Yeah, I'll be looking at an older one. I want to stay under $10K on anything I'm daily driving basically in hopes of paying it off within a year or so. Definitely going manual also like you say. I'm over automatic cars in general.
I've heard VW's in general have gremlins? Specifically electrical ones which scares me a bit... Having owned 6 of them, any truth or experience in that?
On that '03 TDI any issues in general really other then not liking the transmission? Have you heard of any 100K+ mileage issues? I would assume the motor is like any other diesel and good for what seems to be forever but does the rest of the car generally hold up?
in buying a used one I would use a vagcom to read the codes and other block info. I currently have one that will read up till 2004.5's As far as maintenance goes, I would change the timing belt for safety. It not only turns the cam but it also turns the water pump and injection pump on the 1.9. With that said, while in there it is a very worthwhile investment to change the water pump too. There are a few specific tools required for this job, most of which are for calibrating the injection pump.
The only issue that I ever had was I snapped a turbo shaft while in the mountains. after doing some research I ended up upgrading the turbo to a VNT 17, installing a boost gauge to monitor boost, and a boost valve to limit boost spikes. At altitude as with most turbo motors, you can get compressor stall, where basically the intake air cannot keep up with the exhaust and you snap a shaft.
Check out tdiclub dot com to help fully research issues and fixes. There are also several sites that offer factory parts way cheaper than dealer prices also.
As far as electrical gremlins go, the A4 chassis was pretty solid, there are minor issues as with many cars, but many of the switches have the relays and other circuitry built in, and they are modular. Which means easily fixable with either new or junkyard stuff. Like Jeep, VW has a bunch of special Editions with swap able parts. For instance I was running GLI suspension (Stiffer and lower) and R32 control arm bushings (Stiffer). They are better than stock and can be found fairly cheap from people upgrading.