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Eleven Tips For Buying A $1,000 Beater On Craigslist

Posted in Beater Cars, Car Buying, Cars, General, How To, Reasonable RideLust, Tips, Used Cars by Kurt Ernst | August 10th, 2010 | 38 Responses |

Times are tough, and it doesn’t look like there’s going to be any major economic recovery in the near future. A lot of people, myself included, have cut way back on spending just to make ends meet. Still, you can only cut back so far: ours is a culture based around the automobile, and you need a reliable set of wheels to get to and from work, the grocery store, your therapist, etc.

I paid $700 for my first car, but that was over 25 years ago. Is it still possible, I wondered, to score a car for under $1,000 if you shopped carefully on Craigslist? Searching the listings for Jacksonville, FL, I can safely say the answer is yes, as long as you’re not particularly concerned with what you’ll be driving. If you want to get from point A to point B for under $1,000, here are a few tips to keep in mind:

• Look at private party sales only, and avoid dealers. Car dealers can’t make profit on cars that sell for less than $1,000, and anything you see advertised at a dealership is likely to be “money down”, not the purchase price of the vehicle. For example, a local dealer has a 1999 Chevy Tahoe listed for $1,000; sure, it’s got over 217,000 miles on the clock, but that still sounds like a good deal. Click on the listing, and you realize that they want $1,000 down on the purchase price of $4,295. Good luck with that.

'Trust me, I'm in sales.' Not.

• Avoid anything with a story. If the car “ran great when parked”, chances are it doesn’t run at all now. If it “needs a little work”, expect it to need a lot of work. If the owner specifies “needs $2,500 worth of work”, expect it to need double that. At this price point, you’re buying temporary transportation only. If it doesn’t run today, chances are it won’t be a cheap or easy fix. If it was, the current owner would have fixed it himself.

'Needs some work, but ran great when parked'

• Don’t worry about appearance. In this price range, all you care about is “does it run”, “does it have brakes” and “does the owner have a title”. Expect any $1,000 car to have rust, Bondo, body damage, a shredded interior, mismatched body panels, a rattle-can paint job or all of the above. In fact, you should embrace this; consider dents and scratches as battle scars, and sleep well knowing your car isn’t likely to get broken into or stolen.

'Custom, two toned paint scheme'

• Look for cars that have license plates in pictures. No plates tell me the car isn’t currently driven, and you have no way of knowing how long the car has been parked. You could take the word of the seller, but chances are he’ll be less than entirely truthful. He’s trying to get this heap out of his front yard, and his choices are pay to have it towed away or sell it to some other victim for as much money as possible. Which would you choose?

A license plate is a good sign; a current plate is even better.

• Expect the car to need some work. At this price point, you will be buying a car that’s been neglected, probably for years. The oil may look like axle grease, the tires will probably be bald and the brakes are likely to be shot. Be realistic about your own mechanical skills, and don’t buy a project that’s over your head. If you’ve never rebuilt a motor before, learning on a Saab 900 Turbo that you snapped up for $800 will only lead to heartbreak. On the other hand, if that $700 Dodge Caravan only needs brakes and tires, you’ll probably be home free for under $1,000 if you can turn a wrench.

Needs a little too much work...

• If you don’t know cars, bring along someone who does. If you don’t know what ‘rod knock’ is, you need to bring a friend who does. Likewise, it’s helpful to know if that valve tap is simply a hydraulic lifter that’s clogged or the sign of something far more insidious. You’re not going for perfect here, you’re going for serviceable, and you want the car to last you long enough to get back on your feet. If it dies on your drive home, it’s not like you have a warranty to fall back on.

Also needs too much work...

• Don’t worry about the interior. At less than $1,000, it’s likely to be hideous and will probably smell worse than the inside of a five-year-old-sneaker. If the driver’s seat has collapsed or if the carpet has mushrooms growing on it, you can always find replacements at a wrecking yard. Otherwise, cheap seat covers, a thorough cleaning and an air freshener should be good enough to make the interior bearable.

New floor mats, seat covers and an air freshener and you're good to go.

• Learn to compromise. Sure, A/C is nice (especially in FL), but don’t expect a $1,000 car to have working A/C. More important are working lights and working wipers, since a car you can’t drive in the rain doesn’t make a lot of sense. Likewise, don’t worry if the radio doesn’t work – you can always buy a cheap car stereo at a pawn shop if you can’t live without tunes.

You can always add A/C later.

• Avoid the exotic. Sure, a Mercedes Benz 300 diesel can be made to run nearly forever, but when something does break you probably won’t have the money to fix it. As cool as driving an old Mercedes diesel would be, you’re better off sticking to something from the U.S. big three, preferably something heavy duty with a long production cycle. The RWD Chevy Impalas or Ford Crown Victorias are great examples, and you can generally find older Chevy Blazers, Ford Broncos or Jeep Cherokees in this price range if you look hard enough.

