Q: I need a car, but can only spend $1,000. Is it possible to find something I can afford?
A: It is, but you'll have to look hard and get help from a mechanic you trust.
"Many cheap cars are being sold because they won't pass the state inspection, or because the current owner is unwilling to spend any money on them," said Mark Theobald, publisher of Smartcarguide.com and owner of The Motor Library, an automotive history bookstore in Wells, Vt.
That said, some cars age well if they've been cared for.
You may want to consider early 1990s Volkswagen Jettas and Golfs, Honda Civics from the late 1980s, Buicks and Oldsmobiles, said Vladimir Samarin, an electrical engineer whose Web site, www.samarins.com, offers advice for used car buyers.
One caveat: Since many old cars lack safety equipment that's now standard, a teenager looking for a used car should consider a big, heavy car.
David Champion, director of automobile testing for Consumer Reports magazine, recommends a used Honda Accord, Toyota Corrolla or Camry for drivers older than 19. A used Ford Taurus might be worth considering, since there are "lots of parts, the parts are dirt cheap and everyone knows how to work on them," Champion said.
Avoid cars that would be expensive to fix: No used Mercedes for you. Also, don't get a V-8 engine. A four- or six- cylinder car will consume less gas and is easier to fix, Samarin said.
Make a list of models you're interested in. Avoid used car dealers - their $1,000 car is probably worth $250, said Theobald. Instead, ask family and friends if they're selling a used car, or know anyone who is. After that, check with aquaintences at work and school.
If you come up dry, start checking classified and online ads.
Sites like Samarin's include a checklist of questions to ask and things to consider. The big things to check are the engine, the brake lines and the brake components. Also look for signs of corrosion.
"You start, you know nothing about cars," said Samarin. "You look at one car, you know something. Two, you know something else. By the fifth or sixth car, you will be a professional."
Still, you should get advice from a real professional. Once you've found the car that looks best to you, take it to a mechanic.
Mechanics usually charge about $100 to thoroughly examine the car, but it's worth it, Champion said. "A car that looks absolutely ideal from the outside may be ready to drop apart when you turn the corner," he said.
For even more information, call the U.S. Department of Transportation's Auto Safety Hotline (800-424-9393) to see if any parts on the make, model and year car you're considering have been recalled.
The Federal Trade Commission also suggests asking the owner for the car's maintenance record. If the owner doesn't have a copy, call the dealership or repair shop where most of the work was done and see if they'll tell you.
CarFax (www.carfax.com) or Experian Automotive (www.autocheck.com) sell vehicle history reports that can tell you if the car has ever been the subject of an insurance claim, including a claim that it was totaled, flooded or burned. CarFax sells unlimited reports for 30 days for $25; Experian charges $24.99 for unlimited reports for 60 days. To order a report, you'll need the vehicle identification number from the car's dashboard.
Once you've bought a car, check how much insurance your state requires. While liability insurance is a must, you may want to consider not insuring the car for its total loss value, since the insurance may cost more than the car is worth.
Remember, even a clunker may attract car thieves. Many old models are easy to steal- the 1995 Saturn SL was the most stolen vehicle of 2003, according to CCC Information Services Inc. You can find an anti-theft device, like The Club steering-wheel lock, for less than $10 on eBay Inc.