The Ultimate Used Car Buying Guide for Students

I (Atma) have been reading the HSB for over a year and I wish to share my knowledge and experience in buying a used car in the US.

Other alternatives exist – car renting when necessary, using public transit or leasing a car.

Yet the sheer comfort and the time saved in owning a car overcomes all of these, further the comfort of a car during the winter snow is incomparable. The public transport leaves much to be desired in this country.

Used Car Buying Guide – Know What you want

Indian buyers are generally responsible and thrifty. The very first thing you would plan is the finance.

You must have an idea about how much you wish to spend and how much you can afford more than that.

There are way too many options when it comes to cars – the performance / fuel economy, age of cars, budget, number of doors, makes, number of engine cylinders and finally even color can be a choosing factor.

It is always wise to rule out one or the other option and that allows you to focus.

Car Requirements

For instance when I bought my car, I set a price limit of $1000 to $4000, 4 doors, 4 cylinders (later explained), red color (although I gave it up very soon), models after year 2000 (not more than 10 years old) and a mileage bracket of 80k to 130k.

It takes a fair amount of time and research to arrive at these parameters. Later in this article I would explain how I arrived at these and how you can determine yours

Geeky Car facts

Many people like cars and it pays off when it comes to buying one. So I take the liberty to get geeky in this part.

Car makes

Its good to know what makes come from which country. I list some popular car makes seen on the road here in the US.

  • Pontiac [GM], Chevy [GM], Ford, Chrysler, Dodge [Chrysler], Buick [GM], Cadillac [GM], Mercury [Ford], Saturn [GM]  are American cars
  • Toyota, Nissan, Honda, Mazda, Subaru, Mitshibishi are Japanese cars
  • Kia, Hyundai are from South Korea.

American Cars

Usually American cars are made to match the local psyche – use and throw. In general they have a lot of muscle, less fuel efficient, and wear away after 150k miles.

Japanese Cars

Japanese cars are known for their reliability and features. For lesser cost (first hand) they pack fuel efficiency, safety features, utility features and the parts need replacement only after extended usage. Further they depreciate much gracefully when compared to American counterparts.

Car Mileage

In India most other parts of the world mileage is the fuel economy, the number of miles / km per gallon / liter, but here in the US, for some reason it refers to the number of miles the car has run – or the odometer statement.

It is wise to buy a car with as low mileage as possible. This increases the reliability of the car, reduces the need for replacement of parts once you buy it and ultimately increases the resale value and the ease of selling it.

Generally the heat, struts (suspension system) and tires would need a replacement at around 100k miles and commonly that is the mileage at which owners decide to sell a car away.

However, lower mileage cars in good condition are really expensive.

For American cars a mileage bracket of 90k to 130k miles is practical assuming you would sell it off after 3 years of use.

Indians generally stick to the US national average of about 1000 miles per month. So in 3 years you would have added 36k miles to your car that leaves your car in a salable position.

Japanese cars with such low mileages are few and far between.

Toyotas and Hondas can be bought at much higher miles on them!

Fuel efficiency

I care to write about this because I am a fan of fuel efficient cars.

With gas prices soaring in everywhere, I bet everyone has to think about this at some point of time.

There is a trade off between power and fuel efficiency.

  • 6 cylinder cars have greater capacity engine (like 3.8 lit) and provide (avg) 20/26 miles on city / highway.
  • 4 cylinder cars have lesser capacity engine (like 2.4 lit) and give 26/30 miles on city/highway.

These are averages for automatic transmission cars and can vary with models and condition of car.

Manual transmission cars generally provide greater mileage but that depends on the rpm you shift the gear.

The fuel efficiency could reduce with age, mileage and the condition of the car. The equation is changing quickly with newer models packing good power yet being fuel efficient.

Japanese and Korean cars are well known for their fuel efficiency.

Car Safety features

For people living in northern states (like me), driving in the snow is unavoidable.

It is tricky and needs a whole different skill to master it.

Safety features like ABS (Antilock Braking System), Traction Control have become a standard in most cars manufactured after 2000 (this was one of the parameters i set in my personal search).

