Ottawa, Ontario – Buying a late-model used car is a nerve-wracking process at the best of times. No matter how careful you are, even your new-to-you $30,000 car or truck with three years left on the warranty could prove to be a lemon of epic proportions once it lives in your garage.

You might think shopping the bargain-basement of the used-car market would be riskier, but in some ways, it’s a safer bet. With a newer used car, there’s still a good chance that problems common to the model could pop up; with an older car though, most of its problematic parts will probably have been replaced, leaving the car’s maintenance history as its key reliability indicator.

Autos contributor Mike Clark offered his advice for buying a car for less than $3,000 here. In my opinion, finding a roadworthy $3,000 car is easy. I wanted a challenge. Or, at least, I created one for myself when I set a $1,500 budget for a beater I planned to use whenever I wasn’t driving a press vehicle for work.

Think $1,500 is low? My initial plan was to find a car that would pass Ontario’s safety and exhaust emissions tests for $500, tops. When it became clear that wasn’t going to happen (not legally, anyhow), I upped my price ceiling to $1,000. That netted a couple of possibilities, but the sellers of these gems (an $800 Escort and a $650 Olds Cutlass Supreme) would only sell as-is.

An as-is purchase would have been fine, if I was in a position to get my hands dirty in order to make the repairs needed to earn the safety and emissions certificates, but as I am garage-less and had nowhere to work on a car in the winter, I needed something that was road-ready.

Throughout my search, I took repeated ribbings from colleagues Paul Williams and James Bergeron, who insisted that finding a drivable car for that little money was never going to happen. They both own newer cars and have (or had) the monthly payments that go along with them.

Forget it, they said; just suck it up and look for a good deal on a new car lease instead, they wheedled, to no avail. My heart – and wallet – was set on a super-cheap-yet-drivable car so I could avoid those pesky monthly payments. I refused to give in completely, but I upped my budget to $1,500.

Here are a few tips I learned during my search.

First, look online. There are many free online classified web sites that have sections dedicated to particular cities. has individual sites for about 25 Canadian cities. takes a similar approach. Newspaper classifieds are also a good place to check, but the real-time nature of the WWW means new ads are published all the time, rather than just once a day.

Next, don’t be too picky. You can be selective about brand if you’re spending $1,500 for a flat-screen TV, but not a car. Don’t get worked up about where the car was made, either. You may not like domestics, but many older models from Chrysler, General Motors and Ford are quite robust. Also, if you can, don’t be too choosy about things like automatic versus manual transmission. A manual transmission is less complicated and is less likely to need pricey repairs as a car ages, but if a well-maintained automatic still works well with more than 150,000 km under its belt, it should continue to do so if you continue taking care of it. Of course, with a manual, replacing the clutch is an expensive proposition, though this is a job that can be tackled by a handy DIYer.

Keep it simple. Manual windows, locks and mirrors are becoming increasingly rare in new cars, but in an older car, they’re exactly what you want if you want to ensure low maintenance costs. Replacing electric window motors and lock actuators can get expensive, especially if you don’t want to (or can’t) do the work yourself. If you find a car with working air conditioning, you’ve scored big; but if it doesn’t work (the most likely scenario), it won’t affect how the car runs.

When you start calling around about prospective purchases, one question to ask the seller is whether the car is still being used regularly. If so, that means it’s still plated and insured. Many people sell older cars after they’ve removed the plates and insurance. This doesn’t mean it’s not worth buying, but it’s a pain since you can’t test-drive it or take it to a mechanic for a once-over without a tow truck.

Obviously, test-drive the car before you decide to buy. Even if a car is safety- and emissions-certified, there could be non-safety-related mechanical issues that won’t be obvious without a test drive. Usually, it’s easy enough to tell if a car is in good running condition through a decent drive, but it’s never a bad idea to get a used car inspected by a mechanic before you buy. Expect this to cost about $100, for about an hour’s worth of a mechanic’s time.

In the end, my search netted me a 1997 Mazda Protege SE for $1,500 on the button. The price was $100 less than the wholesale value of the car, and with a bit of work, it’d be worth closer to its retail value of about $3,000. It’s not pretty – there’s some rust around the rear wheels, and it idles a little rough when it’s cold – but overall it’s a good runner: the motor (all 1.5 litres and 97 horsepower of it) revs eagerly and the automatic transmission shifts very well.

That’s the key to finding a good beater: you have to swallow your pride and look past minor surface rust, faded paint and the odd dent for the car that’s still in good running condition.

If you want to impress people with what you drive, be prepared to spend a lot more than I did. But if you just want to get around, you might be surprised what you can find with a small budget and a discerning eye.

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