How to buy a car (/ how to not buy a car)


writing from the Honda dealership waiting room after being walked through a massive quote for repairs on a second-hand car that’s gobbled too much cash already. srs computer, complete power steering system replacement, rotors and brakes. even going aftermarket, we’re not trying to sink $8k into a 150k-mile 2005 Honda Pilot.

neither of us has ever bought a car from someone who wasn’t one of our parents. i’m wondering what people’s tips are. new, used, companies that align with our moral compass, we’re clueless. any help would be appreciated!!

about us:

  • we live in a drivable (but also super walkable and transit-able) bigger city, but can see moving to a smaller city or rural area where driving is more necessary day-to-day
  • we want something bigger than a sedan
  • we have reasonably solid credit
  • we want to minimize eco impact

Cars are generally horrible on any moral dimension, so I recommend cringing through the “align with our moral compass” bit.

Bigger than a sedan but minimizing eco impact is a really hard thing to achieve, but we get about 27mpg avg in our subaru outback, which isn’t the worst?

Larger hybrids seem to be quite expensive without providing a huge MPG benefit. I’m excited about the raft of new electric vehicles about to enter the market, but the larger ones are all looking to be quite expensive, at least at first.

I recommend sticking with Japanese cars for reliability. There are some reliable models from other parts of the world, but Japanese cars are almost without exception reliable. Then again, needing $8k of repairs on a 150k 2005 Honda seems to contradict what I just said. I’m really surprised to hear that. Rotors and brakes are wear and tear items, but the computer and power steering system issues are really surprising to me.

Cars suck. Americans should remember how trains work. The planet needs us to.


yeah, i think it’s a 2005 Honda Pilot thing. a few years out the gate, it experienced a massive engine failure that was out of warranty, which was like a $7k fix.

these are good starting points, thanks jason.

yeah, we feel pretty terrible about using the car when we do. we use it maybe once or twice a week for groceries and shows/rehearsals which would take 3x longer through transit because of where we live / where those things happen. still, if we 100% knew we’d stay in chicago forever, we wouldn’t likely be considering this.


Yes, transit is insufficient almost everywhere in USA. If you’re looking for something to get politically active about…

Oh yeah, I’ll plug Consumer Reports. Have to pay for it, but their reviews are excellent with regard to fuel economy, reliability, other practical concerns.

Motor Trend’s reviews are also often helpful.


added some bits to the thread title to reflect both sides of the convo :pray:t2:


co-sign on japanese cars - i’d bet you could get a CR-V with fewer miles on it that’s <10 years old for just over the cost of these fixes if you shop around and are willing/able to negotiate. they’re not the “coolest” cars in the world, but they’re eminently functional and readily fixable. not exactly sure what mpg we get in our 09 CR-V, but it’s not tooo too bad.

another note on hondas specifically in urban areas: get a catalytic converter lock put on before you drive off the lot! it’s not a matter of if, but when it’s going to get nabbed from under the car and as we recently learned it’s a ~$1k fix :rage:

1 Like

Cars are weird. From an environmental standpoint, they’re pretty awful whether a specific vehicle is electric or petrol. But I drive one.

Off the top of my head–I kind of like buying used cars because you avoid some of the upfront costs of a new one. I don’t remember specifically but there’s taxes and state fees that you dodge. It’s helpful to have some mechanical skills the older the car is.

Purchasing in-state is a bit easier. My credit union has always given me the best loan rate after negotiating with the dealer. And if you’re buying used, make sure the seller agrees to a vehicle inspection at a reputable shop before you buy. I’ve both paid cash and had loans for used cars through my credit union–neither were a hassle.

For me buying out-of-state was kind of a pain and felt super sketchy. If it weren’t for the car being very low-mileage and the seller’s identity verified as a member of a very large and public company in Colorado, I probably wouldn’t have. My credit union denied an out-of-state used car loan so I had to agree to a higher-rate contract from a different bank. The paperwork was pretty involved because I was driving it from Colorado to Oregon–specifically you need a cross-state temporary permit from the original state’s DMV.

