What Is Your Used Car Sweet Spot?

Steven Lang
by Steven Lang
what is your used car sweet spot

One of my good friends and long-time TTAC commenters asked me this question.

Hey Steve,

If you have a moment, what are the high and low values right now at auction for the following:

2000 Chevy Monte Carlo SS 40K miles gold/tan

2006 Mustang GT premium 27K maroon/tan

2006 G6 GTP folding hardtop 53k black/black

I could only give him one response and it wasn’t, “Go play darts and put some numbers together!”

The answer came in three simple words.

Condition, condition, condition.

Condition is the number one determinant of marketplace value when it comes to a used anything. A 30-year-old Jeep Cherokee? Could be worth $5,000 or $500. A 2013 Kia Forte? Pick any number between $4,000 and $10,000. Everything related to the used car business from old racing memorabilia to a near-new racing suit has condition as the keystone to value, with bullshit factor a close second.

This is why dealers try to make folks “buy with their eyes” by investing an awful lot of money into the cosmetic condition of used cars. Those used cars you see at Carmax and other large used car retailers are reconditioned by a small army of paintless dent repair technicians, detailers, and specialists who can handle virtually everything that is between the bumpers. They spend big money because you spend big money.

Condition is the king, queen, and jack of the car world. But there is a bigger psychological ace that you have to consider when it comes to buying a used car.

Risk tolerance.

Are you willing to buy a car with a salvage history? How about a car that doesn’t run at the moment? Forget about the possibility of knowing the answer to the unique problems for each scenario. The one irreversible roll of the dice every used car shopper and enthusiast must consider is where exactly they fall on the risk spectrum.

With that in mind, let me ask you the question I always have rolling in my head whenever I’m serving my customers, whether they are car dealers, old friends, or a new person in search of a used car.

What is your ‘sweet spot’ when it comes to a used car?

Let’s make this an à la carte process. I’m going to offer five categories: age, miles, cosmetic condition, mechanical condition, and title status. You tell me the riskiest one you would consider for a long-term daily commuter.

For example, my brother could handle a car from the early 2000s in average mechanical and cosmetic condition with a clean title and no more than 100,000 miles. Sajeev Mehta on the other hand would do cartwheels over a Reagan-era car that is no more than 150k, has moderate mechanical and cosmetic issues, and has a minor title issue such as a theft recovery.

Here are your five categories


Obama Era (2008 or newer)

W Era (2001 – 2007)

Clinton Era (1993 – 2000)

Reagan/Bush Era (1981 – 1992)

Murilee Era (Jesus to 1980)


Under 50k

50k to 100k

100k to 150k

150k to 250k

250k to Distance to the Moon

Cosmetic Condition

Extra Clean: Time capsule!

Clean: Garage kept and detailed by a diehard enthusiast.

Average: The usual assortment of small dings and dents; needs a little work.

Rough: Big dents, scuffs, and bumper stickers aplenty.

Extra Rough: Charity car, crusher fodder, or repo from hell.

Mechanical Condition

Amazing: An OCD owner who loves cars more than humans.

Very Good: Maintained by the book; a few late oil changes.

Average: Car needs a major service and minor repairs, but is in decent shape.

Below Average: Treated like a disposable appliance; needs a deeper dive.

Holy Hell: Car owned by a human hurricane; may be worth more dead than alive.

Title Status

Clean: No defects.

Minor Branded Title Issue: Court order, theft recovery, duplicate title.

Moderate Title Issue: True miles unknown, not actual miles.

Major Title Issue: Rebuilt/rebuildable, salvage, total loss.

No Title

Everyone has their own sweet spot where they are willing to go out on a limb to pursue a car worth keeping. What’s yours?

Join the conversation
2 of 90 comments
  • Mopar4wd Mopar4wd on Sep 20, 2015

    I'm running Bush (the 2nd) 80-120k Good physical condition Good to very good mechanical Clean title. Works so far. I would go older for certain cars as well but I really don't like going much above 120k for mileage unless it's a real beater.

