You know that reliable, nothing-flashy, old car you’ve been driving for years? Hang on to it as long as you can. It’s a keeper.
“Cars are a rotten investment. The longer you keep them, the better off you’re going to be from a financial perspective,” says Remar Sutton, president of the Consumer Task Force for Automotive Issues.
An auto’s value, after nose-diving in its first couple of years, levels off about the time the odometer reaches 100,000 miles.
“After eight or nine years depreciation is virtually nil,” Sutton says. “It drops by hundreds, not thousands of dollars.”
How to avoid car payments
So hanging on to that older car another year or two won’t hurt you much when it comes time to sell. And who wouldn’t want a couple more years without car payments?
Plus, that older set of wheels may have more life left in it than you realize.
“Almost any car will go over 100,000 miles if it’s well-maintained,” says David Van Sickle, director of automotive and consumer information for the
American Automobile Association.
“Two hundred thousand miles is not beyond the realm of possibility. A lot depends on the level of care as the car ages.”
Good preventative maintenance is key. Change the oil every 3,000 to 5,000 miles. Change the air filter every six months. Change the antifreeze every one to two years. Replace tires every 20,000 to 40,000 miles.
“Change your oil. Change your filters. Change your antifreeze — that’s how people get cars to last 200,000 miles,” says Lauren J. Fix, a consumer auto expert.
“All of this is spelled out in the service manual,” says Lou Richman, finance editor at Consumer Reports. “There’s preventative service that a car should have.”
Fix little things before they grow
Stay on top of the little things. Van Sickle points out that an antifreeze or coolant leak may not seem like such a big deal. But a leak could be a sign that a hose is about to go. If a hose fails, you risk damaging a car’s engine. Replacing an engine is definitely a big deal.
It’s also important to realize that some steep auto repair bills are inevitable.
“Every car sooner or later will need a major repair — a transmission overhaul or a major brake job,” Van Sickle says.
Avoid taking a Band-Aid approach to auto repairs.
“If you’re looking at a major expense, before you do it have the car checked out to make sure something else isn’t ready to go,” Sutton says.
“The key is regular maintenance and looking at repairs not as a Band-Aid but as a comprehensive program.”
Sites for information on reliability
Most mechanics will be able to tell you about upcoming problems and repairs. You may also want to do some research on your own. Studies from sites such as Consumer Reports and
Intellichoice may give you a sense of likely repairs for your particular model.
Once a car hits the 100,000-mile mark, it’s a good idea to have someone other than your regular mechanic take a peek under the hood.
“You might want to get a second opinion from someone who doesn’t have a financial stake in making the repairs or selling you a new car,” Richman says.
So when should you get rid of a car? When repair bills exceed a car’s value is a good time to consider it.
If a car is worth $1,200 and needs a new engine that will cost $2,500, you need to ask yourself if you want to spend that kind of money. If you plan on keeping that car for two or three more years, go ahead. But if you were planning to replace the car in the next year or so anyway, you may want to start shopping.
Frequent repairs may also be a sign that it’s time to unload an older auto.
“Say it’s costing you $200 to $300 a month to keep that old bucket on the road,” Van Sickle says. “It’s every month, over and over again, and you can’t see the end of it. If you see a pattern developing it’s time to get out.”
Keep it until it dies?
But some consumer experts urge people to hang on to an older model until the bitter end.
“A $2,500 repair is not a big deal compared to what it would cost to buy a new car. Most people say ‘I won’t spend $2,500 on a repair’ and then go out and buy a $35,000 new car,” Sutton says.
“If total repairs would run less than payments on a new car for a year, you’re better off having the repairs.”
Of course, no expert wants anyone driving a car that’s not safe.
“Damage to a car’s structural integrity are things we warn against. A rusty, cracked or a misaligned frame would be a fatal flaw,” Richman says. “A lot of people do hang on to cars too long. You may encounter problems that are dangerous.”
It’s also a good idea to replace a car when your driving needs change. A get-around-town car may not cut it when your new job requires an hour-long highway commute. A sporty little hatchback may not be roomy enough for a family car.
“If your driving needs change, there’s no point in kidding yourself,” Van Sickle says. “Families migrate into minivans and larger sedans. That two-door coupe won’t do it anymore.”