Is It Time To Let My Car Go?

by golbguru on July 4, 2007

It seems like my car might never see better days again. The check engine light went ON for the third time this year and my wretched mechanic was more than happy to see me (like a doctor is *happy* to see a patient - think $$). Here is the latest repair estimate:

new car repair estimate

In December 2006, I spent about $333 in repairs because the car was dying on me; later, in March 2007, I spent $268.93 for a brake job (original repair estimate was $687) and now this repair estimate for $612. Due to the nature of the current repairs, I don’t think there is an option to instruct the shop to “leave out the non-critical items” - although, I am wary of the oxygen sensor replacement - I have heard that most shops directly jump to oxygen sensor replacement (without a good reason) for any observable problems in RPM and fuel efficiency. So, I will get a second opinion (which will not be free) from another local shop before I approve any repairs.

This repair-monkey gets on my back after every few months and I am getting tired of it. Apart from the constant drain on my wallet, it’s a mental torture to be worried about car repairs every now and then.

Whenever the car starts giving trouble (which usually results in some massive repair estimate), I start contemplating about dumping this piece of junk and getting a newer, more reliable car. However, each time, I end up convincing myself in this way - “let’s see what happens after making this set of repairs, probably it will run a long time without giving any problems“. This must have happened at least 6~7 times in the last couple of years. After each repair, the car runs well for a few months, and then the story repeats itself.

[As an aside, it's like contemplating on selling a rapidly falling stock - one part of your brain says 'get rid of the stock before you incur more losses' and the other part says 'don't worry, wait on it and things will be back to normal'].

I know that even with all the repairs, it is cheaper (in terms of payments per month) to maintain the current car; however, I am beginning to wonder if the money saved is worth the lack-of-peace-of-mind. Plus, the current market value of the car is around $1800 ~ $2000, and it’s becoming difficult to convince myself to spend about $600+ for a given set of repairs, for that kind of a car.

On the lines of buying a newer car, I have started to ask myself whether it is better to lose money on repairs, or to lose it on depreciation? How is an old unreliable car, that costs $1200 to maintain every year (that’s my average expenditure on repairs for the last couple of years), better than a newer more reliable car that loses $1200 a year in depreciation?

Used car enthusiasts, any words of wisdom or experience to share?

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{ 27 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Super Saver 07.04.07 at 6:06 am

Golbguru,

I missed the days of being in Japan and not owning a car. I hate the tyranny of car repairs:-(

2 Bill 07.04.07 at 6:26 am

Well, speaking as someone who works on auto-and-heavy duty diagnostic computers for a living (if I may toot my own horn), oxygen sensors are two of the main sensors that tell the on board computer how rich or lean to run. They normally last 75k-100k miles, so if your car is up there, you’d want to do that anyway. It will probably run better immediately, even if you can’t tell by the seat of your pants, you will at the pump.

Everything else you’ve mentioned here except for the manifold is par for the course on an older car. If you plan to keep it, just get used to repairing things.

3 Argonautica 07.04.07 at 6:32 am

I’m not a car guy, but:

Cover the check engine light with a piece of tape.

Or grab a manifold from the junkyard or eBay and put it on yourself or pay an independent shop to do it.

The O2 sensor might very well need to be replaced.

4 3 Things About Money 07.04.07 at 7:14 am

Hi–

I drive a ford focus and I just had the 02 sensor and temperature problem, wrote about it on my blog. In the end, it wasn’t really the sensor (700 dollar fix), it was a loose wire going into the sensor (61 dollar fix).

If you decide to go with the repair, I would ask him to test the part first, instead of just doing diagnosis by symptom. Does it really need a new part or is there something the mechanic can do to nurse another 20K miles out of it? Tell him you want to go the rock bottom and crazy glue road and see what he suggest and/or get a second opinion.

Def. get the manifold at the junk yard and ask him to put it on, way cheaper. Just my two cents, and my sympathies.

