So now you’ve decided on a direction for your car buying that is based on some good feelings with a nice blend of short and long term reward. You may also hate the term neurocarbuying, and quite frankly so do I; it’s a crappy term but its my crappy term.
The next step is to find a car, evaluate it, and negotiate the deal. I think it would be possible to write separate posts about each of these steps, but I’m going to keep it short and if we need to add detail later, so be it.
Put this in your brain before we start: Nobody sells a perfect car. Your goal is to find a car in a model that you like and that is in good condition. Insofar as priorities: Condition is first, and the seller’s asking price is second. Cars in poor condition are MORE expensive, not less. If the car needs tires–which is very common for used cars, a new set of tires is close to $500. When an asking price is $500 higher, we often think it is more expensive, but it’s not always the case. A car starts costing you money as soon as you buy it, the key is to maximize the car’s value. This is especially true if you’re looking for a cheap car. A car that is below $5000 will need work, guaranteed. If you’re looking at a car that is $3500, it might seem very appealing compared to one that is $4500, but $1000 will vanish quickly into a mechanic’s hands. Sometimes more expensive cars are cheaper. Cars are just very zen like that.
Let’s assume most of your car shopping will be done online. There are four main websites to visit:
1. Edmunds.com–this is a very trustworthy site, with volumes of good information. I think it could be improved, but I’d say at the moment it is the best site for car-specific research. For instance, here is their landing page for information on the 2008 Accord Sedan. Insofar as car-buying advice,they lack the specifics to make a compelling approach, but their information is comprehensive. They should hire me.
2. Craigslist.org–find cars in a variety of conditions, many sold by strange individuals. Tend to be a wider range of vehicle conditions, but better chances of finding a good deal. Cars that are much much cheaper than they should be are always a scam.
On craigslist, I search only for cars that are owner owned. Buying used cars from a dealer is tricky: if it’s a factory dealer, like a Honda dealer’s pre-owned section, you’re going to pay a mint, but there’s a better chance the car is in good condition. Buying a car from Franky Cheese’s Auto Broker is a bad idea. Don’t buy a car from a dealer with a wrought iron fence. These small dealers are too risky. You’re better off braving the wilds of craigslist.
3. Autotrader.com–here you will find slightly more expensive cars, but they tend to be in slightly better condition with more serious sellers. Much more conducive to searching a wide variety of makes and models. It is somewhat surprising that there seems to be little crossover between listings on craigslist and autotrader, so most of the ads are unique to one site or the other.
(Protip: if you are selling your car, list it in both places.)
4. kbb.com–get a range of values for evaluating how much a car is worth. Some car values are not accurately represented on kbb. For instance, most Toyota trucks cost considerably more than kbb lists, there is just a high demand for them.
I like to alternate between craigslist and autotrader, with a kbb window open to gather a value estimate. You also won’t know right away what is a reasonable deal or not. Give yourself a week to sample the market, see how quickly cars appear and disappear and use that to judge if you think something is a good deal. Getting a good deal takes time, don’t jump up and down on day one, it is just too hard to know what is a reasonable deal.
So let’s try with a test case! With specifics!
First: the type of car it is will determine how much you can bet on having to repair it or how many cars you will have to choose from.
Okay, so let’s say you’re looking for an Accord. 4cyls are common as Orange county palm trees, but you want a V6, which will be much more rare.
Check out below for a search of 4 cyl cars:
Now here’s one for 6 cylinder cars:
So because you are looking for the more fun (but still sensible!) car, you’re going to have fewer options and more work to find the right car. Once your restrict the mileage of the car you want to own, the lack of a clean title, the smokers cars, the 10-owner cars, the flat-bill-hat owners, etc… the number will dwindle further.
Let’s start clicking:
Looks tempting right? Well no, I see two red flags. The first, and this will certainly rustle some jimmies, but it is in a part of town that is full of salvage yards and ramshackle body shops. Plus, it’s written in all caps, which I find to be a sign of someone who is not a careful individual. The main reason you should reject this car however, is because it’s a salvage title. These are cars that were in a severe enough accident that the insurance company would rather write off the car than repair it (more or less). This is a huge risk, don’t bother with it.
Rule number two: even if it doesn’t seem like it, there are a lot of cars out there, and a lot of cars for sale. Don’t give up on finding a good value, well-taken care of vehicle, regardless of your price range.
Here’s a better vehicle
This one looks clean, the description was written by someone with a little less propensity for caps lock, and it appears to be well taken care of. The miles are pretty darn high, as of this writing, the car is about 5 years old, and with 100k miles, they’re way above the 15k/year average. It’s a Honda so I would be less concerned, provided the needed maintenance has been performed. At 100k, it should have had it’s major tune-up service: timing belt, water pump, plugs, wires, all belts and hoses, all fluids, etc… and perhaps even struts. The timing belt is critical. Do not buy this car if the timing belt has not been changed–you can tack on 1000 to the price to have a good shop do the necessary maintenance. But still, nice looking car.
Here’s one that may be a better value:
Even though the owner spelled “brakes” incorrectly, I’d say this looks pretty good. It has a clean title, relatively low miles, looks well maintained. Worth a call.
What are they worth? Let’s consult kbb.com. Search for the private party used value. Kbb is a god awful website, but it is currently the standard. A quick search of 2010 Honda Accord V6, EX model cars tells me that a reasonable price is about 13,000. A quick guide is to cut off a thousand dollars per year of age for a car (sort of), so we see that the car above is priced a bit above market, and the white one is a little under their estimate. The first car presented, the one with the salvage title is not valued at anything, in my opinion since it may be held together with gum and bailing wire. For the second two, I wouldn’t rule out either of these cars, at this point, based on price alone. They’re in the range that makes them worth pursuing.
One final note: if you have in your mind a particularly rare car, and the only examples you find are beaten up or expensive or difficult to find, then you should seriously reconsider the car of your choice. If you can deal with the risk of having fewer cars to choose from, then fine, but really think hard about what it is worth to find that rare car.
So now you should have a good idea of how to pick a car from the online market, next post will describe how to evaluate the car in person.