By on March 6, 2018

At some point in our lives, usually a very early point, the number of coins we have to rub together couldn’t buy a half-decent meal, even on Whopper Wednesday. Strapped for cash, working a retail-type job, returning empties for cans of cheap swill, college or university sucking every last cent from your wallet — does this describe a certain period in your life?

It probably does. And it’s usually a pretty exciting period, too. Around this time, the urge for vehicular freedom grows so great, we’re pulled like a compass needle towards third-hand used car lots, those bastions of sagging suspensions and blossoming rust, in search of bargain basement wheels. Top of mind: finding something that doesn’t scream “dud!” to everyone within eyeshot. Runner up: finding something that won’t become a 3,000-pound paperweight in a month’s time.

Whether it came from a used car lot or a relative eager for an easy cash sale, this first (or second, or third) vehicle came equipped with a low, low price and, more often than not, a laundry list of unfulfilled maintenance work. Still, you paid a price that ensured your ride wasn’t a total beater, right?

No such thing, you’re thinking. Some cars play the aging rock star, tempting us from afar before falling apart the second our name hits the ownership. Others end up as a faithful servant, carting around friends and school supplies and apprenticeship tools like a reliable sherpa, earning our enduring respect. And it’s possible each of these cars carried the same window sticker, possibly with the word “WOW!” printed underneath.

Personal experience tells me there’s a price floor for anything half decent: a grand. Yes, anything less than $1,000 (cash, as is, no safety) is just not worth looking at. As tempting as it may be, falling for a vehicle below that price usually means you’ve just inherited someone’s deferred repair. An urgent repair.

For a vehicle you can reasonably expect to drive for a year with only basic maintenance and, say, one minor repair, $1,000 seems like the bare minimum. I’ve bought a reliable, aged car for just that sum (too bad about the Impala that totalled it), and I’ve sold an even more reliable car, with plenty of recent work, for that same price. Sure, Grand Am 2.0 (as I called it) could have netted me $1,500 in the middle of summer, but I was looking for a quick sale in the dead of winter.

“$1,000 firm” gets clicks. It’s a car that’s priced to sell, but that hint of self-assuredness on the part of the seller gets would-be buyers thinking they’re onto something. It can’t be that much of a shitbox if he’s not willing to go any lower, the buyer muses. Yes, you’re going to see a cautious buyer show up at your door, but if the car’s not half as bad as he feared, it’s a safe bet you’ll have an empty parking spot later that day.

Of course, that’s my experience; yours could be very different. What’s the cheapest “decent” used car you’ve ever opened your wallet for? Do you agree that $1,000 is the bare minimum for such a purchase, or is that too low? Too high? Sound off in the comments.

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76 Comments on “QOTD: How Low Is Too Low?...”


  • avatar
    Chris Tonn

    It was late fall, 2008. Child number two arrived. At this point, I realized that I couldn’t fit both kids behind me in my ’91 Sentra SE-R. The rear-facing baby bucket was entirely too bulky.

    Money was tight (because diapers ain’t cheap), and safety was paramount for these little angels. Immediately, my browser went to craigslist, and Volvo was my query.

    “1988 Volvo 740 Wagon, $300” magically appeared. “Needs engine work” was in somewhat smaller print.

    It was a comfortable car when it ran. But it used a quart or two of oil every day of 20-30 mile commutes.

    It lasted six months, at which point the block ventilated itself with my wife behind the wheel. I rope-towed home with the wife’s Trailblazer – then our most reliable vehicle, surprisingly – and briefly entertained notions of a 302 V8 swap.

    • 0 avatar
      87 Morgan

      $50 a month, nicely done.

    • 0 avatar
      zamoti

      I paid $3000 for a mostly neglected V70 GLT (low pressure turbo) that had faded to pink. It had a lot of little things wrong with it, but it started up and went all the time. Drove the family to the beach, camping and many other far away places. It was a total soldier in the snow with Hakkas mounted. It started to deteriorate a little faster as time got along–the final straw was an Escalade that had decided to self-immolate in front of my wagon, melting the front fascia. Car looked like it had a mild stroke. Their insurance declared it (not kiddng) “an act of God” and would not cover us. Here’s hoping they burn in hell. Traded it for a Cx9 a bit later, but that $3k was well worth it. It even had the 3rd row seat which the kids loved for a brief time. #blessed

  • avatar
    Maymar

    About a decade back, I paid $100 for a ’93 Escort. It needed a bit of work to get through safety, but I think I was still on the road for less than $750 all in. It only had about 140k kms as well, so it was hardly used up, just benefited from a friend of a friend not being bothered to get more than scrap value for the thing. It only stranded me a couple times in the 9 months I had it, but it was vapour lock or something because it started up fine after a couple hours.

    I later paid $700 for a Cavalier traded in at the dealer I worked for (I suspect the ability to buy trade-ins opens up a ton of sub-$1000 options), and drove that through a couple years of college until I got a newer hand-me-down from my parents.

    • 0 avatar
      arach

      Cavaliers and sunfires were readily available under 1k for quite a while, and while no one is going to write home about how amazing they were, they weren’t bad for the price!

  • avatar
    sirwired

    At $1k, you are going to be highly dependent on luck. Obviously the odds go up if you have the vehicle inspected by somebody that knows what they are doing.

  • avatar
    arach

    $1000? Thats a luxury car!

    I’ve bought 2 decent used cars for way way way less, and one not-decent used car that was cool enough that it counts anyway. In fact all three total $1k!

    $400- Datsun 280zx. Besides the rusted out part and can’t-pass-emissions part, and the part where I didn’t have enough money to make it pass emissions, the car was actually bulletproof. I loved it. A blast to drive at a time when $400 was a lot.

