Author Topic: Where do I find those "Top 10 Cars For Smart People" at decent prices?  (Read 5753 times)


  • 5 O'Clock Shadow
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  • Posts: 2
I've recently moved further out from my workplace, and as a result am finally back in the market for a car after several years of doing without.  (I may yet manage to avoid commuting in it all the time, thanks to various transit alternatives that can get me close enough to bike.  Nonetheless, the car commute is still around 1/3 to 1/5 the duration of the next best option from here, and sometimes that matters a lot.)

However, the last time I shopped for a car I just let my parents handle a bunch of the details (yes, it's been that long), so I really have no idea how to go about finding a decent used car at a tolerable price.  I really like the idea of an older Prius, but Craigslist searches are finding that whether they're from dealers or private owners the asking-price floor is closer to $10000 than $7500 for anything 2004 and up.

I know almost nothing about cars, including not currently knowing how to drive a stick shift.  I'm willing to learn, of course, but I'm going to be reliant on a mechanic to check out any candidate car for issues; there's little chance I would spot anything but a major issue in a cursory inspection of my own.  Of course, I also have no idea better than asking local friends for finding a tolerable mechanic, nor do I know how close any mechanic I select needs to be to the seller for them to be comfortable with me taking it there for an inspection.

How indicative are the prices on CL of what I would actually end up paying?  Any recommendations for going to dealers versus talking to private owners, and strategies for interacting with either, or for choosing among dealerships?  For that matter, any resources or advice for negotiating prices?  I don't like haggling, but it seems to be nigh-unavoidable in this market, so I may as well try to do it right.

Just to be clear about what I'm after: I want a vehicle that I can take on the highway, at the lowest TCO I can find, which means balancing price, fuel-efficiency, and reliability.  (If not for the highway requirement I would probably be more inclined towards something like a Vespa, rather than a car at all.)  Given my lack of experience/mechanical expertise, leaning a bit toward reliability is probably a decent idea.  I highlighted the Prius above because it manages to be fuel-efficient without also requiring me to learn to drive a manual-transmission vehicle; I'm not actually willing to pay the various penalties for a conventional automatic transmission any more, but if the premium for a hybrid is small enough it's a great convenience for me and a hedge against gas price increases as well.


  • 5 O'Clock Shadow
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  • Posts: 69
I'm eager to see the answer to this too.

In my recent semi-related question, most people stressed that I go through a private party sale:

This freaks me out. However, so does going through a dealer.

I found this thread over at AskMetafilter that has a ton of info and resources:

I'm not sure what I'm going to do, as usual for me I'm frozen from making a decision one way or the other at the moment.


  • 5 O'Clock Shadow
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  • Posts: 39
I have purchased cars from both a dealer and private and hands down I have been more pleased with a private party.  Dealers are out to make a profit so you naturally will be paying more than they purchased the car for and just because you are buying from a dealer doesn't mean the car wont break down.  There is a bit of comfort that if something breaks you have a dealer to go yell at but is that really worth the hike in the car price and paying taxes on a used car?  I purchased a prius for 14k from a dealer that I probably could of gotten for 12k from a private purchase.  It was an impulse buy as my wife's camaro was breaking down all the time and I was sick of paying for it getting fixed and all the gas it used. I wish I would of taken my time and researched the prices etc. 

The car I purchased for myself before the prius is a toyota corolla which I found on craigslist for 7500 dollars.  It took me 3 months to find the price and color I wanted and I  probably saved 2k as I drove with the seller to a title pawn place where she was able to buy back her title and write it to me and keep the difference.  The key to this is the wait and not minding driving 200 miles to find a deal.  Luckily my final deal was probably 40 miles away.  It was fun, took patience, and was like hunting.

The car before the corolla was a 350z which I found on from a private seller.  I took my time to find the color I wanted and the price for 22.5k.  Unfortunately the car depreciated in price was only able to sell for 19.5k 2 years later.  This taught me that cars aren't an investement but are just transportation.  I did learn something I would like to pass along.  Since I was paying so much money I had the seller meet me at a nissan dealership and had a complete checkup on the car BEFORE purchase.  This way I knew if anything was wrong with it before I bought it.  Maybe this would alleviate any of your concerns about buying from a private seller.  If something is wrong with it then deduct that from your purchase price if you still want to buy.  Always do a title check on a car before you buy it.  I use and only buy cars with clear titles and no wrecks.  Its up to you but there are plenty of cars out there with clear histories. Not everyone reports wrecks so a clear title does not mean you dont need to take it to a dealer and have it looked at. 

