9 Secrets To Finding A Cheap Reliable Used Car

Who says beggars can’t be choosers? Sure we can! I’ll prove it to you. You may not have a ton of money to drop on a set of wheels but you can still get a cheap and reliable used car. Today I’m going to show you the hacks I’ve used over and over again to find and buy very reliable used cars for well under market value.

This guide is for folks who are strapped for cash but still need a durable vehicle to get them from point A to point B reliably.

First some disclosure:

  • I have owned 9 vehicles and never had a car payment in my life.
  • The newest used car I ever bought was 5 years old.
  • The most expensive car I’ve ever bought outright was a $12,000 Toyota Hilux diesel(heck of a durable truck by the way.)

Most of the car buying tips I read online focus on how to successfully negotiate a price. Actually, what most folks really need to do is to learn how to effectively search for a reliable used car at a great price. It’s the proverbial needle in a haystack scenario.

The deals are out there. You just need to think smarter than the masses of car shoppers out there.

Tip #1: Less is Better

If you settle for less luxury you’ll find some screaming deals on reliable used cars. That’s mainly because most car-buyers out there are a bunch of divas who care more about leather and paint colors.

The more “loaded” a car is, the more likely you’ll be paying out the wazoo for repairs. That’s especially true of 5-10 year-old cars.

Remember, your goal is to get a reliable used car not a pimp-mobile. So, decide from the outset to rid yourself of trivial preferences that inflate the perceived value of cars like paint color, seating material, power windows, and what-have-you.

I once got a ridiculous deal on a base Hyundai Accent in mint shape. The dealer couldn’t sell it because it had no A/C, had roll-down windows, and a manual transmission. All I needed was a reliable little car to run around town with. The car dealer was desperate. It had been sitting on his lot for a year-a perfect solid car- all because most car buyers were too soft.

My point is this: Divas don’t get deals! Let go of luxury and you’ll be the winner.

Tip #2 Use Very Specific Keywords When Searching for Reliable Cars Online.

Most people just punch in the kind of car they want, the year, and the price range. WRONGO! LAME IDEA.

If you are looking for a truly reliable car you need to weed out all the riff-raff on a deeper level than the “filters” allow.

A reliable used car is not like a regular car. It has been meticulously taken care of and that fact has to be teased out by using very specific and subtle keywords associated with a well-maintained vehicle.

Start by picturing a perfectionist car owner. He’s probably retired and keeps his car in pristine shape with regular oil changes, visits to the dealer and even waxes the car regularly. You want to buy this guys car, but you need to find him.

Now, Use keywords in the search box that reflect what that guy’s maintenance routine, demographics, and personality are like.

Your search should look something like this:

  • Make: Toyota
  • Price: $3-5K
  • Keywords(us only one of these keywords at a time): Highway Miles, waxed, regularly, one owner, well-loved, hate to sell, accident-free, no accidents, synthetic oil, dealer-maintained, maintenance record, elderly, senior, estate sale, death, undercoated, every 5000(oil changes), immaculate, mint…etc.

You wouldn’t believe how well this technique works! If you run the same basic search over and over but vary your key-words the golden deals will start sifting themselves to the surface for you.

It’s like panning for gold baby!

Keep in mind most online classifieds have pretty stupid search engines so you need to use simple exact-match terms. So, don’t type “all maintenance records available.” Instead, use “maintenance records” and you’ll get more hits.

Tip #3 Highway Miles Are Awesome!

Well-maintained high-mile cars aren’t just cheaper, they’ll also last longer. So while most folks are running away from high-mile cars, you should be sifting through them for hidden gems.

A car that highway commutes 300 miles a week will have far fewer maintenance issues than an identically-aged car that drives 150 miles a week in the city.

The highway mile car has less cold starts, a fraction of the gear changes(transmission wear), a fraction of the brake wear, a fraction of the steering component wear and less suspension wear.

Basically, if regular oil changes and basic maintenance can be proven, a highway mile car will have way more life than a city car of the same model and year.

How to Tell if A Car Really has Highway Miles

Greg over at YourCarAngel on Youtube has a great video on how to spot a vehicle with highway miles:

  • Lots of Bugs, tar specks, and little stone chips on the front bumper, grill, hood lip and mirrors are actually a sign that the owner is telling you the truth. Most people consider them blemishes, but they are actually evidence of well-driven highway car!
  • Bent fins and debris in the radiator or A/C…a natural occurrence of high-way speed driving. Occasionally insects and what not hit those tiny fins and bends them or become lodged there.
  • Little to no wear on the brake pedal: 200k miles of city driving means a lot of braking leading to wear on the pedal from pressing it constantly. The tread on the brake pedal of 200k mile highway car will not be worn.
  • Little to no wear on the door sill: If there are lots of scuffs on the door sill it’s an indicator of lots of exits an entries aka: a city car. Note: if the owner has mobility issues then this is less of an indicator since they likely will scuff the sill a lot more.
  • No cracks/tears on door-side of driver’s seat: another sign of frequent entry and exits which is typical of a city car. Bear in mind that over-weight individuals tend to wear out seats this way too so factor that in if necessary.
  • Unworn shifter(manual transmission): a heavily worn or polished gear shifter means lots of gear changes…aka: a city car.
  • Frequent Oil change intervals in documentation if you can get a dealer record this is probably the best proof of all that it is indeed a highway car.