    $400- ’88 Fiero formula. thats a heck of a car for that price. Sure it had 250k miles on it and the motor ticked like a time bomb, but it never ACTUALLY blew up or failed. If it never blew up or failed, then I can’t really say anything bad about it.

    $200- Jeep CJ7. Rust, yes. Brakes, no. This was my first real “barn find” persay. It took about $50 and a couple of hours to get it in good shape. t was truly a “Steal” and I should have spent a few more bucks, but at the time $500 or so was a “big deal”. I regret selling it, but I turned a profit when I sold it!

  • avatar
    mikey

    Lets see 1970-71 I had in my possession a $100 62 4 door Srtato Chief with rust up to the windows , and a strong 261 in line six. I borrowed $125.00 ???? off my Dad to buy his friends 62 Pontiac 2 door post. The 2 door had a way better body. The engine however , had severe blow by, and blue smoke coming out the exhaust.

    So with the help of my brother ( he directed operations while swilling back numerous Labatts 50) we switched engines. When it was all done I had decent 62 Pontiac with a strong motor.

    I’m going back 48 years ,so i’m going to guess my total outlay at $250.00 . I don’t think I ever cleared Dads loan off the books. Lots of great memories. For it time it was a great car for the money.

    For the second question . Here in Ontario the safety standards/tolerances at ownership transfer are brutal. 6-8 K ..(CND) is about the cheapest you may find ?? YMMV.

    On the upside. There is some great bargains to be had, if your willing to do your own wrenching. My friend picked up a 2005 Grand Am for $250. The body ,and sub frame had been rust proofed. He worked on it himself all winter. (heated shop equipped like we discussed yesterday) Brakes, tires, suspension, fuel lines , callipers , flex hoses, and a professional alignment . The old Grand Am went through the safety check, and E test no problem. Not including labour, I figure he has less than 2 K into it.

  • avatar
    87 Morgan

    My first car, was a 1985 Ford Exp w/ less than 60k miles, mid 50’s IIRC. Options were none: no ac, no pw, no pl, no ps. none. heater and a key.

    Bought from the dealer my dads secretary traded into after she rear ended someone for $250 off the back row.

    H.S auto shopped the car back together w/ junk yard parts and stupidly sold it for a 2k or so.

    In college borrowed 1k to buy an 86′ Crown Vic Wagon w/ 120k, paid $100 a month to the note was clear. Drove the car for 30k miles and traded it on a new VW TDI after graduation for $250.

    I would say that today, the floor is $1500 or 2k for minimum acceptable dollars for a road worthy car.

  • avatar
    dividebytube

    My wife-to-be had two under $1k cars – both got her around for a year or two before packing it in.

    1980 Civic CVCC wagon – actually a good runner (and so slooooowwww) until the carb began acting up and we couldn’t find a mechanic who was willing to fix it.

    A 1984 VW Rabbit GTI that liked to eat struts, had a hard time getting into first gear, had some loose wires that liked to spark behind the dashboard, and ate a starter motor. The hood also popped open while she was on the highway. It ended up getting traded in on a 1986 Accord which wasn’t really that much better in reliability.

    I’ve sold a few under $1k cars, some great deals. A 1987 Nissan Stanza 5-speed with 250k miles, but still a solid-runner. It even had a newer clutch and fuel pump. Also – friend price! – got rid of a 1998 Toyota T100 to someone I knew who needed dependable and winter worthy transportation for his wife. It is still being used – rust and all – to ferry her back ‘n’ forth to work during the winter months.

  • avatar
    jack4x

    I bought a 96 Saturn a few years ago for $850, drove it as a long distance commuter car for a couple of years, and sold it for more than I paid. It wasn’t perfect of course and I was putting a fairly steady stream of small repairs into it, but it was ultimately a pretty good little car.

    However, I wouldn’t have bought it if I hadn’t known that I had another car to fall back on in a pinch, and that I could do a lot of the work myself. I think trying to rely on a sub $1k car without mechanical aptitude and/or a backup vehicle is a tough ask. Obviously there are lots of people out there who are forced to do that, and it’s critical both to pick out a good car up front and have some luck too.

  • avatar
    IBx1

    I wouldn’t go lower than $2,500, but that’s because I generally look for stuff without body damage.

    I’ve tried to get behind the idea of having a beater, but I wouldn’t be able to do the whole if-one-spark-plug-fails-but-the-engine-still-runs-then-keep-going thing. Anything I’d put money on is something I’d like to have and would care about enough to fix all the little things as preventative maintenance, even if I’m trying to go cheap.

    • 0 avatar
      JohnTaurus

      Because dents make it unreliable.

      • 0 avatar
        IBx1

        Nothing about reliability, like I said if I’m going to buy and own a car, it’s going to be a model I like, and I’ll wind up caring about it too much.

        • 0 avatar
          JohnTaurus

          Well, when buying a beater, its usually more about getting something that functions. I mean, I drive a car that is old and is not cosmetically great, but I still love it. I do plan to have the few dings removed and the paint redone at some point. The fact that its old and isn’t in pristine shape doesn’t take away from the facts that a) I love the car and b) it serves its purpose.

          All I’m saying is that when you’re in a position where you have a grand or so to spend, mechanical aspects are far more important than cosmetic ones.

  • avatar
    cognoscenti

    Everyone responding about the best deal they got 30, 40, 50 years ago need to re-read the QOTD. The ask is whether $1000 is the minimum amount to buy a “decent” used car TODAY.

    • 0 avatar
      dividebytube

      Easy answer: no! Unless one is very lucky. I would say the number has been bumped up to $1500-$2000 but, in all honesty, I’m thankfully in the position where I don’t have to deal with cars in this low price range any more.

      • 0 avatar
        28-Cars-Later

        While it varies, your $1,500 probably has a realistic valuation of half. Two tiered market: reality and perceived reality.

