Listen instead

With the exception of a house, a car is the single biggest purchase an average person generally makes. And though a real estate purchase is at least an order of magnitude greater in cost, it’s generally considered an asset (despite the troubled housing market). A car is not an asset. A car is a liability, which is a fancy technical term for “money hole.”

A full-priced new car is one of the worst investments you can make, depreciating right off the lot, as they say. So don’t buy one there! Forget dealerships. Who needs the hassle? There’s no transparency and a lot of pressure. Haggling is also a lot easier when it’s one individual civilian you’re talking to. So where do you find people who are selling their old junkers?

1. Craigslist

This is the most open, freewheeling, and random venue for doing business online, which of course carries risks as well as benefits. But there’s just a tremendous amount of stuff for sale here, including cars of all years, makes, and models (both working and not). Make sure you get a test drive and that everything seems on the up-and-up.

2. eBay Motors

This is a somewhat more regulated marketplace for person-to-person car sales.  You’re more likely to get all the information you need for each car BEFORE you call or email for more information. Things like mileage, Carfax reports, and the like are generally available for your perusal, meaning you’re less likely to be wasting your time.

3. Newspaper classified ads

Yes, they still exist! And they are often a good place to look for the best deals. If you’re hoping to find that mythical car driven once a week by a little old lady to church or the grocery store, chances are this is where the little old lady in question would think to sell her vehicle. That factor aside, you’ll also be limiting the search geographically in a way that online venues will not necessarily do (which could be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on how far you’re planning to travel in your quest for a new means to travel.

4. Drive around

We’ve all seen them, parked in a ditch by the side of the road with a “FOR SALE” sign. It took me a long time to be comfortable making such a major purchase through what seemed like an innately impulse-buy kind of method. But there are some real advantages to this besides the serendipity. You can get a good look at the vehicle before you begin negotiations. It also means they aren’t shy. When people resort to this method of selling, they really want someone to buy the car, and the possibility of effective haggling is higher as well. I bought a car this way for less than $3000, and it ran another ten years. Granted, those things are never guaranteed, and you have to strike a balance between low-cost upfront, and buying a more expensive car that will cost you less money and agony in the future. It can be a tough call

If you’re really a determined bargain hunter, you’ll pursue all four of these options. Look for low-mileage used cars that are easy to find service for (meaning common brands of Japanese and American cars, rather than obscure imports). You’ll thank yourself later.