5 Baz L 07.04.07 at 10:04 am

Scrap it. Trust me, scrap it, you’ll never be happier.

Had a similar problem and I always thought that maybe after this one, it will be fine for a while. No such luck. The engine blew up…literally. It was in the at the mechanics for almost a month due to various problems: engine (and parts in general) are kind of rare (old old car), engine had to be shipped in from over 380 miles, shipped wrong one, etc.

Got the new engine, in two days, it blew up again. During the time when it was at the mechanic had a rental. Cost me $700+, which is 3 payments on the car I ended up getting anyway.

Trust me, scrap it


Baz L
Day In The Life of Baz
http://www.LifeOfBaz.com

6 nku 07.04.07 at 10:19 am

Old car is a certain matter of luck, at least in my experience, as I have known a stupid man (literal translation in English for what we call him usually) driving 1991 Civic with freakin 189K miles on it without any issues whatsoever. Agreed he does not take his Dhanno (car name) out on long drives > 100 mi at a stretch. But when my friend or I take out our 5 yr old ~50K Camry/Civic respectively even to a grocery store, it starts squeaking :-)

For you, maybe it is a time to move on.

7 Tyler K 07.04.07 at 12:02 pm

Bill is right, and I would add that the reason mechanics likely go for the O2 sensor first is that it is cheap and easy to replace. In fact, it’s something you could probably do yourself. It might be worth tracking down the shop manual for your car and learning to do minor repairs yourself…it’s intimidating at first, but really not that difficult.

OTOH, part of the reason we stopped trying to fix our old junkers and bought a new car with a warranty is for the peace of mind of not having to worry about getting stranded on the side of the highway. (This was becoming a far-too-frequent occurrence.) I would say it is worth the expense.

8 Rebekah 07.04.07 at 12:10 pm

Will your mechanic be able to get the manifold used/rebuilt? The O2 sensors need to be new, though, if he won’t charge extra for bringing your own parts, your mechanic may be willing to install them if you get them online (for less!)Ask your mechanic to double-check the O2 sensors before they’re installed!! The “dealer” from whom my mechanic bought mine sent O2 sensors for a V-6 model of my car and I have a 4-cylinder. I failed Emissions twice, then spent over $1000 at the “dealer.” I brought the car to another dealer, who found the mistake. Unfortunately, I’d had hand surgeries between the repairs, couldn’t drive for over a month, and the work was well out of warranty, so I couldn’t get a refund.When buying a used car, you should consider going to a mechanic you trust, and not to a dealer. If you MUST go to a dealer (if your mechanic, for example, doesn’t have a permit to sell cars), request permission from the dealer to bring the car to your regular mechanic to have him/her look it over for you.I went to a dealer for whom my mechanic had worked, and was shown an older car (three years, but out of warranty with over 136K miles) that they wanted to get off the lot because they had some newer cars coming in. I may have overpaid on my repairs, but I still got a great car for well below Book. My car has treated me well since November of 2003. (I get crummy mileage going to work, all tertiary roads, but over 25 MPG on the highway - and the car currently has over 150,000 miles.) I keep the car clean and maintained, and even during the worst storms this past winter, it started right up.This is not the first time I’ve brought a car to my regular mechanic to look over for me, and it’s worked out very well every time. (The first time, the mechanic was so upset by what the dealer tried to sell me, he went with me after work to look at the cars, himself.)

9 stidmama 07.04.07 at 3:04 pm

To me, the debate is whether you need a reliable car. I think you have said that you can take public transportation and live in a town or city (so therefore relatively close to shopping and services). I know you don’t have children. With those factors in play, your decisions will definitely be different from mine, living outside an urban area, with no public transportation and two children.

Unless you need a reliable car, then a junker that keeps needing work might not be that big a deal. When my cars need shop time, or I take a really big trip that I don’t trust my own cars, I have to rent a car for EACH day. If this happened very often, then a new (or newer) car with a warranty would be more affordable by comparison. If I lived in town, or didn’t need to get to work or shopping, I could get by with hitching rides with friends or an occasional rental so a newer car wouldn’t seem so important.

