What's the Best Place to Buy a Cheap—and Good—Used Car?

Craigslist, public auction, or your great-aunt Josephine—all can be good options if you know what to look for.

Cheap Used Cars
Mallory Short / Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Used car shoppers are cheapskates. As an auto auctioneer, I can’t tell you how many times some smart-ass at an auction tried to lowball me with a $2,000 bid for a $7,000 car.

“Two! Two!” They would hold out the peace sign and laugh while I was selling a car that was usually worth more than three times that. I would respond, “Peace, brother!”

Auctions are filled with jokers, but when you’re trying to buy a used car these days, the jokers are increasingly deceptive. There are two reasons for this. First, almost everybody buys with with their eyes. Most folks simply aren’t mechanically inclined, and when they see something they like, good looks and all, they start getting stupid with their money.

A pre-purchase inspection? I'd say 90 percent of people shopping for a used car simply don’t get one, and the lower the price, the less likely they are willing to spring for it—even though the cheaper the car, the greater the chance it’s a rolling turd. An extra hundred bucks seems to be too hefty a price to pay for cheapskates who are obsessed with buying a good car for the absolute least amount of money, and that’s the problem with buying a cheap car.

I've noticed one constant when it comes to shopping for cheap cars: Most buyers don’t know they’re getting conned. They want a car that’s good, cheap, and looks nice. But they value the good-looking and cheaply priced one over the a vehicle that's actually, you know, good. This is why so many cars get washed and detailed before they’re sold, but so few ever get repaired.

So you want a good but cheap car? I’ll be happy to help you with that if you’re willing to go beyond the usual places. So let’s bust a few timeless myths while we search for those unique places where you can actually get your hands on that most mythical of unicorns—an inexpensive, nice-looking, and, yes, good used car.

Let’s start with the absolute biggest mythical market for cheap cars:

CRAIGSLIST

The Myth: Craigslist is the ultimate free market where dealers are forced to lower their prices due to competition from those who are willing to sell their cars on the cheap. Individuals can sell as "for sale by owner" and dealers must absolutely, positively prove they are dealers.

The Reality: Most private sellers are dealers in drag. What’s worse, most individuals are aspiring dealers who buy and sell multiple cars. Nearly every car selling for less than $2,000 is either dead or dying, and worth about a third of what they’re asking. The reason why most ads don’t feature a VIN is because the seller doesn’t want to promote the real recent history of the car—and if you ask about recent maintenance, the most common answer is, “all I did was change the oil.”

The Strategy: Always get the VIN before heading out to see the car. But don’t write the car off just because it had a minor, or even a moderate, accident. A good mechanic who spends all day looking at the insides and undercarriages of cars can figure all of that out far better than you can, and in most cases, an accident history doesn’t mean a bad owner or an unsafe car.

What makes the real difference is your ability to ask what are called "conversational" questions. Those that aren’t threatening, and result in more than a yes or no answer. My personal favorite is: “I like to get caught up on maintenance whenever I buy a used car. What has been recently done to the car, and what do you think will need to be done in the next year or so?”

If the seller tells you, “it needs nothing” or, “all I did was change the oil,” welcome to Craigslist! The reputable sellers will mention a couple of things that will likely not be mentioned in the ad.

Stay in friendly conversation mode while taking notes on how long they owned it, when any accidents occurred, and then compare what they say with the Carfax history to see if it’s a mirror image. My favorite conversational question also includes, “would it be possible for me to take it to a nearby mechanic?” weeds out 90 percent of the bad cars, and keeps most Craigslist shoppers from wasting their gas and time.

The Verdict: Craigslist is the ace-high trump of cheap. But it’s also a backed-up automotive sewer filled with rolling turds. If you want a cheap car that's good and nice looking, do your research, be patient, and ask a few conversational questions. People like conversations, not interrogations. And for the love of God, don’t believe all the pictures you see online are of the actual car! A large number of them can be found on Google images.

FRIENDS AND FAMILY (AND OTHER PEOPLE YOU THINK YOU KNOW)

The Myth: Grandma Josephine and your best friend from middle school have only one thing in common (besides the fact that they're nosy and sometimes smell funny): They own a car they don’t need anymore, and are willing to give it to you for far less than the market value.

The Reality: Used cars from family and friends can become not only complicated, but emotional. Often the seller will either want something from you that you’re not fully aware of, or the car may have some upcoming issue that you don’t know about. Rejection is a bitch, but an 18-year-old Buick that drools oil like a Saint Bernard on barbiturates is far worse.

The Strategy: If you can get a car for next to nothing this way, great. Count your blessings. But before you say yes, let someone else look at it. Have the vehicle inspected by a smart mechanic—not by a friend who happens to read car magazines. If price becomes an issue, focus on a fair price instead of a cheap one, and if it still isn’t a good fit, just tell them that. Sometimes it’s smart to just say no, and move on.

