NPR’s Planet Money host Amanda Aronczyk on her biggest financial win

In 2018, Amanda Aronczyk was in the market for a car. The Planet Money host wanted a electric vehicle, but the price point was just too high. Instead, she decided to purchase a used, 2009 Hyundai Elantra SE from her sister for $300. “The doors were rusting,” she says. “It smelled terrible.”

Still, Aronczyk considers the purchase one of her biggest financial wins. “In the moment, we sacrificed our status as humans for this really shitty car,” she says. “I don’t regret it.” To this day, she is still driving it and it has about 100,000 miles on it.

Since the pandemic, you might have found yourself in Aronczyk’s situation: wanting to buy a car but experiencing some sticker shock when you start shopping around.

But even if you want to buy a used car, you’ll likely be spending more than Aronczyk did.  In March, the average price of a used car was up more than 35% from where it was 12 months ago, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Here are some rules of thumb to follow if you’re shopping for a used car.

Buy in the ‘sweet spot’

“I think the sweet spot [for used cars] is 3-to-4 years old with 30,000 to 40,000 miles on it,” Scotty Reiss, founder of A Girls Guide to Cars, told Grow last summer.

Buying a car that is only a few years old, compared to one that is a decade old, has benefits, Reiss says. “It hasn’t had the wear and tear on the engine and interior,” she says. “It also probably has newer technology. Things like Apple CarPlay and a rearview camera. It may have parking sensors. Some of those premium features, on a 10-year-old car, you might not find them.”

Really old cars might also not have the safety features you need, Emilie Voss, a spokesperson for CARFAX, told Grow. “Airbags or antilock brakes, some of those things didn’t become standard until the late 1990s or early 2000s,” she says.

Older cars can still be good buys

But don’t totally discount older cars. If an older car has been well taken care of, it is possible that it’s a good purchase for you.

“If you’re looking for something that is a stopgap between now and a year from now when you’re planning on buying a new car, it might not be a bad thing to buy a $3,000 or $4,000 car with 100,000 miles on it,” Reiss says.

Just be sure it doesn’t have thousands and thousands of dollars of needed repairs. You should look to see which parts have and haven’t been replaced, and how recently, along with how much it will cost for you to do any repairs you might anticipate. Car manuals will note what needs to replaced at what number of miles driven.

“If you’re spending more than about $4,000 a year on maintenance, then you probably should look a little deeper and find something that’s not going to need $4,000 a year in maintenance,” Reiss says.

3 tips to avoid ‘surprises’ when buying a used car

Regardless of how many years old your car is or how many miles it has on it, you want to do your research before buying it. There are three things everyone should do before buying a used car, Voss says:

  • Check the vehicle history. This will let you know how many people have previously owned the car, how many accidents it’s been in, or if there are any open recalls on it. When a car has an open recall, that means it has a problem that hasn’t been addressed. If you buy a car with an open recall, you will have to address the issue yourself.
  • Take it for an independent inspection. Pick a mechanic you trust. An inspection will cost between $50 and $100 but can tell you whether recent repairs were made correctly, along with any new work that ought to be done.
  • Test drive it. This will help you see any flaws in how the car operates, such as whether the window wipers and air conditioning work or if there are strange noises when you accelerate or brake. You can also see how comfortable you feel driving the car.

“A lot of people do one or two of those things, but you want to do all three,” Voss says. “It’s your best bet at not having surprises down the road.”

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