Here's what a $1,000 Dodge Viper looks like.

• No picture = no call. Sure, it could be that the seller doesn’t have a digital camera, but damn near everyone has a camera phone these days. If there isn’t a picture with the ad, be suspicious and move on to the next ad.

• If it sounds too good to be true, it is. Craigslist is filled with scam artists who make a living separating trusting shoppers (or sellers) from their money as quickly and efficiently as possible. No one is going to sell a car below value unless it’s to a family member or close friend. If you find a pristine Porsche 944 on Craigslist for $800, be afraid; like honest politicians, deals like that don’t exist in real life.

'Ford GT for sale, $1,000. Need money for college tuition'.

I was able to find about five or six cars I’d call on if I were in the market for a beater car. I’m not right now, and I hope that I won’t be any time in the near future. If you are, good luck with your search and feel free to hit me up if you need any specific advice.

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38 Responses

  1. Geekwrench says:

    This was a great article up until you mentione the “Big 3″ american companies. I would never recomend 10 year old anything made in the US. youd be better off with a major brand asian car: toyota honda nissan…

    • Kurt says:

      Geekwrench, have you ever tried to find a $1,000 Honda Civic or Toyota Corolla? The reason I said American big three has nothing to do with build quality or reliability; instead, it’s all about cheap, plentiful parts.

      Any $1,000 car, no matter who made it, is going to need work.

  2. Alan says:

    Agreed with Geekwrench… When in the market for a beater better to sick with and old Honda or Toyota. They just seem to hold up better after a few years of negelect. I traded in my last old beater (83 honda) for a newer model truck (2005 Dodge Ram) after finding http://www.positivechange.ws It has been a work in process, but after 6 months i am finally crawing up out of the hole. Check it out! Its worth your time.

  3. Matthews says:

    I got a 1,500 dollar prelude a few years back, it was pretty nice didn’t really need any work for about a year. Then I had to change the slave cylinder, put on pads, etc. I eventually got tired of working on it and moved to a 2,500 Acura Integra that needed work after about a year…

    In the less than 5,000 dollar range nothing is that reliable so pick something easy to work on. All the Honda’s parts were fairly easy to get to, but space under the hood was quite cramped. Sometimes back then I wished I had a big old truck where I could practically get in the engine bay.

  4. bobby says:

    I had a 2007 Honda Civic that I bought brand new. I was making over $700 a month in payments (after the required full coverage insurance). I found out I was being laid off so I let the repoman come by and take it.

    I bought my jeep cherokee for $1,500 off craigslist a couple of years ago right after they took my car. I’ve driven it ever since. It has 199,000 miles so far, drives great! Sure, when I got it, the back bumper was bent, preventing the tailgate from opening but a new bumper from the salvage yard fixed that for less than $100. New tires, cheap stero with USB input for my mp3s, new wiper blades, and some sanding and paint on the wheels, it looks as good as new.

    The AC works great, it has 4×4 in case I need it and even power doors/locks. Sub $1,000 range is a bad idea in my opinion. For between $2k and $3k you can find a car that will last years. I recommend a 90′s honda civic if you want a car or a 90′s jeep cherokee (not the grand cherokee) if you want a suv/truck. They are a dime a dozen, the parts are CHEAP and both have reasonable gas mileage.

  5. Freebies says:

    @Kurt:

    Yeah, any $1000 car is going to need some work. However, I agree with Geekwrench that US cars do NOT last long unfortunately.

  6. Motor Oil says:

    I also recommend cars that are 1996 or newer as they have ODB-II computers making it easier to diagnose check engine light problems. With a simple computer from Auto Zone or Advanced Auto, you can avoid paying for expensive diagnostics and can most likely find out that it’s something simple like replacing an oxygen sensor. If you can find a GM car with an Ecotec engine for under $1,000, you’ve got a good deal. Those engines are very reliable and are used in many Saturns, Pontiacs and Chevrolets. The engines are super easy to service. The oil filters don’t take but 3 minutes or less to remove and replace and make virtually no mess.

  7. Asif says:

    I thought cars were cheaper in the US than in Canada? Its not hard to find a car under 1k here that runs and doesn’t need any work right away. Sure, it may not be pretty, it may have high mileage, but I don’t think you have to settle for a moldy interior and a demolished paint job, or something that needs new brakes or tires immediately. I recall a chevy guy looking at the $1100 Toyota Supra I had bought one time and saying 300,00kms? Just about dead hey? I sold it for $800 with 380,000kms on it

  8. houstonobserver says:

    What I actually did many years back was have 2 cars, one which ran great on the highway at, but had horrible mileage in town, and a jap rustbucket that had great mileage in town but I was sure would land in the ditch from crosswinds if I broke 55 on the highway.

