What's That Smell? The Costly Joys of Maintaining Older Cars

Parents, if you want your kids to become independently wealthy, don’t encourage them to go to college; tell them to open up a car repair shop instead.

I say that because I just paid my mechanic almost three-thousand bucks for services rendered. I know.

Of course, that’s what happens when you own a couple of cars that are meticulously maintained, but getting a bit long in the tooth.

This week, along with the typical “full-service” oil change, our 2001 Honda Odyssey had its brakes and transmission serviced. The old girl also had her valves adjusted, and received a brand new set of spark plugs. The make-over was made complete with a new timing belt, water pump, and a fresh set of outer drive belts.

A day later, it was my 1997 Honda Civic’s turn: an oil change, transmission service, the valves adjusted, new spark plugs, and the rear brake shoes replaced.

After the Honeybee tacked on the obligatory vanilla air freshener for her Odyssey — the automotive analog of a kid getting a lollipop after a visit to the doctor — the entire bill came to $2867.73.

Quite frankly, after all the money we spent, I was a bit surprised my mechanic didn’t just throw it in as a freebee. “They’re on the house, Len — and take one of those cucumber-melon fresheners for the Civic too! It’ll make you wish your commute was 400 miles instead of 40!” Heh.

Unfortunately, no such luck.

Anyway, despite the hefty maintenance bill, I have no intention of selling either of our old cars.

Why should I? As I detailed in an article on the financial virtues of old cars from last summer, the annual maintenance costs for the Civic and Odyssey averaged just $400 and $600 respectively through 2010, although those numbers are trending upward.

Spread those costs over an entire year and it becomes obvious why so many people are willing to accept the added responsibility that comes with properly maintaining an older car in exchange for avoiding a monthly car payment.

Even so, I can hear a lot of you out there saying thanks, but no thanks; the possibility of large and/or unexpected auto maintenance bills is just too much to bear.

It’s really no big deal though for those who establish a rainy day fund — which is meant to help you weather short-term, relatively low-impact financial storms of less than $2000.

Another alternative is to set aside a fixed amount of money each month into a separate vehicle maintenance fund.

For example, if you average $600 per year to keep your car in good running order, that’s equivalent to $50 per month. You can then set up an automatic deposit into a special car maintenance savings sub-account with a bank like ING Direct.

What’s particularly nice with this method is that, over time, you can gradually increase your contributions to your maintenance fund sub-account, so you’ll hardly notice the difference. And if you do happen to encounter higher-than-average or unexpected maintenance expenses — or even get hit with a double-whammy like we did this week — you can make up the difference by tapping into your emergency or rainy day funds.

Best of all, you won’t have to worry about leaving the repair shop without one of those cucumber-melon air fresheners.

Photo Credit: Tony Alter

 

42 comments to What’s That Smell? The Costly Joys of Maintaining Older Cars

  • another benefit of these monthly funds is the fact that they help avoid a lot of arguments over money in relationships.

  • An added benefit of owning older cars is that you tend to not care as much if they get dinged up or scratched a little. Owners of newer cars are obsessive about fixing the slightest imperfections.

    • Len Penzo

      Yes, Matt. Yes!

      The passenger-side rear panel of my Civic is scratched up so badly it’s almost comical. (They’re entirely from my kids pulling their bikes and other toys out of the garage with no concern for my car.)

  • JD

    I agree with you about upkeep on older cars. We had two that were a bit ancient and although it was painful at times to pay the repair bills it beat making car payments. We are now down to one vehicle, used with low mileage and glad we aren’t paying for a new vehicle.

    • Len Penzo

      I’m really addicted to the lack of car payments myself, JD. After I got into a little fender bender late last year, I actually spent a little time thinking about whether or not I wanted to simply replace my Civic with something newer.

      In the end, I just couldn’t deal with those monthly payments — especially when I considered that my car was absolutely fine for getting me to and from work.

  • No'am

    How much of the $2867.73 was for parts and how much for labour? Not all of that money (in fact, probably less than 20%) is the garage owner’s profit, so I wouldn’t encourage your children just yet to become workers in a car repair shop.

    • Len Penzo

      Although it probably didn’t come through in the piece, there was a touch of sarcasm in my statement about mechanics. :-)

      The parts bill for both cars was $778. That was 27 percent of the total cost.

      By the way, those parts generally have a huge mark-up — so the mechanic is making out there too!

