7 Rules for Buying a Cheap Car With Cash

Used car for sale at a used auto lot
Image Credit: Dreamstime

Can you really buy a cheap used car for just $2,000 or $3,000 in cash? Team Clark’s Joel Larsgaard says the answer is clear.

“There is a myth that has brainwashed the mind of many a consumer that I just can’t abide any longer,” Joel says. “That fable is that good cars just can’t be had for under $10,000. What a bunch of hooey!”

Tips for Buying a Used Car With Cash

Joel was one of the pioneers of buying a cheap car on The Clark Howard Show. Back in 2008, he bought a 1996 Nissan Altima with 200,000 miles on it. The price tag on that sweet ride? $3,200 — paid in cash.

In the spirit of Joel, here are seven rules you should follow if you want to buy a cheap used car:

1. Look for Cars That Have ‘Uglied Out’

Dents, nicks, peeling paint and hail damage are all your friends when buying a used car. The more scuffed up the exterior looks, the more you can haggle the seller down on price. Remember, exterior flaws won’t impact what’s under the hood.

One area to beware of though: tires. If the tires are bald, you could have to shell out several hundred dollars more to replace them, so consider that when you’re haggling about the price.

Should you find yourself in need of new tires, we’ve got a list of the 15 Best Cheap Tires for Your Money.

2. Follow the 10 Years/100,000 Miles Rule

100,000 mile odometer

Ever heard of car manufacturers like Hyundai, Kia and Mitsubishi advertising their 10 year/100,000 mile auto warranties?


That’s the inspiration for a different rule you should follow if you only want to drop less than $5,000 on a used car: Look for cars that have at least 100,000 miles on them.

Think 100,000 miles is too much — and that a car with that many miles is probably near the end of its useful life? Think again.

It’s entirely possible for vehicles made within the last 10 to 15 years to ride 200,000 miles or more if they’re properly maintained. For that reason, you may want to ask the seller for records of routine maintenance, especially oil changes.

3. Know Where to Look for Deals

car sale online

When searching for cheap used cars online, check Craigslist, Autotrader, iSeeCars and CarGurus.

That last site lets you put in your ZIP code and the make/model of the vehicle on their website. The site will comb through millions of listings available on published databases, and it will rate the vehicles with notations of “great deal,” “fair deal,” “high priced,” “overpriced” and so on.

4. Beware Those Beloved Nameplates

classic buick nameplate

Honda and Toyota pretty routinely top the list for car reliability according to Consumer Reports, which means there’s a premium on their resale values.

If you’re looking to buy a cheap car, skip the Hondas and the Toyotas of the world. USA TODAY recommends you instead look at what are called ‘second-tier’ Japanese brands like Mazda, Nissan or Mitsubishi.

You’ll probably also want to take a pass on European models, but for a different reason. Cars with German engineering, for example, are so finely tuned that they require a lot of upkeep. That’s extra money you’ll be spending in the shop.


A happy medium might be something like the Ford Focus, according to USA TODAY. That particular model from the U.S. automaker has a lot of proven reliability, which brings us to our next point:

5. Check Consumer Reports for Reliability

Consumer Reports screenshot

The annual Consumer Reports auto reliability survey is the most extensive survey of automotive reliability and one that Clark Howard himself relies on. They do a great job parsing the new models every year when they come out.

But here’s the value in that for a used car buyer: The magazine also offers detailed reliability ratings going back several years on every possible nameplate. These ratings are compiled from reports about 17 common trouble spots in more than a million cars on the road.

Talk about a great vantage point on long-term reliability!

6. Check the Vehicle Identification Number Before Buying

VIN check

There are more ways than ever to get a free VIN check when you want to buy a cheap car — and this is something you’ll want to do to avoid buying a flood vehicle or one with a salvage title.

You can even geta VIN check on your current ride if you’re just curious about the vehicle’s history before you owned it.

We’ve got a guide to help get you started.

7. Get an Inspection by an Independent Mechanic Before Buying

mechanic working in auto repair shop


We saved the best for last. This is probably the most important rule of them all:

One of the key things to know about buying a cheap used car is that you buy ‘as is.’ Never rely on any representations that the salesperson makes about the car, be it a commissioned employee at a dealership or an independent seller.

If you want to protect yourself, you must get a used car inspected before buying it.

Ideally, you want an ASE-certified (Automotive Service Excellence) mechanic to really kick the tires on your potential buy. Garages that participate in the Blue Seal program typically feature the most highly trained ASE-certified mechanics. Visit ASE.com to find one near you.

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