      • 0 avatar
        SaulTigh

        I agree. 10 years ago (before cash for clunkers jacked everything up) the “thousand dollar runner” as I liked to call them were quite common. I’d say $2000 runner is more realistic today.

        And by runner I mean, runs strong and is basically clean.

    • 0 avatar
      IBx1

      Exactly, $1,000 a few decades ago is like picking a $5,000 car today, which will run for hundreds of thousands of miles.

    • 0 avatar
      geozinger

      I guess it would depend upon where you live, but honestly, no.

    • 0 avatar
      arach

      Maybe this depends on where you live.

      In Rural Ohio, I find tempting deals in the $400-800 range frequently.

      I bought the ’88 fiero for $400 and CJ7 for $200 all in the last 5 years.

      A neighbor has a triumph for $600. Man if I could fit in that, I’d buy it. Within the last week, a coworker just sold his F150 single cab for $750 (He should have gotten at least 2 grand for it, I think hes nuts for selling it so low). Theres a jeep Grand Cherokee down the street with a $800 asking price. Our SCCA team bought a Ford Probe for $400 as a renter car and it takes abuse day by day and keeps on chugging.

      I am 100% confident I could pick up a fun car OR a DD for under 1 grand in rural Ohio. Just look at facebook marketplace or craigslist. the problem is they sell in hours, so you have to move quick.

    • 0 avatar
      Detroit-Iron

      $1000 car it ain’t worth nothing
      $1000 car it ain’t worth shlt
      Might as well take your $1000
      And set fire to it

      • 0 avatar
        28-Cars-Later

        I paid $1,000 for an MY90 Audi 100 in 2006, which served me well for four years and I still miss it. I had thoughts of acquiring one the other day in a few years. Maybe… Lex (or C4 Vette) would be the smarter buy for such a purpose (then again many C4 owners of a certain age feel their example is made of solid gold and blessed by the Pope).

  • avatar
    seth1065

    well lets see I paid $200 bucks for a rusty out celiac which got me a few months ( a 76 in 1986) or $500 for a VW dasher ( a 74 in 85) which died 6 months later going up the throes neck bridge on super bowl sunday on my way back to collage. But me best score was free almost , my cousins 1971 Pontiac Venture in 1986 wish for a Stroh’s neon light, the car was a driven on and off for about 5 years by me, my girlfriend, my sister and my future brother in law. It was the I need a car for a few months while I look for a car. BTW he still has the beer light so he got the better end of the deal I guess. Today in the metro NY area 3,000 will get you a intro level car and it is a roll of a dice. Buddy of mine just picked up a 2002 sable for a friends kid, for 1500 it will need brakes and tires so figure about $700 bucks there so at he is at 42200 and hopes for 2 years. But he was not really looking when he found it and it is 16 years old

  • avatar
    Nick_515

    This is a question I have began pondering recently, as I might get a job that necessitates a new car, while my wife keeps the E90.

    I may need the car only for a year, or only for two, it’s unclear. If my wife joins me, I might keep it as second car.

    Top priority is spending as little money as possible, but there’s a modicum of a decent looking, safe-driving car I can’t go below.

    In due time when I know more, I’m thinking of submitting this as an “Ask _____” question to the B&B. For now, I’ve noticed two good cars that look like good values. First is a late 2nd gen Prius, it looks like one can score one of those at the $5k mark without crazy mileage. This would be better for running around town and less so for long trips. Second, I’ve been following the values of MKV Jettas, 2009/2010s in either SE or SEL trim. Their five cylinders are good, and they are sophisticated rides that can be found at that $5k mark. This would be better for long trips and less so for running around towns. I don’t think I could tool around in Panthers Buicks etc, though I’m not opposed to American cars as such.

    • 0 avatar
      Scoutdude

      It’s tough to beat a Prius on cost per mile if you drive it a fair amount.

      However if you aren’t going to be putting that many miles on it an ex-gov’t fleet sedan, like Impalas, Mailbus, Fusions, and the last of the real Taurus, bought directly from the source is hard to beat. For most agencies they have been maintained by the book, and any repairs are taken care of rather than allowed to stack up. Some agencies are also very anal about brakes and tires. For example my state replaces them if the vehicle comes in with either below 4/32″ well before many private owners would.

      Of course the Prius is a fleet queen so you’ll find lots of those at the gov’t auction too.

      Many will need a good cleaning but since they typically go for wholesale prices you’ll have room to pay for a full detail if desired or just spend a Sat giving it a good scrub and getting 10-12 years of grunge out of the cracks and crevices.

      • 0 avatar
        Nick_515

        Those are good ideas. I don’t think I could do the wallowy Impala (unless 2014 and newer) and Taurus would simply be too big. But a Malibu and especially a Fusion would certainly fit the bill.

        • 0 avatar
          Scoutdude

          Well I was talking the older Taurus. The Fusion Hybrid is common in gov’t fleets too and the price premium isn’t usually that large and on the 2012 and older versions they are better equipped because they didn’t offer a fleet grade “S” model of the Hybrid at that time. Camry Hybrids are also fairly common in my state’s fleet. The Escape Hybrid and C-Max are other common gov’t fleet vehicles that get decent gas mileage and can be had at a reasonable price.

          Most fleets have a time or mileage when they are retired. 10-12 years or 100-150k which ever comes first depending on the type of vehicle with trucks and hybrids having the higher mileage cut off.

          Publicsurplus.com and govdeals.com are the two biggies in gov’t vehicle online auctions and of course there are the live auctions held by local companies.

          • 0 avatar
            Nick_515

            Scoutdude, the first site didn’t work for me, but I checked the second and you are right, you can get a lot of car at the $5-6k mark. Thanks for the tip!

            They also sell ‘seized’ vehicles, which made sense after the initial WTF entries like the odd BMW etc.

