by Larry Wiener
"Your catalytic converter is out and it's going to cost you $1300." Needless to say, joy was not one of the emotions that I had when I heard those words from Jeff, my mechanic. Once I settled down and started chatting with him, I realized that $1300 would be money well spent and would actually save me money in the long run.
* * *
This was the first repair I had needed in some time. My mechanic reminded me to distinguish between maintenance (brakes, tires, tune-ups, etc.) and repairs (things that go wrong). He suggested that a good rule of thumb is that if over time the amount you are spending on repairs (not maintenance) exceed a car payment, it's time to start thinking about a car.
Jeff makes a lot of sense and when you have car expenses, it's good to step back and look at how much you really are spending on repairs. At least so far, my Honda has needed very few repairs. With 94,000 miles, that car still has a lot of life in it. The engine is strong. As long as that trend continues, my car is a keeper.
Of course having a high-mileage car that doesn't need many repairs is not just a matter of luck. It's a matter of planning as well. That planning starts when you first buy a car. Cars that are highly rated don't cost that much more than lower rated cars, especially in used cars, and the small premium you pay for quality will be more than made up in the need for fewer repairs.
The next important key to keeping repair costs down is to keep your car up. It really helps to have a good trustworthy mechanic. Some people feel more comfortable going to the dealer. While dealers may know a particular brand of car very well, the costs for both maintenance and repair are often top dollar. Many dealers employ commissioned service writers to convince customers to buy services they don't really need.
A good independent mechanic--the type your neighbor recommends because he's been going to the same guy for 10 years--can be a very valuable person in your effort to keep long term car costs down.
Doing all the maintenance according to schedule is another big money saver. Getting your lube oil and filter service done according to schedule will keep your engine young for a long time. I prefer to go to my independent mechanic rather than to a quick in and out facility because he looks at my car and recommends services that I need (and doesn't try to sell me services I don't need because he is interested in a long term relationship with me).
Also, know that sometimes the need for repair and maintenance comes in bunches. My experience is that the period between 80,000 and 100,000 miles has been a time when lots of parts wear out. I know this, grit my teeth, and pay for that service realizing that I am saving myself the expense of buying a new car.
Another point to consider is that cars are getting more complicated each year. More complicated often means more costs for maintenance and repairs. Jeff informed me that had I been putting a catalytic converter on an older car, it would have cost me less money. This doesn't mean that the newer cars are lower in quality than the older ones, it just means that some of their parts are more expensive due to a more complex design. This motivates me to keep my old reliable car.
Does this mean that you should never change cars? Of course not. If repair bills are getting high, a change may be in order. Also, you may need a different kind of car because your family needs have changed, or if you drive a lot and no longer have confidence in your car, a change may be in order. If your car is using a lot of oil, changing cars may make more sense than rebuilding the engine.
Jeff got it right. As long as repairs aren't out of hand, it makes more sense at least financially to keep your car. If they are, then it may be time for a change.
And, for more tips on buying and maintaining a car, look into my e-book The Black Belt Shopper's Guide. Here you'll get more tips as well as links to a number of auto-related Web sites that will give you the information you'll need to be a savvy car buyer and car owner.
* * *
Copyright © 2006 by Larry Wiener. All rights reserved.