What's the best way to buy a used car?

The title says it all. My truck is on it’s last legs. My old caddy (I bought almost two years ago for $1500. and have driven 25,000 miles) needs work. I have no ego wrapped up in what I drive, I just want something that will give me maximum miles for the dollar. I would prefer a station wagon or hatchback something, since I buy a lot of horsee and dog food.

Do I buy from a dealer, and individual or a roadside car lot? I have about $2500 available, and I’d do a loan if I have to, but I’d prefer not to have a car payment.

Any advice? And Middle TN dopers have a good used car for sale


I can only offer that you buy privately using your own knowledge of mechanics to decide whether a car is in good condition, a dealership should be selling cars fit for purpose and if it breaks down soon after you can pester them to sort it.

We usually give a list of “musts” to the local dealers and tell them to call us when something comes in. And don’t waste our time if your vehicles don’t meet our criteria. We also buy a warranty. They’re relatively cheap and have come in handy when something big goes wrong early on.

You didn’t say how much you wanted to spend, but we bought our last little pickup for $8K (it had 19K miles on it) and we’ve been driving it for over 10 years. It’s one of the best purchases we ever made. Good luck with your search!

For $2500 you’re probably better off looking at private sales. If you want to go to about 10 to 12K you should take a look at used rental cars. All the big rental companies sell their cars directly and you can find some good buys there. Always have any prospective purchase checked out by a mechanic. There are mechs. who specialize in this and the cost is around a hundred buck. Look in your yellow pages.

Yes, if you’re not willing to borrow some money, private sale is all you’re going to find for that amount. And there are no guarantees. I wouldn’t take the chance.

My last car payment was only $150/mo. I hate having an auto loan hanging over my head too, but not as much as I hate an unreliable vehicle.

The best? Bar none? Take it for a test drive with the salesperson riding shotgun. Start darting around traffic, make a couple illegal turns (preferably power sliding using the hand brake) and then turn to him and tell him with a straight face that you like him… and have decided to stuff him, mount him, and add him to your ‘collection’. Elaborate by asking him which scene from Dante’s Inferno he would like to depict. Go on to say that you have been working on your collection for years, but that your fifth circle diorama still needs a few more slothful beneath the murky waters of Styx and that you keep burning the feet off of your eighth circle simoniacs and could always use more.

Play it up like you used to be best friends with Hannibal lector, but stopped hanging out with him because he too much of a pussy. At some point, offer to return to the used car lot and forget you ever met the guy if you will just give you the pink slip. Have him throw in floor mats.

For 2500 you can pick up a very nice 90’s Jeep Cherokee that will last for ever. The 6-cylinder engine they have is nearly unbreakable, I had one that went over 300k with no problems. They rival the volvo engine for efficiency and longitude.

You can haul whatever you like, and not worry about it. Get yourself and Auto-trader and look for a nice cherokee…Even if someone has one up for 3500, bring your 2500 cash waive it in their face…more often then not they’ll bite.

Great vehicle too Germain

This is excellent advice. Mr. Stuff sells cars at a dealership, and people get very good bargains doing this. While his dealership doesn’t keep $2000 cars in stock, they get trades in every day. If you have your requirements in front of a salesperson, s/he will be looking for a trade that meets them. These cheaper cars will typically go to a wholesaler, unless they are sold in a day or two.

Be firm where you must (price, sedan v. coupe, etc.) and flexible where you can. If you’re looking for a cheap car, don’t get hung up on color, for instance.

Be willing to forego the detailing. It costs the dealership money, and that gets passed on to you. If you clean up the crumbs from the backseat yourself and run it through a carwash, you’ll be miles ahead.

Be ready to bite when the right one comes along. You’re probably not the only one looking for a bargain car, and if you tarry, another salesperson might sell it out from under you. Mr. Stuff, at least, is not just making crap up when he says that it might not still be here when you call back tomorrow. He’ll always try to give fair warning that it’s going, but it’s not always possible.

A dealer will also be willing to fix or split costs with you on repairs that come up soon after sale, too. An individual is not going to do this. I’d feel safer with a dealer. (I realize that that’s partly because I know which ones locally are reputable, and I’d deal only with them, so YMMV.)

Good luck!

Thanks for the info. I can go higher, but as I said, I don’t liek the idea of a car payment. Of course, there’s a lot I don’t like that I do anyway.

I generally hate talking to car salespeople. I like to look by myself, make my decision and then deal with them. I didn’t realize you could give them a grocery list of needs and they’d look for it.

Are there any models I shuld specifically shy away from? I really don’t care what I drive, as long as it’s reliable. Color, etc., are meaningless. And it doesn’t have to be clean - Lord knows it won’t be clean for long anyway.


Shy away from your Neons, Sea Breeze, Kia’s… nothing against them…but for room and reliability they are not the best.

I’m tell’in ya - go with a cherokee.

This is pretty much how it came down for us. We did ask them to put A/C in (an additional $1K) but we were ready to strike when we got the call. It was the easiest car purchase I ever made and that little truck just keeps on truckin’.

Must have:

FM Radio
Under _______ miles
Automatic or Manual trans OK
$10K out the door - THIS IS NOT NEGOTIABLE
Took about 4 days to get a call.

First, understand that dealers will charge sales tax, and private sellers won’t (at least generally, I don’t know about TN). Here in Atlanta, a dealer sale will take 7% and, IMHO, add little to no value.

