Buying a car is expensive, but it’s a necessity. How do you save money on something so important? Buy a beater car.
Don’t let the name fool you, they are more valuable than you think. When you understand what they are and how to buy one, you’ll want in on this strategy too.
What Is a Beater Car?
The term beater car is deceiving. When you think of a beater car, you probably think of one driven into the ground and useless.
The opposite is true. Every car is different. Yes, it’s a car with high mileage and/or is old, but it still runs great. It may have some issues – what used car doesn’t? You may have to fix some cosmetic issues or repair some mechanical issues, but with proper maintenance, you may get many years out of the best beater cars at a much cheaper price.
Beater Car Benefits
We all know beater cars sell for less, but what other benefits might you enjoy? Check out our favorites.
It’s worth mentioning again – beater cars save money. Most sell for low enough prices that you can probably pay cash for it. Without a car payment, you save on interest and don’t have to budget hundreds of dollars monthly to pay for your car.
Aim for a price of $2,000 or less. You’d be surprised to learn the options you have at that price range.
Peace of Mind
You’re less likely to worry about dings and dents. Buy a brand new car and you’ll be paranoid with even a speck of dust on your car, let alone a scratch or dent. So what if someone opens their car door into your beater. Chances are you won’t pay for cosmetic repairs – more money saved.
Almost as important, though, is your peace of mind. You won’t worry about where you park, how many cars are around, or what happens to it. If it’s driveable, you’re happy.
Lower Insurance Price
Beater cars only need minimal insurance. You won’t pay for comprehensive or collision insurance. You must buy liability insurance according to your state law, but beyond that, you won’t need much coverage.
Average auto insurance premiums cost about $1,500 per year. That’s $125 per month. According to the NAIC, the average cost of liability insurance is $530 per year or $44 a month.
Will Not Lose Much Value
You’ve likely heard new cars lose 20 – 30 percent of their value when you drive them off the lot. Let’s say you buy a $20,000 car, that’s a $4,000 – $6,000 loss in minutes. That hurts.
Beater cars already lost their value. They’ve been through the depreciation phases. You buy them when they are through it, giving you a stable value throughout ownership. The best beater cars sell for almost as much as you bought them.
Cheaper Gas and Parts
Gas is a large cost of car ownership. New cars often require premium gas, which means even more expenses. Older cars don’t – they still accept standard fuel, which could save you hundreds of dollars a year.
Car parts are also less expensive. If you buy a beater car from a common car manufacturer that’s still in business, you shouldn’t have any problem getting the parts, or worry about paying after-market markup prices.
Reasons NOT to Buy a Beater Car
Cars are a way to get you where you need to go, but for some people it’s more. Some families have different priorities, needs, or it just doesn’t make financial sense to invest in a new beater car.
Here are a few reasons to reconsider.
You Want/Need a Good-Looking Car
Car lovers care deeply about a car’s appearance. You would be hard-pressed to find a beater that looks amazing. They all have scratches, dings, and cosmetic issues. For the car lover, this isn’t an option. If you’re investing your money into a car, you should love it. If you can’t relax knowing you bought a car that’s ‘less than perfect,’ a beater isn’t for you.
You Can’t Find a Car Mechanic You Trust
A trusted mechanic is the key. You want someone who will be honest with you. As a car owner trying to save money, you want a mechanic who won’t push you into every possible repair the car may ‘need’ but can do without. He should also list your options and help you make the right decision.
He may have ways to work around major issues or know where he can get parts for a great price. Think of a trusted mechanic like a friend – he will be honest with you, help you figure out the best solution and tell you when a repair just isn’t worth it for the car’s value.
Without someone like this in your life, you could get taken to the cleaners with car repairs – something you don’t want when you invest in a beater car.
You Need High Reliability
Are you a daily driver? If you travel far often, have small children, or have another reason breaking down on the side of the road may send you into a tailspin, a beater isn’t the right choice.
Beaters could break down in the blink of an eye. Midnight on the expressway, or on your way to an important appointment. There’s no telling if and when it will break down. New cars can break down too, of course, but the likelihood is lower and new cars often have some type of roadside assistance. You could be up and running in a loaner car within an hour – that’s not the case with beater cars.
