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.
• 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.
• 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.
• 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?
• 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.
• 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.
• 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.
• 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.
• 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.
• 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.
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.