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Five Tips for Buying a Car on a Budget


Buying a car can be scary. Heck; buying a car is scary. The experience only gets scarier when budgets—strict budgets—are imposed. If you are a car person, chances are you’ll relish the challenge. If you are anything like me, you have a morning routine that involves browsing Craigslist, eBay, and Bring a Trailer; just because. If you are not like me, then chances are you know someone like me and will ask them for advice.

Being able to tick off points of advice using one hand is key to getting a non-car person to remember the advice, and as such, I have tried to keep my list to a ‘Top Five of Car Buying”, of sorts. Luckily for me, my brother was recently faced with the task of car shopping on a budget, and I have been able to refresh my tips. While these points apply to buying any car on any budget, as his budget was $5,000, that is the amount I will work off of. Also luckily for me, my brother was very receptive to my advice, and as such, ended up with an awesome car: an article for another day. Now, whether or not people listen to ‘car guy’ advice when car shopping is a topic for another day—let us assume everyone takes given advice into mind when car shopping.

As promised, TheSpeedTrap(.net)’s five pieces of advice to keep in mind when car shopping.

  1. Figure out what you want:
    Want Car
    While we may all want a crazy Lamborghini like the Lamborghini Veneno pictured above, this is more an exercise in reality.

    No matter the budget, new or used, this is the first step in shopping for a vehicle. I realize that this sounds like asking the original question right back; “What car do I want?” however, this step is not nearly as specifically-minded as that. Instead, figuring out priorities such as comfort, utility, reliability, and more, is the name of the game. Often, what you ‘want’ is dictated by what you need. For instance, if you are a handyman, a used Honda Fit won’t necessarily work; the used F-250’s on the other hand may be more in line. Much more common a problem, any individual with children should always keep them in mind. For instance, a Mazda Miata may be an obviously bad choice for a family, but even something practical such as a Dodge Grand Caravan—with its *ahem* poor crash test ratings—may be best to be avoided.

    This step is first for the simple reason that shopping without goals is a useless endeavor. What you decide you want from a vehicle will guide your shopping.

    2: Be ready to compromise:

    Not my photo, but remember all of my photos have their sources logged if you would like any!

    Having figured out what it is you want, the next step is to be ready to compromise on those desires. This step is more applicable the tighter the budget and the tighter the specific needs of a vehicle, but can still apply to everyone. Simply put, these desires may be unattainable in your area, budget, or needs. Unfortunately, this is a lesson that many a high schooler with rally/drift/race/Fast and Furious expectations has learned. Depending on your age, gender, job, and education, another factor which may force compromise is the cost of insurance. With that in mind, it is always important to check specific insurance costs for you and whichever vehicle you want, and ensure that it is still within budget.

    Saying all that doom and gloom, being prepared to compromise does not have to be a bad thing. An example of goof compromise would be the case of having a vehicle “fall into your lap” so to speak. This could happen in one of several ways, with the most common source being family and friends. As soon as news circulates that you are shopping for a car with XXXX budget, anyone who has a used car they want to get rid of easily that even remotely fits your budget will come calling. While this can be annoying, purchasing a car with a known history, from a buyer who may be willing to ‘help out’ on the selling price, is an opportunity that should not be quickly dismissed.

    For Sale By Owner
    When buying from an owner, PPI’s are even more important, simply because they probably do not even have the expertise to know what is wrong with the car to mislead you on.

    Much more down to chance, is the classic case of a car being put on a corner with a for sale sign. In today’s day of the internet, this is almost never seen, however these warrant careful attention for a few reasons. Most importantly, as it is on a corner, you can physically walk up to, and inspect the vehicle. No out of focus Craigslist shots, or useless closeups of the badges: you can walk around every inch. Secondly, there is the potential that the owner is only advertising their car in such a manner—whether through distrust of the internet or other reasons—and their loss in advertising can be your gain. As the market is smaller, the number of potential buyers you could compete against is drastically reduced.

    3: Don’t compromise too much:

    Saying all of that, it is important to note that compromising too much could be a recipe for a regrettable purchase. While buying a nice, clean car instead of the desired SUV—if the U for utility wasn’t a driving desire—is an acceptable compromise, buying a ‘mechanics special’ for the discount alone is not. Compromising may be required, but more shopping is in store if you are compromising to the point where the car’s reliability, desirability, and usability reach points which be a severe detriment. Ensuring that you can live with the car on a day to day basis is a prime concern when shopping. This means that the car shouldn’t be a headache already, or have the potential to quickly develop into one.

    Craigslist is like: “Mechanics Special, $1850 OBO”. Right….

