In The Market for a Used Car Bargain?
Chris Teague October 4, 2018

Some people love having the newest, nicest, flashiest vehicle money can buy. Just as many more don’t care at all what they drive, as long as it takes them from place to place without much complaint. Most are somewhere in the middle of those two extremes, but there’s a decent chance that many of us will find a time where we just need four wheels to take us where we need to go.

At that point, the driving forces for a vehicle purchase are likely to be less about what a vehicle looks like or what the brand name is and more about the price and reliability scores. The main challenges in buying a cheap used vehicle are pretty obvious: Anything with a low price tag has already been used heavily by someone else, has been previously wrecked, or has some degree of mechanical problems. The only one of those that isn’t necessarily a problem out of the gate is the one that’s been heavily used.

Knowing that, how can anyone buy a low-cost used vehicle and not lose out? What are the warning signs to look out for when shopping? In this post, we’ll answer these questions and dive into the world of cheap wheels.

Visible Condition

This one seems obvious, but with used vehicles there’s more going on than meets the eye. Anything that has been polished up, steam-cleaned, and looks nicer than it has any business being might not be as great a deal as it seems. The vast majority of used car lots and individual sellers are legitimate and honest, but it’s always possible to find a vehicle that has been spit-shined just enough to pass a quick inspection. It sounds counterintuitive, but a vehicle that is being shown in less than perfect condition may be a better buy than one that has been dolled up just for the sale.

Beyond outright deception, buying a vehicle that has a few dents and dings will ultimately increase your bargaining power. Beauty is only skin deep, and if you’re in the market for a budget car there’s a great chance you weren’t shopping on looks in the first place.

Mechanical Condition

This is where the rubber hits the road when buying a cheap vehicle. If something serious is wrong under the hood, the prospect of buying a car for a few thousand dollars will seem silly when the repair bills nearly reach the purchase price. Taking the vehicle to a mechanic you trust for an inspection will cost a couple hundred dollars but will save a lot more in repair bills and headaches down the road (maybe not that far, either).

Reviewing the Carfax report is a great way to get a feel for major repairs or accidents that have been repaired on the vehicle, but the report won’t indicate current issues or upcoming problems that you need to be aware of as a buyer. Even if you’re buying the vehicle remotely and plan to travel to pick it up, get an inspection from an independent mechanic to verify that your purchase isn’t going to leave you stranded on the way home.

What’s In a Name?

There’s a reason that Toyotas and Hondas are priced at a premium even with tons with miles and years on the clock. They are rightfully known as being reliable and relatively problem-free well beyond the timeframe that turns other vehicles to piles of scrap. That reputation adds dollars to the price tag, and while you’ll likely end up getting a decent car, the amount of money spent may not align with the amount of car you get in this price range. Shop for brands that have solid reliability ratings but lack some of the fervor that surrounds the big Japanese brands. Mazda, some Nissans, Hyundai, Kia, and others make fantastic used car bargains, and in most cases don’t carry the hefty second-hand price tag.

Finding a great low-cost vehicle is easier now than ever before. More automakers’ vehicles are made so well that running far beyond the 100,000-mile mark is no longer the reliability death sentence that it once was. Of course, where you buy your cheap wheels is almost as important as what you buy, because you’ll need to find a seller that you trust and that represents the vehicles fairly in price and condition. Being cheap doesn’t mean being careless, so get the vehicle checked out by a mechanic before buying and your bargain basement find may keep you on the road for years to come.

Chris Teague

Chris Teague covers a variety of automotive topics from new car reviews to industry trends. With a background in business and finance, Chris’ writing is aimed at helping consumers make informed choices about what they drive and growing an understanding of the companies that make those vehicles. You can find more of Chris' work at