March 1, 2024

Bucks: Helping New Grads Find a Good Used Car

Courtesy CarGurus

A tight used-car market this spring means new graduates (or, in many cases, their parents) may have to do a bit more hunting than usual to find a ride they can afford on a just-starting-out salary.

To help with the search, car shopping site CarGurus crunched information on millions of used-car listings from around the country–mostly at dealerships–as of May 1. The search focused on cars (pickups, S.U.V.’s and convertibles were excluded) less than six years old, priced under $20,000. The list also selected for models with high safety ratings from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

And, since gas prices have been volatile, the search factored in fuel economy by limiting the selection to cars that would cost $40 a week to fill up. (That figure assumed gas prices of $4 per gallon and 200 miles of driving each week.)

The result?

CarGurus arrived at seven used-car models that it considers to be “great deals” for new graduates. The list includes the 2006 Volkswagen Jetta Value Edition, the least-expensive model, at an estimated $11,300 for a car with average mileage (59,200). At the high end, the list has the 2007 Ford Edge SE, at roughly $17,400 for a model with 51,300 miles.

The CarGurus “deal finder” tool lists actual inventory. You can plug in the model you want and add your postal code, and the tool tells you what’s available in your area; the “instant market value” gives you a ballpark figure, so you can see if the asking price is reasonable. Fancy options like leather seats will boost prices significantly, and buyers in densely populated urban areas will likely pay more, says Langley Steinert, the site’s founder and chief executive.

Mr. Steinert advises expanding your online search beyond, say, 75 miles from your ZIP code to capture more inventory and save as much as 10 percent on the price. “It may be inconvenient to drive more than hour, but it’s worth it if it saves you several thousand dollars,” he told me in a phone interview.

The screen did include feedback from the site’s user community, which includes comments on reliability, he said. But since breakdowns can eat into a young person’s budget, we were curious to see how the cars fared in a more formal measure of repair history.

We compared CarGurus’s picks with a list of the most reliable used cars for a given model year, as ranked by Consumer Reports. Just three of the CarGurus picks met Consumer Report’s criteria for “good bets,” based on their repair records: The 2008 Scion xB base model, with an estimated cost of $14,000; the 2009 Ford Fusion S, at $14,100; and the 2008 Honda Accord LX, at $16,700 (shown in photo above).

So it might be worth running any model you’re interested in through the Consumer Reports Web site too, to see whether your preferred model might be likely to spend time in the repair shop. (Some car ranking content at Consumer Reports requires a subscription.)

Here’s CarGurus’s full list its picks for “best” used cars for grads this spring, and the estimated price for a car with average mileage:

  • 2006 Volkswagen Jetta Value Edition, $11,300
  • 2006 Volkswagen Passat Value Edition, 12,800
  • 2009 Mitsubishi Lancer DE, $12,900
  • 2008 Scion xB Base, $14,000
  • 2009 Ford Fusion S, $14,100
  • 2008 Honda Accord LX, $16,700
  • 2007 Ford Edge SE, $17,400

And don’t forget that financing a car is an especially important component of its total cost. Getting quotes from other lenders other than the dealership can help avoid overpaying.

Have you used online car-search tools to help find a used car? Which did you find most helpful?

Updated to include full list of “best deal” cars.

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