By Michael Clark

While there seems to be a growing legion of new drivers with brand-new cars, the rest of the first-time vehicle shoppers are usually faced with the questions of what to buy, what to spend, and how to keep it from becoming a money pit.

You may have heard the saying, “There are no bad cars, just bad owners”. While there is a lot of truth to that statement, the primary advantage of vehicle ownership today is that the majority of vehicles, even 10-year-old rusty beaters, are far more reliable than the chromed iron of years past. This instalment is geared more towards the $2,995 curb-side special. A to B, sometimes C, type of transport.

What should you buy?

When the dollars are low, the usual ego need from most is to find the ride with the most bling. In $2,995 land, these are easy to find. A new paint job, fancy wheels, plus a buzzy sound system can hide a multitude of problems. What would you rather have? Matching wheels or a transmission that shifts properly? In some cases, that sweet, cheap ride could be hiding a problem that costs as much as your purchase.

Plain vanilla sedans, such as Corollas or Cavaliers, don’t tend to command high prices, and usually aren’t driven hard. A $2,995 sports car may look pretty, but it sure hasn’t been driven that way. Stick to mainstream vehicles, the kind where parts are cheap and readily available. And it’s okay to discriminate against age. Anything in the 20-year-old-and-up set is fun as a hobby, however servicing will become increasingly difficult as parts are discontinued.

Private sale versus dealers

There are plenty of low-dollar, off-the-beaten-path car dealers that cater to those with low dough, and there can be some advantages. In most cases, these dealers offer third party warranties on their inventory, which vary in length based on vehicle age and mileage. When you factor in the cost of a major powertrain failure, the cost can be downright reasonable. Many small dealers are required to perform safety checks before a vehicle is sold. Never buy a vehicle from a dealer that is listed as an “As Is” special. This is a car so bad, that even the dealer couldn’t justify putting a penny into it.

The private sale usually exhibits the best value for the dollar, however the warranty ends at the curb. It’s best to seek out private sale vehicles with long term owners, especially owners that keep their service records. It comes down to checks and balances. If an owner has changed the oil every 5000 kilometres, replaced labour-intensive parts such as water pumps or cylinder heads, chances are the car won’t be imploding anytime soon.

What to look for, what to run screaming from

Rust never sleeps. The crusty brown stuff is never a pleasant sight, and depending on where it is, can have serious safety implications. Cosmetic rust, such as door bottoms and stone chips, is just ugly, and shouldn’t hurt you. If rust is evident on the undercarriage or suspension points, you just might be greeted by a strut denting the top of the hood, if a rusty strut mount exists. Since almost every car produced today uses some form of unitized construction, rotten rocker panels can weaken the side impact characteristics in a crash.

Too many owners, not enough years

If an owner is speaking in months instead of years, chances are he knows something you don’t want to know about the vehicle’s condition. Unless they’ve just won a lottery and are trading up, pass.

Auctions

Auctions can be a great place to pick up cheap wheels, just be as aware as possible of what you’re buying. Provincial and federal governments, as well as large vehicle fleet users such as natural gas and phone companies, regularly thin out their herds. Expect vehicles with plenty of stone chips, faded paint and coffee stains. The plus side is that these vehicles receive regular servicing, sometimes backed up by service records when you buy. Avoid police cars like a petty criminal. They are driven extremely hard, and can actually encounter bent frames and stress cracks in key areas such as engine cross-members from all the curb stomping they experience. You’re better off with a parking patrol Cavalier. If cosmetics are the least of your worries, check insurance company auctions. Hail damage is my personal favourite, assuming that the only damage is the sheet-metal, instead of blown-out windshields and side glass.

Unless you have a close personal relationship with a body shop, avoid collision damage. What you think is minor on the outside could be horrific behind the bumper cover.

Save some money

Only have $5,000 for a used car? Then buy a car for $3000 and put the rest in the “service kitty”. The primary guarantee I can offer on any used car is that it will cost you money. Tires, brakes, blown radiators – it all adds up. Get into the habit of preventative maintenance, as opposed to cell phone calls to estranged lovers when you need a ride from a turnpike breakdown.

It’s a lot less awkward.

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