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How to buy a car.
goto http://craigslist.org type in TOYOTA or HONDA. Bookmark these results pages. Check your bookmarks every free moment because:
You are best off having CASH in HAND and jumping on a car that pops up minutes FRESH in your city. Call. Ask these questions:
How long have you owned it? Is it in your name. (if not, they are likely a scumbag dealer). Is it smogged? (by CA law it has to be smogged by the seller.)(If they don't smog it you should be suspicious)
When do the tags expire? (If the tags are expired or near expiring you should know or suspect the car is not passing smog in it's current state)
Why are you selling it? (this is one of your chances to get an intuitive feel for the honesty and integrity of the seller)
How many Miles does it have? Have you ever had any major work (engine / transmission) done on it? How many Miles Per Gallon (MPG) do you get? How many miles on Brakes? Tires?
Can I come see it? Meet in safe place. Some people get mugged in oakland by folks pretending to sell a car. Bring a friend or bodygaurd if not sure. Meet at Bank or secure area with cameras and peeps.
Look under Engine to see if either OIL PAN or Trans PAN are dripping oil / fluid. Look at Tires for uneven wear. Look at Disc Brakes to see if MIRROR smooth (GOOD) or grooved and scratched like record (BAD)
Ask to look at Pink Slip and smog test. VIN / Vehicle ID # should match Door and Dashboard. LIC # too. Pink slip should NOT say "LIEN" or "SALVAGE"
OPEN HOOD. Start engine. Listen for Clicks and Pings Pangs and Knocks, Screetches and hisses oh my! Take mechanic friend with to learn...
Drive car. Car should get up and go when you step on gas. Car should drive, turn, and brake smoothly. Car should do what you ask it to do when you ask it. (without undue groaning and popping noises)
Driving car is another chance to leisurely feel out the car and feel out the seller by asking more questions about the mechanical history of the car.
If you like the car and trust the seller, you might say; "I really like your car, and I have cash, but I only have $2,000" as a first offer (maybe they are asking $2500 and you can negotiate...)
"Would you accept $2,000 in cash" is a more direct and less manipulative approach" 
I recommend Hondas and Toyotas in the 2/3/4K range... Cheaper for Tax and Licensing fees, insurance, etc.
ALL CARS DIE eventually. Do not believe that the more you pay the longer the car will last. That is not necessarily true. American cars die QUICKLY. Japanese cars last longest. German cars good but some electrical funny issues.
Toyota Honda Acura good. Subaru mixed. Goto your library and look at BACK ISSUES of consumer reports magazines and books to look at CAR reliability charts! EXCELLENT RESOURCE!
The more models you are willing to entertain, the more samples you have to look at and test drive, thereby honing your likes, requirements, and specifications.
Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla = economy. Honda Accord and Toyota Camry  = Luxury. Acura and Mazda are good too. Toyota Celica and Mazda Miata = sporty and likely means person drove it into the ground; avoid.

I will write addendums. I could talk for days or write for months on this subject. Hire me, do a trade with me if you are looking for a car.
For updates and info, contact scott at planttrees dot org.