    Less tangible a factor to keep in mind on any potential compromises is the desirability of the car. If you would be downright embarrassed to be seen in it, and you would hate every minute of it, then the car may not be the right one. Some may argue that this will only encourage you to upgrade more quickly, but I feel every budget has room for a characterful vehicle that you can be pleased to own. Every time I see a Suzuki Reno driving by, I know someone compromised too much.

    A more unique Elantra? Who cares, as this is a no-holds-barred awful car.

    Lastly, never compromise on the mechanicals of a car. I am a strong advocate of always getting a Pre-Purchase Inspection (PPI) as a hundred bucks or so could reveal problems which cost ten times or more to fix, steering you clear of a bad purchase. If a seller refuses to allow a PPI, walk away, as that is suspicious in its own right.

    4: Stay away from (most) luxury brands:

    Temptation can be a cruel mistress, and in the used car market, she can be even harsher still. No matter the budget, shoppers will be faced with the ‘luxury marque’ choice. That last sentence, “No matter the budget”, should be raising all sorts of red flags, already. There is a simple reason behind this: you get what you pay for. Buying a $5,000 BMW or Mercedes, using my brothers budget, would most likely result in a repair bill for the same amount within the first 2 or 3 months of ownership. This is not due to reduced build quality, or lack of workmanship on the companies’ part; rather it is a combination of factors. Primarily, the replacement parts for such a vehicle tend to be vastly more expensive then more economic models. This is due to the initial cost of the vehicle, the (generally) cost of importation, and the reduced availably due to lower numbers of such cars on the streets.

    Beat Merc
    While this may be an extremely bad example, some great looking cars are just as beat up under the skin.

    This leads into the second reason cheaper luxury cars tend to need large repairs. Due to these increased costs of ownership, generally by the time the miles have gotten high enough, and the owners care has decreased enough, for a luxury car to achieve such prices, it is because the owner got a repair bill he did not deem worth it to pay. This is of course a generalization, and does not apply to every car or every brand.

    In fact, some luxury brands are worth a second look. Generally Japanese or Domestic ‘luxury’ marques that share their underpinnings with more pedestrian, economy models will also share the reduced repair bills of their more plebian kin. Some brands include Infiniti, Lexus, Acura, and Lincoln to name a few. However, due to the increased equipment levels, more things may go wrong, so when shopping such makes and models, it is best to keep the next, and last piece of advice in mind.

    Million Mile Lexus
    Matt Farah’s soon-to-be #MillionMileLexus is a great example of a luxury car gone oh so right.

    5: Base is Best

    The title of this section says it all. When it comes to any used car, at any price point, buying a car at the bottom of the options list, is the safest bet you can make. Again, this is for a couple of reasons. Chief among them, when your car has nothing in it or on it, there is less stuff to go wrong or break. The second main factor is the quality of the materials used. Generally, base vehicles will have harder, cheaper, sturdier materials such as plastic everywhere, and cloth or vinyl seats.

    A 2005 Chevrolet Cobalt, in all of the Plastic-y goodness.

    Not only does this make the interior more sturdy, it ensures that you will not put too much importance on keeping your interior nice and tidy: there is always something to be said in favor of a beater. Many vehicles will also have “cheaper”—and again hardier—exteriors. This could include black plastic under molding, reduced body kits, and the like. Again, these will be cheaper to replace, as well as sturdier to begin with.

    Good Hunting

    As I said in the beginning, buying a car can be a scary experience. Usually, it’s the most amount of money you will spend in one place in a given year, and will be with you for a long time. Hopefully, these tips will help lessen any car-buying anxiety you may have. Don’t be selfish! Share this with your friends and like if you enjoyed the read. Feel free to add your own advice in the comments, and remember to stay tuned in for the article on my brothers car buying on a budget experience.

Stephen Hyden View All

I recently recieved a degree in History from the University of Nevada, Reno.

4 thoughts on “Five Tips for Buying a Car on a Budget Leave a comment

  1. Thanks for going over these tips for getting a car. I’m glad that you mentioned that you should be prepared to compromise, especially just in case you happen to find a good one. My brother has been thinking of getting a car and it sounds like it could be beneficial for him to research more about what to look for and how to negotiate.


    • Research is any car buyers friend! A really great thing to watch (or have your brother watch) is the Top Gear episode (S16E4) where all three presenters buy the ‘same’ convertible BMW 3-Series, used. The differences they highlight are why research is key.


  2. We want a new car, but we don’t have a ton of extra money for it. So, this is actually really helpful for us. I’ll sit down with my wife and make a list of priorities for what we want the most.

    Liked by 1 person

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