How to Find a Cheap-Ass Car That's Actually Great

Some of us are broke. A few more of us are just cheap. The majority of us, though? We're just "cheap-ass broke."

Six words embody our cheap-ass broke way of life: "Don't spend money. Don't buy anything." While we cheapskates may fantasize about a new car, or even a nearly new car, the reality of owning a new car and taking on a hurricane of depreciation just isn't quite in our DNA. Cars cost a ton of money to buy and keep up, as in, over $33,000 on average just to purchase a new one. At the end of the day, we just want a set of wheels, plain and simple. 

One expensive car can land you in the joyless world of debt, while the right cheap-ass car always pays serious long-term dividends to both your financial bottom line and your well-earned happiness. I've inspected, appraised, and liquidated over 10,000 vehicles a year for an auto finance company. Translation: I know what I'm doing. This is how you find that one absolutely perfect cheap-ass car.


Shop for the right owner, not the right brand

The dirty little secret of the car business is that automakers tend to use a lot of the same suppliers and manufacturing methods to build their cars -- tens of millions of them. So the key factor in determining a used car's reliability isn't the brand or model -- it's the current owner.

The best older cars are driven by folks who didn't abuse them or cheap out on needed repairs. Car owners are a lot like the owner of a baseball team or a race horse's trainer. A bad owner can transform the best of the best into a complete wreck, while a reliable and diligent owner can make even the most historically unreliable cars last for decades.

The trick is to find the right owner. So begin your search by focusing squarely on the driver and how they used and maintained the car.

Flickr/Pim Stouten

For the love of God, get the VIN before you do anything else

Whenever I contact someone about a car for sale, whether they are a private owner or a dealer, I always do two things: I ask them for the vehicle identification number, then I thank them and say I'll call them right back. Not only is the VIN basically a car's social security number that allows you to start uncovering the car's real history (more on that in a second), but it also helps get you about 90% of your free time back that you'd otherwise waste by looking at crappy cars in person or on Craigslist.

Courtesy of Carfax

Get details on the car's prior history

Take the VIN and spend a few bucks on the CARFAX. Accidents should not concern you at all unless they're listed as moderate or severe. What you're looking for here is how well the car has been maintained, and how long the prior owner had the vehicle. A lot of sellers these days try to play hot potato, and toss their problems or upcoming maintenance to the next owner without disclosing what they really need to know. If a vehicle has been owned for a very short period of time by several people in succession, take that as a great big red flag.

If the car has a good and clean history, good! It's time to dig deeper on the Internet.

Courtesy of the Taurus Car Club of America

Find an enthusiast forum for that specific car

The next intelligent question you want to answer is, "What maintenance will likely need to be done?" You want to ask the owner this, and also the enthusiast forum for that specific model; seriously, most cars have a forum dedicated specifically to that specific model, like this one for the Ford Taurus. Google is your friend here.


Know the car's weaknesses

Think of this like boxing -- you'd want to know if your opponent is vulnerable to a right hook, right? You may find out that a lot of transmissions for that model start to break at around 120,000 to 150,00 miles. Or you may find that there is a specific unpopular engine and transmission combination that can outperform the others. Dig deep and start to map out your potential long-term costs and areas of weakness for that vehicle, and if you buy it, you can take care of those little problems before they become big.


Have an independent mechanic inspect it

Rely on the test drive only to figure out whether you like it and to see if it's a good fit, but then invest wisely in an independent inspection by an expert. Well-established independent repair shops do a far better job than most new car dealerships. Why? Because they're not interested in trying to get you to buy a vehicle of their own. Ask your friends for a recommendation or visit a popular review site, such as Click and Clack's* Mechanics Files or Yelp, to find a good one worth your money and time.

*RIP Click.

Flickr/Kevin Jarrett

Orphans, uglies, and "unsellable" cars are often the best cheap-ass cars

Orphan cars are those sold by brands that no longer exist in the new car market (think Plymouth, Oldsmobile, Pontiac, Saturn, Mercury, Suzuki, and as of last week, Scion). Unsellables are unpopular models such as non-sporty sedans and wagons that have manual transmissions, big vehicles usually owned by retirees, and of course, older minivans! Take these two ingredients and add minor cosmetic issues such as dents, scuffs, and a genuinely neglected paint job, and you may have the perfect cheap-ass car.

Just be patient, and whatever you do, remember to put the owner at the top of that car-buying pyramid!

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Steven Lang is an auto auctioneer, car dealer, and former part-owner of an auto auction near Atlanta, Georgia. The car business is an incredibly big part of his life so if you ever need guidance, feel free to reach him directly at his Facebook page which you can find here.