*TIP: Look for these signs first before you ask the owner if the car has highway miles. If it’s clearly a city car and he says otherwise you know he’s likely lying to you.

Tip #4: Maintenance Records

As I mentioned earlier, “maintenance records” is an important keyword to use when searching online for your next car. Only conscientious owners keep records of their maintenance.

Obviously, the best kind of maintenance record is a print off from the dealership showing religious oil changes, a textbook maintenance schedule, and OEM parts repairs.

You want to buy your next car from a person who is a perfectionist.

You can easily get twice the longevity from a vehicle like this for the same price point as a multi-owner trade-in car with no maintenance records.

Tip #5 Dealer Maintained

A dealer-maintained used car is a rather obvious sign of a well-cared-for vehicle. Make sure that the seller can prove their “dealer-maintained” claim with a full print-off from the dealer.

  • Keep in mind that you won’t be able to get these records after the sale due to the privacy policies of the dealerships.
  • Pay attention to the maintenance intervals(6 months max but more frequently for highway miles)
  • Compare the factory maintenance schedule in the owners manual to the dealer’s maintenance record to see if the vehicle was maintained as prescribed.

You might not be as meticulous about car maintenance as the seller, but you still want to get a vehicle that has been maintained even better than you would.

It’s kinda like marrying up and you’re the gold digger. Your only interest is the intrinsic value of the car and that you “gain from entering the relationship” with your new car.

Tip #6: No Accidents/Floods

This is self-explanatory. Buying a used car like this is a game of Russian roulette

The only way I would buy a vehicle with an accident record was if the owner could prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the insurance claim record was only for minor non-structural damage liked a cracked bumper, broken rear-view mirror or windshield.

Make sure they can prove the repair by a receipt from a reputable body shop and a photo of the damage before the repair.

Tip #7: Senior Driven or Estate Sales

While it’s not a hard and fast rule, in general, seniors look after their cars better. My grandfather used to take his car into the dealer regularly for “peace of mind” inspections!

These cars are driven lightly and babied. Everyone wants to buy them but most of us can’t find them.

Most people are stuck with two options: creeping retirement community parking lots for cars with “for sale” signs or relying on word-of-mouth.

Here’s how to avoid all that malarky.

When you are searching online use keywords like: “Senior, Elderly, retired, Estate, Death, died, no longer drive, can’t drive, health, nursing home” or other related phrases.

Also, often family members will be posting on behalf of their elderly parents so craft your keywords as if you were the one selling the car for your parents: use words like “my dad, my mom, my parents.”

Estate sales are often motivated sellers who are dealing with a lot of loose ends so you stand a good chance of getting an awesome deal.

Tip #8: One Owner, By Owner

This matters for a couple of reasons.

  1. Private sales are significantly cheaper (usually at least $1000 cheaper than dealer prices)
  2. Much more vehicle history and the ability to corroborate the vehicle’s story.

When you start searching for a vehicle, start by hitting the “for sale by owner” filter on whatever online search tool you are using.

With a one-owner vehicle, you will have first-hand access to far more of the car’s history from new. It’s nearly impossible to track the maintenance of a muli-owner car especially if you buy it from a used car dealer who picked it up at the auction.

  • When was the timing belt changed…or was it?
  • When was the transmission fluid changed or was it?
  • If it’s an AWD or 4WD, when was the diff oil changed?

These are all important facts that you can easily get from the original owner. With multi-owner cars you usually have to assume that those critical maintenances items were not done.

Translation: more after-purchase maintenance costs.

Also, do some sleuthing. Do a quick Facebook search of the owner. If he says he works for an engineering firm look him up on Linkedin. Corroborate the minor details of his life to see if he is who he says he is.

If his Facebook photos are public search them for around the date that the vehicle was said to be purchased. Plenty of people put brag-pics up whenever they get a new car.

Tip #9: Think Korea or Japan

Yes, you can find reliable domestic vehicles but you’ll have to baby them a bit more. We all know a Toyota Corolla or Honda Civic will far out-live a Chevy Cobalt.

Before you start searching for a reliable used car, go online and research which vehicle models have the best reliability ratings. You’ll probably come out with vehicles like 4runners, anything Lexus, Odysseys, Accords, Camry, Civic, Foresters, Corolla, etc.

I find the happy medium of value and quality is coming out of Korea these days.

Hyundai and Kia are what Toyota and Honda used to be. They were under-dog brands producing durable vehicles without brand-name pricing. I predict this will change with time as the perceived value of Korean cars goes up in the marketplace.

For now, though, Kia and Hyundai are great options for snagging a cheap and reliable used car to get you from point A to point B without any major hassles.


If you have any other killer tips for finding a reliable cheap car share them with everyone in the comments below.

If you want to know how to make your new(to you) car last twice as long as everyone else’s check out 10 Tips to Make Your Car Last Forever.

And if you want to know what the most reliable vehicle on earth is, check out Why Toyota Land Cruisers are the Most Durable Vehicles Ever

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Don Longworth

Don was born and raised in sub-saharan Africa. Now based in Canada, his extensive experience in non-profit work has served him well over multiple deployments in Africa. Don's experiences have made him a practical "to-the-point" type person. He is a no-frills, low-key guy who appreciates quality and simplicity.

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