Robert Kissell Jr. wasn't planning on buying a car — until he fried his Volvo's electrical components in 2012 by driving through a large puddle. This came after a move to a new state and also after spending $2,000 on a pet's veterinary bills — not to mention monthly student loan bills.
"The repairs outweighed the costs of getting another car," he says. "I didn't have a lot of income."
Kissell, who lives in Nags Head, N.C., and often drives eight hours to visit his family back in Pittsburgh, had to decide which would be the more frugal car to buy — new or used.
It is a decision made every day across the country. Nearly 35.6 million used cars were sold in 2013 versus 15.6 million new cars, according to auto information company Edmunds. Edmunds also found that 43 percent of car shoppers say they would only consider buying a new car, and 24 percent say they would only consider buying a used car, while 30 percent they are open to both. But which is wiser, the used car crowd or the new car crowd?
"So many people still believe in the old wisdom that it is better financially to buy used than a new car," says LeeAnn Shattuck of Fort Mill, S.C. "It is not. It depends on what car you are looking at."
Part of the reason the old financial advice to buy used no longer applies is because the market and economy have changed, says Shattuck, who is also known as "The Car Chick" and runs a consulting service that helps people buy cars.
For example, she says there was a time when nearly 6,000 to 8,000 cars would go through a car auction in Atlanta in one day.
"Now it is about 2,000," she says. "Dealers are keeping all the good used cars."
The economy made people hold on to their cars longer, Shattuck says, and with the government's Cash For Clunkers program, the supply of used cars went down.
"This tanked the bottom of the market," she says. "What should be a $3,000 car is now a $6,000 car."
When some of her clients ask her to see if she can find a $3,500 car for them, she says, she laughs and says, "Do you want an engine in it?"
Shattuck thinks the used car market is slowly getting better but will still take years to fully recover.
Jerry Mason says great deals can still be made buying a used car.
"The best deals and the worst deals come when buying a used car from an owner," he says. "The second-best deals come from buying a used car from new car dealers — if it is a different model than the new cars they sell."
On the other hand, Mason, an associate professor at Utah Valley University in Orem, Utah, who teaches personal finance, says his last two cars were new.
"I got 250,000 miles out of each of them," he says.
The advantages of a new car outweighed some of the financial benefits of buying used. One item on his list was the amount of time it might take to find a good used car and the time that might be lost in potential repairs. Mason commutes to UVU from his home in Cedar City, Utah, and so he needed a reliable car. And with a used car, the greatest risk is not accurately knowing its condition.
Kissell was particularly concerned about the risk of buying a used car and then having expensive repairs, like the $700 repair his wife's Pontiac Grand Am recently needed to fix a transmission line.
Shattuck says people need to look at the history of a used car, perhaps by purchasing a vehicle history report from CarFax.com. They also need to bring the car into an independent mechanic who can look for problems and determine how well it has been maintained. A car that has been driven only 10,000 miles is a much lower risk, she says, than a car that has been driven 80,000. The more mileage, the more critical it is that the car was well maintained.
"Did they bother to change the oil?" she says. "Fluids are the most important thing. Cosmetic problems (such as dings and dents) can be fixed."
Mason recommends looking at the April issue of Consumer Reports, which lists the long-term reliability of various car models.
"Some people simply trust a new car more," says Rob Drury, the executive director of the Association of Christian Financial Advisors. "As in an investment portfolio, it is important to make financial decisions that will allow one to sleep soundly at night."
Depreciation is a big factor to consider when buying a new car. Shattuck says cars in the $50,000 range lose value quickly. This means that buying a slightly used Lexus or Mercedes could save a lot of money over buying a new one.
Other cars, however, may not depreciate as quickly — lowering the difference between new and slightly used.
Mason had his class look at 2009 Honda Accords. They found that for cars with about 50,000 miles, the average price was $15,600. Compared with the price of a new car, the difference of about $7,000 might make someone think it was close enough to buy new instead, with its fuller warranties.
"The used price could be relatively pricier than you think," Mason says.
Shattuck says oftentimes the difference between a new car and a slightly used car can be as low as $2,000.
"If you can buy new for $2,000 or $3,000 more, you may wish to consider it," she says. "Then you have a brand-new car with exactly the features you want, plus a full warranty."
The tipping point that would make Shattuck advise someone to buy a used car is if the difference is around $6,000 more. But other people may feel the cost savings would have to be higher before they would buy a used car.
Shattuck warns people to not get too far into the monthly payment mindset. She said there is a big difference between making a monthly payment for 36 months and making one for 72 months. "Don't go any longer than 60 months if you can," she says.
But if people have a low budget, their choices narrow, and that low budget may decide for them whether they buy new or used, she says.
Negotiation is easier with new cars, Shattuck says, because there is so much information available on the Internet. Used cars are trickier because it is hard to know the ultimate condition of the car and how much money the dealer put into it.
If someone can only afford a $3,500 clunker, Shattuck says finding a decent car takes a lot more work. She is helping a client buy just such a car, and she has eliminated about 90 percent of the cars she has investigated.
Kissell ultimately decided to buy a new car because its warranty would allow him to better manage repair costs. He has been happy with his metallic black Chevy Sonic, and should he encounter another puddle the size of a lake, he won't be too worried.
"If it fries, it will be covered under warranty," he says. "And I can sleep at night."