Is it time to dump your car?

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 "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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