I know zilch zip zero about cars!

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Dec 28, 2016
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Like the title says, I'm pretty clueless about automobiles except for where to stick the key in, how to work the pedals (automatic only!), and what to do with the steering wheel.

But I've been dreaming, researching, and following blogs about nomadding in vehicles for a few years now.

My current circumstances are pushing me out the door sooner than expected (more about that here: Tentative plans).  I've only got about two weeks before I must leave my apartment.  My plan is to buy an SUV or minivan.

So, weird thing about me is I've never owned a car - always borrowed when I was younger, and then I moved to NYC where no one needs a car and have been here for over 30 years. When I was married, we occasionally rented cars but my ex always drove. Took refresher driving lessons when we split up, and will do so again, along with basic mechanics.  I'm planning on staying in and around the city for a while, so really most of my driving will be moving from one parking spot to the next - at least at first, until my comfort level with driving grows.

All that is just to lead up to the fact that, while I've been searching CL and various sites to see what used cars are in my area, I've been overwhelmed and going in circles about the myriad number of choices.  As you might guess, there's a lot of cars in the NY/NJ/CT metro area.

As for budget, I'm actually not sure what to spend.  I just received some money from a settlement, which will enable me to buy something, but the money needs to last me for as long as possible.

An acquaintance tells me look for Toyota or Honda.  They all look so small to me.  Then I read threads here and someone says GMC.  That seems more doable for living out of.  Then someone talks about Subaru and there are a few that look promising. Ford's, I don't know. And so on. I keep going back and forth.  

But most importantly, besides space considerations, I have no idea what kind of engines to look for... how many liters, how many cylinders... RWD, 4WD, or?... when an ad says this or that has been replaced, is that a good thing or indicator of problems?...I know to look for low miles, but how old of a car  should I risk?

I'm going to try to find a mechanic to go with me when I find something, but there's so many listings! They're surely not going to go around with me all day long while I ask dumb questions. How many cars should I look at and is it normal for someone to look at a car and say they'll think about it and come back? A lot of ads say "No tire kickers.". Wtf?

Any insights that might help me keep focused would be greatly appreciated.
If your not looking for a Van or RV, but something smaller and extremely reliable.  Your acquaintance gave you good advice. If I restricted myself to something small I would look hard at a Toyota Sienna. There are several Toyota Sienna conversions on youtube. The Toyota Sienna is renowned for it's comfort and reliability.  Plus decent room for it's class.
I suggest going to a few used car lots to get a feel for what the size of each vehicle is. You get to check out a lot of different vehicles without having to run all over. Just don't let them pressure you into buying something.
Thanks for the responses so far!

I am leaning more towards buying from a private individual, rather than a dealer/lot. I think I'll have to go to Queens to check out a used car lot - but I've always been taught to beware used car salespeople. 

It may be a challenge because I have to take the subway or a bus to visit any seller.  Or commuter train, if there's something outside the city.

As for checking out different makes/models for ideas, I actually live very close to a major car rental place, and there is always a changing selection of cars of all types parked (and double-parked on Sundays!) on my block.  I have been taking walks and checking out all the cars parked on the streets and avenues in my neighborhood and when I see someone at their vehicle, I ask them about it.  Last week, I talked to a guy with a Suburban, tonight a woman with a Honda CR-V.  They both let me look inside their cars, which was helpful.  There is no shortage of vehicles to look at here.

I just... the whole process... I don't know what to look for, really.  I have a book that tells you how to check certain things when you go to see a car, so that's not what I am worried about.  I feel like I need to narrow down my search somehow to start with. I must have 40 or more different cars "saved" on Craigslist.  How do I know which ones are worth checking out?

I'm not really looking for specific recommendations on makes/models in this thread, although it's fine if anyone wants to offer one, but rather a guideline on how to determine what I need and recognize whether a car I see advertised could possibly meet my needs.  I hope that makes sense!
Given your time constraints anybody would be in a quandary.  Your mention of hiring a reliable mechanic sounds like a excellent idea. Sometimes a mechanic can help locate a sound vehicle that may suit your needs.  But the question is, what are your specific needs. If you can clarify your needs without too many generalities the mechanic may steer you into the right direction. Since you are time limited for researching you must triage so to speak. Priority number 1 safety,  #2 security #3 expense etc...

