When To Cut a Car Loose: The Trials of Vehicle Repair on an Old Car

When is it no longer worth repairing an old car? I know the obvious answer would be, when you can afford a new one. We currently have two vehicles, both on the older side and with over 100,000 miles. Our primary vehicle is a 2000 Buick Century that I inherited from my grandmother’s estate in 2004 with only a few thousand miles on it. This car has needed mostly routine repairs like tires, and brakes aside from a major transmission rebuild and a broken windshield (the result of vandalism) four years ago. But the little stuff as started to go. The front windows no longer rolled up and down and after over a year we decided to have them repaired, only to have the back two fail days later. Then the air conditioning system needed repair. We still aren’t sure of the level or expense of repair required, and if it weren’t for our small children we might consider doing without.

Our secondary vehicle however has been going down hill more severely of late. This is my husband’s to and from work car, a Chevy Lumina from the early 90’s, now also with over 100,000 miles. Now we bought this car for $1,500 and then put another $1,000 worth of repairs into it in the first year. It has a large dent on the driver’s side door that was there when we purchased it, but it doesn’t affect the car in any way and my husband doesn’t care about the aesthetics of his vehicle. Since then I’ve lost track of what it has needed; never more than $400 or so of repairs at the time so we just keep it going. Every year when it comes time to inspect it we set a price limit on what we can afford to put into it and each year the repairs are manageable. We’ve considered becoming a one car family, but when I ran the math I concluded that we would hardly save any money at all once you factor the extra gas to ferry my husband back and forth to work on the days I need the car and the loss of our multi-car discount on the car insurance. Basically we would only be saving the cost of registration and inspection each year. But this year was different.

The Lumina had some kind of gas leak that was killing the fuel economy, bringing it down to 10 miles a gallon. Our fuel budget was destroyed. The starter had also been slowly failing, almost stranding my husband on several occasions. So this year we took the car in for a free estimate before getting it inspected. Repair cost came to around $400 so we decided to get it repaired one last time. But after the repairs had been made some major problems were discovered during the inspection, so that the total cost of repairs and inspection now rose to at least $900. Since we already owed for the initial repairs our choices were to make the necessary repairs for inspection or say forget the rest and cut our losses, finally ditching the car after making a $400 repair. Again, after much frustration we decided to just follow through with the additional repair and hope the car gives us a few more good years.

The most frustrating part about all of this is that we have never been able to save much for vehicle repair and replacement. We have a small monthly budget for basic maintenance and repair, but with our vehicles being older they usually require more than we have budgeted and force us to dip into our emergency fund. As a result we have very little saved for a new vehicle and each time a major repair comes around for our existing vehicles, it eats up what little we have saved. Part of me wants to dump the second car and put whatever small amount we save by having only one car into the new car fund. But the money would likely be eaten up by additional repairs needed for the Buick given the addition use. So it looks like both our old vehicles are staying with us for now and hopefully we’ll be able to reallocate some funds to start saving for a new vehicle soon.

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