New Car or Used Car ? Which is the Better Deal?

Question: is a car an asset or a liability?

That was a theory question in a sophomore level accounting course I took in college way back when. After some debate among the class, the professor confirmed what we all knew, that the technically correct classification is ?asset?, but felt compelled to add, ?Of course, in the real world, we all know that automobiles aren?t assets at all – they?re liabilities that cost money and drop in value from the moment you drive them off the dealer lot.?

Most of us know this to be true, but does that reality guide our decisions at buying time?

New Car or Used Car ? Which is the Better Deal?
New Car or Used Car ? Which is the Better Deal?

Cars represent a structural expense, that is, an expense that?s mostly a consequence of an underlying cost structure created at the time of purchase. Once we?ve made the initial purchase, we?re largely stuck with the expense level over a period of years. It?s in our best interest then to make the most intelligent decision at the time of purchase.

With that thought fresh in our minds, I believe used cars are the better choice for most people in most cases.

The new car trap

Buy or lease a new car every 3-5 years and you?re guaranteed of one thing: you will never get out of debt. You will always?

  • pay the new car premium,
  • have monthly payments to make, and
  • dedicate a disproportionate amount of your income for auto expense, since debt service, insurance and ad valorem taxes are higher on newer vehicles.

Cars always decline in value and you can never come out on top in this game because the deck is fully stacked against you from the start. According to Buying Advice, the average new car will lose up to 20% of it?s value in the first year and 10% of it?s value in each of the next four years. That?s a 60% decline in value within the first five years of ownership.

In 10 Ways to Buy a Car Without Getting Ripped Off we discussed another dilemma often afflicting frequent car flippers: being ?upside down??or?owing more on the car than the car is worth.

Many owners of late model cars are in this situation because of extremely low or non-existent down payments, immediate and continuous depreciation of vehicle value, and dare we say it, cutting a bad deal on a car in the first place. Still another cause is the possibility that an owner may have bought a new car while still being upside down on the previous one. The hole only gets deeper when the process is repeated!

Used car advantages

Let?s face it, buying a new car is a rush! The newness, the cutting edge design and technology, the idea of being the original owner, the new car smell; alluring, all of it!

However, if we?re going to talk dollars and cents, buying used comes out as the solid better deal.

  1. Since there?s no manufacturer to pay, used car prices are more negotiable, and there are great websites that can help you find a huge inventory of used cars where ever you live.
  2. If you?re not particularly savvy when it comes to cars, the ramifications of making a bad deal on a $10,000 purchase price are likely to be far less severe than on a $25,000 car
  3. The possibility exists to purchase direct from a current owner which can produce an even better price than working with a dealership
  4. Since much of the depreciation on new cars occurs in the first two to three years, used car prices are closer to book value (Car Price has a good tool to estimate depreciation)
  5. Since used cars can be bought closer to book value, and depreciate more slowly than new cars, it will be easier sell and cover the attached loan, should that become necessary
  6. The relative size of a down payment from a $3000 trade in will be proportionately higher on a used car at, say $10,000, than on a new car at $25,000 or $30,000
  7. On average, depreciation slows after a car hits five years old
  8. It can be more cost effective to buy a better quality used car than a cheap new car
  9. Loan balances will be smaller due to the lower purchase price
  10. A lower purchase price holds the possibility of paying off the loan early, or for buying the vehicle for cash, eliminating the need to carry debt
  11. Do you really want your 16 year old cutting her teeth in a new car???
  12. The lower overall cost structure of a used vehicle will afford more options at a future time when income may be in doubt

And here?s one we don?t often think about: even if you buy a car brand new, after a year or so, it?s not new anymore!

The bottom line

The average new car today costs roughly what it cost to buy an average house in the 1970s. One of the problems with the price structure is that there?s little room for people of modest/middle class means to buy a new car, or at least to do so without taking on an outsized debt. A $20,000 debt on a mid-priced car is hardly unusual, and that?s a debt on a depreciating asset!

Assuming a five year term and a rate of 10%, the monthly payment on a loan that size is about $425 per month. Some families have two of them, or $850 per month?that?s not a car payment, that?s a small house payment.

Just because the bank says you can ?afford? to carry such debt, doesn?t mean it?s in your best interest to do so. $850 per month is over $10,000 going out the door each year to cover debt service, and that doesn?t even include the costs of fueling, insuring, maintaining and repairing the cars. Can you really afford that?

Given that there?s very little selection available for new cars for under $20,000, the better option for many people will be to buy a used car. A two to three year old car can have many of the benefits of a new car, but can be had for 30-40% less. On a $25,000 car purchased brand new, that?s a savings of $7500 to $10,000.