    Sure I spent more than $1000, about $1.5K, but at that price range, the residual value is just there, especially if you kept them in running condition, so I managed to sell them off 2 years later at the same price, i.e. the cars were “free”, I paid only for wear and tear items, maintenance, and gas.

    Actually, what one can do is buy 2 cars for $500 ea. and transplant stuff back and forth, which was what I was tempted to do, but that may be too much work for some people.

  9. david says:

    i’m trying to sell a 1998 saturn sc2 for $1000 on seattle craigslist right now. there’s nothing wrong with it and i have gotten zer0 calls. it’s my daily driver. you should’ve set the bar @ $500. that’s the real price point for a “beater”.

  10. rao says:

    Well, sometimes you get lucky. I just sold my 95 windstar minivan with 120k miles a month ago for $650. It ran extremely well and smooth (I have kept it in great shape). Had radio, AC, etc. all working. Great interior, one year old tires. No maintenance needed probably during the next year or more.

    I had just bought a new car and didn’t need the minivan anymore and it was better to sell it than to donate it (it wasn’t going to be used, probably sold for parts) and it made no sense to trade it in. I sold it to a single mother of 2.

    I hope some good Karma is coming my way!

  11. Janika says:

    I just sold my wife’s CR-V on CraigsList, probably 80% of the inquiries were scams. Watching out for scams should be No.1 on the Craigslist priority list. Actually, they should just rename it to Scamslist.

  12. Todd says:

    I hate to blow my secret but you directly mentioned it. Mercedes 300d’s are all I buy. Got my last one for 800 dollars with new registration and new tires. The car runs great and has only cost me 10 dollars in vacuum hoses.

    I see your point about plentiful parts but I also think we should steer people away from american cars. An $800 Toyota Camry or Merc could last another 5 years. An 800 chevy Impala will break in a month.

    I think the most important thing is to know a little about what cars are good when used and which ones are junk!

    • Kurt says:

      Todd, if you’re in the market there’s a 300D in Jacksonville for $800. It sounds like all it need is a transmission shift bushing replaced.

  13. Byron Wang says:

    A thousand dollar car will let you down
    A whole lot more than it will get you around
    Put your money in it and there you are…
    The owner of a ‘two-thousand’ thousand dollar car.

  14. Klipsch lova says:

    I agree with Geekwrench. Even if the parts are plentiful, wouldn’t you rather have a car that’s much less likely to break apart and need something new every few months? I’m a craig-head and I can always find a decent toyota or honda. Besides, there are not as much but still plenty of toyota parts out there.

  15. Bob says:

    I bought a great car for $600. Two years later and it still runs good and looks good. It hasn’t needed any work yet, other than basic maintenance. It’s got AC and had the factory stereo/receiver, which I have since upgraded. It has a few problems, but nothing close to what is suggested I should settle for by your article. No rust or shredded interior or parts that needed to be replaced.

  16. Chris says:

    it’s true – you get what you paid for. If you /could/ afford a 2k car, or something that’ll last longer, great.

    If you’re flat out /broke/ – well then. American cars with parts in nearly every junk yard would be a better deal.

  17. Mike says:

    one thought: Volvo 240, they last forever and they are easy to work on

  18. Janika says:

    Geekwrench, have you ever tried to find a $1,000 Honda Civic or Toyota Corolla? The reason I said American big three has nothing to do with build quality or reliability; instead, it’s all about cheap, plentiful parts.

    Any $1,000 car, no matter who made it, is going to need work.

  19. [...] the other day we gave you some tips on buying a $1,000 beater car from Craigslist. Let’s say your financial circumstances are a little better, and you actually want to buy [...]

  20. Ross says:

    An old Impala or Crown Vic is a far better buy than a Honda or Toyota. They are actually probably more reliable, police departments have been using them for 20+ years. And of course if something does go wrong – as several have mentioned – parts and service are dirt cheap.

  21. Bob h says:

    OK, I’ll go up to $2000 for the Ford Gt, but that’s my final offer.

  22. Kate says:

    I picked up a 1988 Camry in February for $900 and it’s been a real peach! The paint doesn’t look great but there’s minimal rust and very few dents. The interior isn’t bad either. I feel like I lucked out for under $1k in San Diego!

  23. [...] Eleven Tips For Buying A $1,000 Beater On Craigslist – “Times are tough, and it doesn’t look like there’s going to be any major economic recovery in the near future. A lot of people, myself included, have cut way back on spending just to make ends meet. Still, you can only cut back so far: ours is a culture based around the automobile, and you need a reliable set of wheels to get to and from work, the grocery store, your therapist, etc…” [...]

