Should You Buy A Low Cost Used Car?


Take your foot off the gas and read this before purchasing that cheap car.

By Mary Schwager for

What’s your odometer reading? No, this isn’t a pick up line in a biker bar. But how many of you would feel comfortable buying a used car that has a lot of miles? My car, which I call the “weekend warrior” because I really only use it two days a week, has more than 100,000 miles, it’s still ticking (knock on wood...). My good friend has a Volvo that hit 200,000 miles, which he’s very proud to tell you about. In fact, he marked the milestone with a Facebook picture of his dashboard. We’re planning to drive our 'old faithfuls' into the ground, but if you saw a used car ad for our clunkers would you shudder?

The car gurus at launched something called the “Debt-Free Car Project”. The project helps you decide if you can find a reliable used car for less than $5,000. That usually means no car payments, but does that mean lots of repair bills? A year ago Edmunds bought a 1996 Lexus ES 300 for $3,800 (after tax and title) and they tracked the car's fuel, maintenance and repair costs.

Over the course of 13 months, spent $3,286 – or about $253 per month – in maintenance and repairs. That’s actually the exact price of the car before tax and title. The costs did come in under Edmunds budget of $365 per month. editors drove the car over 18,000 miles, including a cross-country road trip and a cruise through Death Valley, in addition to putting it through the demands of daily commutes and errands. It performed generally well, but the vehicle left editors stranded on two separate occasions and generated a number of costly and unavoidable issues and repairs. But, as Montoya notes, “There's no guarantee that a newer car also won't break down.”

But the year-long project led editors there to recommend a low cost, “debt-free” car purchase only to certain buyers. “Buying in the sub-$5,000 price range, you will drive a car that will probably have repair issues, so if you have a trusted mechanic, or if you are capable of doing the repairs on your own, it could be a solid choice,” says Edmunds Consumer Advice Editor Ron Montoya. “But if you get overwhelmed dealing with mechanics and repair shops, or if you worry excessively about potential breakdowns, you may want to save enough money to prioritize reliability over cost-savings in your next car purchase.”

Interestingly when the yearlong project was over, they had no shortage of buyers for the Lexus! They sold it to a company employee for market value: $2668.

Other things to keep in mind:

  • Dealer and manufacturer warranties would most likely not cover any repair costs.
  • You should certainly have it pre-inspected before you buy it, as you would with any car, by a trusted mechanic.
  • It may be a good idea to make sure you have a membership to an auto club or service that provides free towing.
  • Research online for complaints about a certain make and model you’re considering purchasing to see if there’s something notoriously wrong with it.
  • The National Highway Safety Administration ( has a car lookup where you can search complaints filed about certain cars and you can also check for recalls.

What do you think? Would you feel comfortable buying a low cost used car?

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Mary Schwager, AKA Galtime's "WatchDog Mary" is a journalist with more than 17 years experience. She's won more than two-dozen local, regional, national and international journalism awards for investigative, consumer, feature reporting and writing including 11 Emmy Awards and 7 Edward R. Murrow Awards and numerous Associated Press honors. Do you have something you want Mary to check out? Do you have a story idea? Please email her at You can also follow her on Twitter @WatchDogMary and "like" her on Facebook.

This article was originally published at . Reprinted with permission from the author.