  • Speedlaw Speedlaw on Sep 30, 2015

    The market sweet spot is probably $350 x 36, or about 12k. Payment is reasonable for most folks, and the note isn't too long. This, of course is NOT what the OE want you to do. What the market would like is a mid 90's Accord, but NEW, 4 cyl, autobox with the usual power accessories and bluetooth. The OE give us that car for 24k or so, with the usual dealer nonsense, so it works out to a lease for that price, or a buy on a much longer note. The under 20k cars out there new give us a penalty box, designed for no other reason but to make the other cars look reasonable. (See:$2500 handbag at the department store) I buy new, fortunately, and run until it is a heap of rust in the driveway. The taxes on most new cars alone in my area would be $2,000, and as that is "flushed away" money in the transaction, I always balance the repair against the wasted money for the taxes. Suddenly new shocks don't look expensive. Since the car *the market wants* isn't for sale, and what we get is marketing driven as "how much can they be forced to pay with very creative financing", we end up with used car roulette at the sane price point.... If interest rates ever rise, this one is game over.... If forced into the used market, I'd get a Panther (really, gas is cheap now, and we want to get to work, not impress passersby), or another e46 from a no salt state, as I can fix most of the car myself.

  • Alan I do believe that traffic infringements penalties based on income will affect those who are financial able to flout safety regulations.When I drive above the posted speed limit I assess my situation using probability. If I'm confronted with a situation where time is of more value to me than speed I will speed if I assess the probability of a fine to be quite low. I can afford the fine, what I can't afford is the loss of points on my drivers licence.In Australia (12 points in QLD and all States have a point system) we have a points system attached to your drivers licence. An open drivers licence is granted 12 points every 3 years. So, if you receive an infringement for exceeding the speed limit it takes 3 years for the points to be removed. I generally get caught once every 2 years.I think a points system would be a fairer system over a system based on income. Its about retaining your licence and safety, not financial gain by the government.As you can see below it wouldn't take long for many US drivers to lose their drivers licence.[h2]Current penalties for individuals caught speeding[/h2]InfringementPenalty amountDemerit pointsLess than 11km/h over the speed limit$287. 1 pointAt least 11km/h but not more than 20km/h over the speed limit$431. 3 pointsMore than 20km/h but not more than 30km/h over the speed limit$646. 4 pointsMore than 30km/h but not more than 40km/h over the speed limit$1,078. 6 pointsMore than 40km/h over the speed limit$1,653. 8 points and 6 month suspension
  • Wjtinfwb Instead of raising fines, why don't the authorities enforce the laws and write tickets, and have judges enforce the penalty or sentence of a crime. I live across the street from an Elementary School on a 4-lane divided state highway. every morning the cop sits in his car and when someone sails through the School Zone well above the 10 mph limit, he merely hits his siren to get their attention but that's it. I've never, in 5 years, seen them get out of the car and actually stop and driver and confront them about speeding. As a result, no one pays attention and when the School Zone light is not lit, traffic flies by at 50-60 mph in the 45 zone. Almost no enforcement occurs until the inevitable crash, last year some zoned out girl rolled her beater Elantra 3 times. On a dry, straight, 4 lane road with a 45 mph limit. I'm no Angel and have a heavy foot myself. I've received my share of speeding tickets, lots of them when younger. Traffic enforcement in most locales has become a joke these days, jacking prices because someone has a higher income in as asinine as our stupid tax policy and non-existent immigration enforcement.
  • Jeff S If AM went away I would listen to FM but since it is insignificant in the cost to the car and in an emergency broadcast it is good to have. I agree with some of the others its another way to collect money with a subscription. AM is most likely to go away in the future but I will use AM as long as its around.
  • BEPLA I think it's cool the way it is.If I had the money, time and space - I'd buy it, clean it up, and just do enough to get it running properly.Then take it to Cars and Coffee and park it next to all the newer Mustangs.
  • Dave M. I suppose Jethro’s farm report comes via AM, but there’s a ton of alternative ways to get that info. Move forward people. Progress is never easy.