Buying from a private seller means no sales tax.  That is usually worth it by itself.
If you are paying cash its probably good to do it in a public place.



  • Bristles
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  • Posts: 492
  • Age: 36
  • Location: Bellevue, WA
Buying from a private seller means no sales tax.

Depends on your location. Here in Washington state, if the purchase price you report when you transfer the title is more than a couple grand off their "official" price (blue book or price digests) then they charge sales tax at the official price anyway.


  • Handlebar Stache
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  • Posts: 1424
  • Location: Metro Boston
People list their cars a little high because that's just what you do. For example, look here, where it says, "If you sell your used car privately, you can expect to receive a price of $6,892. In order to get this price, we recommend you list your 2004 Toyota Prius Sedan for $7,478."

My experience:
I bought a small used sedan in 2002 from a private party. The guy wouldn't budge from a high price, and I caved. To his credit, it was in really good shape overall. However, the transmission had a slow leak, and it turned out to be an expensive repair after I put 30K miles on it. Looking back, it was a great little car, and at $4K, I didn't lose much, but I wish I had walked.

I bought a Mazda 5 on Thursday. The dealer listed the price very low (it was basically a small minivan with a manual transmission, and no one wanted it, even though it was in good condition). Given my last experience, I was very anxious during the process, so I studied up on negotiations. I went in with guns blazing, but he knew all the tricks and wouldn't budge. For example, they say that your strongest tactic is to threaten to walk away, but he told me to leave and shop for cars at other dealerships. I didn't want to stretch the process out over weeks, so I bought it at the already excellent price after he agreed to fix the clutch. We'll see how well it holds up.

Try to find a car buying guide put out by a consumer-oriented agency. Massachusetts has Car Smart. I made detailed notes about every step and took them with me. I had a maintenance checklist for myself, and I checked every single mechanism in that car myself. I had a list of things to look for during the test drive. I also had a checklist for the mechanic, including a request to examine any noises or other things I noticed during the test drive. I made an appointment with the mechanic and the dealer, and the dealer drove the car with me to the mechanic for the inspection. I knew about the recalls (I think CarFax tells you these, too).

To find a car:
ebay motors (no negotiating! you can get it inspected remotely!)

For Craigslist, at least, you can save RSS searches to an RSS reader, so that you can see the ad when it first pops up. It will help you get to good deals before others do.

To price a car:
KBB (this is usually high, as in listing price, not purchase price)
Edmunds (this is usually average to low; this is based on actual sales prices)
NADA trade-in values (mark-up by $1K or so for your first bid at a dealer) (my favorite; gives ranges based on market data)

For a particular car, I would make a list, like this:
$9000 KBB private-party "Good"
$8000 Edmunds "Clean"
$7800 Clearbook "Good"
$7700 NADA+$1000 Average

I put all these notes and checklists in documents on my Kindle, along with bank loan procedures (which I assume most people around here won't need) and whatever else I thought I might need. It would have been a little easier just to have them all printed out, so I could take notes on them.

I hate negotiating. I learned a lot just by standing my ground for a little while, but I find the whole concept irritating. It's a little game where you hide or lie about what you're willing to pay until the very end. There should be better ways to figure out a fair price. I'd say go the MMM route, where you negotiate with a private party over the phone based on a particular valuation which you think is fair, and then on site, you and the seller can haggle a little bit based on the actual condition, then modify that based on what the mechanic says. If you aren't comfortable with it, say "Thanks for your time, but I'm going to keep looking," and then leave. Mind games are no fun, so be straightforward. Look elsewhere, and don't think about that car again, except maybe to repeat your offer to the seller over phone or email a while later. I'm sure there are plenty of private-party sellers who would be happy for you to come to them with a fair, well-researched starting price and well-defined negotiating procedure. Calling around and discussing it over the phone will help you find those sellers faster.