How to Buy a Car for Under $1000
Decent cars under $1000 are hard to find, but it can be done.
Published October 2, 2017
Cars are expensive – even a basic ride can saddle you with a hefty monthly payment. Wouldn’t you like to beat the system and score a cheap vehicle? Finding decent transportation for under $1000 isn’t easy, but it can be done. You just need a little ingenuity – that, and low standards. The cars you pick up for under a grand aren’t going to win any beauty pageants, but they will get you from point A to point B.
Where to Look for cars under $1000
Whether you’re shopping for a new shirt or a new mate, online is the place to look; cars are no exception. Many classified websites have an auto section. The key to narrowing down your search is simply to select a price limit of under $1000. Some websites will have a drop-down menu for this, while others require you to manually type it in a search box.
If you’re handy, you may also want to check out the “non-running parts car” section of the website. Or, you can type in the keywords “mechanic’s special.” Both tactics have been known to uncover automotive gold.
Once you’ve got the search criteria dialed in, your computer screen should begin to populate with dirt-cheap hoopties.
Have Reasonable Expectations
Any car with a price tag below $1000 is going to be hideous. Period. Expect peeling paint and rust spots. You can also expect certain things not to work, or be completely M.I.A. For example, a cheapo car may be missing the radio, or have a passenger side window that won’t roll down. All inconveniences you can live with – or you’ll have to learn to live with – driving a cut-rate car.
Also, expect to get a little dirt under your nails. Cars for under $1000 are going to need work here and there. But this can be a good thing – repairs can be a bonding experience between you and your clunker.
Take Your Time
Most cars under $1000 are junk, plain and simple. Be prepared to kiss a lot of toads (or in this case, take a lot of test drives) before you find your prince. Take your time searching for the right one. If the first, fifth or twentieth car doesn’t work out, don’t give up. The beater car market is always replenishing. Eventually, you’ll find the rust bucket of your dreams (or nightmares).
What to Look for
If you’re going to venture into junker land, you need to know what to look for and what to avoid.
- Drivetrain performance. The most important part of a cheap car is how it runs. Pay close attention to the engine and transmission, as well as the differential (if equipped). Inspect the engine for overheating (watch the temperature gauge), abnormal noises or rough running. Make sure the transmission shifts smoothly and doesn’t make any weird noises. Same goes for the differential: make sure it sounds good and doesn’t bind up.
- Fluid Condition. The oil might not be the cleanest on a bargain car and that’s fine – but there should be oil in it. A vehicle without oil on the dipstick is a no-go. The oil should also be free from intermix and contamination. Look for signs of extreme neglect, such as sludge and varnish on the oil dipstick and in the oil fill cap. The same rules apply the coolant and transmission fluid. The coolant and transmission fluid should both be completely full since they don’t “burn off” like engine oil. Both should be free of intermix and contamination and look somewhat clean. The transmission fluid should not be black or smell burnt.
- Fluid leaks. Leaks aren’t necessarily a deal breaker on a cheap car. Minor to moderate engine oil leaks can be kept topped off as needed. Coolant and transmission leaks, however, are a different story. Since they must be tended to immediately, a vehicle with coolant or transmission leaks should be a pass.
- Tire condition. Worn tires can cost more than the purchase price of your beater car. Make sure the tires have a moderate amount of tread left. A tread depth of at least 4/32” is more than reasonable on a sub-thousand-dollar car.
- Clean title. When you’re buying a high dollar car, it’s imperative that the title be clean. That’s not always the case with cheap cars. A salvaged vehicle is one that has sustained collision damage that would cost more to repair than the vehicle is worth. Since old clunkers aren’t worth much to begin with, it only takes a minor fender bender to render the vehicle salvaged. Ask the owner why the vehicle was salvaged and look for signs of collision repair.
- Collison damage. Whether the vehicle is salvaged or not, you’ll want to look for signs of collision damage and repair. A vehicle that has incurred frame damage is worthless at any price.
- Vehicle age. It’s wise to pick a vehicle built after 1996. This was the first-year onboard diagnostics II (OBDII) became mandatory in all vehicles. The standardization of OBDII made vehicles more reliable and easier to work on.
Owning a cheap car isn’t just a choice, it’s a lifestyle. While others are falling victim to consumerism, you’re sticking it to the man. And that’s something to be proud of.