By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
Kids leave the house at 18, Christmas is always December 25th… but when is it time to sell, trade — or junk — your car? It’s a hard question, especially if you like the car. Even more so if it’s been reliable … up to now.
But, a day will come when you’re faced with a repair that could put you on the wrong side of the cost-benefit equation. For instance, having to put a $2,000 transmission in a car that’s worth maybe $3,500. You commit to the repair — and it instantly becomes much harder to contemplate selling the car because you’ve just put a wad of money into the thing. But the $3,500 car is not worth $5,500 because it’s got a new transmission. It’s still worth $3,500.
What happens if, a month from now, something else expensive breaks?
You can see where this is headed.
So, the smart move is to cut bait before you find yourself on the hook. Some general rules apply:
* Fifteen years for the drivetrain –
A good rule of thumb for any vehicle made since roughly the mid-late 1990s (this was when build quality began a general uptick that’s continued to the present day) is that its engine and transmission ought to be basically ok for about 15 years and 200,000 miles. It’s not at all uncommon for the factory clutch to last 150,000 miles or more (which would have been exceptional back when I was in high school in the ’80s).
This assumes regular maintenance and decent treatment, of course.
But even with decent treatment and regular maintenance, wear cannot be eliminated. Eventually, everything wears out. Entropy, you know. For car engines, this point approaches as they enter adolescence. You may be able to nurse the car into its 20s, but (if it’s driven regularly) it’ll almost always be getting obviously tired by then.
Caveat: While modern engines are longer-lived than the engines of the ’70s, peripherals can still eat you alive with repair costs. Things like alternators can cost $400-plus (in part because these are powerful units, necessary to provide juice to all the electronics found in newer cars) and both the engine and transmission depend on a multitude of sensors and interconnected harnesses, all feeding data to a computer. When these parts begin to wear out — or get “buggy” — the car can become a balky, aggravating money pit — no matter how sound the engine (and transmission) may still be.
If your vehicle is getting close to being a teenager, it’s likely getting close to that point. Once stuff begins to go wrong with it regularly, you’ll know it’s reached that point.
* About 20 for the body –
Rust problems, like mechanical and electric problems — have been pushed down the road. You’ll still get there, eventually, though.
But it may creep up on you — because “today’s” rust is often less obvious than “yesterday’s” rust. A vehicle may look solid on the outside — no perforation or bubbling of the exterior body panels — but nonetheless be crumbling to dust underneath. Frame (structural) rust is what many people think of first. But there’s another variety of decay that’s at least as bad because it can render the car just as undriveable — and can be very expensive to repair: Rusting-out fuel lines, coolant temperature sensor piping and brake lines, for instance. I recently had to deal with rusted out fuel lines in one of my getting-long-in-the-tooth vehicles (a 1998 pick-up truck).
A person not equipped/able to “do it yourself” would have been facing at least $500 in parts alone to fix the problem. With labor, it’d have been closer to $1,000. And the brake lines were next. Which is why I decided to sell the truck. It still ran great; the engine — with only about 129,000 on the odometer — still had plenty of life left. But the rest of the truck? Time to cut bait. Or be willing to accept that instead of a monthly payment, I could expect unexpected payments for this or that with ever-increasing regularity as the truck gradually disintegrated.
Every machine made of steel (and aluminum, too) will eventually rot away. It may not happen as soon as it used to. But never forget that — eventually — it will happen. Just as — eventually — mechanical things will break down. And electrical stuff will stop working (or will work intermittently… if you jiggle wires, pray to the Motor Gods, and so on).
The “sweet spot” trade-in/sell-it time is when the vehicle still has some useful life left in it — and before it reaches the end of its life.
If you wait too long, it’s junk-it time. Which is actually ok, if you wrung every last bit of useful life out of the thing. And managed to do it without also spending more money on the thing than it was worth.
Therein lies the rub!