Some people want to swindle you.
Few take proper care of their cars.
The search will take a long time.
Last summer, I set out to help my future son-in-law find transportation to his new teaching job near Kalamazoo. He's just starting out, and was hoping to get a reliable vehicle for $4,000 to $5,000.
Those gems are there, but they're hard to find. We searched for two months across Michigan. Eventually we got lucky. You can too, if you follow these steps:
IN THE BEGINNING
Step one: Figure out what you want. In our case, it was a compact or midsize car with around 100,000 miles on it.
In our price range, the general wisdom is to go with Honda or Toyota, which stay reliable with age. But those brands are more expensive because sellers know this, says Ron Montoya, senior consumer advice editor for Edmunds.com. He suggests going with something almost as reliable from another well-known brand, such as Ford.
We started by searching mainly on Craigslist, but there are multiple websites that list cars for sale. We checked new postings, but also searched archived ads for Ford Focuses and Fusions, the Chevrolet Malibu and the discontinued Saturn Aura.
DEALER OR NOT?
Dealers generally charge more, so we decided to focus on private sellers. We hoped for an original owner who kept meticulous maintenance records. We found only one, and the vehicle sold before we could view it.
Montoya says you shouldn't buy a vehicle that has had more than two owners because tracking the car's maintenance history is too difficult.
AVOID SALVAGE TITLES
Look to see if the car's title is rebuilt or salvaged. Such cars were declared total losses by an insurance company and repaired. They can have bent frames, water damage or other costly problems.
When you find a clean title, look closely at pictures for unrepaired body damage or stains on the interior. Those are signs of abuse.
Within the same metro area, cars can be 100 miles away. So don't travel too far unless it's a solid prospect.
MAKE THE CALL
The first car we viewed, a Ford Focus, looked great in the pictures. But upon inspection it was clearly abused, something we could have picked up beforehand by talking to the owner. Most of our communication, however, was by text message.
So, always call the seller. Ask if they are the original owner. If not, when did they get the car? Why are they selling? All too often a seller bought the car cheap and is trying to resell for a quick buck, without regard to maintenance.
If the seller is the first or second owner, ask if the car has been wrecked. You'll want to know how often they changed the oil — about every 5,000 miles or less is proper for older cars, 7,500 on newer ones. Ask about rust or dents and whether the seller followed the factory maintenance schedule and if they have records. If they don't know any of this, move on.
Montoya suggests running the vehicle identification number through Autocheck or Carfax (you'll have to pay) to find ownership and repair history before going to see the car.
Also, use the vehicle identification number and check the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration website to see if there are any unrepaired recalls.
When you look at a car, bring a rag and flashlight. Open the hood, check the oil dipstick. If the oil is dirty black, or it's low, those are telltale signs of abuse.
Likewise, automatic transmission fluid should be red and clear. If it smells burned, that's another warning. Brake fluid, antifreeze and power steering fluid should be fairly clear and above minimum levels.
Crawl under the car with the flashlight. In cold-weather states, you'll see rust. Look for metal flaking or holes in the exhaust system. Check for rust on the bottom of doors and in wheel wells. Also look for paint in odd places, a sign the car has been wrecked. Low-cost body shops often spray more than what they fix. Listen to the engine for squeaks.
Don't forget the tires. Uneven wear is a sign of bad maintenance. George Washington can help here: Tread depth should cover the top of Washington's head on a quarter.
Drive the car. Does the transmission shift smoothly? Listen for front-end noises, which can signal expensive repairs. Look for dashboard warning lights.
One seller told us his Ford Focus had no dents and received regular oil changes. Yet we found a dent on the roof and a dented frame apparently from driving off the road. The car also burned oil when started. It was unclear if the guy lied or just didn't know much about cars. Either way, we wasted a 30-mile trip.
THE FINAL STEP
Once you find the car, move quickly. You could take it to a trusted mechanic to check it out.
Check the asking price against the values on several websites including Edmunds, Kelley Blue Book and NADA Guides. Bring up any problems (old tires, for instance) when negotiating. Try to get the car a little below the website prices.
Also, you should check how much it will cost to insure the car. Some models, such as high-horsepower versions of cars, can cost substantially more.
We ended up with a 2010 Ford Fusion with 102,000 miles on it for $6,000. It has minor body damage and a small rust spot that we'll fix. But it should last at least five years.