          • 0 avatar
            Scoutdude

            Glad to help. Fact is, at least around here, most of the buyers are dealers and wholesalers so they get out well before the vehicle hits retail pricing.

  • avatar
    PrincipalDan

    My first car was an old family beater passed down to me but I always say it was “worth $600” because that’s what the man offered my Dad in trade in value. Dad said “I’ll just keep it.” Later he told me that if the guy had said $800 he’d have traded in the car and I’d have been walking.

    $600 sounds about right in 1991 for a 1982 Celebrity with over 100,000 miles and a very rusty body.

  • avatar
    01 Deville

    If you can only stretch to 1k.I would recommend
    For a single person 97-2002 Camry 4 cylinder under 200k. They last and last and last and timing belt replacement can be delayed without breaking the engine.

    If you have a family in tow, I would suggest a 2001-2005 Town and Country or Grand Caravan, under 150k miles and try to haggle 50-100 off if the transmission fluid hasn’t been changed and change it yourself. They has some itty bitty issues,but as long as they are shifting smooth and have no major leaks it is an incredible value for a family.Drives nice and smooth, power sliding doors are great for dropping off kids at school and you can haul stuff.

    My lowest was a 97 camry for $400 that I flipped for 1k. Lowes on my personal use car was a 2001 V70 for 1200 that had the transmission issue which I sold to mechanic after a year’s use for $650.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    If you’re willing to fix your own car (possibly very often), then no price is too low.

    But if you’re hoping to have a minimum of unscheduled repairs and have it last a few years, then I’d say $5000. Even for this much, reliability can vary a lot.

    One of the most expensive cars I ever owned cost me $1 when I bought it from an elderly lady who was ‘doing us a favor’. It was only 7 years old when I got it (80 Bobcat), but over the course of 4 years it cost me a rebuilt engine with all the trimmings, rebuilt transmission, endless rust work, a carburetor, various gaskets, door latches, and suspension components. It was never a decent car, and it ate gas like the Space Shuttle.

  • avatar
    28-Cars-Later

    Ultimately, a car is worth what someone is willing to pay for it – just like anything else.

  • avatar
    indi500fan

    I see 3 grand as about the average threshold for something with decent reliability. For me it’s hard to visualize driving a true beater without wrenching skills or garage.

    If you live in a no inspection state where there’s no road salt…and can wrench yourself…then practically anything will work.

  • avatar
    75brick

    This question is heavily dependent on the person in question.

    Back in 2012, I picked up an ’85 Firebird with a rolled over odometer for $600. The brakes were locked up on it. It cost me about $100 and a day’s worth of time to replace the calipers, rotors, pads, lines, and rear brake cylinders, in my parking lot. Afterwards, I drove it for two mostly trouble free years (I used vinyl and spray adhesive from Walmart to resolve the sagging headliner). I then sold it for $1200 when I bought my ’95 Trans Am with 80,000 miles for $3000.

    I also have a friend who made it a policy to go out and buy Cavaliers for $300-400, and drive them for a year before selling/scrapping them to purchase his next one. He would do absolutely nothing to them for maintenance in that year.

  • avatar
    28-Cars-Later

    In 2004, I traded a Thinkpad I paid $25 the previous year for an MY85 Coupe de Ville FWD sans interior with camshaft issues (the laptop was four years old and was sold to me by a fellow student as it was gifted to him by his mom’s company). I foolishly thought it could be fixed, although it would run with the noisy camshaft. Sadly I never put more than a few hundred miles on it before it was stolen the following year (scrap was high at the time).

    I replaced the missing interior with a black set from a Fleetwood FWD sedan which I acquired for free. I was later told the wholesaler paid $50 plus fees to buy it in order to remove the immaculate white interior to install in a restored antique.

    • 0 avatar
      TW5

      I had a fully-loaded Thinkpad A20 of that vintage. It was quite a thing to behold when new, and it cost a small fortune by today’s standards. It was even more expensive (nominal dollar value) than the best 15″ Macbook Pro of today!

      If you got something like that for $25, you swindled that kid : )

      • 0 avatar
        Detroit-Iron

        I paid $2k for a stinkpad in ‘03. Magnesium armor, lasted 8 years, eventually running a particularly lean Linux flavor before I gave up.

      • 0 avatar
        28-Cars-Later

        @TW5

        Thanks, 28 is known to wheel and deal.

        I added a PCMCIA 56k modem as the gentleman with the Caddy title wanted a new computer to go on the Internet as his died. 98SE with AOL baby! Paid to be a computer geek in this case, older adults of the period just wanted something that worked without having to learn anything about the technology.

        @Detroit-Iron

        I still have several for my use but I’m not going beyond the *20 series as they just got really dumb. Ironically I type this on a corporate T450s I hate with a passion, Lenovo took the marque downhill big time.

        The 2003 period ones would have been Pentium 4/DDR266 and I think have a max memory of 1GB. I had an R40 Centrino briefly also with I believe DDR266 but a 2GB max. I settled on the 60/61 period ones for a long time which can run well with Win7 (Core 2 Penryn, 3 or 4GB DDR800 max) and these ones are choice among Thinkpad enthusiasts. Lately I’ve settled on the X300/X301 which both can hold 8GB and use early flash hard drives. Not powerful but very lightweight and easy for travel as long as you’re just doing basic things with it. I’ll probably keep riding those into oblivion from here on out for everyday non-professional use. For professional use I will either eventually acquire a W520 or get a newish Dell Precision of some variety.

  • avatar
    JohnTaurus

    I have bought a dozen or more cars for under a grand that ended up treating me well.

    The issue usually boils down to whether or not you can, or will, work on it your self. There is no shame in buying a $400 car that needs a repair you can do. It happens all the time. People who have already bought a replacement and have no interest in fixing what are likely minor issues in the grand scope of things (water pump, alternator, fuel pump, etc).

