You can find great opportunities for savings if you put the time in on older search methods.
What older search methods?
People used to sell cars in newspapers. But they seem to be empty of car ads now.
People used to sell cars on grocery store bulletin boards - but not any more, where I have looked.
A university near me used to have a bulletin board full of cars for sale - but it is gone now.
I have tried many internet sites, including:
autotrader (which has SOME private sellers)
craigslist (which also has some private sellers, though the cars I looked at were by curbstoners; I'm not sure if that should matter, though it does limit personal knowledge, and might reflect on honesty)
I will hire a mechanic to do a pre-purchase inspection before the final buy.
One problem is that there aren't that many used cars with the desired characteristics in good condition. Perhaps my standards for good condition are pretty high. Most used cars do have a lot of rust. Most people don't sell used cars unless they have something mechanically wrong with them, that needs a major repair.
Another problem is that I need to put an absolute cap of about $14,000 on it - preferably less. There are lots of cars for less than that that have problems. Not so many with the desired characteristics that don't. And I looked for vehicles that have already passed a Maryland state inspection. Few used cars sold by private parties can, and most require major expensive work to do so, because Maryland is very picky about things, like small rust holes in the body, and tint, that probably don't matter.
I have indicated I was looking on three widely viewed discussion boards maintained by outdoor sports clubs. One private person contacted me. Looked at his car, because he didn't want much for it, even though it wasn't state inspected, and didn't look that great. It had some rust, a few mechanical problems I guessed wouldn't be too expensive to fix, had a mechanic look at it - who said it was going to need many thousands of dollars of repair, that the mechanic though weren't worth it.
I have believed book value web sites, and mostly ignored cars and trucks advertised at much over book value. Most of the few that aren't are indeed in rural areas distant from me. I need to rent a car to look at them, which limits things.
I was too slow to pick up one vehicle. I saw it, went home to do research, but someone else bought it the next day. The owner was asking twice book value - but it was a well maintained difficult-to-find high demand 15 year old Honda Element with less than 21,000 miles, complete service records, driven by someone who had good reasons to keep it in good repair - in effect, virtually new, except for some rust on the exhaust system. The owner felt, apparently correctly, that he didn't need to bargain much if at all on price.
I looked at a dealer car that was about $1800 over book, including some expensive options and a fancy trim line that don't matter to me. A very good condition 2008 Subaru Forester with about 66,000 miles. (But: No keyless entry. There is only one door with an external lock - and from personal experience, car locks eventually go bad. What a horrible design feature.) The dealer didn't want to bargain. His final offer was $200 below advertised price. Maybe I should have bought it. Maybe I still could, though it is likely gone - a lot of people were visiting that dealer, and looking at that car, while I was there.
I looked at a less common vehicle that is about $1000 over book, and is a little over the limit I want to pay - but has most of the characteristics that I want, except for color. It would get even more expensive after the addition of roof racks and tie downs. I saw it early in my search, thought I could do better, and didn't bother trying to bargain - but maybe that was a mistake.
Everything else I have looked at had significant mechanical defects (I'd be afraid to buy them), and/or was way over book.
So now I am trying to decide whether to drop the book-value criteria. Book value is supposed to take into account mileage and condition - but if there are so few AWD or 4WD cars and trucks with high ground clearance, low mileage, low rust, that are free of mechanical defects, maybe I am competing with too many people to hope for book value.
But - if there are other ways to look for vehicles that I haven't thought of, that some of you know, I am willing to try.