You Are a One-Car Family
Operating on one car means you need a reliable car. Beater cars and reliability don’t go in the same sentence. What would happen if it breaks down and you can’t drive it for a few weeks while you wait for repairs?
Now you’re on the hook for rental car costs, and they aren’t cheap. If you are a one-car family, stick with a ‘decent’ car that may cost more but provide more reliability.
What to Check Before Buying a Beater Car
Once you commit to buying a beater car, you should know what to check. You may still find perfectly running cars, but you have to do your homework first.
Check the following:
The VIN number tells you A LOT about the car. You can find it on the driver’s side where the dashboard and windshield meet.
With this identification number, you can learn any or all of the following:
- Major car history
- Theft history
- Damage history
- Determine if it’s a stolen car
The mileage tells you a lot too. Beaters usually have high mileage, but how high is too high?
Do your research for what could be a red flag. Look up how the specific make and model you’re considering holds up in high mileage. Many cars last beyond 250,000 miles and others quit at 150,000. Make your choice based on the information you find on the specific vehicle.
Don’t fall for a car that’s crazy low-priced. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Pull the Kelley Blue Book value and compare what the seller is asking. If there’s a large difference, dig deeper. The car likely has major issues that will cost you a lot more than you anticipated.
Auto History Report
The VIN number, also known as the vehicle identification number, helps you obtain the vehicle history report. Services like CARFAX give you a detailed report on the car’s history. Look at the car’s maintenance. Did the owner(s) keep up with the recommended maintenance at each mileage check? Many stop paying for maintenance when the car hits high mileage because they know they’ll sell it soon.
Checked by Your Own Mechanic
Remember that trusted mechanic? You need him now. It may cost you a little money, but the peace of mind is well worth it. Let him go over the car and give you the lowdown, much like you would pay for an inspection before you buy a home.
Passed State Inspection
If the car hasn’t passed state inspection, don’t buy it. If you really want the car, ask the owner to get the state inspection before you buy it. Otherwise, the liability is on you and what happens if it doesn’t pass? You’re in an even worse position.
Take it for a Test Drive
It’s even more important to test drive a beater than it is a new car. Listen closely for loud noises or if something doesn’t feel right. Try all the car’s features, and focus on how the brakes and tires feel when you drive fast and slow.
Does It Have a Spare Key?
A key seems like such a minor issue, but have you ever replaced a spare key? Depending on the car’s year, it could be as much as $300 or a large percentage of what you paid for the car.
Common Beater Car Issues
Remember, buying a beater means you’re buying an old car. It will have issues, you just have to decide what you’re okay with so you don’t end up spending more on the car than intended.
Radio Not Working
How much do you love music? This could be a deal-breaker for you if the radio doesn’t work. If you replace it with a basic stereo, you may get by for a few hundred dollars. If you’re a music enthusiast, though, you may end up spending more than the car is worth just fixing the stereo.
Missing or Torn Floor Mats
Beater cars often have missing or torn floor mats. This shouldn’t be a dealbreaker. You can replace them at low cost. The hardest part is finding floor mats that fit, but the internet is especially helpful in that area.
Depending on where you live, this could be a dealbreaker. Chicago winters without heat aren’t fun. But, there are ways around it. Check with your trusted mechanic. Is there a simple fix? If not, would a seat heater help? They are often warmer than a car’s heating system anyway.
Old cars often smell bad. If they smoked in it, you may never get rid of the smell. If it’s just an ‘old’ odor, an air purifier or even a good cleaning may help, but you have to decide what you can handle.
Steering Wheel Is Worn
Steering wheels wear down fast because your hands are always there. This shouldn’t be a dealbreaker. Just cover it up with a pretty steering wheel cover and you’re in business.
How Do You Find A Beater Car?
Try buying a beater from friends or family. Buying from someone you trust lowers the likelihood of getting taken advantage of or scammed.