    Fixing the car your self can save you a bundle. Swallowing your pride and driving something with bad paint, dents, etc will open up a world of cars that still serve their purpose. I have seen people reject a good running car because the clear coat was chipping and the dash was cracked, and then go buy a nice *looking* car that is mechanically crap. So, you bought a really pretty paper weight, meanwhile my ugly old Aerostar or S10 gets me to work everyday.

    Its important to mention that I don’t live in the salt belt. Major rust can, of course, be far more of an issue than simple cosmetics.

    The Taurus I drive now is an example. It had some issues which I was confident I could solve, and after 5 years, its been a very reliable car. I drove it three states away this past weekend for a job. I’ll be here for a couple of months at least. I have no worries about it being there for me.

    Although I love my car and have vowed to keep it going no matter what, in other instances, driving an older cheap car is forgiving in a way because if something major goes wrong, you’re not into the car very much, so junk it and go find another. You buy an old Escort for $700, a year later the head gasket blows, sell it to a junkyard for $300 and move on. I promise it was FAR less expensive than a 10 year old Optima at a BHPH lot.

    Yes, it can be stressful when the old car stalls in a busy intersection or leaves you walking, but paying more attention to what is under the hood rather than the paint or dings on top of it will usually keep you on the road.

    • 0 avatar
      75brick

      This is so very true. I now drive newer vehicles, but that is because I would prefer not be stranded with the kids.

      If it were just me though, I saw no problem driving less cosmetically appealing vehicles as long as I knew the internals were solid.

  • avatar
    road_pizza

    Four years ago I paid $500 for an ’05 P71 with 112k miles with the intent of doing a little work on it and flipping it. Due to unforeseen circumstances it became my DD. Put maybe $1k into some repairs (a/c accumulator, brakes, tires) and so far I’ve put 47K trouble free miles on it. With me it isn’t the price, it’s the vehicle. I’m good at judging whether a vehicle is a good buy or not. Heck, one of my best deals was back in ’03, I bought a very rough running ’85 Tempo for all of $80.00. Yep, Eighty bucks! Replaced a couple of lengths of vacuum hose and the thing was good to go. Put 20K miles on it and sold it for $375.00 :) .

    • 0 avatar
      road_pizza

      Correction: the best deal I ever got on a car was back in ’08. My trusty ’95 Brand Marquis had just totaled due to a dumb ass that did a U turn right in front of and I needed some wheels fast. Bought a ’97 Escort for $200.00, needed a p/s pump which was conveniently in trunk awaiting installation. About a month after I bought it I got sideswiped on I-480 and figured I’d be out another car because even tho the damage was very minor it WAS just a $200.00 car. Wrong. The lady that hit me’s insurance company cut me a check for $1087 for the dented fender and cracked side marker and said it wasn’t anywhere near totaling! I pocketed the money and left the dent and the cracked side marker and when on my way :) . Several months later I bought my first P71 which meant the Escort was now surplus so I offered it uo for sale. One of my coworkers was looking for a car for her son and asked my how much I wanted for it, I told her to make me an offer. She came back with $1100.00… which needless to say I jumped on :D ! So, in the end, I got 2187.00 for a car I paid $200.00 for! Oh, and did I mention I bought the car just as gas prices skyrocketed to over $4 a gallon? That little Escort (a stick, BTW) got phenomenal fuel economy, over 40mpg highway! Best deal ever!

  • avatar
    Fred

    1969 I got my first car, a 1959 Ford Fairlane for $100. Piece of junk. A year later I got a 1963 Chevy Belair for $425 and it was much better and lasted 3 years. So until 1985 I bought a lot of $500 cars, mostly VW Beetles and British sport cars. Then I got a new car and while I still had old sport cars I also had a new one so I could keep commuting to my good paying job.

  • avatar
    tonyola

    Had a friend in college during the mid-1970s. His mom was a hairdresser, and she bought a rusty but mechanically sturdy 1961 Plymouth Savoy for her son for 12 free hairdos.

  • avatar
    Syke

    Maggie needed a beater car for the temporary 60 mile each way commute to her job, and not beat the crap out of her ’15 Dart GT. Enter one white 2001 Cavalier base. 190k on the clock, ran, filthy, needed some work (of course) for $400.00. Ex Henrico County car, which meant we knew where it was and what kind of service it got for the first 150k. Found a few receipts stuffed in the trunk showing that it got at least a couple more oil changes in the 40k interim.

    Put in another $4-500.00 into it for new tires, complete tune and fluid change (including transmission). We ran it for nine months with no problems whatsoever. Decided in January that having four cars (and four motorcycles) in the family was bordering on ridiculous, and Maggie had changed jobs. The new commute was three miles each way – unfortunately a hell of a climb on a very busy six lane road with Interstate interchange coming home, otherwise, I’d have given her one of my three speed bicycles.

    Sold the car for $600.00. Have an undying respect for the Chevrolet Cavalier – Cockroach of the Road.

  • avatar
    MeJ

    Best deal I ever got was a Black ’76 Trans Am with the 400 motor. Got it in ’93 for $700. The inflation calculator puts that at about 1200 in todays dollars. Had minor rust but ran great. No reliability issues at all. Of course, gas was cheaper then…

  • avatar
    CincyDavid

    I’m getting too old for the indignity and inconvenience of driving a beater. My personal record was a mid-80s BMW 528e that I bought from a foreign student at Mizzou who was leaving the country and running out of options. Some rust in the front floor, but otherwise OK, traded a BMW ballcap and BMW jacket that I bought at Plaza BMW in St Louis where I worked at the time. Paid $96 for the BMW items. Having said that, I did that deal nearly a decade ago, cars in OH are a lot more prone to be RUSTY in a big way and finding cheap wheels around here is tricky. If someone is handy, they MIGHT be able to snag a $1000 car around here that will run for awhile, if they are not handy, they might as well ride the bus if $1000 is all they can scrape up. For that matter, there aren’t many $5000 cars that I’d want to owe money on.

