Bark's Bites: Buying a Cheap Car Is an Expensive Problem

Mark "Bark M." Baruth
by Mark "Bark M." Baruth
bark s bites buying a cheap car is an expensive problem

One of my favorite pieces that my dear older brother has ever written is his recount of his experience with Matt Farah’s Million Mile Lexus. His epic takedown of the very notion inspired a good amount of heartburn amongst the Best & Brightest, generating nearly half a thousand comments on the way to becoming one of the most viewed articles ever posted here.

I was reminded of it today when I was browsing through the new Facebook Marketplace for my zip code. There are dozens of cheap cars posted daily, ranging from $300 for a Suzuki Reno without a motor to $3,500 for a Jeep Grand Cherokee with a rear window that’s sadly fallen off its track, destined to lazily lay halfway down its frame for eternity. However, in each of the corresponding comments sections for the listed cars, at least one person asks the following question: “What’s wrong with it?”

And that’s when you begin to understand how buying a cheap car can become an incredibly harrowing, terrifying experience.

As any of you who’ve read my writings for any length of time are completely aware, I have limited wrenching skills — and that’s being kind to myself. I can change tires and adjust shocks, and that’s only born out of necessity from my autocrossing days. I’ve tried going down the cheap car path myself for a winter/airport car a couple of times, and it has yet to end well for me. But I can at least pop the hood and know if hoses are disconnected, or if there’s a leak somewhere. I generally understand the principles of how automobiles work.

What if you literally knew nothing about how a car functions and you only have $1,000 to buy a vehicle that’ll get you back and forth to your job that you will absolutely lose the first time that you’re late?

It’s easy to say that you should get a pre-purchase inspection of any used car that you buy. Problem is that your typical PPI runs about $100-200, which is a significant chunk of your budget when you only have $1,000 to start with. Also, that assumes that the car you have inspected checks out (which, to be honest, is unlikely). If something’s broken, you probably can’t afford to have it fixed anyway, so you’re just going to have to move along to the next car — and yet another PPI.

So what do you do? You end up asking the fox to guard the henhouse. “What’s wrong with it?” is the only defense you have against spending your last $1,000 on a car that breaks down seven days after you bought it. This question, nearly exclusively asked by women, is universally answered as such:

“Runs good, needs a little TLC. A/C is out, engine takes a little while to warm up. I’ve driven it for months with no problems.”

I’ve added punctuation where there’s typically none and used correct spelling, but you’re picking up what I’m putting down. There’s absolutely no way that anybody could discern anything of value from the description that is normally given of the car in question, and it’s just as unlikely that any potential buyer has the mechanical ability to inspect the vehicle as it’s unlikely that he or she would have the funds for a PPI (or even a CARFAX). If the buyer lives in one of the many states in this nation that require emissions or safety inspections, that’s a whole ‘nother ball of wax.

In essence, the buyer has become powerless in the process, forced to accept whatever vehicle matches their available funds. The buyer is now doomed to an endless cycle of buying cars that are as disposable as the clothes at Old Navy. As soon as the buyer purchases this car, they must immediately start saving for the next $1,000 car, because they know that the lifespan of their vehicle is extremely limited.

I saw this rinse-and-repeat cycle personally for years when I worked as a retail manager for Cricket Wireless from 2008 to 2010. The owner of the neighboring business, a cookie shop, came storming into my store one day, complaining about my customers’ “jalopies” and how they were spilling oil all over the parking lot. I couldn’t do much but agree with her and apologize. Cricket is a monthly pay-in-advance cellular phone service provider, which meant that we would see the same customers every single month as they came in to pay for their next month of service.

What we didn’t see every single month were the same cars. The Cricket target household income was sub-$15,000, which meant that these customers (if they even owned a car) were likely to own a car that was prone to implosion. It was likely that we’d see them in a different car almost every visit.

But what else are they to do? While it’s certainly true that cars are built to last longer than they did a decade or two ago, it’s those cars from a decade or two ago that these people are forced to buy. Cash for Clunkers did nothing to help the situation either, removing thousands upon thousands of viable vehicles from the road.

I don’t even blame the sellers — after all, they’re in a financial position where they’re being forced to sell a $1,000 car. What technical expertise could one possibly expect the private seller of a cheap car to have? He’s likely selling it because it isn’t working all that well for him. Can you really blame him for not disclosing everything what’s wrong with the car? He probably has no earthly idea either.