As long as you do your research and follow your gut, I think mostly your experience will depend on how picky you are about choosing the car and how convenient that car is to procure. Good luck!


i don’t drive my car a lot, but i do have one. it is a 2005 prius and was crazy cheap - bought for $5k with 70k miles, and sunk another $1k into upgrading the batteries. i like it because it’s relatively easy to maintain for a hybrid, and can haul a surprising amount of stuff.

i think there are an awful lot of these on the used market - they were a serious fad that was immediately eclipsed by later models.

today, living in the bay area, i would try to go without (Zipcar &c for hauling stuff)


Nissan Leafs are also crazy affordable if they’re old enough. Those rebates got built into the used price. They don’t have the longest range, and they’re not very large, but they seem like extremely capable grocery grabbers, and I’ve thought about getting one just to use less fuel on shorter trips. Didn’t do so because the thought of having an “extra” car made me a bit ill once I thought about it for a bit…

1 Like

I got a Toyota RAV4 a few years ago, and it has been good. I like it because it gets pretty good gas mileage, is fairly compact and easy to parallel park, and the seats fold down allowing you to pack a surprising amount.

It might be worth it to check new. The new one I ended up getting actually was cheaper than a used one I was looking at that was a year old and had about 10k miles (due to the new delearship having no interest financing and giving more than the value of the vehicle I was trading in through some promotion).

In my opinion, buying a car is not very fun, good luck

I live in a two car (uggg) household. I bought a Honda Fit from a dealership in the late fall (4 years ago) at the end of a month. The fit is awesome for economy cars! 34 mpg city for me. I don’t know for certain, but I feel like there must have been a sales goal the dealership was trying to make, because I talked my way down more than I expected. I’m not that great at negation on things like cars either because I’m not super knowledgeable about them.

Our second car, Honda CR-V we got from a dealership that is sticker price only that goes down the longer the car has been on the lot. No haggling. The price was fair, and I didn’t have to worry a put negotiating either. I liked that. I’ll will likely do that again when my car (Fit) kicks the dust.

I only buy cars that cost less than $1000. Have done so since 1993. I do not recommend this for everyone (must be willing to get stranded now and then). That said here’s what I have learned:

  1. Japanese cars preferred. Toyota, Honda, etc. (Note, some older Fords have Nissan motors in them, these are good too). Sorry about your Honda, must’ve been driven hard normally I like them.
  2. To avoid: Volvos (muffler system goes out and is also very complicated/expensive).
  3. Certain price points are to be avoided ($2k-$5k people will tell you the car is ok but it definitely is not, this is how I set my $1k price point–everyone knows there’s something wrong with it so they are honest and tell me).
  4. People in their 30s and older will tend to be honest about what is wrong with the car if you ask them. Some things aren’t a big deal, can be replaced etc. Some things are. Depends on the model. I know this is age-ist, but it’s my rule of thumb. If someone is younger and confident I’d trust them, but if they say nothing is wrong with the car then I move along.
  5. Ask them how often they changed the oil. This is the number one thing that will screw up a car. If they say anything more than “every 2000 miles” then don’t buy it. Changing the oil regularly every 2k miles is what keeps them on the road forever.
  6. Get your oil changed at a mechanic that you like. This is how you build a relationship with a mechanic so that they look out for you etc. Probably too late for this now, but on your next car, ask a few people for mechanic recommendations and start bringing it there for the oil change. Have your mechanic look at the prospective car to see what it will need and when. All cars need something sooner or later.

Re: Impact:
None of my $1000 vehicles are/were great on gas mileage etc. On the surface they are not “eco friendly.” However, they are far more eco-unfriendly rusting in a trash heap. I’m the last owner on all my vehicles and I make sure they stay out of the landfill as long as possible (and then get to a good parts-butcher on their way out).

I advise against taking out a loan for a car as it is financially not a good investment. But I’m also not an accountant.

Good luck!


Late 2000s Honda CR-V will tick most of the boxes. Never buy from a dealership or used car lot. Always take the car you want to a qualified mechanic for inspection before you buy.

Also check out this guys tips.

1 Like

toyota and honda are great

when going used, avoid dealerships for everything - including repairs. high parts mark-ups and overpriced labor.

i’ve always used craigslist and brought the vehicle to a mechanic for inspection.