Both help you stay on course while you brake under abnormal conditions

Further cars with safety features would be easier to sell in future.

VIN number

One thing I like about cars in the US is the Vehicle Id Number (VIN). This is the chassis number (as we call in India) and all critical facts about the car get tagged to the VIN.

Details such like whether car was in an accident, whether it was salvaged or rebuilt get entered. If the car was well maintained by a certified mechanic, even major repairs get entered.

You can find the VIN on the windshield’s driver side corner from outside or from the registration and title papers.

Websites like carfax, autocheck, vincheck etc. will search and generate a report for a fee.

Other websites like NICB will tell you the critical info (whether the car is a stolen one or whether it was in an accident) for free. In most cases this info would suffice.

Car Buying websites

There are plenty of auto sites that write reviews about cars and tabulate their features and reliability stats just like those for electronic gadgets.

My favorite is and You can search a car with its year-make-model and find everything you needed to know about that model.

Car pricing estimator

Websites like [kelly blue book] and allow you to fill up the specs and get an estimate of the car’s worth.

As you would know buying from a private party is cheaper than getting the same car from a dealer. It is a misconception that all cars from dealers have a warranty, some dealers sell the cars as-is.

Generally the kbb shows a higher estimate than and people suggest calculating an average of the two and use that as the starting point when you bargain.

Continued : Part 2 –  Ultimate Used Car Buying Guide ( includes Used Car Search, Test Drive an closing the deal)

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  1. Car buying 101:
    Remember that cars lose value in the US very very fast. Driving a car out of the showroom makes it lose 20% of its value so watch out for that. In general, Fords and Chevy’s depreciate faster.
    If you are a masters student, I’d advise you to wait for that car till you get a job or if you really need one, dont put more than $4K on one.
    If you are a PhD student, get a good car, finance a car worth 10K-20K if you can. Dont skimp since you would need one for 4 years and you dont want to break your head on maintenance in the US which costs quite a bit.

    NEVER NEVER lease a car as a student. Leases only work if you plan to buy the car after the lease, or lease a new one once your contract expires. Even though you pay less in EMI’s, you have nothing to show for it at the end of the lease term. Financing lets you build equity.

    Honda’s and Toyota’s are an Indian’s favourite pick and are a sure shot buy if you want something cheap and reliable with high mileage but are boring drives. German cars are fun but dont buy them with high mileage if you want to avoid maintenance costs. If you ask me, I love german sedans and my VW Passat despite its age really handles well and offers decent comfort but is a pain to maintain. I plan on going for a 2013 or later Ford Fusion next and really recommend you test drive a Ford. New Fords are trouble free if you buy them under 50K miles. Or check out some of the newer Honda’s. Either way, treat a car as an investment.
    Happy shopping!

  2. Thanks for sharing these tips it would really help me as I’m about to buy a used car for my senior. Though I think buying used cars is simple but taking care of it later is quite tricky. So I’d like to share some car maintenance tips which I’ve learned too. Here are some tips iautobodyparts website which would help in maintain your car for a long time.

  3. Look for cars from students who have finished their courses and are leaving university. avoid buying car from those who are studying there because it is possible that car developed some problem such as transmission,engine etc. and they will sell it to you. Chinese students generally have good cars and when they finish their course, they sell their cars. dont buy very expensive cars. car around 3000-4000 dollars is enough to pass your time in MS as well as OPT period. remember if you are able to get any job, although time is very bad regarding jobs in USA, you can buy a new car on finance/instalments. try to avoid buying cars from other Indians,koreans,mexicans but american people are more honest regarding maintaining their cars and also chinese. when you buy any car, you have to spend money on inspection sticker, county sticker, insurance, probably tire change, battery change, window/lock repair, transmission flush. so if your budget is 4000 dollars, dont buy car more then 3500 dollars. remember that you came to this country on two suitcases and when you leave this country, it will also be two suitcases.

  4. This post is useful for those who r looking to buy a used car.
    It gives lot of ideas for those who r looking to buy !!!

    Thanks for you post

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