How might it impact your future financial position to have that much more money in your bank account than in your car?

Can you think of any other reasons a used car would be a better choice than buying new? Do you hold the opposite opinion, that new is the way to go?

( Photo courtesty of bsabarnowl )

27 Responses to New Car or Used Car ? Which is the Better Deal?

  1. What are your thoughts on the 0% loans for new cars. Essentially you are getting credit for free, but you still have the debt and depreciation.

  2. Jason – 0% interest is certainly better than a traditional loan, but I’m of the opinion that it’s mostly a lure to get us to buy cars we don’t necessarily need. IE, “it’s too good to pass up” so we’re steered into a new car when maybe a used car is a better option.

    With car loans, because of the shorter term, interest isn’t as significant a portion of the payment that it is with mortgages. You still have a debt, and that’s the real issue. You still have more capital sunk into a depreciating asset.

  3. Awesome analysis! Reminds me of Dave Ramsey tip about how to drive free cars for life. It takes a lot of courage and work to decide to give up car-loans. Super cool!

  4. Deacon Bradley – I’ve known people with fat bankrolls who drive older cars with no debt, and I think that’s the way to go. My wife and I have no car loans, and after years of having a loan on one or both, this really feels good.

    Maybe the car you’re driving won’t impress people, but you have more control of your money, and that’s a better way to live, in my opinion.

    Big picture, I think our objective should be to be debt free and as liquid as possible. That’s a position of strength from which all kinds of options surface. There may be a few things we have to give up to be in that position, but it’s a goal well worth pursuing.

  5. Thanks for the great tips on buying cars.

    What are your thoughts about leasing a car for business with no down payment, then keeping it for 2 of the 3 years, then selling it on the open market for a “profit”?

    This is what I’m currently doing. I have one LLC set up for my business. I am a partner in another business where I do SEO work on a monthly basis. My “payment” is in a gas reimbursement for mileage I put on the car each month due to travel for the SEO work.

    My plan is to sell the car this year, pay off the lease, and have a bit of extra money to then buy a nice used car for cash or set up another lease option like the one I’m currently in.

    Hope this makes sense…

    Advice? Thoughts?

  6. Nate – I’d not heard of anyone doing what you’re doing, and it sounds interesting.

    First, you’re doing it as a part of your business, so it’s kind of a different situation from what the average person would do, or should even be recommended to do. Second, it sounds like a process you’re familiar with, and if you can do it profitably, go for it.

    I see no down side if it can be done profitably. My guess is you’d have to make a solid deal on the lease up front, being able to buy it out for less than what you know you can sell it for. Great deal if you can make it happen.

  7. Kids would be a big reason to buy a used car instead of a new car! Kids are just active and you want them to be that way!

    If you have a new car, you don’t want it scratched up by the kids. But if you have a used car… anything goes!

    I wish I had known this before I bought our Toyota Sienna new back in 2003. Now it looks like it’s been in a battle that it has lost!

    Used cars are the way to go!

    Money Reasons’s Last blog..My Views On Robert Kiyosaki’s Financial Books

  8. We’re just getting ready to start looking for a new car. After much thought, we are going after a well-rated Mazda model that’s already inexpensive, but we’re going to get a 2007 or 2008 for peanuts. On top of that, we’re going to experiment with buying from a car rental place, which is an even deeper discount.

  9. Purchase New Car – You’re slumming here, there are no rich businessmen on this site. But your point is well taken.

    Money Reasons – Excellent point about kids! My car is over 10 years old and I LOVE not having to worry about dings, dents and scratches. My son is a drummer who “leared his trade” on the passenger dashboard of the car, and it’s got the scars to prove it. Your kids come first, and you won’t be thinking that way with a new car.

    Wojciech – We’ve been thinking about buying from a car rental place. I hope you’ll do a post on it and if you don’t please shoot me an email!

    We’ve actually looked into this and the prices are good. The car rental companies are trying to get rid of them, and they’re usually less than a year old.

  10. best car is one you paid for, cash. No payments. I am loving my paid for truck right now.

  11. I do buy used cars for convenience and of course I can save a lot of money. I always consider dealers or stores that are credible. It will be better if you will buy a used car from a person whom you trust. Nevertheless, there are many reputable stores and car dealers wherein you can buy a used car that looks and performs as a brand new one.

  12. That’s a good point. It’s tempting to paint with a broad brush with dealers, but if you know some who are reputable, that certainly will take a lot of the stress out of the purchase.

