Welcome, Molly! You’ve come to the right place. You can definitely find a reliable car for $3000, but it may take a little bit of digging. Here are some ideas to get you started.
One possibility would be to find a car that a friend or relative is planning to trade in for something new. If they’ll sell to you instead (at the trade in value), that would be a good way into a well-known car for less cash.
I also recommend visiting a local mechanic, ideally someone you’ve worked with and that you trust (or who at least has excellent Yelp reviews), to see if they know of any clients who are planning to sell a well-maintained car. If the mechanic already knows the car has been properly serviced, that’s a huge plus. (Here’s a related article: http://www.klipnik.com/used-cars/buying-tips/the-first-step-to-buying-a-great-used-car-is-finding-a-great-mechanic/)
Finally, you can search craigslist for cars for sale by owner and look for examples that seem to have been well taken care of but that maybe have faded paint or other light cosmetic issues which don’t really affect how the car drives. That can lower the price on an otherwise excellent vehicle quite dramatically.
It’s hard to recommend a specific make/model at this price point, but I would generally steer you towards Japanese brands like Honda, Toyota, Mazda, Nissan, and Subaru. That said, the main thing is to find a car that has been loved by its prior owner(s) and has the service records to prove it.
Let us know what specific cars you find out there that look promising, and we’ll weigh in with more detailed guidance as you go.
Best of luck!