Car Corner
Buying A First Car - Part I

June 2, 2012
By Scott Lewis

I took my son for his driver's permit a few weeks ago. In the fall he will be a senior in high school and have a driver's license a couple of months after that. I fully plan to make sure that when he gets his license he has a car to drive. So this summer we went shopping.

I did a little research on my own. First of all I had to set a budget. I wanted to go higher... but I could only spare a maximum of $6,000 (the budget for this month's Classic Car Watch). That had to include TTL and any other incidentals to get the car the way he will ant it (read: make sure he can play music from his iPod in the car). I had this much available in cash, so I could easily make an offer on the spot in a private sale.

What kind of car for a first car? Since I would be keeping this car in my name... and plan to use it when I need more space than my Mini Cooper (or future, smaller car) we had to go with a 4 door. I do not like SUVs, so that put us in the sedan market.

Doing a search on AutoTrader showed that that site would be little use. I saw very few cars in the $5-6K range on AutoTrader. So I did most of my searching on Craigslist.

I wanted to try and stay under 100,000 miles. At this price point that would be nearly impossible. However, I am a fan of Honda and Toyota and their reputations for reliability, so I would go up to 150K miles for a Honda or Toyota. Nissan... we'll see.

Here are the main cars I started searching for:

2000-2005 Civic
2000-2004 Accord
2000-2004 Camry
2004+ Pontiac G6
2004+ Ford Taurus
2005+ Dodge Stratus
2003+ Mazda6 -- Too Expensive

I did my due diligence and started finding cars for my son to look at... as in look at the pictures online so I could be sure he would find the cars acceptable. Some he did... some he did not. Here was the first batch of cars after removing the cars he found "unattractive":

2003 Honda Civic, Blue, 117K - $4,950
2006 Dodge Stratus, Silver, 118K - $4,500
2005 Civic, White, Private Seller, 129K - $4,999
2001 Toyota Camry LE, Black, 128K - $5,350
2000 Toyota Camry LE, Silver, 158K - $4,995

I did find a couple Ford Taurus models for my son to look at, but he did not like them. I also came across a Nissan Maxima... in Gold... which he hated. Though he said he would be willing to look at them in another color. And there in lies a rub... Gold has to be the least attractive color... and the most affordable in the used car marketplace. At least that is what I discovered in my searching.

Since this car would be in my name... I was willing to go a little bit outside the box. I found two cars by accident:

1995 Lexus ES 300, White, 120K - $5,995
1999 Lexus GS 300, Silver, 163K - $3,495

These two cars were older than I would have liked... but the mileage seemed completely reasonable. After all... they are Toyotas under the skin. I could see getting an older luxury car with leather interior.


At this point in our story... it is time to start seeing cars in person. I am waiting on my June 1st paycheck before hitting the dealers... this will bring my available cash to $6,000, though I really would like to stay at about $5,000.

Next month I should be able to tell you what we ended up with.