How to Buy a Used Car for Under $1,000

Category: News. Written by Grant 

In one of the worst automotive sales years on record, auto dealers are slashing prices on new cars to entice buyers. However, for the buyer on the shoestring who is looking for the ultimate deal, we’re going to tell you how to buy a used car for under $1,000. And to prove it, we’re going to do it.

The idea for this project came about because we were talking about the need for a vehicle that could withstand some of our “testing”, rather than using our own personal cars. Not wanting to pay the thousands of dollars for an average priced used car, we decided we would try to purchase a reliable, running car for under $1,000.

Impossible you say? Even we don’t know for sure, but we’re about to find out. Buckle up and get ready for the ride.

Before we begin, we’re going to have to set some parameters for our $1,000 budget and what we can expect. We do this first by listing everything we ideally want in any used car, bolding those that are most important. From this list, we will eventually whittle down and come to a decision on what must we have and what we can do without.

  • Paperwork: Clean title, current tabs, maintenance receipts, no accidents, no salvage title, matching VIN numbers on car parts, no major recalls
  • Engine: Runs well, stable idle, no vibration, no gasket leaks, busted pistons or clunky noises
  • Transmission: Shifts reliably through all gears, no grinding, burnt smell or sudden drop in power
  • Ignition: Car starts immediately, no grinding sound, battery holds charge
  • Electrical: Lights/indicators working, turn on when doors open, brake lights ok
  • Body: Straight body, no rust, no dents, no scratches, no window cracks, paint intact
  • Exhaust: No cracks in muffler, no exhaust smell inside car, no blue/white/black colored fumes
  • Interior: Clean seats, no smells/stains, working, safety belts working, no water damage
  • Brakes: Hard stopping, working brake pads, no squealing, no excessive brake travel
  • Tires: Usable tread, proper alignment, even wear, no bald spots, no rim damage
  • Bonuses: Low milege, recent model year, reliable models, within 50 miles, working AC, power steering, audio

After we made the above list, we bolded those factors that were most important to us. In reality, every item we bolded is absolutely necessary to the mechanical functioning of a car, as well as safety. From this list, we prioritized the most impotant topics and will use that as a baseline for our $1,000 car.

1) Paperwork

Paperwork is listed first because it is easily the most important aspect of a used car purchase. If a seller doesn’t have the title to a car or says it’s not in their name then don’t even bother. The last thing you ever want to worry about is having your newly bought car reposessed because someone sold you a car that didn’t legally belong to them. Don’t ever trust a seller who doesn’t have his paperwork in order or has a conveniently missing title that they’ll “send to you later”.

Another pitfall to avoid is buying a car with expired tabs. The seller might tell you that the car has simply been unused, while the truth might be that the car might not pass emissions standards. If the latter is true, then you are stuck with thousands of dollars in repair bills just to get your car legally driveable. So much for that awesome steal. Rule of thumb – if the car has no current tags, you’re better off avoiding it.

Buying a car that has been in a major accident or salvage is also a no-no, because the true damage from an accident can’t be seen. If your potential car has hidden frame damage, you could be driving in a potential death trap. A VIN check through a service like Carfax is a good way to check the history of a car.

2) Drivetrain, transmission and ignition system

These three compontents are the most vital systems to a car, as they perform the majority of the work and are thus the most prone to failure. Most cars that are under priced have problems in any one of these systems.

Searching on Craigslist for cars under $1,000, we come up with a slew of “small gasket leak”, “tranny needs work”, “needs new starters, otherwise great!”, “easily repaired valves” and the like. What this really means in buyer speak is hundreds to thousands in repair bills just to get the car to run right. There is no such thing as “minor” engine or transmission work and it’s better to assume that any work on these components is at least $1,000 for a diagnosis and repair, but more like $2,000.

Ignition systems aren’t as bad, as starters (the device that initially cranks the engine) can be put in for around $500. Diagnosing why a car won’t start requires a trip to the mechanic however, which costs money and still doesn’t guarantee that the problem is limited to the starter or battery.

3) Safety systems

Making sure we’re in a safe vehicle is paramount, even if we’re buying at a discount. You should never be willing to sacrifice safety to save money. As a car driving website, we don’t need to remind you that it only takes one bad driver to turn your life upside down.

Brakes are the most safety component, so we need to make sure our car has good working brakes with stopping power. If the brakes are soft, the car pulls to one side when braking or the pedal travels too much, it’s a sign of bad things to come and also of yet more repairs. If a seller tells you that the car simply needs new brake pads – a relatively simple and inexpensive repair – you should be wary, as that also means that there might be damage to the rotors or drums from the seller’s own statements.

4) Body Exterior and Interior

For our own project, we don’t care much about our body, but for your own used car, you will likely prefer a car with the least amount of body damage. Discounted cars often have body damage because as anyone who has ever been in an accident knows, body repair is extremely expensive. Parts, labor and paining can turn a simple fender dent into thousands of dollars in repairs. If you buy a car with body damage, be honest with yourself in accepting that you’re probably going to have to live with it.

Besides dents and scratches, the most easily detectible sign of trouble is rust. Rust develops when metal is exposed to water and oxygen – and in a wet city like Seattle, can aggravate existing damage. It is sadly cost ineffective to repair rust, as the only real fix is an expensive paint job or replacing the section outright.

Rust is also a potential sign of flood damage, which should raise a huge red flag. Flood damage often wreaks havoc on engine parts and especially electrical systems, let alone the body damage being done all over the car. If there is smell of mildew, water stains or excessive rust, don’t even bother. Checking under the trunk by the spare tire, under the body and around doors are all good spots to look for rust.

Next Up: Where to Find a Working Bare Bones Used Car

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23 Responses to “How to Buy a Used Car for Under $1,000”

  1. Abdul on July 26th, 2009 11:08 am

    hi i am interested in this car
    can you let me know if its still available and the address to whic i can find it.

  2. Cameron on July 26th, 2009 10:17 pm

    This was a sample vehicle, but check out our inventory under “cars for sale”

  3. ahmed on July 3rd, 2010 7:37 am

    i want to buy this car if you can give me at the rate of $400 it too expensive so if you want me to buy at that rate just send and email to my box

  4. ahmed on July 3rd, 2010 7:43 am

    i felt like buying the car $400

  5. Evelyn on August 5th, 2010 4:10 am

    I need the car

  6. chris tui on March 31st, 2011 3:52 pm

    im lookin for a good runing car under 2000 and less milege

  7. chris tui on March 31st, 2011 3:53 pm

    u do u have another car

  8. Wilson on July 28th, 2011 4:14 am

    how can l buy a car l saw at internet over seas

  9. Sonia Campbell on August 30th, 2011 12:50 pm

    I am seeking a used car in good condition in the price range of $800.00 to $1000.00 dollars. I will want the history of the vechile.

  10. Gupta Abdi on September 8th, 2011 11:01 am

    You are all dumb motherf***ers. This isn’t a for sale ad, it’s an article. Go to craigslist to find a car

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