Picture this: You’re driving home from work when the service-engine indicator lights up, so you take the car into the repair shop that weekend. It could be a loose gas gap or a sign of something much more serious. Whether the repairs cost $500 or $5,000, you’re faced with a choice: Repair the vehicle, or cut your losses and replace it.
“Your natural reaction is to think, ‘I guess I’ll fix it because I need the car,’ ” says Lauren Fix, the Car Coach and author of “Lauren Fix’s Guide to Loving Your Car.” Plus, some people feel emotional attachments to their vehicle if it has memories associated with it or it’s their first car purchase.
But that’s not always the smartest financial move. Before you pay for costly repairs, check your vehicle’s value on websites like Edmunds.com and Kelley Blue Book. If the repairs cost more than the car is worth, think twice before, say, replacing the engine or paying for extensive bodywork. The risk with repairing serious auto issues is that there may be residual problems that require more repairs (and associated costs) down the line.
“When it comes to engines,” Fix says, “if the whole engine is failing and it’s on its last legs, get rid of it now. Those engine problems are really expensive. It’s a money pit.” Not to mention the inconvenience of getting stranded by the side of the road on the way to attending an important meeting or to picking up the kids from school.
Other repairs, such as new bearings, can be worthwhile, Fix says. If you opt to repair your car, she suggests using a technician certified by the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence and getting multiple quotes. Fix also recommends visiting CarCare.org to get a sense of what parts and labor might cost based on your car’s year and model.
Staying on top of routine maintenance can help prevent costly repairs and save you up to $1,200 per year, adds Fix. She points to one car owner who skipped oil changes and let the oil run out, leading to a decision between repairing or replacing the vehicle. The trouble with simply replacing the car was that the owner was upside down on her loan, meaning the car had depreciated faster than she’d paid off the loan and she owed more than the car was worth. The owner decided to repair the car and committed to regular oil changes.
Another example where maintenance could have saved money is when you’re aware of a brake problem but delay a diagnostic visit. “You’re driving the car, and it’s getting progressively worse,” Fix says. “Then when you finally get to the job, a $200 brake job is now a $2,000 brake job.” For safety and financial reasons, don’t ignore these kinds of problems!
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Susan Johnston has contributed to print and online publications including AOL Jobs, The Boston Globe, The Christian Science Monitor, Learnvest.com, Parade Magazine, and SELF. She's also a regular contributor to the money section of USNews.com.