. It sounds like the dealer would be easier, but a private party may be cheaper. Any input on this decision?

Overall, I’m looking for advice on shopping for and buying a car in general. I’d also be grateful for any specific car recommendations as well. I’m really wide open as far as this decision goes, like I said my main goal is getting a good deal.

Thanks for the help.

I bought a car I’d found on-line two years ago and will never do that again.
It was only 2 years old, and was the same model as my prior car, so I felt comfortable with it. But I spent more in repairs the first year than the car cost.
Next time I go to a dealer with a used car warranty!

New vs. Used. New will be more expensive in the long run pretty much every single time unless you buy a used car with major problems. Some think that this fact makes buying new a stupid decision, yet buying new clothes costs more than buying used clothes, and nobody calls the new clothes buyer stupid. If having a new car is something you value then consider getting a new car, if you don’t value having a new car, then you can probably scratch the idea off your list.

You had a '95 Sentra, so you know what the deal is with somewhat older cars. They tend to be less reliable over time, with more things getting older and needing repair. They also have fewer of the hot new features and safety advances. Of course you get it on the cheap.

A 2-3 year old car has the shine knocked off it, so you get some savings there. You also get more of the current technology, gas mileage, safety, convenience, and it’s going to generally be more reliable.

If you liked your Sentra, look at that model again, maybe the Altima as well. Obviously, you can also go for Hondas and Toyotas in this style, they’re likely to be a bit pricier used but are very solid.

OK, you have roughly $1500 to put down, and you can afford up to $400 a month for a car payment. How much better will you feel with an almost new ride vs. a reliable used car?

I would advise against spending any extra dough to get a super nice car. There is nothing wrong with mid to late nineties Corollas, Civics and Accords. They’ll all do as good or better at getting you from place to place as your Sentra did. And they are relatively affordable. After all, the last thing you want is a high car payment on a crappy car.

If you must go newer, either go new or almost new. The dealers are looking to make deals these days and the off lease ones especially can be attractive values. In fact, if you have a talent for negotiating, a new vehicle might be had for the cost of a 2 year old model!