  13. I just bought a second hand 2005 hyundai tucson. it only has 30243 km on the clock and its in good condition! its funny only people who know how many km it has already covered know its secondhand, others believe I bought a brand new. i met someone who owns a 2009 hyundai tucson and guess what? u cant tell the difference between the two cars, colour, shape, extras and all! He paid more than double of what i paid for mine. my monthly instalments are comfortable enough. His whole salary go into the car and the family rely on his wife’s salary. not even him who has the same car can tell the difference!

    do i need say more!

  14. Queen – That four year difference translated into thousands in savings. Even if your car isn’t as new as his, I’d feel better knowing I paid less for it. The real payoff is always how much money you have left over at the end of the week, month or year, not how new or cool your toys are.

  15. In today’s depressed people are turning away from new cars,though companies are trying really hard to lure them in .People are trying to be on the safer side by going a used one and saving some bucks,but the maintenance of used car is a real headache.

  16. Andrew – My thinking is that for most people, the options tend to be more numerous with used cars than with new ones. If you limit yourself to buying new, you’ll hit your budget ceiling much sooner, where with used you can work down to the budget you have and the options are nearly unlimited what ever that number may be.

  17. Although a lot of new buyers (like myself) are getting rates closer to 5%, you are still right in comparing 2 car payments in a family as being close to the payments for a home. My Prius payment is $505 per month. Two Prii for a couple could equate to a nice $130,000 condo with total monthly payments (principal, interest, property taxes, and insurance AND HOA dues) being UNDER $1,000 per month (even in Southern California coastline real estate).

    Great post,

  18. Thanks for the comment Kevin2. You’re Kevin1 when it comes to real estate! Anyone reading who lives in Southern California, needs to buy or sell property and wants to work with an agent who knows his business, check out There’s also a lot of good, current market information on his site, and I should know because I visit it often to stay on top of industry trends. (OK, I do some commenting too, but what the heck–I’m there anyway!)

    I should also add, from my mortgage experience, that large car loans were one of the major problems for people qualifying for mortgages, especially first time home buyers. If you think you’re going to buy a home in the next year or two, a used car is definately the way to go. Not only is the payment lower than on a new car, but they’re smaller and easier to payoff, should that become necessary to qualify for a mortgage. It’s tougher to qualify for a mortgage these days, so you have to keep your options open.

  19. Actually, I consider every car an asset. It allows me to get to and from work and places that I can’t normally get to without it. New or used, a vehicle is an asset and spending money on the right asset is what it should come down to. While they are also liabilities, so are houses and many other things that we hold dear.

  20. Hi Grayson–Technically, it’s really both an asset and a liability. The X factor is the steady drop on value. It makes buying smart so much more important.

  21. I See cars as liabilities so a used car is a sensible option, however if the government provides incentives to buy new that’s a different ball game and if electric cars save you money and are readily available I’d rather use them!

  22. Hi Will–I have to disagree on government incentives. Any program that causes you to buy a car that you didn’t truly need is counter-productive. But I’m with you on electric cars, the next series of gas lines will bare that out.

  23. My husband and I have bought many used cars in the past and one new car. For the most part, I am definitely in agreement that it makes more financial sense to buy used vehicles, but it definitely takes a lot more time when you buy used because you need to do a lot of research as well as you really should take the used vehicle in to a mechanic for an inspection before you agree to buy it – so that takes money and time, too.

  24. Hi Pam–I fully agree on the time factor. Anytime you try to save money on any purchase, it takes longer. It’s an exchange of time for savings. As far as the cost of buying used though, you’re spending hundreds to save thousands, which is a good exchange. Less convenient for sure, but it leads to a fatter bank account eventually.

  25. My husband firmly believes that buying a used car is buying someone else’s problems. He also doesn’t like to have a car that is out of warranty. However, at this point in time we have a 12 year old truck that we did purchase new. And we have a 8 year old Lexus that we purchased 3 years ago from a relative for cash. It only had 15,000 miles on it and because we knew the maintenance history and the owner had treated it like a baby, we took a chance on it. We currently love both vehicles, plan to keep them a long time yet, and have actually had offers to purchase both. Only problem with that is if we sold them, then we once again have to think about buying a different vehicle, which is a process I absolutely hate.

  26. Hi Kathy – I’m with you, I hate buying cars, and especially new ones. I can’t shake the feeling that the dealer is trying to put one over on me (because they usually are). But even more than that, I hate paying full price for a car that will depreciate significantly as soon as I drive it off the lot. I’d rather buy a depreciated car. We’ve had good luck with older cars, but we have the backyard mechanic advantage where we pay about 50% below retail for our parts and mechanic work. Still, I find that most cars – regardless of age – run well most of the time. I also see enough late model cars riding on flatbeds to realize that all cars have problems sooner or later.

Leave a reply