      • No'am

        The markup on parts could easily be upto 100% – that markup has to cover fixed costs such as rent, electricity, telephones, etc. I don’t have much of a problem with that (the 20% which I wrote represented the operating profit, not the markup).I had suspected that the parts would have cost $2000 and the labour $700, not the other way round, which is why I wrote what I did. If running a garage is so profitable, then why aren’t more people doing it?

  • These unexpected maintenance costs is why I’ve avoided older cars. Since I don’t know enough about cars myself, I would have to pay someone to do all of this kind of stuff. To me I just preferred knowing my set costs each month of having a fairly new car.

    • Len Penzo

      Actually, these repairs weren’t unexpected. We keep very detailed records on both our cars, so we knew the time was coming for these preventative maintenance jobs.

      And that’s the key, by being proactive and keeping our cars meticulously maintained, the risk of being stranded by an unexpected mechanical failure are quite similar to a new/newer vehicle (i.e., low).

      I know I never worry about that stuff even though our two cars are 12 and 16 years old.

  • I think the shop gets more than 20%. A friend of mine owns a mechanic shop. He makes at least 20% in parts and another 20% in labor. He buys parts from NAPA. He gets a part for, let’s say, $10 but he charges customer 25% more. The 5% is for back and forth trip to NAPA and the 20% is his profit.

    The friend says that pretty much a standard.

    It’s a good business to be in if you are a top-notch mechanic in your town with good customer service.

  • Oscar

    5 years ago and beyond, Len, your thinking would make financial sense.

    However, the times, they have a changed.

    With the ridiculously high price of used cars, a trend that looks to continue, the last few years and now have been the best time to buy new and sell 2-3 years later.

    Maintenace costs in those first few years are very low and the money you will get back from the high price of selling a used car means that your total yearly cost (maintenance and financing) competes with, if not beats, the cost of maintaining a beater.

    Plus there’s the added benefit of not having to stress over major repairs (thanks for the love, factory warranties). You don’t have to worry about your little emergency fund getting raided.

    Buying a car is a losing proposition from the word go, granted. But really, with the super-high prices of slightly used cars, buying new starts to make a lot more financial sense these days than driving a beater.

    • Oscar

      Also, forgot the fact that newer cars can be virtually guaranteed to get significantly (if you buy right) better gas mileage than your old beaters.

    • Len Penzo

      I disagree, Oscar. Considering that cars lose upwards of 50 percent of their value within the first three years, I do not see how buying a new car and then selling it in 2 – 3 years could ever be a wise decision.

      The only way buying a new car makes sense financially is if you keep it for a long long time.

      In fact, assuming you don’t drive a ridiculous amount of miles, you’d be much better off leasing if you plan on changing new cars every few years.

  • Lots of cars now have forums on line where one can check the how-to section and learn how to do things. Last year I changed the front rotors and pads on my 2002 Maxima myself after discovering a very detailed how-to with pictures. Cost less than $130 for all the parts (prior to rebate) and even used the tool loaner from Advance for the torque wrench. It probably took me the better part of the afternoon, but now that I know how to do it, it won’t take nearly as long.

    Hey, if I can do it, anyone can! ;)

    • Len Penzo

      I hear you. If I can’t fix it with a screw driver or hammer, I’d just as soon leave it to my mechanic.

      It’s an opportunity cost thing with me — I just feel the time it would take me to make the repairs is more valuable to me. I also don’t want to expend the cost to buy the equipment.

  • Jambalaya

    Repairing older cars does make sense because it is *usually* cheaper than making a car payment/buying a new or newer used car. However, can one put a price on reliability, especially for long road trips? Also, what about lost wages due to dealing with car problems?

    • Len Penzo

      In my case, it’s easy for me to make up my time, so the lost wages aren’t an issue at all.

      As I mentioned earlier, it really helps to keep meticulous records and be proactive with maintenance. By faithfully following the manufacturer’s suggest repair schedule, the older car’s reliability really isn’t an issue. At least not for me. :-)

  • This is why I do most of my own basic maintenance on my cars, truck and motorcycles. When I first realized how cheap a good set of brake pads was at AutoZone, there’s no way I would pay hundreds to change them at the shop.

    As for allegedly making a fortune as a mechanic, I’m not buying it. It’s a tough way to make a living, even if you do own your own shop. I’m glad I went to college and work in a cushy office, instead of busting my knuckles on somebody else’s car.