CR-V or RAV-4 seems cool. if you can find a good condition late model toyota previa van with all-wheel drive and super-charger you’ll be golden:

i have mixed feelings about used hybrids. we have gotten a lot of use out of a 2001 honda insight, but now the second set batteries are going out… i can replace them for a couple grand, but those will eventually go out too. i wonder how many sets of batteries will get used in the lifetime of the engine (which has been known to push 400k)…


Data point, my parents have an '04 Prius with 450k on the engine, still in it’s 1st aftermarket replacement batteries

I think the batteries just improved a lot between '04 and '10

Not that I disagree, the batteries are pretty nasty

But if yr interested I’ll dig up the name of the battery supplier, it’s a little so cal local company. They are a lot better than the Toyota ones, which you have to buy through dealer at horrendous markup


I only buy cars that cost less than $1000.

Ya know, my dad (that is, Don b my original dad) always followed this philosophy all my life. So so many cars. I have pretty mixed feelings about it. I’ve fallen more in the camp of getting educated about a particular model and then looking really hard for a used specimen in good shape, which means probably paying 2k or 5k.

In the 2-3k budget I had a kick-ass '86 accord for a long long time. Very reliable and ridiculous mileage - you could actually turn off the engine and glide in the slipstream of a truck with this thing. (Not that I would ever try such an awful terrible stunt)


was just forced into this decision after our 2009 Fit was totalled in an accident two weeks ago. after doing a ton of research and test drives we went with a new CRV. with a toddler our #1 criteria is safety w/ mpg very important (followed by ability in snowy, hilly terrain) - this checks all of those boxes and came out ahead of the Subarus.

shop around for the best interest rate and negotiate it if you have good credit. my wife got it down almost 2% within 10 minutes.

very! i’ve been torn about keeping the insight and getting a bumblebee battery or just moving on… the mileage is pretty low (145k).

same. i tried the sub-1k thing (81 vw rabbit diesel!) and was stranded so many times. my $1800 '87 toyota van was bulletproof though.

1 Like

I recently bought a Chevy bolt. I was in a similar situation to you a while ago and settled on this. If you are open to an electric, It’s worth checking out. much bigger inside than it seems like it should be. We are tallish people with two kids and we find it spacious. Really nice battery range(250+ miles) and actually fun to drive.

I would not describe GM as “morally aligned” but hopefully they will have a decent contract with the UAW soon…

feels a bit overkill and not very eco-friendly ! I would go to the mechanic every month ! Most engines recommend a change of oil every 15000 - 20000 km (~11k miles).

My first car was a 2k€ 1993 Toyota Corolla (liftback) that went from 170 000 km to 300 000 km with a single proper oil change (i refilled half a liter every 5000km though, because the engine kind of ate the oil.) Then due to no maintenance and old age many things failed at once (clutch, trunk lock, brakes, rust) and i had to dump it.
It was an impulse “i need a car and this one looks weird enough” buy.

My second car (Saab 9-3 OG) was bought thirdhand, twelve-year-old with 80k km. First (old) owner did not really drive it for years, then second (young) owner put 60k km on it in two years and went through all the possible known problems of that particular model, fixed by specialists. So i bought a now-reliable car for 4k€. Now close to 300k km it only cost me expendables (brake pads, discs, fluids, filters, a few sensors, ) and i love driving an over-engineered extinct brand (fits our end-of-times zeitgeist).
This buy was the result of some research and self-education on a few specific models/brands combined with a good opportunity (also i really wanted a symbolically european car (even though GM owned (and subsequently killed))).

man yells at bureaucratic cloud

I hope it will last years on but growing clean air regulations mean i sometimes have to pretend not seeing signs. It also means if i’d want a “clean” car with the same level of comfort i’d have to shell out at least 5 times the price, as by definition used cars are considered “unclean” here. Yet throwing away perfectly working stuff feels wrong.

My next car will probably be a toyota/lexus hybrid depending on market and regulation when that time will come. Or an assisted bike and some courage (dogs! cars! distance! time!).

  • I prefer buying pieces of crap that are cheap + AA membership. Every day it runs will be a small gift and it’s idiosyncrasies you on your toes! Also, it doesn’t sound like you need it to be particularly reliable since you’re using it mostly recreationally. You don’t have to be at the grocery store on time.

  • since you’re hauling gear: check that the backseat folds down

  • make sure the engine isn’t wet

Edit: AA (UK) = AAA (US)
I wouldn’t presume to recommend that you join Alcoholics Anonymous