    Heaven help me, I’m over 50 with a bad back and a wife who won’t let anything with fluid leaks to park on the driveway, so I have been leasing the last couple of years.

  • avatar
    krhodes1

    I agree, right around a grand is as low as you can realistically go. My best car buy was in 2011. I had ordered my Euro Delivery BMW that I would get back in the states in October, but sold my previous Saab 9-3SC in May. My other cars were my Triumph Spitfire, an Alfa Spider, and an Alfa GTV6. So I needed something cheap and cheerful and practical in the interim. Found a ’95 Volvo 945 with 210K on eBay for $1250 in Providence. Bus and train to get it, drove it home. Put maybe $400 into it over 18 months, drove it all over the place, sold it to a buddy for $1250. Result!

  • avatar
    Scoutdude

    I’d say $1000 is too low unless you are getting a deal because you are buying it from a friend or family member or get lucky and come across a person who doesn’t know what they have or just need it gone today.

    I’d say that the floor is closer to $2,000 or $2,500 depending on where you live.

  • avatar
    sportyaccordy

    Time changes the floor. In 2003 I bought a 93 Accord, rust free, 93K miles, $2200. Solid car. About 5 years later, that same money got me a 92 Accord with 2x the miles and 10x the headaches. Today a 10 year old Accord with ~90K miles is a $9K car. That doesn’t track with MSRP or inflation at all. It’s a whole different ball game now, for whatever reason.

  • avatar
    Arthur Dailey

    At my age that is really not a fair question to ask. A couple of hundred bucks for a 1962 VW Beetle. Passed around to different family members and then friends, it ran for year, and years with nothing but gas and oil top ups.

    Kept on running until its bottom rusted right out.

  • avatar
    TW5

    $1,000 is too low

    The primary driver of accounting cost is not the purchase price of the vehicle, but the depreciation incurred, which is a function of residual value. Vehicles that have effectively reached their residual value threshold are generally the cheapest to own, especially if they are reliable.

    For instance, Craigslist in my area offers many clean 15 year old Honda Civics for $2,500-$3,000. Craigslist also lists many clean 20 year Civics for $2,000-$2,500. It seems the market has more or less determined that a relatively clean, fully-functioning Civic should cost between $2,000-$3,000 regardless of age or mileage (assuming under 250,000 miles). Looking at the spread between the purchase prices, buyers can see an opportunity to own a $3,000 Civic in decent condition for between $100-$200 per year.

    This is how you do cheap. Don’t buy junk. Many used vehicles offer low ownership costs. 18 months ago, I purchased a 4.0L V6 Tundra for $6,500. I’m confident the residual value threshold for the truck is $5,500 to $6,000. Therefore, I can own it for 3-5 years at a cost of $200-$300 per year. If fuel prices rise, the value of the truck will probably rise. That’s how you do cheap.

    • 0 avatar
      SaulTigh

      Trucks are a breed of their own. A strong running pickup is always useful, and therefore worth something, no matter what year or how beat up it might be. If you really want value for your money, pickups both new and used are the ticket.

  • avatar
    Rust-MyEnemy

    This is one of the few reasons I feel good about not living in the USA.

    That $1,000 equates to £719 at 19:55 on 6 March 2018. A cursory glance at the Autotrader listings shows a range of cars that would do anybody in need of budget wheels very nicely. There’s from an economical, well-historied Toyota Yaris of an age where sudden electronic Armageddon is unlikely. 108,000 miles elapsed.

    Or, if you’re not afraid of a little light body repair, there’s a lightly dented E39 520i Touring with a manual transmission. 134k miles isn’t even run in for that straight six.

    If you literally just want transport, there’s a 70,000 mile Hyundai Amica, just the thing for trundling along in an entirely emotionally disconnected way, for pennies. All three of these cars are listed at £695.

    That’s the thing in the UK. There’s absolutely no appetite for ‘make do and mend’, and people assume that anything elderly or, God forbid, non-premium isn’t worth driving. Perfectly usable cars are driven to the scrapyard every day. Whole species of machines, Mondeos, Vectras, Peugeot 406s, are being wiped off the face of the Earth.

    People just can’t be bothered to sell them. These listed on Autotrader are the exceptions to the rule, rather than the norm. People are so lazy or unwilling to deal with tyre-kickers, dreamers and cretins, that they’d rather scrap a car than make the effort to sell them.

    My own ’98 A4, with the 1.8T engine, was bought as a stop-gap when I finished in car sales. I paid £1,000 for it, and didn’t expect to still be driving it ten years later after little more than routine maintenance.

    And there’s the rub: As long as there’s some evidence that a car hasn’t been neglected, and it’s not a car that carries a hard-earned reputation for mechanical apocalypse, there’s no reason not to dip way below that hypothetical $1,000 figure. Every extra dollar you save is a dollar towards your next car.

    • 0 avatar
      TW5

      Cars are cheaper, but UK drivers contend with MOT’s. Older cars are pushed beyond the point of financial return by regulatory fiat, which drives down the price.

      In the US, almost anything will pass inspection, and gasoline is cheap so A-spec cars often receive overbuilt powertrains that can handle mileage and abuse. Any well built American or Japanese automobile will eclipse 200,000 miles with routine oil changes and one transmission fluid change.

      A reliable car with 100,000 miles has not even reached midlife in the US. It will fetch 40%-50% of its MSRP, depending on condition and age.

