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Car conundrum: fix it or pitch it?
July 10, 2012 8:32 PM   Subscribe

My '03 Hyundai Accent has serious mechanical issues. I'm working poor. Would it be wiser to see if it's worth it to shell out for repairs or immediately pass her on and do without a car until I can get a replacement (that might not be much better)?

(Summary & questions at end of details)

Car details:
• '03 Hyundai Accent, automatic, GL (base 4-dr sedan).
• Currently runs, but it's a risk every single outing. My sole vehicle, and the only reliable transportation within my social and familial circles.
• As is common with this model/vintage, it has a transmission issue that started showing itself last November - a big shudder, a couple of thuds, a knock, and then it behaves as if it is stuck in 2nd gear, losing power on inclines. Stopping and restarting generally "reset" it, but I did take it into a reputable, honest repair shop I'd used before; recommendation: transmission flush to start, but might need transmission replaced.
- They also recommended a coolant flush.
- In addition, they confirmed a suspected oil leak, but they didn't know where it was coming from - it needs to have the more in-depth dye & drive test to find out exactly where it is. It seems to leak a quart+ over ~4wks.
- The passenger-side CV axle needs to be replaced.
- Rear driver-side brake needs work (either adjustment or components replacement - it was reassembled prior to me with a non-standard part (not remembering right this second - plate, maybe?); same repair shop found it when doing full brake job and let me know that until the full brake mechanism on that wheel is replaced, maintenance work can't be warrantied).
- Timing chain is overdue for replacement (also, anything else that needed to happen at 100kmi).
Worst: it is now starting to overheat. I have to keep the heater on full blast (a pleasure during summer in TX, I assure you) to lengthen the distance it will go before the needle hits the red. It hasn't overheated to a stall yet, but only because I'm nursing it along. It will happen, I know it, and it might be the last gasp rather than a stall. When it gets in the red, I pull over to the nearest safe spot and wait at least 15min before starting off again.
Complication: state inspection expired last month (end of June).
• Full, hands-on diagnostics to get a firm idea if it's salvageable for another year or so of driving would be ~$350. Total repair bill is likely to be between $1,200 and $2k.
• FWIW, has new-ish tires and windshield wipers :/
• Purchased secondhand from a seemingly trustworthy but ultimately shady used car lot in '09, she has a regular title but was likely a storm salvage that had also been in a serious accident, and many issues were discovered only during things like major brake repairs.

Money details:
• Broke. I have a regular job that pays just over the bare necessities. I have about $500 at the end of the month after rent, utilities, car insurance & fuel, and vital household/personal items.
• Complication: I'm supposed to be getting childcare with that, as my co-parent is increasingly unwell and caring for a toddler is steadily eroding his already-diminished coping abilities. Without childcare (him or someone/where else), I can't work. I'm in the process of determining eligibility for childcare aid from a state agency, but it doesn't look good because I make just over their guideline. Without a car, getting her to childcare becomes a much, much bigger deal. I mention this complex mess because it's part of why urgency and financial intelligence have to be held in equal measure in this decision.
Worst: due to past illness (better now) and previous long-term unemployment, I now have verifiably poor credit. Loans to resolve any of this are out of the question. I do not have friends or family to resort to for help.
• If I sell the car, it will likely only be $800 max, as this is what I've seen similar vehicles with similar issues get. If the diagnostic option was selected, part of that hole in the budget will be covered, and the rest will go to bus pass and the replacement vehicle fund.

Further details:
• My commute is ~15mi each way. I can't move closer to work until end of October. Closer to work = higher rent & less walkable/busable area.
• Mobility impaired, but I can ride the bus for a while (2-3mos) to save up for whatever option is wiser (repairs or eventual replacement).
• Toddler is already banned from the car, so we're already having to work around that.
• I'm in Austin, TX.
• I am seeking more gainful employment, but it took over 2yrs to get another full-time job after my last lay-off, so I'm not going to rely on that.

(Summary) I have two options:
• I can get a full diagnosis (~$350) to see if the car is worth repairing ($1,200-$2k) for another year or so of driving...
• ...I can sell the car without ever knowing and start saving for the eventual replacement, which will cost at least as much as the full repairs, likely have its own mechanical issues, and could potentially come with punishing (perhaps rightfully so) interest rate & terms if I need to finance (if financed, will also require comprehensive insurance coverage).

Does it make more sense to get the diagnostic done (investing in the major repairs if it'll last at least another year +, selling if not), OR cut losses and sell the car without ever knowing?