Otherwise, check online – Facebook Marketplace and Craigslist are great options, but follow your instincts. You’ll know when a deal isn’t right. Ask questions over the phone or email before even looking at the car to get a good idea of what to expect. Do your due diligence and you’ll find the beater car that’s the right deal.
Best Beater Cars
Honda Civics have a long, reliable history. They last well past 250,000 miles and come in a variety of models, from basic to sporty. Honda overall has a reputation of providing reliable vehicles that are inexpensive to fix and last for the long haul.
Toyota is another reputable brand, and the Corolla is a ‘sleeper.’ It may look small and powerless but it gets up to speed faster than many other cars in its category. Toyota owners have a reputation of keeping their car in shape, so it’s easier to find a good Toyota beater.
Pay attention next time you’re driving and take note of the large number of ‘old’ Camrys you see driving around. There are a lot of them and for good reason – they are reliable. Even at 200,000 miles, they have plenty of life left on them, making them a good investment.
Many people call the Honda Accord the ‘perfect beater.’ They are just roomy enough (bigger than the Civic), but run like a champ. Accord owners get well over 250,000 miles out of their Accord, and they look good. It’s hard to consider them a ‘beater’ because they look so good.
The Nissan Altima gives just enough room without being too big. The Nissan name has a great reputation, and the car itself is a legend. You won’t feel ‘outdated’ as the Nissan Altima kept a steady image throughout the years.
If you’re an active person, you need the Subaru Outback. This four-wheel drive vehicle offers incredible power, stability, and looks. Since it’s on the pricier end brand new, you may need a much older version than Hondas or Toyotas, but it will still hold its own as a beater car.
Jeep Cherokees are great winter beater cars. They handle the winter roads great and still give great gas mileage. They may not be the ‘prettiest’ beater around, but they offer the stability drivers in colder climates need to get through the snow and ice.
Buick La Sabre
Buicks have always been a tried and true car for the young and old. If you want a timeless beater car, the Buick La Sabre is the car to pick. It’s roomy, dependable, and they last for at least 200,000 miles.
If you need more room for your family, you can’t go wrong with the Honda Odyssey. The favorite family van seats up to 8 people comfortably. Honda is known for its long-lasting cars, and many Odysseys last over 250,000 miles.
If you need a small beater to get you from point A to point B, the Ford Escort is the perfect little car. They last long, are dependable, and are a domestic car. Ford will always be a leader in the industry so it’s easy to find parts too.
You can get a Chevy Cavalier for next to nothing and its parts are still readily available (also cheap). They are easy on the eye, yet leave plenty of money in your wallet.
Ford Focus 2008-2011
The second generation Ford Focus cars are a great deal. They run better than their first generation and are mighty little cars. The parts are readily available and maintenance is a cinch on the Focus.
Ford Escape 2001-2007
The Escape was one of the first crossovers to gain popularity and it’s a great beater car today. Like most Fords, it’s easy to find parts or reputable mechanics for this domestic vehicle.
Fiat 500 2008-2015
If you want a ‘newer beater,’ check out the Fiat. It’s sporty yet so affordable. It was affordable new and is even more affordable as a beater. It’s the perfect mix of affordability and style that you want in a beater car.
Toyota Sienna 2004-2010
If you have a family and need a dependable, yet roomy minivan, the Toyota Sienna is a great choice. It’s easy to maintain with parts readily available and it lasts for well over 200,000 miles.
Are Beater Cars Worth It?
So are beater cars worth it? They could be a great idea, but it depends on your situation. If you’re looking for a cheap, reliable car that will get you where you need to go, then yes they are worth it. If you’re looking for something that will last 10 years, look pretty, and/or be your family’s only car, you may want to skip it.
While you’re checking your budget to see what kind of car you can purchase, check out this article to learn more about whether a car is really an asset!
Samantha uses her BS in Finance and MBA to help others control their finances through budgeting, saving, investing, side hustles, and travel hacking. Due to following the FIRE Movement’s principles, she was able to quit her high-stress job in the financial services industry in July 2019 to pursue her side hustles. She is now a full-time entrepreneur, freelancing coach, and blogger.