      • 0 avatar
        Rust-MyEnemy

        The MOT really isn’t as tough as all that. A well maintained car will pass. Any car that has enjoyed remedial work when it’s necessary has a good chance of not failing catastrophically.

        It’s more the fear of financial doom than the reality of it, that condemns cars in the UK to the scrap pile.

    • 0 avatar
      WallMeerkat

      As TW5 says, quite often an otherwise usable car is scrapped because the cost to get it through another MOT is more than the car is worth.

      It used to be similar in Japan, very strict vehicle checks meant that cars were sold for export, back in the 90s UK and Ireland got a lot of JDM cars.

      Rust-MyEnemy your name is apt as it used to be the case that rust would be the downfall of many UK/Ireland cars, being islands in the Atlantic with salt on the roads for about half the year. Some cars used to have terminal rust by their 3rd birthday.

      I actually know someone who bought a new Micra and scrapped their old Yaris just before it’s MOT, as they couldn’t be bothered with the tyre kickers. The ‘gumtree’ set (similar to Craig’s List) who torture the seller with texts – “WOT IS LEST UD TK?” “NT WORTH MORE THAN 150” “ULL BE GETTING BACK TO ME WHEN NOT SOLD” etc. or the ones that turn up to your door and give the sob stories “All I have is £150, I’ve been ill/unemployed/gave all my money to charity/etc.”

      Myself I’ve given up on private buying / selling, if you buy cheap privately you’re buying someone’s headache. If you sell privately you’re going to get headmelters.

      Within the past decade I’ve bought cheap cars that have been hit or miss:
      – £450 Clio, great first car, basic so easy to maintain, though written off when rear ended by a 5 series
      – £500 Ford Orion, terrible an absolute lemon, only car I’ve ever scrapped as it would need nothing short of a miracle to get it another MOT
      – £900 Citroen ZX, a diesel back before diesel was evil, reliable and economical, ideal student car, often overlooked by the better looking Peugeot 306 sister car.
      – £0 Citroen ZX, a turbodiesel wagon/estate, given to me by a friend-of-a-friend as they couldn’t be bothered with the hassle of selling, high miles but ran it for a while and it performed some practical use picking up washing machines etc
      – £1400 Citroen Xantia, when I got it home I noticed that the front wings/fenders were a different shade of silver to the doors, a good comfortable car though
      – £500 Alfa GTV, needed a bit of work to get it through the MOT, but the seller had the fail sheet, a new exhaust, wishbones and some fusebox soldering and I had myself a Paninfarina Italian sports coupe!
      – £1500 Peugeot 406, it needed a good clean and when I cleaned it I found out why the seller hadn’t – it had rust along the left door bottoms
      – £1500 Honda Accord Coupe – the only American car (as in built in the USA), not particularly economical but it was comfortable and reliable until it started cutting out, mechanic threw parts at it costing £££s until the MOT ran out. Later found out it just needed a main relay, but by that point I’d already replaced it with…
      – £2000 Toyota Celica, not as great quality as I was hoping from Toyota. Wife never liked it. Fancied another automatic so traded it in for
      – £2000 Saab 93, nice solid car, nice seats. Then Baby was on the way and wanted a big hatchback, so traded it in for a significantly more expensive 3 year old Skoda, and the cheap-ish car journey ended.

      • 0 avatar
        Rust-MyEnemy

        You’re certainly right on the Craigslist front.

        Rust, though my enemy, is far from my greatest fear in the UK, because it can be controlled. My galvanised Audi only has rust on the front wheelarch surface, where the paint and zinc has been worn off by road grit from the tyres. It’s twenty years old.

        My Rover has a few bits of cosmetic rust, and would be far worse had it not been looked after in its 21 years on the road. I’ve never seen a car with terminal rust after three years. Sure, there have been some Mazda horror stories and the Ford Ka was pretty much water soluble, but it took a bit more than three years for the rot to really set in.

  • avatar
    Steve65

    About a year ago I paid $1100 for an 02 Focus 3-door. In San Francisco, in case anybody is thinking “cheap market”. It had a trivial coolant leak (I can’t even remember what it was, but it was fixed in minutes) a taped on driver’s side mirror, and a minor scrape down the passenger side door. Interior isn’t perfect, but it’s comfortable. Nothing torn up, handing down, or nasty stained.

    200k miles, but it had been a company car, maintained on schedule and not neglected. Anything it needed had been promptly done. So, new struts and newish tires, and just generally sound.

    The HVAC fan is noisy, and the radio volume switch is a random number generator. Aside from that, it just runs.

    I’d been seeing it sit for sale at $1400 for months. I suspect the mileage and the scrape scared people off before they could get close enough to see the solid car underneath. I probably could have paid even less, but I don’t like to play hardball. My offer was accepted immediately, and I drove it home.

    I’m going to be in the market again in a month or so, and I’ve got my eye on a Kona edition Focus that’s been sitting for two months at an asking $1200…

  • avatar
    rpn453

    I haven’t bought anything that cheap, but I sold a ’95 Crown Vic with severe frame rust last year for my elderly neighbor. Replaced with an ’03 CR-V. Asked $800, got $700 from one of the three interested buyers. It was a mechanically sound and reliable vehicle, with good tires, and everything worked on it, but that frame had a very finite life and would not do well in a crash. I stated this explicitly in the ad and during discussions. The lady didn’t care, and her drunk-at-noon son-in-law had a look underneath figured it was good enough. I’d certainly choose it over the bus too.

    Next up, his wife’s ’89 Cavalier with 80k miles. Garage kept so the paint on top is perfect but the rocker panels are disintegrating. I could feel the unibody flex and hear it liberate flakes of rust whenever I cornered with it during test drives when I solve or repair the minor issues it’s had the last few years. I’d still choose it over the Crown Vic. That thing’s too numb and floaty for me.

