Avoid a lemon- how to buy a cheap car

Alex McIntosh, Reporter

This running car set me back less than $500.

It is a fact in life that vehicles are very expensive to purchase and maintain, but what if you could purchase a car for around the same price as a new iPhone? That is possible, but only if you know what to look for— and what to avoid.


The saying, “you get what you pay for”, is certainly applicable when buying a cheap vehicle, but there’s still a chance you can get more than what you pay for.

Ideally, $1500-$2500 is a good price range to have, but “running” vehicles can be purchased for $500 or even lower in some cases. Just keep in mind that cheap cars will most likely require some work to pass a state inspection.

Where to look

Once you have established a good budget, the next step is to start looking for the vehicle. Dealerships are one option and may have a cheap car waiting, but the best deals are found in private sales. Services like Craigslist and the Letgo app are excellent places to start your search. You can filter your price range, search for certain cars and contact the seller on the spot to ask whatever questions are necessary. 

You should have an idea of what you want. Local listings, even in the cheap price range, will have many types of cars. There will be sedans, SUVs, pickup trucks, etc. Sedans are generally cheaper to buy and maintain, but that doesn’t mean a good deal on an SUV or truck is non-existent if that’s what you’re after.

Not all cars are created equal

Some vehicles are laden with problems and predestined for failure even before they roll off the assembly line, only worsening with time.

Doing some research to avoid these types of cars will save you money (and from a headache) in the future.

A good website that can provide you with all sorts of analytics is Carcomplaints. Simply type in the vehicle you are looking at, and find out what sort of issues are reported.

A quick Google search can also help you avoid a lemon, as some notoriously unreliable cars aren’t often known by the website.

An automatic or manual transmission should also be on your consideration list. A manual will be significantly cheaper but can have worn clutches. According to Howstuffworks, a clutch can last anywhere from 50,000-100,000 miles. Replacing a clutch is a transmission job, and it will cost at least $1,000. If the previous owner has no record of that service ever being done on a high mileage vehicle equipped with a stick shift, the service should be avoided, unless you are willing to pay for it.

You should also know what the car uses for timing. Some vehicles use a belt or chain that needs to be serviced every so often, where others don’t. The service for a timing belt is expensive— usually chains last the life of the car, but belts sometimes need to be replaced. If it isn’t replaced and breaks, the engine could be destroyed completely. According to Angie’s List, the cost for a belt replacement ranges between $500-900, but if it breaks, you could be looking at a $2,000 rebuild. If the car you’re looking at has a belt that needs to be replaced periodically, make sure it has been done recently.

What to avoid

The listing itself can provide tons of information about a vehicle. If there are very few pictures or details— avoid it.

It can sometimes be obvious when someone is trying to hide a vehicle’s problem(s) based on the listing alone. If you can see there is heavy body damage, or if rust is even mentioned— avoid it.

Especially for cheaper vehicles, repairs they need may be mentioned in the description. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, so long as these are able to be fixed within your budget. A quick Google search of the repair listed can give you a price range, but make sure what they described is actually the problem.

Contacting the seller

Before you decide to go see the vehicle in person, make sure the seller is willing to sell it at a price you are willing to pay. Often, you can negotiate some money off the price, as sellers tend to list vehicles above what they expect to get for them.

You should, of course, ask the seller what sorts of problems the vehicle has, even if they are in the listing. After asking that, the best question is, “Are you willing to let me take the car to my mechanic for a pre-purchase inspection?”

If they say no or suggest their own mechanic, you should walk away, as they are undeniably trying to hide something. I have dodged two vehicles that likely had extreme issues by asking this question alone. It doesn’t matter how much the car costs or if you intend to have the inspection done— this question should be asked.

In addition, ask what year the vehicle had its last state inspection, and be mindful of what the sticker on the windshield says. A vehicle that passed a state inspection recently may be a safer bet, where as one with a sticker from a decade ago is going to be laden with issues.

Pre-purchase inspection

The professional inspection isn’t just a tactic to get the seller to admit to issues or to avoid a bad car. It is a service to legitimately consider. The cost will be around $80 (sometimes more or less), but a mechanic is likely to spot more issues than may be prevalent in the car. You can perform your own inspection instead, but ideally, both you and a mechanic should look over the vehicle you plan to buy.

Before you go to see the car, you need to become an expert on what to look for. ChrisFix, a popular mechanic on YouTube has a helpful video that covers most of what should be checked.  In addition, you should research your particular vehicle on Youtube or elsewhere to become an expert with it’s engine bay and layout.