Unfortunately, this isn’t a column where I put out some idea to fix the situation. I don’t have a clue where to start. The next step up from buying a $1,000 car is going to a Buy Here Pay Here lot, a business model so reprehensible I can barely bring myself to speak of it, or doing a special finance on an late-model used car for 18.99% over 84 months and risking bank repossession for a single missed payment.

It’s yet another way that the poor get poorer in this society, and I don’t know what can be done about it. That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t make me sad.

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4 of 279 comments
  • Nickoo Nickoo on Jul 08, 2016

    The cost of buying a used car is 5000 minimum. Pay it up front Or pay it in repair bills and uber rides and possibly unemployment stints. Or even better, no money down lease. It sucks and will cost more, but being poor is expensive and there often isn't a choice to forego a car.

    • See 1 previous
    • Nickoo Nickoo on Jul 08, 2016

      @mopar4wd I agree. For the poor single mother who often doesn't know beans about cars, that is not likely. I have done very well buying older low milage used cars. Thunderbird is one of my favorites.

  • Paragon Paragon on Jul 11, 2016

    I recently (90 days ago) purchased a used car off of Craigslist for a daily driver. For the tidy sum of only $2K, I purchased a non-beater - a 1998 Dodge Stratus in almost immaculate condition with only 111K miles. I willingly paid the asking price as it had new brakes, tires, and a few other things. No wear and tear at all; no interior rips, no tears, no cigarette burned fabric holes, no coffee nor Big Gulp spills. No cracked dash nor blown airbags. Nothing broken nor damaged inside or out. No scrapes or dents on the body and no visible rust aside from a very tiny amount on either side. Besides the interior, the trunk was also clean with no junk or trash in it. And, everything works as it should, including the A/C. It came with the original window sticker, and receipts for most of the maintenance over the years. Have been using it for my (work) daily round-trip of 70, nearly all highway miles. No problems at all. And, getting 30-34 mpg. What many may not recall or know is that the Cloud Cars, Cirrus/Stratus/Breeze, were highly regarded and won a number of awards when they debuted 21 years ago. I previously had a used one for 14 years and over 200K miles so I already knew how good they are. What I learned years ago from my dad is to try to find and buy well-cared for cars from their original owners, who will often have the receipts to document what has been done to the car. However this one came from the second owner who hadn't had it very long. Not so much trying to brag about my score as to demonstrate that it is not necessary to blow $10K, or $5K, or even $3K to find a clean, dependable, reliable, great-running car. My dad liked to find clean, well-kept Chrysler or Dodge sedans that had been owned and cared for by older people. For some of you, it might be a car that somebody's grandma or grandpa can no longer drive because of age or health-related conditions. Maybe a Buick, Oldsmobile, or Pontiac with the highly-regarded 3800 engine. Someone not so mechanically inclined should take a possible purchase to have the car inspected before plunking down the hard-earned cash. Or, have someone else go with them when checking out and driving the car before a decision to make the purchase. The summary is that if you can do your due diligence, you CAN find a decent-running car for a rather low sum.

  • Bob65688581 Small by American standards, this car is just right for Europe, and probably China, although I don't really know, there. Upscale small cars don't exist in the US because Americans associate size and luxury, so it will have a tough time in the States... but again Europe is used to such cars. Audi has been making "small, upscale" since forever. As usual, Americans will miss an opportunity. I'll buy one, though!Contrary to your text, the EX30 has nothing whatsoever to do with the XC40 or C40, being built on a dedicated chassis.
  • Tassos Chinese owned Vollvo-Geely must have the best PR department of all automakers. A TINY maker with only 0.5-0.8% market share in the US, it is in the news every day.I have lost count how many different models Volvo has, and it is shocking how FEW of each miserable one it sells in the US market.Approximately, it sells as many units (TOTAL) as is the total number of loser models it offers.
  • ToolGuy Seems pretty reasonable to me. (Sorry)
  • Luke42 When I moved from Virginia to Illinois, the lack of vehicle safety inspections was a big deal to me. I thought it would be a big change.However, nobody drives around in an unsafe car when they have the money to get their car fixed and driving safely.Also, Virginia's inspection regimine only meant that a car was safe to drive one day a year.Having lived with and without automotive safety inspections, my confusion is that they don't really matter that much.What does matter is preventing poverty in your state, and Illinois' generally pro-union political climate does more for automotive safety (by ensuring fair wages for tradespeople) than ticketing poor people for not having enough money to maintain their cars.
  • ToolGuy When you are pulled over for speeding, whether you are given a ticket or not should depend on how attractive you are.Source: My sister 😉