I would calculate the costs of rental cars, the inconvenience factors of repairs vs. shopping for a new car, along with the financial costs of a new(er) car vs. repairs. If you are spending about $1000 in repairs each year, and would buy a used car that would amortize out to the same amount over its useful life… ??? A new car would cost more but have warranties (and some peace of mind) as well as have a higher resale value later on.

As for the exhaust manifold being cracked, this is a MUST repair situation, however and whoever does it. It leaks CO2 into the car when it is on, and this is dangerous. A used manifold or a repaired one might save your life.

10 dimes 07.04.07 at 5:47 pm

Get rid of it. Get a newer car (maybe from 2004 or 2005). You’ll be much happier. Once your vehicle gets below about $3000 in market value, you should start saving for a replacement because at that point repairing most things simply doesn’t make sense. Heck, you should *always* be saving for maintenance and replacement, but that’s a post from last week.

11 paul 07.04.07 at 6:35 pm

Whether you need a newer car or not is merely a personal choice. There are lots of things to be considered before making a decision. It would be best to study the pros and cons in buying a new one or retaining the old vehicle. Another factor is the $$$ that you have right now. Personally, if car repair bills is much higher that what the car is worth, I guess buying a more reliable car is a good option. That’s what I did when several toyota solara parts had problems, I decided to get a newer car (presently I own a Prius). But then again, its all up to you.. Good luck and hope that you’ll make the right decision. :)

12 MoneyNing 07.04.07 at 9:43 pm

I think buying another car is probably a better choice than keep your car. If you do the analysis, you are spending $100 dollars on repairs a month, but you can probably spend another $10,000 or so plus your current car’s worth ($1,000 - $2,000). Since you can probably get the loan with 0% APR (through credit cards etc), you can probably get a car that’s worth $12,000.

Once the one year interest free loan is over, you can put the $1,200 you have effectively saved into the $10,000 loan, making it $8,800 (even less if you put the interest you earned in it too). Then you can get a loan to pay off the $8,800. Or if you really want, you can get a second credit card to pay that off, saving the repair money and paying more of the credit card loan.

13 Matt 07.05.07 at 3:45 am

You’re right, there is a fine line between owning a car that causes you grief and costs in repairs versus paying more for a new(er) car. I was in the same boat as you are about 2 years ago now and thankfully my problem was solved for me when a guy rear-ended me at a stopped light; but my decision had already been made. A newer used car off a lease - often you can get these cars at great prices in great condition and they last for a long time. (I guess it really depends how much you use your car)

14 Blain Reinkensmeyer 07.05.07 at 6:12 am

I think it depends on what you are looking at to replace it. If the car is paid off even if there are these expenses it still would be less than a brand new car payment on a lease or purchase ya know? But, heck this could be a great reason to splurge and get something nice :P

15 Emily 07.05.07 at 6:59 am

I was in this exact situation a few months ago. I was driving a 1994 Honda Accord that had over 175000 miles on it and had been paid for for years… insurance was down to $27 a month… but every few months, I was dumping 4 or 500 into in for repairs. Every time I went to leave work, I would wonder, will it start, or will I waste two hours arranging for someone to come get me, etc etc? But that no payment and no collision insurance was REALLY hard to let go of. What finally sealed the deal for me was cosmetic issues. I started to have some major rust problems, had two fender benders that resulted in dents not big enough to fix but big enough to look crappy, and I finally got tired of putting money into a car that I wasn’t proud to drive. If it had still looked good, I would have kept it - but I must admit, even with a payment and higher insurance, it’s SO nice to not have to worry if your car is going to get you from point A to point B! I’d say if you still like the way your car looks and feel good driving it, keep it - if not, bite the bullet and move on. Good luck!

16 Farley 07.05.07 at 7:06 am

What are the payments on the new car? Say $200 a month so you if you are putting less than $200 a month into repairs for the old car then you are not losing money.

