QOTD: How Low Is Too Low?

Steph Willems
by Steph Willems
qotd how low is too low

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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2 of 76 comments
  • Mike1041 Mike1041 on Mar 07, 2018

    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.

  • Salguod Salguod on Mar 10, 2018

    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.

  • Kwik_Shift A manual bug eye WRX wagon (2001-03) would interest me more.
  • El scotto Ferrari develops a way to put a virtual car in real time traffic? Will it be multiple virtual players in a possible infinite number of real drivers in real time situations?This will be one of the greatest things ever or a niche video game.
  • El scotto It's said that many military regulations are written in blood. Every ship's wheel or aircraft joystick has a human hand on it at all times when a ship or aircraft are under power. Tanks, APC's and other ground vehicles probably operate under the same rules. Even with those regulations accidents still happen. There is no such thing as an unmanned autopilot, ever. Someone has to be on the stick at all times.I do not think MB understands what a sue-happy nation the USA is. The 1st leased MB in a wreck while this Type 3 "Semi-Autonomous" driving, or whatever it is called, will result in an automatic lawsuit. Expect a class action lawsuit after the 1st personal lawsuit is filed. Yes, new MB owners can afford and ever are lawyers.Mercedes Benz; "The best wrecks or nothing!" Oh and has anyone noticed that Toyota/Lexus and Honda/Acura, the gray suit with white shirt and striped tie, automobile companies have stayed away from any autonomous driving nonsense?
  • Merc190 Very streamlined but not distinctive enough for a Mercedes. And besides, the streetcar of the early 20th century seems a far more efficient and effective method of people moving in essentially an autonomous manner. A motor car is meant to be driven with proper attention to what's important in every situation. To design it otherwise is idiotic and contradictory.
  • Abqhudson Passenger seating in recent accords has been unacceptable with my 5’2” wife forced to look at the dash while sitting in the hole provided.