I wish you the best of luck with your endeavors.
Sofisintown said:
Another good choice would be a Honda Odyssey, or a Dodge Grand Caravan. They are very roomy, and get decent mileage. Try to find the ones with the lowest miles you can afford, and since you are in the snow belt, check the undercarriage for rust.

Oh yes, the Honda Odyssey looks like a great option and there are a few for sale around here. What should I look for in the ads, as far as engines and other internal stuff? How old of an Odyssey should I consider?

Back when I first started thinking about nomadship, I thought a Dodge Grand Caravan looked roomy enough. There were a few I saw on CL that I really liked. I used to drive my boyfriend's Dodge Dart back in the 80s. It was always a dependable car. But recently I have heard some people say to avoid Dodge. Why? There's someone on my block who has an old Dodge from the 70s - been seeing that car around here for years, so it's still going strong. Yet a friend of mine told me to stay away from anything by Dodge or Chrysler. He was quite adamant about it but didn't explain.
post the ads up here we can usually point out the ones you should obviously stay away from.

someone suggested to ask a mechanic if they know of something for sale. beware mechanics can/are be as bad as a used car salesperson.

Have you at least narrowed it down to car, minivan or full sized van (or larger?). It sounds like you are all over the place on vehicle. You need to figure out sleeping as it is what takes the most space.
B and C said:
Have you at least narrowed it down to car, minivan or full sized van (or larger?).  It sounds like you are all over the place on vehicle.  You need to figure out sleeping as it is what takes the most space.

Yes, I stated in my first post that I am looking for a minivan or SUV.
CityWoman, congratulations and go for it!

I re-read your earlier posts and maybe have a couple of thoughts that might help you. Hope so, anyway.

First off, I'd say don't worry about makes of vehicles too much. Any mainstream US or US-market vehicle from Japan or Korea will do just fine. Subaru, for just one example, is a great car with a huge cult following and an excellent service network. And ignore the skeptics who warn you off of a brand just because their brother-in-law owned a bad one.

I do recommend staying away from imported Euro cars or vans you might find for sale in the city; go for something more mainstream and commonplace instead. Renault, Citroen, Fiat, Mercedes, and BMW all make good machines for your purposes, but you won't be able to get them fixed out in the provinces, so leave them alone.

Buy newer rather than older. Motor vehicles, like some people, do not get better with age. That fabulous old Class C that the guy in "High Maintenance" lives in? Totally cool, but if you're not a mechanic it would be a nightmare. Cars get old and wear out, so buy as new as possible.

Since you already live in the city and are comfortable there and know your way around and will have your extra stuff in storage there, you'll probably be staying around for a while, so keep stealth foremost in your mind when looking for a vehicle. Even though it's legal to sleep in your car in the city, you won't want anyone looking at you while you're doing so, so buy with the goal of being invisible first and foremost in your mind. A windowless van would be ideal, but you can black out the windows in cars and SUVs too, some more easily than others. Just something to keep in mind.

Anyway, best of luck in your new life. It'll be wonderful and scary and joyful and most definitely a great adventure.

I just found this thread by Gideon:

Info on Common Minivans

He provided a lot of the kind of info I'd want to use as a guideline for shopping around. The only thing is many ads don't say what kind of engine or transmission is inside. But I did find this free site where you can look up a VIN and/or research by make/model:


HDR, I just checked and have about 80 vehicles saved on CL, too many to post here. Some I just quickly starred because I liked the pictures but didn't read the ad. I'm trying now to weed those down.
I am on my second RAV4 (1st was a 2005, current is 2016). A major selling point is the mileage and another is the distance off the ground. I live on a dirt road and would have had issues with a low-slung car, plus the struggle to get in and out of it.