  24. Ruben says:

    Once when my LeBaron was hit by a truck, I needed a temporary car to get around. I was offered a Dodge Lancer ES by the Chrysler dealer that I always visited for maintenance. It cost me $1000 and was in a mint shape. Everything worked perfectly and it was the most reliable car I’ve ever had. I loved the car and kept it in it’s mint shape. I always stored it inside the garage and waxed it every month. When it was 22 years old I traded it in for a Mercury Grand Marquis and I got $1500 for it.

    So far for the $1000 beaters…

    Oh by the way, to all the US car haters: the Grand Marquis runs without a flaw either. I have never had any severe problems with either my leBaron (before the accident), the GTS or the Grand Marquis. I don’t want a European car because they’re not half as comfortable as American cars, and I don’t want an Asian car because they’re cheap shit. Stick with the good old fashioned Ford panther cars and you’re set and done.

  25. waldo says:

    i bought a 1991 gmc sierra for $500 with dual exhaust, 351, tons of power and all ive done to it is replaced the seal on the rear end, also found out it had a camaro rear end and for whatever reason 2 aftermarket tranny coolers, runs great and i needed a truck so it worked perfect for me.

  26. [...] long story?  It proves that selling a vehicle on Craigslist works – and brings us to these TIPS FOR BUYING A CAR FOR $1000 ON CRAIGSLIST.  Because sometimes, you need a $1000 beater car in order to make ends meet…at least, [...]

  27. Ropefish says:

    I bought a 1993 Mercury Cougar for $125. Looks fairly great exterior-wise. The interior is a little worse, but not god-awful. It even runs nearly perfect, just needs new plugs and wires and probably a new catalytic converter (pfft, screw that. I’ll just gut the bastard). It sat for six months and started right up!

    I got lucky, though. The lady wanted to get rid of it before her son destroyed it.

  28. Dan says:

    Buy a hearse. I found mine in the classifieds for $1500. Seller came down cuz he needed to get rid of it and no one wanted a creepy hearse. I love mine, it runs smooth and it just rolled 55k miles!

  29. Lee says:

    I was recently shopping for $1500 cars and I found that despite the descriptions in the ads they were all much worse. A volvo 240 I found was described as excellent with a new motor but it turned out that the motor was just different and certainly not new, as for the rest of the car it was rusted through, had no brakes, and the power steering and braking were not functioning, needing tires and glass. anyway i think you need to hit 2-3 thousand before cars won’t need work

  30. Seth Easton says:

    Some years back, I sold my ’94 Hyudai Scoupe for $800 to some guy who was getting a car for his teenage daughter. That was probably one of the more reliable cars I’ve owned, and it was a hoot to drive, despite having only 93 HP! I babied that thing and it was in perfect condition. The cheap ass dealer wanted to give me $300 on the tradein, so i just posted it in my local paper. I probably would have kept it, but I was sick of rolln’ in a cheap turqouise Hyundai to be honest. I still see that car around town — warms my heart to think someone got decent car for next to nothing.

  31. Kurt Ernst says:

    Seth – agreed. It’s always good to see your old cars appreciated by someone new.

  32. joan says:

    Some time back I had bought one car from this site. I really got good deal.

    • Gregg says:

      I got a 1989 Volvo for $1200 – needed motor mounts, changed the oil, after 15k miles needed tires. Put 27k miles on it so far. Cheapest car I ever owned.

      • Scott says:

        At my suggestion, my friend recently purchased a 1987 Volvo 740 GLE for $1200. It was last owned by a mechanic who bought the car with the intention of flipping it. He replaced the pads/machined the rotors, replaced the tires and fuel pump, and gave it a good tune-up. The inline 4′s in those old Volvos will easily go to 300k, maybe 500k (this one has 180k), and parts are dirt cheap and easily accessible. For reliability, nothing beats this or a similar vintage Mercedes diesel (ironically the same kind the article specifically said to avoid… no idea why).

        Meanwhile, my other friend’s GF bought a $3k Nissan Maxima, within a month it died on her way to work and she had to replace the alternator.

  33. LOve my beater says:

    Great tips, I bought my first beater 3 months ago off Craigslist in Daytona Beach area. I love my beater! Runs great no problems so far and I have driven almost 2000 miles. Well my beater is a 1997 Lincoln Town car with 169000 miles. I paid $1100 cash. Runs great, Ice Cold AC and no rust, paint is falling off but interior is very nice! The car is loaded with options all they all work! I feel like an old lady driving this car but what the hell it’s reliable, comfortable as hell and has more options than most new mid sized cars!! And best part no payments!!!