The ‘Friends And Family’ Verdict: These are the cars you usually get before buying what eventually becomes the car you keep for the long haul. As long as you’re still willing to invest in the car and handle any issues of neglect or abuse, this can be a pretty nice place to find a good cheap car. But it can also be hell on earth. Do your homework and prepare yourself for the wrath of Grandma Josephine.

IMPOUND LOTS (THE NO-NO NADIR)

The Myth: "Oh, that nice old Buick over there? That was owned by my good friend Charley who lives down the street. He took extra good care of it. Charley died and his son asked us to haul it away since the car had stayed in the garage for so long. I'll let you have it right now for $1,200 because I like your taste in cars!"

The Reality: Charley's son was a wannabe gangbanger who got high on meth a few months ago. He decided to play a game of automotive pinball that would involve the Buick hitting as many curbs, pedestrians, and stop signs as possible. After Charley's idiot son and his Buick were rendered immobile with spike strips and 25,000 volts of airborne electricity, the police found his stash of Ice and seized what was left of the vehicle. The mag wheels and radio have already been recycled by the owner of the impound lot and sold on Craigslist. The rest of the car is a rolling turd.

The Painful Truth: Impound lots are an incredibly tough place to buy because the regulars are usually told about the good cars beforehand, and chances are, you're not considered a regular. Impound lots get their vehicles from three sources: traffic accidents, abandoned vehicles, and those cars that were impounded by the police due to an arrest warrant or a traffic violation. The folks featured in the show "Cops" are the typical owners. The good news is the cars impounded by the police were running before they were involuntarily parked. The bad news is that most of these cars are also worth more dead than alive.

The Verdict: Only buy an impound lot car if you can afford a financial version of Russian roulette.

PUBLIC AUTO AUCTIONS (WHERE "AS IS" REALLY MEANS "AS IS")

The Myth: Public auctions are a mecca of good cheap cars. Most are just unpopular, or have minor cosmetic issues—just like the guy you see on late-night infomercials who proudly features the $100 deals you can find there.

The Reality: Ever buy a car without test driving it? You can’t drive any of these vehicles down the road. Public auctions are where cars that can’t be retailed are wholesaled to people who often know absolutely nothing about all the tricks that can be done to make a bad car seem good . . . that is, until the new owner pays for their cheap car and drives it about a mile down the road.

The Strategy: Public auctions have a Darwinian pecking order when it comes to quality. Banks and credit unions that sell off their repos are at the very top of the food chain when it comes to cheap cars. That’s because they're in the money business, not the car business. They just want the cars sold, and sometimes, surprisingly, you can get a decent deal.

New car dealers come next. Most of these cars got kicked to the curb by their owners due to an issue that won’t be disclosed when the car is on the auction block. The scummy bottom of the cheap-car muck are from used car dealers, some of whom make a nice side living cleaning up the impound lot cars and selling them to a completely oblivious John Q Public.

The Verdict: Unless you’re okay buying a repo from a bank and work on cars every weekend, don’t go. The auctioneer will have you bid against yourself and their smile and chant will con you into doing something stupid. The better place to go is across the street.

CITY AND COUNTY AUCTIONS (WHERE GOVERNMENT CHEESE GETS MOLDY)

The Myth: Most government cars are just like the residents of small Southern towns that were once segregated—mostly white and old. These cars also share a stunning lack of personality, but boy, can they be had cheap.

The Reality: This is mostly true. If you ever wondered who bought all those Ford Crown Victorias, Chevy Impalas, and Dodge Chargers, look no further than your local government. The good comes with maintenance; most of these cars were regularly maintained by mechanics who are familiar with the vehicles. However, many others are also abused or neglected. Some even get shucked off to a back lot for years on end, which requires a lot more work than a new key and a car battery.

The Strategy: Finding a nice government car requires the same thing you need if you’re going to run an oldies station: records, records, and more records. Before you go to preview the cars with a jump box in hand—and yes, you will need one, because many won’t start—go visit the online site if it’s featured there. GovDeals.com and PublicSurplus.com are the two big ones.

From there, find the two or three that interest you most and call to see if you can stop by on a specific day to view the maintenance history. If you're nice, most people will say yes to this request. If you find one with a recently replaced transmission, regular oil changes, and also recently had major suspension components replaced, don’t be scared—this is exactly what you want to see. Avoid the police cars. Instead, opt for the ones that were driven by government employees but still had the heavy duty packages that can withstand the abuse.

The Verdict: If you were to live in a van down by the river, nothing’s cheaper than a 20 year old Ford Aersotar with only 60,000 miles on the clock and back seats that have never been sat in. K-9 cars are loaded with dog hair and dog smells. But if you know a good detailer, they can be killer deals.