  • Todd

    Another benefit to older cars: paying far less in insurance and registration costs! My paid-for ’95 cost $113 to register this year, while my grandfather’s new Lexus ran $700. Not chump change.

    Insurance is obviously less on older cars as well, and if it’s paid for you can drop comprehensive and pay for liability only if you so choose.

  • Len Penzo

    Great points, Todd! I really should have included those points.

  • Jim

    Len,

    I’ve been hanging out on your site for months…love it! My dilemma is a 93 Accord (257k/mi) that I’ve had since 70k/mi in excellent condition, pristine upkeep and great exterior…but the transmission just went out. I was going to upgrade to a new Accord a friend has and had it inspected. It was in BAD shape – mega underbody rust. So now I’m pretty sure I’m going to drop $1,600 to rebuild with a 18 month guarantee.

    I’ve just got to pull the trigger. Any thoughts?

    Jim

  • Len,

    Just turned 240000 miles on the ’95 Odyssey…my cost log just averaged 600.00 for the last 5 years for repairs, tire, batteries, etc….300000 miles is not far away and then I will have gotten my money’s worth…by the way, just traded in the ’90 Accord two years ago (only had 258000 miles though)and got 1500.00 on the trade for my daughter’s 2007 Ford 150 pick-up…love them Hondas!

    Keep the blogs coming…great ideas!

    K Williams

  • Oscar

    Len, you said:

    “I disagree, Oscar. Considering that cars lose upwards of 50 percent of their value within the first three years, I do not see how buying a new car and then selling it in 2 – 3 years could ever be a wise decision.”

    Have you been observing the price of used cars in the 2-3 year range for the past year??? In most cases, they are only a thousand or two less than BRAND NEW at the dealer. The adage of cars losing half their value in the first 2-3 years is currently out the window.

    • Len Penzo

      Interesting. I just checked one of the perennial top 10 vehicles in terms of sales, the Toyota Camry CE (which is the no-frills, bottom of the barrel version). Here were the prices:

      Used 2009 (good condition, Kelly Blue Book): $14,272
      New 2009 (MSRP): $19,185
      New 2012 (MSRP): $21,955

      In this case, it’s not 50 percent depreciation, but it is still significant (26% over the past three years for the ’09) — and it doesn’t take into account taxes, registration and other sales fees, or higher insurance.

  • Joe

    >There is a certain limit above which you have to ask yourself if it is really worth it to keep an old car or buy a new (new or less used) car. One thing is for sure: your car will break down as it ages no matter what. The key is to find that threshold between still repair the old car or get a new one.

  • OP

    Just found your blog. Very interesting content. We have 2000 Honda Accord with 205000KM(in Canada, bought it used in 2002) and 2008 Mazda 3 with 33000KM, bought it used in 2009). We usually buy a car and keep it until maintaining it starts to become expense. I get the oil changed for both cars every 3-4 months or 5K km but recently my accord’s maintenance is starting to get expensive(changed tires, battery end of last year), now the air pipe to the throttle body, spark plugs, harmonic balancer, the engine seal(was leaking), rotors, brake pads, cabin filter(changed it myself). And there are few other items that will need to changed soon(cabin air motor, exhaust,…). The car is getting old and I am thinking of getting a new(or newer) car. We have been making due with both of these cars but they are very tight for family of 4 +1, so we are considering SUV(MDX).

    Thoughts?

    • Len Penzo

      It’s a personal decision, OP.

      I’ll share the recent though process I went through regarding my 97 Civic:

      The maintenance on my 97 has been increasing ever so slightly over the past few years. So I finally decided to buy a brand new ’13 Accord this year and — after 16 years and 175k miles of driving the Civic — I absolutely love it. Of course, I’m going to keep my Accord for at least 10 years, and probably longer.

      That being said, even if my maintenance costs averaged $2500 annually on the Civic (and, frankly, that’s a lot of maintenance year in and year out), it’s still cheaper than buying a new car. Now my 16-year-old son will be driving it.

      I ultimately bought a new car because I could more than afford to do so — in fact, I could have paid for it in cash if I wanted to, although I didn’t. If I was a twentysomething or thirtysomething though, and on a tight budget, I almost certainly would have passed on getting a new car and continued driving the Civic.

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