I recently bought a car. I’ll record my experience here in case I have friends who might find it helpful later.

Overall, I was looking for a car that I could own for at least a few months without major problems, including a cross-country drive, for under about $5000. And I wanted something with more cargo space than a typical sedan. Gas efficiency was fairly important, but most other features I could do without. Miles on the car were relevant basically as a proxy for condition – some parts of the engine just degrade as a function of miles.

First, I narrowed down the models I was looking at using this helpful image, which shows recommended used car models (with tradeoffs) if you’re looking to spend under $5000. I decided that my first choice was a 2003-2009ish Subaru Outback, but that I would consider a few alternatives.

Then, I searched a few places: mainly Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace, and Cargurus. There was a fair bit of selection in that price range – though most had 130k-200k miles.

The cars I saw broke down into a few categories:

  1. Regular people who had owned the car and were getting rid of it for some reason or another.
  2. Dealers
  3. Semi-professional car flippers who buy cars at auction and then sell them.

Group (1), seemed the least sketchy and the most likely to have a pleasant transaction. But for Subarus at least, most of them had taken the car about as far as it would ever go, with insanely high mileage. Dealers typically had higher listing prices, plus fees above the listed price, but they were easiest to reach and schedule time with. The dealers with cars in this price range also had pretty mixed reviews, including some one-star “car fell apart the next day” type. Group (3) had cheap cars, sometimes with low mileage, but in overall terrible condition.

For each car I saw, I looked it up on Edmunds. While it has a terrible interface, it was really useful to have a “fair price” to compare it to. Also, I did some googling along the lines of “Reddit used YEAR MODEL” to see if there were particular known issues for those years to be aware of, or reviews. I also read some overview pieces from Reddit that helped me orient.

I sent a bunch of messages to sellers, and asked to test-drive the car and, if it looked good, take it to a mechanic for an inspection. That last condition was often a blocker. People (and especially dealers!) were understandably busy, and didn’t trust that I was really interested. I think I would have gotten more replies if instead of demanding that up-front, I had waited to ask after I had seen the car, foot-in-the-door style, but that felt disrespectful.

I ended up finding a great car on Craigslist. It’s a Ford Focus, so not the model I was originally considering but met my needs. It was a bit over my desired price range, but in great condition and (maybe most important) from an honest and easy-to-deal-with seller. He had bought the car in medical school, driven it to NYC to start his career, and then realized he didn’t need a car in Manhattan. We took a test drive, then visited a mechanic, then made the sale!

At this point I made a mistake – I thought I could get a certified check from any bank, not just one where I had an account. So we had to go to the post office and get money orders, which have a $1000 cap. That was a little inconvenient but not terrible.

The actual transaction was simple: we signed a few places on the car’s title, we each filled out a bill of sale, and that was it!

Now, the tricky part was getting the car registered. This is in general harder when buying from a person rather than a dealer – they take their plates off when you buy, and you can’t drive the car without plates. In my case, the car was parked in a garage and paid through end-of-month, so we just left it there and I borrowed a car to go to the DMV. This was harder than it should have been, because of covid and a tight timeline, but ended up working out okay. You’ll need to get insurance before doing this, but that’s a quick and easy process online.

If you read this and want to ask any questions, go ahead!