Buying a Cheap, Reliable Used Car

by Shaunna Privratsky

DIY Landscaping for Less photo

Buying a used car can be dread-inducing, but when you take the proper steps, you can protect yourself and score a great deal without getting used.

My daughter turned sixteen with only one thing on her wish list: getting her driver’s license. The day finally arrived when I needed to start thinking about buying a car for her. The only vehicle we had was a minivan, and let me tell you, there isn’t anything mini about it.

These are the steps I took to buy her a cheap, reliable used car. Used car prices are considerably higher now than they were the decade or so ago when I was used car shopping, but these tips can help you save just the same.

Buying a Used Car From a Private Owner

I began looking for a used car in earnest. A smaller four-door car that was safe, reliable, and really, really cheap would be ideal. I also didn’t want to get tricked into buying a piece of junk.

My first stop? Online and print classifieds. But after several months, I realized most used cars were way out of my budget.

Determine the blue book value of the car.

I found a car advertised for $2,000, and after talking with the owner on the phone, I arranged a test drive. By checking the private party rates at Kelly Blue Book, I realized the car was a bit overpriced, but figured I could negotiate a better deal.

Have a mechanic check out the car.

Then I called an auto shop nearby and made an appointment to have the car checked out for a mere $50. They told me that most people bring their used car in after they buy it when they are stuck with it.

The mechanics discovered over $4,000 worth of repairs necessary to make the car safe, including brakes and a new transmission. I returned the car and resumed my hunt.

Tip: Get any used car checked out by a mechanic before making a purchase. In my case, $50 prevented a $4000+ mistake.

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Buying a Used Car from the Dealership

I called around to the various auto dealers and located three more cars within my price range. Two of the cars on my list were right on the dealer estimates at Kelly Blue Book, but one was under by $1,000, because the teal color might not appeal to all buyers.

I took it for a test drive, and then my daughter took it for a test drive later that day and fell in love with it. I told the salesman I would buy it if it checked out at a mechanic’s shop.

Take the car to your own mechanic, even when buying from a dealership.

He agreed, and I took it to the shop. They couldn’t find anything wrong, and commented that even though it is a 9 year old car, it was well-maintained and had several new parts, including a water pump, which is over $1,000 to replace. The mechanic said the asking price was a steal and that he would buy it.

Request the Carfax and get ready to negotiate.

I was just about ready to begin negotiating with the auto dealer. When I got back to the shop, I requested a copy of the Carfax, which is a vehicle report that reputable dealers must provide for free. Everything was great on the report, and I made an offer $400 below the asking price. The salesman conferred with the manager, and they met me in the middle with $200 off the price.

Tip: The more knowledgeable you are about the car you want to buy, the easier it is to negotiate a great deal.

How Much Will the Insurance Be on the Car?

Even the insurance was a bargain, due to the age and make of the vehicle. Since the car is much smaller than the van, parking is a breeze. On the day of my daughter’s test, it was still dark at 7:30am, and the roads were a sheet of ice with eight inches of snow on top. My daughter passed her test with flying colors.

Although the insurance tripled because of a teenage driver, we got a discount because my daughter has straight As and no tickets or accidents. (Knock on wood.) Still, it is much cheaper than adding her as a driver to the newer van; it was a savings of $120 to $150 a month. The car also gets terrific gas mileage.

Tip: Do your homework regarding insurance. Not all cars are insurance-friendly. You don’t want to negate a great deal on a car with sky-high insurance rates.

Steps to Buying a Cheap, Reliable Used Car Without Getting Used

So, let’s review the steps to buying a used car without getting used.

1. Locate a car or type of vehicle you want. Research prices, safety records, recalls, and various vehicles online. The best site is Kelly Blue Book at

2. Private party sales are typically cheaper, but you have to do your homework. The seller might not tell you of impending repairs that are needed or exaggerate claims on safety or reliability. Dealerships typically offer some sort of warranty or at least stand behind their reputation. Any promises or warranties should be put in writing, with a signature, before you complete the sale.

3. Even if the seller swears the car is in perfect condition, take it to a trusted mechanic. Even if you have to pay a fee at a shop, it is worth it to discover any problems before you plunk down your hard-earned money.

4. A Carfax report is invaluable. Dealers should provide one free of charge, or you can purchase one yourself at All you need is the year, make, model, and VIN number. A private party seller shouldn’t have a problem providing this information if they don’t have anything to hide.

The Carfax report reveals any insurance claims made on the car and if it has a clean title, meaning it can be transferred to you as soon as the sale is complete.

5. When you are ready to buy, remember the rules of negotiation. Ask for a lower price, even if you feel you are getting a good deal. Or ask for some of the fees to be paid, like the sales tax, title transfer fees, or licensing fees. It doesn’t hurt to ask, and the seller may be willing to bargain.

Buying a cheap, reliable used car can be dread-inducing, but when you take the proper steps, you can protect yourself and score a great deal without getting used.

Reviewed August 2023

About the Author

Shaunna Privratsky became an expert in personal finance out of necessity. Between writing, reading and gardening, she is always on the lookout for bargains. Visit her at The Discount Diva.

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