  1. My first suggestion is to scan either a local paper’s classified or autotrader.com to get a feel for models, makes, model years, and mileage that might fall within your budget.

  2. From there, head to the local library and check the most recent Consumer Reports Guide for Used Cars. Focus on any models on their “best buy” list with those available in your price range from step 1.

  3. Now go back to your local classified or autotrader list and narrow your search to CR “Best Buy” cars/trucks. Find a few candidates (at least two, preferably three to five and not more, and best if they are all very similar to each other). As you see fit, go visit each seller and physically check the car to make sure it is what you think it is (in terms of condition). Narrow (or add to) the list as necessary to make sure that any of the remaining vehicles would be acceptable to you.

  4. Determine what differences in the vehicles are worth to you (for example, if they were all identical - same mileage, same options, same condition, there is no differences, but if two are equal and one has cosmetic damage (or something), determine how much less you would pay for that one then the others).

  5. Check the Private Sale values for those models on Kelly Blue Book and/or Edmunds. That will be your walk-away price. Don’t pay more.

  6. For each vehicle selected in step 3, determine an “opening offer” price, taking into account the value differences in step 4. Your opening offer should be low-ball, and probably about 20% below the asking price (at least - don’t worry about “offending” the seller).

  7. In whatever order you like, start calling the sellers and making your opening offer. In every case, make sure you tell them that the sell is conditional on a clean mechanic inspection AND an acceptable car-fax report. Expect each seller to decline your low-ball offer (if one accepts, you didn’t start low enough, but they still might not make it past step 9).

  8. Increment your opening offers up by an appropriate increment (for your price range, say they were asking $2,500, you opened with $2,000, increment all offers up $100). Again, go through each seller, reminding them of the conditions in step 7, and continue this step until someone accepts your offer.

  9. VERY IMPORTANT - spend the bucks that this process has saved you and do get the mechanic inspection and the Carfax report. Avoid (or discount) previous rental cars, cars that spent years in the cold northern climates (that have been exposed to alot of salt), or any car that was anywhere near Katrina stricken (or similar) areas. Don’t proceed until you are comfortable this step has been successfully completed.

  10. Buy the car, and feel confident you did the appropriate research, prudent investigation, and the best possible negotiation tactics to get the best deal possible. You may still run into near term problems, but if you navigated the first nine steps, this is much less likely.

By the way, if you do decide to use a dealer, you can adapt the process above. However, I suggest an additional rule. NEVER attempt to negotiate the price of the vehicle in person, on their lot. You can visit the lot to check out the cars, test drive, whatever, but never talk business. Always identify at least one other vehicle on another lot that would also meet your needs, and conduct the round-robin negotiation on the phone.

And if you end up comparing private sellers with dealers, be sure to take into account the sales tax differences in the cost to you. Also make sure dealers disclose any and all additional fees before you close the deal (or else you may find some additional “costs” when you go to complete the transaction).

Hope that helps.

Good gawd! I wouldn’t put that much work into a graduate school thesis much less a $2500 car!

Well, truthfully, I wouldn’t either. But I could afford to lose $2500. It doesn’t sound like StGermain can. The threshold of whether it is worth it is different for each person.

If you have seen my thread in this forum, I’m about to spend 20 times this amount on a car. I’ll have a more difficult time finding multiple cars that fit my criteria - but I will use this process. If I were to also buy a $2500 vehicle (as a third car), I’d take a few shortcuts, but generally follow that process. I have access to CR online, so I can skip the step to the library. Most everything else is either online or on the phone, except for checking out the car in person, which I would expect that everyone would do anyway.

The whole point of this is to create a competitive market, with an informed buyer. Anything short of those two tasks will likely cause you to pay more than you should.

And btw, I would add one other guideline, though it doesn’t sound like StGermain needs it, and that is to never get emotionally attached to a car until AFTER you buy it. Many of the younger generation, women, and some men, often fall into this trap, and it will cause you to pay a premium.

AZCowboy - Want to sell your car once you get your mid-life crisis-mobile? Here the revenue dept. will collect the sales tax when you register the car in your name. Unless someone puts a lower figure on the transfer paperwork, you’re going to pay the tax.

I don’t get attached to cars - they’re just things. Mind you, I’d love a 1950’s roadster, an MGA or MGB or Austin Healey. But I can easily do without.


I have always bought vehicles from private parties, never have spent more than $10,000, and those are the business’ vehicles, never had a loan. Typically spend around $2500, never had a bad vehicle yet. Follow AZCowboy’s advice, you’ll do well. Cars have no value, other than transportation.

It’s not true that you’ll find nothing in that price range at a dealership. I was told the same thing (by someone working at another dealership!), but found a dealership in my area that specializes in cars under 5K. There were several a bit farther away too, but I couldn’t any of them find them through sites like carfinder.com or the like. Using just those sites, you’ll soon be believing that it’s true you can’t find anything you can afford at a dealership.

What you ought to do instead is stop by a grocery store in your area and pick up as many of those free car ad magazines as you can. There were four different ones for my area when I was looking for a car in December. Thumb through them and see which dealerships are offering cars in your price range, since those are your best leads. Check out their webpages since they often have more stock than they’re willing to place ads for. Then once you know there wheres for buying a car you can put AZCowboy’s advice to use if you’d like, too.