    There’s no reason for them to have two vehicles, but she’s had it for 27 years and apparently doesn’t want to part with it. She still spray paints over the rusty fenders and rocker panels a couple times a year to keep it looking fresh.

  • avatar
    George B

    I sold a 16 year old car to the brother of a coworker for $600 in 2006 and would buy a car in similar condition from someone I know for $750, roughly the same amount adjusted for inflation. That car ran and passed inspection, but had peeling paint and a cracked dash. The buyer and his son got 2 more years use out of the car, primarily as a car left parked at the airport when the son flew out of town on business trips.

  • avatar

    What used to be a “$50 dollar special” is now at least $500.

    In the mid 1970s, I paid $50 for a used up stripper 1968 Plymouth Valiant with 98,000 miles on it. It had a 170 cu in Slant Six, Chrysler’s three speed automatic, power brakes, an AM radio, and rubber floor mats, not carpeting. I drove it for about 20,000 miles before the engine finally gave up the ghost. We once drove it to NYC for a trade show. We parked on the street in Brooklyn near my sister’s apartment. They had alternate side of the street parking and my sister and brother in law were going somewhere, so I suggested they take our car and park it on the correct side of the street so we wouldn’t get a ticket overnight and that way they didn’t have to take their car out of the basement parking garage. Ten minutes later they came back, my brother in law ashen faced. “You drove that from Detroit??!!” Okay, so the front end was a little bit sloppy.

    My son recently paid $300 for a Saturn wagon from a guy who buys scrap cars. The ones that still run he sells cheap with a “come back and I’ll give you another one” guarantee if this one breaks down. So far this one has lasted a few months.

    My daughter got an outstanding deal on a fairly late model Ford Focus with a salvage title. Someone drove it over a curb and damaged the frame rails. There’s a guy in suburban Detroit who recycles, services and sells just the Ford Focus. The cars come with a one year bumper to bumper warranty and his customers are very loyal: http://autorexdave.com/home/1840812

  • avatar
    DrSandman

    Interesting QOTD. I am in a very different stage of life now than when I was a poor grad student. The answer is ultimately, “What is the cheapest car you would let your wife drive from Cleveland to Baltimore… at night… in the rain?”

    I wouldn’t let her go anywhere near those steaming carpholes in something less than $20-25k with a 50k mile CPO warranty left on the clock.

    Are you all really telling us that you would let your daughter drive into the woods camping with her boyfriend in a $300 Saturn wagon? Interesting outlook on life…

  • avatar
    Ermel

    Maybe five years ago, I needed a temporary replacement for my Citroën BX GTi with a blown engine. I got another BX, a 1.6 litre wagon with no options whatsoever, very beaten-looking inside and out, more than 500k km (350k miles) on the clock, a couple of months left on its mandantory biannual TÜV inspection. In other words, a wreck by any definition. The price? 50 € (US$ 60), bring your own wheels and battery.

    I drove it for four years, which means it passed two TÜV inspections — half the time as a winter beater, half as an only car. It’s now parked due to TÜV-relevant structural rust — but I will have it fixed. How could I throw it away? It is the only car I’ve ever owned (of maybe two dozen) that never left me stranded. I only ever invested in a new exhaust, brake pads, rear discs, and tires.

    “You never know what you get.” — Forrest Gump

  • avatar
    e30gator

    I bought an ’88 Volvo 240 wagon for $300 in ’08 as a beater car to haul pool chemicals in. It had a broken weld on the drivers door that made it a challenge to close properly and it leaked oil like a sieve, but aside from going through two junkyard alternators, it just would not die. It ran so well, I actually began commuting in it back and forth to work 20 miles away. I sold it after 3 years for $1000 to a happy buyer before moving across the state and buying a good ’93 Ford Ranger for $800.

  • avatar
    DweezilSFV

    Paid $600 for an 18 year old 63 Valiant Signet in 1981. Seems like that’s $1713 in today’s dollars according to the Dollar Times calculator.

    I still have it. New carpet installed a couple of months back.

    Easy to work on starting out with no money. 3 speed on the column, Slant Six.

    Another couple of years and I’ll decide if it’s a keeper or not.

  • avatar
    mike1041

    Cheapest car ever–1977 the 69 Torino bit the dust and I am strapped. A neighbour of a friend of mine sold me a 70 Ford plain Jane for $500 sifted. Got two years out of that tank and maybe threw 300 bucks at it over the period. Nest cost to run that car was the cheapest ever at $400 per year. Since then no Honda or Toyota has given me that low cost. Seventies costs in todays dollars may be 2 grand a year and my current 8 year old Corolla with no repairs ever still stands me at 3 grand a year. The old days were the good days from a cost standpoint but you sure get lots more car for your money now. No annual spark plug changes plus all the safety features you will admit I am way better off. But the green tank was an adventure in motoring when bucks were tight.

  • avatar
    salguod

    About 2.5 years ago I bought a 1996 BMW 318ti for $500. It had 239K on the clock and a terrible lurching at any attempt at modest acceleration. Before I could sort it out, the diff mount failed. Long story short, the lurching was a separated motor mount. In the first few months I spent another $1,200 bringing it up to snuff (motor, trans and diff mounts, front brakes, control arms). I then drove it for 2 years and about 30K miles until the throw out bearing on the factory clutch started screaming. I sold it as is for $1,450. So it cost me $300 for 2 years of driving.

    I then stepped up to a 2002 Acura RSX Type S with 241K miles for $1,200. It needed a timing chain and a full exhaust including cat. That, plus a set of tires and a starter, cost me another $800. I plan on driving it for another couple of years. I’m optimistic that I will be able to sell it for more than I have in it, assuming nothing else major goes wrong.

    So, yes, a super cheap car is likely to have needs. But, if you can do the work yourself and you enjoy it, you can enjoy interesting cars on the cheap.

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