Also remember to factor in the increased cost of insurance and license/registration on the new car.

17 Brig Lamoreaux 07.05.07 at 7:10 am

I had a wonderful old GMC S-15 truck that got me around everywhere. Two times I found myself in the situation where I had repaired the truck after needing to push it off the road due to some mechanical problem.
I finally told the truck: “If you leave me stranded one more time, I don’t care if it’s minor or major, I’m selling you and getting a new car.” I stuck to my word. Several months later I found myself stranded on the side of the freeway. By that night I had a new car and my wonderful old truck sold to someone who had the time to fix it.
Granted I may have created more problems than needed by treating my vehicle as a real person; nevertheless, I think you need to draw a line in the sand and be resolved when you cross it.

18 Lifeguard1999 07.05.07 at 8:02 am

The decision to get a new car (or a better used one) depends on several factors: Looks, reliability, cost or replacement, cost of repairs, etc.

The way I look at cost of repairs is like this: I have a 9 year old van with 150K miles on it. I spent $24K when I bought it, and another $3K when the engine died. That is $27K that I have spent over 9 years, or about $3K per year. As long as I am not spending more than $3K per year on repairs, it is cheaper for me to keep the van. Some would argue that putting $3K per year into a van that it worth $3K is a waste of money. But that assumes that I am putting $3K per year into the van. So far this year it has only been $800 … but there is still half the year to go. Car repairs should be a part of your budget, and it is included in mine.

The way I look at cost of replacement is that I want a new (or used) van that will cost me about $3K per year to use. If I expect to use it for 5 years, I should find a used van that costs about $15K. If I want a new van that last about 10 years, I should find one that costs about $30K. The question then becomes, do I have the money to pay for it? Car replacement should be a part of your budget. When I pay off my Civic in Sept., the money from the car payment will be added to that already being saved for the van replacement.

Looking at it from a reliability standpoint, the question becomes whether or not I want my wife stranded on the side of the road if the van dies.

Looking at it from a appearance standpoint (yes, the appearance of a car is a valid consideration), my wife has kept the can in excellent outward condition.

19 Gaming the Credit System 07.05.07 at 8:33 am

This is a tough one. A cracked manifold is pretty bad. Ditto to other commenters who said to try to find one at a junkyard. It will be much cheaper (but the labor to install it could still be pretty expensive). If the dude says to replace the O2 sensor, go ahead and do it. It’s cheap and easy.

As for the general question of when it’s time to replace a vehicle vs. repairing it, there’s a lot of variables there. First is obviously the cost of repairs vs. the cost of a replacement car and what you’d get out of your current car if you sold it. Also (I think this is probably the most important) — how important is the car to you? To me, my car is indispensable. I sometimes drive 200 miles a day for my job. There’s no getting around the fact that I need a reliable vehicle in order to keep my well-paying job (which is part of the reason my job is well-paying). Therefore, I place a higher weight on reliability and would probably sell a car before it started having major, regular problems.

20 golbguru 07.05.07 at 9:54 am

Thanks for the comments and suggestions people. Will get some extra quotes and look for a junkyard today. Will keep you guys posted.

To answer some of the questions above - the car is a 1997 Nissan (won’t disclose the model), with 110,000+ miles on it. And in spite of the fact that I don’t drive it to work everyday, you can imagine how much we drive it elsewhere by the fact that we put on about 60,000 miles in about 4 years (give or take a few months).

21 Paula 07.05.07 at 10:23 am

A Nissan should be a better vehicle than that. I had a Pathfinder that went to 265K with few problems.

I dumped my Jeep Grand Cherokee a few months ago due to constant repairs. I hadn’t had a car payment in 10 years, but I decided a car payment would be cheaper than the repairs and safer for me.

I bought a vehicle just off a lease that was in perfect condition. I’m practically thrilled to write the check for the payment; it beats being in the shop all the time.

Now, mine was a Jeep, which just means cheap American junk. I might continue to repair a Nissan because they just seem to be better vehicles.

