Cars are essential expenses for most Americans. An incredible 76 percent of Americans commute to work in their own cars alone every day. A further 9 percent carpool in motor vehicles with friends. The overwhelming majority of American households have a car or two in the garage, because it would be impossible to get places — whether those places be work, recreation spots, or the homes of friends and family members — without them.
But cars are expensive. A new one can cost tens of thousands of dollars — $36,000 is the average. That’s more than many Americans can afford, so perhaps it’s no surprise that we are seeing and increase in the amount of car debt (all consumer debt is rising, but auto loans are getting out of hand).
Maybe you’ll have a time in your life when you’re in the position to get the car that you want and pay in cash. But now is not necessarily that time. If you need to save big on a vehicle, you should consider one of these strategies.
Check out sales by owners (very, very carefully)
You could buy a vehicle directly from its owner. Doing so cuts out middlemen, paperwork, and advertising costs, which can make cars cheaper. But beware: you should be very careful when you buy a car right from its owner.
Make sure that you have a mechanic look at the car. Use online vehicle history report tools to dig into the car’s secret past. And when in doubt, walk away. Even the cheapest cars are bad deals when they turn out to be lemons.
With that said, you might be lucky enough to find a car for sale by a trusted friend or family member, or you might spot a gem that your mechanic gives the all-clear for. It’s worth taking a look.
Check out police auctions
Police auctions are a great place to land really cheap vehicles. Police departments sometimes end up with cars they don’t want: cars that were seized in criminal investigations, for instance, or old squad cars that have been replaced by newer models. Occasionally, law enforcement agencies hold auctions and let these vehicles go at incredibly low prices.
Be careful, though. Police officers serve and protect the citizens, but they’re not always as nice to their cars, which can show signs of heavy use and aggressive driving. Criminals, naturally, are also not the best first owners for your used car to have. Use vehicle history reports and be prepared to deal with a heavily used vehicle.
Look at repo auctions
If police auctions seem like a bit much for you, try repo auctions. They’re similar in the sense that you’ll be bidding on a used vehicle, but different in other ways. In this case, the vehicles have been repossessed by credit agencies — the owner wasn’t able to pay a car loan and lost the vehicle. Now, these are used vehicles that have dropped in value a bit — plus, the credit agencies want cash, not a car. So these agencies offer the vehicles at auction and let them go for whatever they can get. Sometimes, that means big deals!
You can find repo auctions on reputable used car and auto auction websites, which can make this a safer bet than the other options we’ve listed so far. Of course, the owners weren’t necessarily the most responsible people in the world, so you should still use vehicle history reports and look for reassurances, guarantees, and warranties.
An alternate suggestion: used cars, sensible debt, and a long-term plan
You can get extremely affordable vehicles if you opt for one of these strategies. But you shouldn’t feel like these are your only options, even if your budget is small. In fact, they may not even be the best ones.
While the cheapest cars on the market are, obviously, the cheapest in sticker price, they may not be the best value in the long run. Older cars cost more to maintain, and cheap cars are usually cheap for a reason.
This doesn’t mean that you should buy a brand-new car and take out a ton of debt, but if does mean that you should consider paying a little extra to deal with a reputable dealer or website. You don’t have to pay too much more — lots of great auto auction and used car website offer deals that are as good as many direct-from-owner sales. And you should also consider taking out a sensible amount of car debt to get a more reliable vehicle — car debt can be healthy if it’s taken out in moderation, and a more reliable ride will save you on repair costs while ensuring that you get to work every day to earn your keep.
In short, you’ve got options. No matter what your budget is, you should be able to find a ride that meets your needs.