Can you get a car for $5,000?

“I’m going shopping for a car.”

For many of us out there we hear those words and we think of things like going to the dentist, attending a funeral or maybe sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic. In this day and age, shopping for a car has become a complicated process that can leave your average consumer feeling overwhelmed and at a loss. We can search on the Internet, look through the classifieds or do it the old fashioned way and stop by an actual dealership. With so many options, where do we even begin? Then you add in the other dreaded word: BUDGET. I mean, let’s be honest, if we all had millions of dollars at our disposal, this whole car buying thing would be a lot less complicated. Of course, this is not the case for the majority of us out there. So here’s the challenge: Is it possible to find a quality car when you’re shopping on a budget? Let’s say a budget of $5,000? This seemed to be a respectable amount so I set out on my journey with the hopes of proving to your average American consumer that their piece of that automotive pie in the sky is attainable.

My first stop is a big manufacturer brand dealer whose outside signs scream that they have budget cars. You know, the ones with multiple exclamation points for added emphasis? I pull into the parking lot thinking that this will be a one stop deal. As I park, I see a salesman outside eagerly awaiting a customer. For some people this can be the worst part of the car buying process, the initial approach. My advice is to walk directly toward the salesman, don’t waste time wandering around, looking at sticker prices and waiting for him to come to you. Let him do his job and answer your questions. He should know what kind of pre-owned cars they have in stock and whether or not they’ll fit in your budget. Plus, it sets the tone that you are here for a reason and you’re not just hoping to test drive a nice car.

The salesman, we’ll call him Doug, meets me halfway as I walk toward the building, shakes my hand and asks me how he can help me with information on the cars. He takes the direct approach so I follow suit. I tell him that I am here to buy a car, that I have $5,000 to spend and not a penny more. I explain that this car is going to be a commuter car so I can save money on gas by not driving my truck every day. Doug informs me that the price range I am looking for can be hard to find because generally cars that can be priced that low don’t always pass inspection. However, today he has two in-stock that could work for me. Score!

The first budget car he shows me is a 1998 Buick Regal with 127k miles. It’s priced nicely under budget at $4195. As we walk around the outside, Doug points out that it’s been well cared for and I would have to agree. The exterior is in good shape, however when I open the car door I catch a whiff of something that smells exactly like a wet dog. As I check the backseat just to be sure that the previous owners hadn’t accidentally left their golden retriever behind, I ask Doug about the smell. He informs me that for this bargain price they generally don’t do the same reconditioning that they would do on another used car. The dealership really only offers a car like this to the public as a favor before they send it to the auction so they don’t want to spend too much money on fixing it up. As I stand there contemplating his use of the word “favor,” he directs my attention to budget car number two.

On the opposite end of the spectrum car number two is a 1997 Mitsubishi Mirage with 147k miles. I’m not sure this car is even worth showing to a potential customer but it’s there and so am I, so I can’t really blame Doug for trying. The paint is good a nice dent in the front and there is rust forming on the side. Doug tells me that this one is way under my budget and I tell him I would hope so. This babe magnet comes in at the bargain price of $2995.

Doug politely asks me if I would consider using my cash as a down payment on a new car. He can obviously read that I am not quite feeling either one of these budget cars. He is just trying to be a good salesman so I politely tell him that I just don’t want to make payments. He says he understands but reminds me that these cars are sold “as is”, which means that if I drive off the lot and the car splits in half well then guess what? I own both halves. I tell him that I understand but that I am still just looking for a good budget car. I thank him for his time and head back toward my truck where I encounter the sales manager, we’ll call him Bill. And I think, “Here it comes.” Bill has come out here to finish the job, he’s going to put on the pressure and tell me that I should come back inside and give over my firstborn. To my surprise he simply shakes my hand, thanks me for my time, and tells me that if I have any questions I should call him. Bill and Doug make a nice little tag team and this trip has been a good experience.

The little independent pre-owned store down the street is the next stop on my journey. This dealer has about 25 used cars on his lot and is currently using a construction site trailer as an office. The cars that he has on display look nice and clean from the road so I pull in and park. I don’t see a salesman so I begin to walk around the parking lot in search of the perfect $5,000 car. As I begin to notice that none of these cars have prices listed on them, the door to the trailer swings open. Out steps a salesman who could only be described as a walking stereotype. With a thick Southern drawl, he introduces himself as Randy but tells me I can just call him Big Country. Seriously. I take in his cowboy boots, too tight jeans, and flannel shirt and I say, “Um, okay…Big Country. I’m here to buy a car for under $5,000.”

He laughs loudly and slaps me on the back with just enough force to leave a mark. He informs me that if he owed a used car factory all he’d ever build would be cars that cost under $5,000 because isn’t that what everyone wants? He says he has some good news for me. Apparently Big Country is the best at making deals.

Big Country’s first deal is a 1991 Toyota Camry with 187k miles. He tells me that he keeps cars like this in the back because they’re so popular and he’s here all by himself. Apparently this is the kind of car that sends ordinarily sane human beings into a feeding frenzy. It looks to me like a typical 1991 Camry, no need to go crazy. It has some normal wear and tear on the exterior and there’s some rust showing around the wheel wells. The interior comes equipped with ripped seat covers, a wooden steering wheel, and some stickers from a repair shop. Big Country says I can own this car for $2k and that includes everything. I ask him to explain “everything.” This includes taxes and registration fees. Needless to say, this gem is coming well under budget. I’m beginning to have serious doubts that this little $5,000 goal of mine is attainable. Never one to give up too easily, I ask Big Country if he has anything else.

Big Country informs me that this is my lucky day. He has a front line car that is a “good runner.” This “good runner” is a 1997 Chevy Lumina with 168k miles. The car is clean with no visible rust and very little wear and tear on the outside. I’m starting to get excited so I take a deep breath and I open the driver side door. The interior is immaculate. No dog smell, in fact it smells a little like (sniff, sniff)…your grandmothers house? As I walk around the car, trying to play it cool, Big Country informs me that this car was formerly owned by an elderly woman who could no longer drive. That explains the smell and the fact that it’s in such good shape. Apparently Big Country is the best at making deals because he is selling this Chevy Lumina for $3900 and he’s including, you guessed it, “everything.” I give him the poker face response and tell him I need to think about it. He tells me this deal is too good to pass up and I have to agree with him there.

So the simple answer is, “Yes.” Yes, you can buy a quality car for under $5,000. Yes, it is a lot of work. Yes, you will definitely have to shop around. A lot of the cars that I found online would be sold by the time I contacted the dealer but if $5k is the budget you’re working with, you can make it happen. Just be patient and keep your eyes open. And don’t get talked into spending more than you have, stick to your budget.

A few things to know when buying from a dealer: The price that is listed generally does not include taxes, tags, and fees so be sure to include that in your final calculations. All cars that are sold by a dealer must pass a safety inspection. And lastly, all used cars are sold “as is” which means if anything happens to the car, it’s on you. Happy shopping!

Written by Bryan Jennings