I think successfully purchasing a car in your price range is based on:
1. Get a model that is reliable and cheap to repair (per the user reported data on this site) for its price point. These are the "best bets" no matter anyone else's personal experience. Then maybe poke around the users group websites for the particular car models you're interested in to get more info on common problems; maybe you can fix them yourself for little money, etc.
2. Buy from a trustworthy seller that took care of the car. On Craigslist, avoid the auction car flippers, the two line descriptions, the little roadside car lots, etc. Buy from someone who had some pride of ownership in their car.
3. Have it checked out by a mechanic to look for random stuff that you might miss, like oil in the coolant, pending check engine codes, etc.
You'll have to be patient and a little flexible on car models to make these three factors line up for a car, but eventually it will happen.