An Older Woman’s Guide to Buying a Used Car

In the last quarter of 2020, for the first time in history, the average cost of a new car crossed the $40,000 mark, according to Edmunds. That was before insurance, property taxes and gas. Once papers were signed, the average payment calculated to $581 a month for 70 months after putting $4,300 down. 

It’s an odd trend given that cars in America sit in a garage 95% of the time. Statistically, women drive less than men and the gap only widens with the years. While many older women splurge on their cars, those over 55 drive less than 8,000 miles a year, those over 65 less than 5,000 miles per year!

Given all there is to spend money on or save money for, perhaps a new car falls pretty low on your list. Cars have been the bane of my existence since I was 16 years old. When I moved to Mexico part-time in 2014, the relief of sloughing off my expensive SUV was worth the occasional inconvenience of Uber and rentals.

However, life changes and for the last two years, I’ve found myself spending time in the US in a city not quite so amenable to the carless. Renting a late model SUV for a few weeks reminded me why new cars make me a nervous wreck. So, I thought, “What nice cars are available to just get around?”

With Certified Pre-Owned programs and online services to review a car’s history, used cars are not the gamble they used to be. Overall car quality and reliability have steadily improved.

Today, mileage over 100,000 isn’t the end of a car’s life. The cost of financing a used car hasn’t increased as quickly as that of financing a new car. Another advantage of looking at used versus new cars is that ratings like Kelley Blue Book contain more historical data.

Setting a budget at around $15,000, mileage at 60,000 or less, and car size large enough to be safe, I estimated my search would take me to 2016 sedans, CUV’s (compact utility vehicles) and hatchbacks.

Those that were highly-rated overall by multiple sources the year they came out were cross referenced against cars with a current Kelly Blue Book overall rating of at least 4.2 and good safety ratings from other sources.

Chevrolet Volt 

The Chevy Volt hybrid electric car apparently has a range that if your commutes are short of 50 miles, you’ll rarely need to gas. Good tax credits in some states. Other positive descriptors include comfortable, quick, quiet. 

Mazda 3 

The Mazda 3 is roomier than the Volt, has great reviews on crash performance and handling.

Volkswagen Golf GTI

The VW Golf GTI received major technical upgrades in the cabin 2016, such as a touchscreen, rear view camera, universal USB input, and Bluetooth phone and audio capacity that newer cars have.

Volkswagen Passat 

The Passat received a perfect score in safety in government crash tests. It’s a quiet, comfortable ride with reported excellent mileage.

Subaru Legacy

Coming from Colorado, all-wheel drive Subaru’s such as the Legacy and Impreza have a long tradition of being the car of choice for secure winter driving. 

Kia Optima

The SXL model offers luxury features normally not available in a car at this price, all of which would make longer trips more enjoyable.

Kia Sportage

The Sportage has a 10 year, 100,000 mile warranty and is nicely styled. It’s got the pep for city driving. 

Toyota Rav4 

This older model still has high tech collision avoidance and safety features. Honda CRVs are out of the budget range but the Rav4 shares many of the Honda’s well-known best features for room and reliability.

Mazda CX 5

I’ve come to really value a smooth, quiet ride. The CX 5’s great construction and styling don’t hurt either.

Even a year’s difference in the same make and model can make a big impact in a car’s ratings and characteristics. A simple spreadsheet will help you narrow down your choices and keep you comparing apples with apples. It adds discipline to a process that can wear you down when cars start to blur together.

Once you find a car for sale that interests you, look into its history. Try to obtain service records or receipts. Check that the title is free and clear and get a vehicle history report from a site like CarFax, VINCheckPro or AutoCheck, as these will show how many owners the vehicle has had.

If you purchase the car locally, take it to a mechanic for a full inspection. Online car sites like Carvana and Carguru make buying a used car another online purchase. 

My opinion is that a car should give you freedom. If, like me, a $40,000 car purchase doesn’t feel liberating to you, likely any of these cars would make sense – and still look good in the driveway.

Do you still drive? How often do you hit the road? Do you own your car? When did you purchase it? What was important to you at that time? Would you choose differently if you had to buy a car today? Please share with the community!

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