22 Debbie 07.05.07 at 11:38 am

You might want to look into a compromise. A car that’s depreciating $1200 per year sounds pretty new. What would you think of a car that is not quite that new, but newer than your current car?

Have a Lemon-Busters type place check over any used car before you buy it. They can often tell whether a car is going to need any repairs anytime soon (and maybe whether it’s a lemon).

(I had a similar situation with an 83 Ford Escort which cost me the entire contents of my savings account three times in a year or so. Consumer Reports showed which things most commonly needed replacing on that model, and I had replaced all of them, so I hoped it would be okay, but then the engine overheated and they didn’t even know how much it would cost, so I dumped it. I just went without a car for four years, thinking I couldn’t afford one. Then I bought a (ten-year-old) 84 Nissan Sentra, which was much, much better and which I kept until it was rear-ended ten years later. Now I have a 91 Honda Civic wagon which needed several minor repairs the first year but has since been much better.)

Now I’m a big fan of paying cash for ten-year-old reliable-model (hopefully non-lemony) cars. It sounds like you’re thinking about a 2005 car and would have no interest in another 1997 car (like I would would be looking for), but how about a 2002 or 2003 model?

23 dr. calamari 07.05.07 at 5:14 pm

I was in a similar position last year, and after doing lots of research I eventually got a Scion xA, which I purchased new from the dealer. It was the least expensive car I felt comfortable driving, and came with lots of options I would have had to pay extra to get on other cars I researched. Also, I looked into buying a 2-3 year old used car, but everything that was in my price range had far fewer options than the xA, wsith mileage already on the car…this was really surprising, because I’m a big believer in buying used cars whenever possible (my last 4 cars were “new” used cars), but in this case it wasn’t financially advantageous. Not having to worry about the car dying in the middle of nowhere is priceless, and my car payments are less than $300/month. And I get 35 mpg, too.

24 David 07.06.07 at 8:47 am

I saw dump it and pick up a late model Japanese car. You could have made the first 6 months payments with the repair costs so far, so good luck!

25 jackie 07.08.07 at 9:07 am

I just went through this with a jeep cherokee, nickel and dime me to death, Finally made the decision to go buy new.
I am saving gas money, costs me half the car payment in gas alone.
The not worrying about breaking down is another relief for me.
If you can afford it, do it.

I donated mine to a non profit that helps low income folks out, vehicles to get to work, they fix them and then give them away. Great tax write off, since I would not have gotten anything on trade.

26 kitty 07.08.07 at 9:49 am

A bit late to comment on this thread.
I don’t understand much about cars, but while my first car was bought used, the cars I bought after I had totalled the first one I bought new. My first new car I bought on credit at the time that interest on car loans was deductible (paid off balance after Reagan tax reform), after that paid cash for new cars. My reasons for buying new: 1) I don’t understand anything about cars and am totally hopeless when it comes to repairs and 2) after I totalled my first car I calculated how much I had spent on it on repairs over the period of time I had it. Then I divided it by number of months. The resulting number was higher than payments on the new car.

I think as the car is not an investment but simply means of transportation, looking at it in terms of how much value it looses may not be appropriate: the loss is simply part of the amount you pay for transportation. Incidentally, loss of value only apply when you resell. If you drive it into the ground, you really only care how much it costs you to drive over the years.

I think the right way to look at it is how much you pay for transportation with your old car and how much you will be paying for transportation with a new car, factoring in repair cost, the cost of the car, savings on gas, and additional insurance on the new car. If you are confident in your ability to choose a good used car, a compromise suggested in one of the posts above may be reasonable. So my suggestion is - factor in all the numbers as they apply to you and see which choice is cheaper and better for your own circumstances.

27 golbguru 07.10.07 at 9:00 am

Quick update if anyone is still following this thread.

After the last stranding incident a few days ago, I have decided get rid of the current car - and now I am looking for good car deals. A quick search around is driving me in the direction of “dr. calamari” above. :)

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