It’s a question we never stop getting: “My mechanic tells me my car needs $3,400 worth of repairs. Should I do it, or think about buying a new car?” This might help make your decision easier.
The costs to repair a vehicle have never been higher, and there’s no sign that they’ll be getting any cheaper soon. Just think about tires on something as pedestrian as a Subaru Legacy:
In 1997, the replacement tire for a mid-level, Subaru Legacy LS sedan was a 185/70R14. Tire Rack’s replacement cost for a full set of four tires is $217.80, plus mount, balance and disposal.
In 2017, the mid-level trim for the Subaru Legacy is the 2.5i Premium. The replacement tire is a 225/55R17. At a minimum, you’ll spend $456.20, and you can easily spend upwards of $820 for a set of four, plus mount, balance and disposal.
With that in mind, a car that comes into the shop with some deferred maintenance items, such as tires, brakes and a few worn out suspension parts can easily run into $3,000 to repair.
Dealerships know that it’s a lot harder to convince a customer to spend $3,000 in cash on a repair than it is to slide into a new car payment for $400/mo., and they use that logic to present offers on new cars, sometimes before you even get out of the car in the service line.
How do you really know that it’s time to turn in your old car on a new model?
Know Your Car’s Value
We’ll make this simple: Facing a $2,500 transmission replacement on an aging Daewoo Leganza? Save your money and invest in a new car.
But most people aren’t in that situation. You can’t make an educated decision about whether or not it’s time to replace your car unless you have a solid idea of what your car’s worth. Our Leganza is worth less than half what the repair bill would be. But if you’re driving a 2010 Toyota RAV4 with a $2,500 repair bill, it’s a completely different situation.
Is the Repair Attractive to a Potential Buyer
Even if you’re not considering a repair so that you can sell the car afterwards, put yourself in the position of a theoretical buyer of your car.
If you’re putting $3,000 into tires, brakes, suspension parts and other wear items, all of those repairs would be attractive to a theoretical buyer. That’s $3,000 worth of normal replacement parts that she won’t have to worry about for a few years.
On the other hand, what if that $3,000 was going into a transmission rebuild. To a potential buyer, that’s a lot less interesting. Why did the transmission need to be rebuilt? If the transmission went bad, what about the engine? Is that the next item to fail? If it needed to be replaced at 75,000 miles, is that the maximum usable life that she could expect out of a rebuild, too?
What Would You Buy?
Three grand sounds like a lot of money to put into a car, but consider what you’d buy if you didn’t repair your current car. If you’re looking at a new car, the average cost in 2017 is $33,560, 10 times what you’d invest in the car you’re driving.
If you’re considering a late model used car, the average cost is much less, but still $19,189, and that’s a used car that’s likely to need repair a lot sooner than a brand new car.
You might be able to justify it by stretching the investment out over 48 or 60 months, but the out of pocket expense of buying a new car is significantly higher than spending the money on your current vehicle.
How Has Your Current Vehicle Been Maintained?
The only person who can honestly answer how your current vehicle has been cared for is you. Have you fastidiously followed the recommendations in the owner’s manual, always kept your car clean, and avoided accidents? Then it’s probably worth making the investment in repairs.
On the other hand, if you’re still running the same motor oil the car started with 35,000 miles ago, if McDonald’s boxes are piled up to the headliner in the back seat and you’ve been hit more times than a blackjack dealer showing a six, it might be time to send that jalopy down the road.
How Long Did You Hope to Keep Your Car?
Some people keep cars well beyond the average age of 11 years, happily driving cars built three presidents ago. Others are only interested in the latest safety and entertainment technology and get the itch to buy a new car around the same frequency with which they replace smoke detector batteries.
If you’re completely satisfied to drive something older, aside from major engine and transmission overhauls and insidious rust, there’s absolutely not repairable for less than you’d spend on something new.
For most people, the decision to move on from their current car has nothing to do with dollars and cents.