It is great to have sto-and-go rear seats. When looking at vehicles, get into the cargo area and make sure it is relatively flat with the seats folded down into the floor. I have a cot in my cargo area which provides storage beneath. See if you can open your rear hatch door from the inside (I can't...bummer!). Find out if there is a way to shut off the "door open" dash light when the hatch door is up to provide you with shade and rain protection while cooking dinner or for ventilation while sleeping. Look for 12-volt ports near the re,ar door (coffee maker, fry pan, fan, reading light, recharge electronics while using them).

I wish my spare were a full size real tire. Instead it is one of those dinky temps with a 25 mile limit. Plus it stows under the cargo area, which means I have to unload things to get it.

Happy hunting!
JohnnyM, thanks for your post. It is indeed helpful.

I'm looking for a minivan or SUV mostly because I am not a confident driver and a full-size van is too big for me. Last time I drove one was a nightmare.

As for stealth, I do plan on hanging black-out curtains all around the back of whatever vehicle I will wind up with.

I appreciate what you said about imports and it being hard to get them serviced. In fact, I was hesitant at first about even Toyotas and Hondas, but was told not to worry about that since they're so plentiful. And, in fact, I saw a Hyundai the other day (I forget what model) that really impressed me! My sister said to me, "Japanese cars just go and go."

Thanks again.
GypsyJan said:
I am on my second RAV4 (1st was a 2005, current is 2016).

. . . Find out if there is a way to shut off the "door open" dash light when the hatch door is up to provide you with shade and rain protection while cooking dinner or for ventilation while sleeping.

RAV4 is Toyota, right? I know I have seen a lot of them in my neighborhood. I'm 5'6" and they look sort of small to me, but I could be wrong. I'll check them out again.

I'll be sleeping and cooking/warming food in my vehicle while parked on city streets mostly, so I won't be able to keep the back door open.

Thanks for your post. It's very helpful!
Oops, forgot that (darn CRS). So you're tall enough a compact SUV might not work. Sounds like you are into the mid sized stuff as the big ones are probably out too. When looking, figure out where the bed will be and how you are going to cook inside (laying down or sitting?). Are you are going to need to use the bathroom inside it too? You have been given good advice on as new as you can. You don't want to be without your home because it is in the shop.
you need to start somewhere take one of the ones you saved and really like and post up a link to it. even if you have to close your eyes and point at one. come on lets get this ball rolling. by doing that you will start to learn what to watch for. highdesertranger

My first car camping attempt was a Nissan Maxima.  I knew the first night out it was too small for me (5'4", 135#).

Did a Ford E-150 van, low top, loved it. But cumbersome in city driving.  And never had to drive it in snow.

Now have a 2014 Chrysler Town & Country (same as a Dodge Grand Caravan) minivan.  Haven't tried to live/camp in it yet but the stow n go seats were why I bought it, for future camping.  It had 24,000 mi on it, was 2 yrs old.   Now have 72,000 mi and not a single hiccup so far (tires and oil changes).  Good mileage, easy driving.  I don't know what engine or transmission is in it, have driven it heavily loaded over BIG mountains, piece of cake.
And though I hate front wheel drive, I have to eat crow and say now that I'm in snow country, it hasn't slipped or slid at all on snowy/icy roads.  I think I paid $25K at Carmax in central Texas.

I agree with the car dealer idea (just to look) and to get the newest lowest mileage you can afford.

Best wishes.
Ok, another question.  What do you do if you look up a VIN on a site like vehiclehistory.com and there's a bunch of "NHTSA Recalls" listed?  Forget about it and keep looking? Ask the seller about any issues related to the parts in question?  Look at the car's maintenance records to see if they were fixed? Ignore?  Or something else?

Oh, and if an ad says the engine "starts with a boost," that means it needs a new battery - correct?
Tacking more questions onto my last post:

Rust.  I know to look for and avoid it.  But how much rust is okay? And where is it okay to have rust? Which parts should never be rusted and mean you should walk away if they are?

And what is a rocker panel?  A lot of ads for GMCs say they have "typical rocker panel rust.". Huh, wha?