Sooner or later it happens: The auto mechanic hands you the estimate and you wonder, “Is it worth it this time?”

So how does the smart consumer make the decision whether to tough it out in the garage waiting room or head for the nearest car lot? It’s more art than science. And chances are your checkbook will play a large part. Can you get an auto loan with a decent rate and take on new payments? Or would the repairs forestall more repairs for a respectable period, allowing you enough time to save your pennies?

Either way you go, check all the angles, ask a lot of questions and take the time you need to make up your mind. Here are a few things to think about as you mull it over:

1. Just how large is this repair bill likely to get? Get a diagnosis and a second opinion. “If the mechanic says it’s a major repair, you might — like with any other doctor — get a second opinion,” says Deanna Sclar, author of “Auto Repair for Dummies.”

Or instead of one big bill, are you leaking a steady stream of money? “Probably the best barometer is an accumulation of repair bills,” says

Bob Cerullo, author of “What’s Wrong With My Car?”

Calculate what the car is actually worth. Check out the

Kelley Blue Book or

Edmunds.com. “Once you find out what your car is worth, then you can decide if it’s worth the money you’re going to spend on it,” says Sclar.

Factor in other bills on the horizon. “And ask yourself if you’re up for any repairs it might need,” says Sclar.

“And if the cost of the repairs exceeds the value of the car, that’s a pretty good indicator,” says Cerullo. “Even if the car is running.”

So what if you would rather face repairs than car shopping and payments? That’s what you’ve got to weigh. “It’s a question of whether it makes economic sense to do it for what you’re getting.”

2. Are there signs of rust?

One big factor in deciding if a car is worth keeping is the body condition, says Cerullo. “Any time you get rust showing up through the paint finish or around the wheels or bottom of the doors, this is a sign that this is a car you don’t want to put more money into.”

3. Is it making noise? “A lot of people are oblivious to noises,” says Cerullo. “Like the human body, they believe it will eventually heal itself.” Wrong. Chances are that noise “will be there until you do something to fix it,” says Cerullo. “If you’ve had the noise for a while, chances are it’s going to get worse. And it’s going to get expensive.”

4. What’s the car worth to you?Sure, you may be looking at shelling out $1,500 in repairs — and that may be half of what your car is worth on the market. But if that means you get yourself to work and the kids to school without the hassle of car payments, higher tag fees and a hike in your insurance rate, the repairs might actually pay for themselves. And if you feel that you might have trouble qualifying for a good deal on a car loan, a repaired car is still better than no car.

5. Is this vehicle still what you need? People’s lives change. And sometimes, they have to change their ride.

If you’re driving a tiny sports car and your wife is seven months pregnant with twins, you might want to look at something with more seats and a better safety rating. If you’re moving to snow-and-ice country, four-wheel drive might be necessary. “And if you’re driving a gas-guzzling SUV and never take it off-road, you might want to get something that doesn’t eat your wallet away,” says Sclar.

Social consciousness sometimes prods a change, too. Sclar says he just bought a Prius because, “I felt I needed to put my money where my mouth is and do something about the environment.”

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— Posted: Oct. 29, 2004
     

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6. Are you facing a major overhaul?

Things like transmission repairs or an engine replacement sometimes cost almost as much as a new car.

If trying to shift your car into gear causes a lurch or jump or bang, or there’s a delay before it pops into the right gear, “there’s obviously something wrong with the transmission,” says Cerullo. “And there’s no cheap way out on transmissions.”

Likewise, beware of blue smoke from the tailpipe or knocking sounds, which “are generally associated with a bad engine,” he says. Even if you go for a rebuilt engine, “you’re looking at $4,000 to $5,000 no matter how you slice it,” he says — and as much as $7,000 for some luxury cars.

7. You’re looking at one major repair, but suspect that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

“Before you invest in anything, try to find out what the full extent of it is,” says Cerullo. “Don’t go for a major repair if you’re looking at an even bigger repair soon.”

Not sure? Tell your mechanic to put the repair on hold and ask him instead to go over the car completely, and especially any areas you believe might be getting ready to go sour.

“That way, you have a total picture of what you’re getting involved with,” says Cerullo. Many car owners pay for a smaller repair ($500 brake job), that they wouldn’t have wasted money on if they had known they were going to have a major transmission job around the corner. Instead, they would have put that $500 toward the new car they needed in the first place. “I’ve seen it happen a hundred times,” he says.

And since the mechanic doesn’t drive it every day, he may not see the clues you do. “It’s your baby, it’s your car, and you have to make an intelligent choice,” Cerullo says. “So it’s a good idea to get it thoroughly checked out before you get hit with major work.”

8. What’s the cost of keeping the old car vs. buying a new or newer model?

“It cuts both ways,” says Sclar. “You may be spending money to fix a car that’s going to continue to break down,” while a newer car wouldn’t need that much work and would have a warranty. But a newer car costs, you’re probably taking on debt with a lease or a loan and your tag fees and insurance rate may “go up exponentially,” she says.

Sit down with a pad and pen, make two columns and do the math.

9. Would a newer model make more sense?

“Sometimes there are new developments in cars that make a new car a good deal,” says Sclar. For instance: a variety of airbag options, anti-lock braking systems, rear-motion sensors and a host of other safety features. And if that’s your motivation, a newer car might be a good move.

10. Don’t make your decision quickly or out of emotion.

Cerullo remembers advising one man to get rid of a car that appeared headed for expensive repairs. The man didn’t want to because he’d inherited the car from a loved one. But the man later told Cerullo he wished he’d listened: The car had cost him $3,000 in repairs, and he had to junk it anyway.

It’s never an easy decision. Take it slowly. Get all the information you need. And, says Cerullo, “do your homework, put a little time into it.”

Dana Dratch is a freelance writer based in Atlanta.

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Marginal motoring: cheap tricks and quick fixes

 



What your car is trying to tell you

 



Auto loan and leasing glossary

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