Repair Your Old Car Or Get A New One?

By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist

There comes a time when it’s time to cut your losses. When it no longer makes economic sense to pay for new repairs to an old car. The hard part is knowing when that time has come.

Here are some guidelines that may help:

* You can’t trust it anymore.

Even if you’re handy and can deal with breakdowns, a car that breaks down more than every once in awhile has probably crossed the Rubicon and should be considered potential crusher food. Or at the least, someone else’s future problem.

Like people, as cars age, they develop more problems — and become more failure prone. And like people, cars are really multiple different systems operating in concert. When it’s just one thing that’s not quite 100 percent, it’s manageable. But when several systems are on the verge of collapse, it’s probably time to say your goodbyes.

* It’s no longer safe.

I’m not a safety Nazi but I’m also not suicidal — or criminally negligent — which means I won’t drive a car that has a rust-eaten frame (rust-eaten exterior body panels are ok; that’s just cosmetic) or any other major problem that makes the car potentially dangerous to drive. Rust — and structural damage to the frame/mounting points — is less common than it once was and takes longer to manifest but has not gone away as a potential Rubicon Moment.

Any car that is more than ten years old that has ever been driven in an area where it was subjected to road salt or sea spray should be inspected on the underside very thoroughly — and every year thereafter. If there’s major structural rust, it will be obvious. And if you find some, time for last rites. Unless it is a collectible car, repairing frame rust is almost never worth doing because of the big-money costs involved.

* It’s becoming hard to find parts.

My father-in-law had (until recently) an otherwise nice early ’90s-era Cadillac. The car still ran well but when the AC stopped working he found out that the part he needed is no longer being made. Eventually he found a good condition working used part from a salvage yard — but this is a pain in the ass for most people, who just want the car to work.

Making multiple phone calls, spending hours online and then waiting days/weeks to get a necessary part shipped out to you is a hassle most people — understandably — don’t want to deal with. As a general rule, if the car is more than 20 years old — especially if it’s a “modern” car with electronics, such as a digital dashboard or electronic climate-controlled AC — some critical parts may, as in the case of my father-in-law’s Caddy — be unavailable new and hard to find used.

They will probably also be expensive, which leads to the biggest consideration of all:

* You are putting more money into it than the car is worth.

Here’s the Catch-22 you don’t want to find yourself facing: The transmission in your 16-year-old car fails and a new/rebuilt replacement will cost you $2,000 but the car — the whole thing — is only worth about that much. If you spend the $2k on the new transmission, the car will not be worth $2k more. It will be worth about the same as it was worth before the old transmission failed.

On the other hand, if you don’t put the $2k new transmission in, the car (not-drivable and needing a major repair) will be worth… nothing. Or almost nothing. A few hundred bucks as a parts/scrap car, maybe. You can’t win, no matter what you do.

Even if you’re thinking: Well, I’ll spend the $2k on the new transmission and then just drive the car for another couple of years. The problem is that if something else goes wrong (and it probably will go wrong) you’ll be throwing more money down the well — and facing the same Catch-22 all over again. It sucks, but it’s probably time to cut your losses — and chuck the car.

With later model cars (with computer controls, lots of electronics — including things like ABS brakes) it is easy to find yourself on the wrong side of the balance sheet. Once the car is worth less than about $3,000 or so, it is probably wise to start thinking seriously about selling it, before something major goes wrong and leaves you facing the Catch 22 situation described above.

In particular, keep in mind that in many areas of the country the car must pass emissions testing to remain legally roadworthy. If the car is 15-plus years old it may soon need new catalytic converters and other potentially expensive parts, just to pass smog check. And if the engine’s worn to the point of burning an excessive amount of oil, it may not pass no matter what you do — short of rebuilding/replacing the engine.


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