The test drive

Assuming the vehicle is safe to be driven, it is essential to see how it runs on the road. If the seller won’t let you test drive it, there is probably something major they are trying to hide. Ideally, you should drive the vehicle for up to an hour or more. Keep an eye on how the suspension performs, any noises, watch the temperature to ensure the engine doesn’t overheat, etc.

Don’t forget to scan the engine using an OBDII scanner (they can be purchased cheaply at an auto parts store). Check that the engine codes can be cleared by a seller trying to hide issues and come up as pending, or it will show up during the test drive. If the scanner comes up with a fault code, you can search Google to determine if the vehicle is even worth buying.

Especially if you plan to drive the vehicle home, stress out the brake system. Make sure the car can stop from an acceleration safely and no noises are present. If you perform your own repairs, brake work can be easy and cheap, but if the brakes are questionable, the vehicle should be towed home. Keep that expense in mind.

A spongy brake pedal isn’t a big issue as long as the brakes perform as intended, but the brake system may need to be bled. You can do it yourself or have a mechanic do it, which according to Repairpal will cost around $61-128.

Common problems— what to look for and what to avoid

Head gasket

The head gasket is a seal between the cylinder heads and engine block. Sellers who want to get rid of a vehicle may be trying to get a vehicle with a blown gasket off their hands. To find this issue, check the oil dipstick and oil cap. If the oil is thick like chocolate syrup or frothy like a milkshake, avoid the vehicle. Other symptoms include overheating and white smoke from the exhaust from a cold start. However, white smoke can be moisture; if it is coolant, it will be accompanied by a sweet smell.

If any of these signs are present with the vehicle, it isn’t even worth the risk, as a head gasket replacement will be a very expensive repair. According to damagedcars.com, the cost will be around $1,000-$1,900 to get the issue resolved.


It will be obvious when you test drive the vehicle if it misfires. The engine will lose power and hesitate, which will be hard not to notice. A check engine light will most often accompany the issue. A misfire can be caused by a variety of things, including a bad fuel injector, bad spark plug, ignition coil, etc. It may be an easy fix, or it could be an issue requiring an engine rebuild. This risk can be avoided if you are confident in what is causing the misfire.

Oil leaks

Seals in the vehicle can wear down over time, causing oil or other fluids to leak out into the engine bay or onto the pavement. You may catch the problem by looking into the engine bay and finding oil somewhere it shouldn’t be, but more often than not, the seller will try to cover the issue up. Oil leaks often will worsen over time, but they don’t render the vehicle completely unusable.

An overly clean engine bay is a telltale sign that a leak is trying to be hidden— it isn’t likely a cheap car will have a completely detailed engine bay, unless a leak is hidden. Look below the vehicle一 there could be a puddle of oil if it is parked in it’s usual spot, and check the engine oil to ensure it isn’t low. In some cases, an oil leak can be a costly problem, but it isn’t always easy to spot. According to gobdp.com, fixing an oil leak can cost $150-1200, so there is both a risk and chance of a score if you decide to purchase the vehicle.

Just remember to add oil often until the problem is repaired if you decide to go with a vehicle that is leaking oil.

Rod knock

When a car’s engine runs out of oil or has seriously neglected oil, irreversible damage will soon follow. Rod knock is usually the first symptom of a neglected engine beginning to fail. The sound produced may be a tapping or knocking sound that worsens as the vehicle warms up and is more evident during acceleration.

A loss of power in the engine and check engine light isn’t uncommon but won’t always accompany rod knock. The issue can be hard to diagnose in some cases, but if you are even the slightest bit suspicious the car has rod knock, it should be avoided at all costs. Such a repair will require a complete engine disassembly. According to carbrain.com, rod knock typically costs $2,500 and up to fix and isn’t something most people can do at home.

Transmission problems

Transmission problems aren’t cheap to fix, and for low-priced cars, it can total them if the issue is severe. Issues with the transmission will likely be evident during acceleration and shifting.

In an automatic, if the vehicle hesitates during shifting and no engine problems are evident, the transmission may be slipping. Often, low transmission fluid is the culprit, which can be checked like an oil dipstick, but with the vehicle running, idling in park.

In some situations, a transmission replacement or rebuild is required. Angieslist.com puts the estimate for these services at around $2,800-3,800 for a rebuild and $4,000-$8,000 for a replacement.

Keep an eye out…

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of other issues that vehicles can have. Some problems are a very cheap fix, while others can cost multiple times the value of the vehicle. If you research your vehicle’s common failure points and keep an eye out for them, you have a good chance of walking away with a good car for a low price.

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