I have to decide by Sunday night.
posted by batmonkey to Travel & Transportation (12 answers total)
I would not fix it, nor replace it. I'd just drive it until you can move in October, and hope it doesn't die in the meantime. If it does die, then I'd start taking the bus. The car is worth essentially nothing if you were to resell it now, and the potential repairs are expensive enough that ey don't seem worth doing. I'd just hope it holds on for a couple more months, then move, then get by without a car for a while, maybe save up $3-4k for a decent one that will last five years.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 8:44 PM on July 10, 2012

Just to head off further well-meaning advice to continue driving it until it dies: it can't be driven past Sunday, as it won't pass inspection, any reasonable grace period for expired inspection will conclude by Monday, and I absolutely cannot afford a ticket on top of the rest of this mess.
posted by batmonkey at 8:48 PM on July 10, 2012

What is the minimum amount of work you can put into this car to pass inspection? I would do that, and no more.
posted by misterbrandt at 8:55 PM on July 10, 2012

If it's leaking oil and regularly overheating your engine is probably on it's last legs. I'd sell it, cut your losses and save up for a new one. You're not in a hurry to sell it so hold out for what you want. And tell your mechanics that you're in the market for a reliable beater, maybe they'll know of something with body damage but a solid engine or similar.
posted by fshgrl at 9:28 PM on July 10, 2012

I am making this decision with my current car ($1200 in repairs needed on a car I bought for $1400 woooo). I have the luxury of doing the "drive until it dies" thing though because I don't need to pass inspection for a few months. Anyway I approached this from an economics standpoint.

1) Calculate monthly cost of car
Approximate miles per gallon, if you haven't been keeping track take whatever is on and do at least 3-4mpg less since your car is in bad shape. Approximate monthly mileage. Use MPG and mileage calculation to figure out how many miles you've driven; use average gas price/gallon to figure out gas costs per month. Add in monthly cost of insurance.

2) Calculate monthly cost of public transport
Included monthly bus pass as well as any occasional extra rail tickets or taxi cab rides I would conceivably need to take to make up for lack of car.

3) Figure out how much extra time you'd spend in transit using public transit instead of car, and what activities would be impossible without a car. Add a 0-30% "convenience fee" to whatever you calculated in #2, where the number represents how shitty life will be without car. For example, a few hobbies of mine will be rendered impossible without a car, and I will essentially no longer be able to visit my boyfriend at his home (he lives a ways away).

4) Look at difference in numbers, make decision from there.

It sounds like to me your car is not worth the investment, but I don't know what your daily life is like. $2500--what you would pay for diagnostics and repairs--will get you a decent used car. It will not be awesome, may not have working A/C or a radio and probably some rips inside, but if you are patient and willing to look daily you can find something serviceable that will last you without dying immediately. It would be much better to spend $2500 in a few months for a car that will last you 3-5+ years than $2500 on an $800 car that will last you another year, max.
posted by schroedinger at 10:08 PM on July 10, 2012

When my ancient high-mileage Datsun had overheating problems it turned out to be the coolant thermostat, which was cheap and easy to replace. Way cheaper and easier than an engine rebuild or new car. If you might be able to pass inspection if the car quits overheating, ask them if the thermostat's likely to be the problem (as opposed to flat-out engine failure) and get a quote for replacement. Otherwise dump the car. Replacing engine components is a spendy road to go down.

(Also I drove the Datsun with the heat at full-bore and the windows open and never going anywhere there might be any stop-and-go traffic for over a year before I got the thermostat replaced. But I lived in Oregon, not Texas, and I had no small children to try to keep alive. And it was one of the last of the indestructible Japanese economy cars.)
posted by gingerest at 10:09 PM on July 10, 2012

Man, I am sorry you are in this position. I feel your pain.

I think you need to sell the car and start taking the bus for the time being. From your description, the car is likely on its last legs – the overheating is indeed rather telling in that regard, and it needs a bunch of other work, and would cost hundreds of dollars just to diagnose. I bet if you did everything that needed to be done, you'd be out the cost of a new-to-you car and it would probably just keep falling apart anyway. On preview: schroedinger's advice that you have the thermostat checked is probably worthwhile.

Essentially, I would take fshgrl's advice: you can afford to hold out for a while to get a decent price on the car (not that it's probably worth much) and then you should take the bus for the next two or three months and cut back wherever else you can (though I'm sure there's not a lot of fat to trim on your lifestyle) while you save up for a reliable beater.

Tell everyone you know that you're looking for a cheap but reliable car and that you don't care what it looks like as long as it's in good mechanical shape and hopefully gets halfway decent mileage. If you have any favors you can call in (you say you don't, but run through your mental list again) any birthdays or anything coming up, anything like that, see if you can use them to drum up some contributions to your new-car fund. I'd advocate just sticking to the bus or taking up biking, but with mobility impairment and a family of four (including an SO who is not doing well) I guess a car is kind of a necessity.

Good luck with all of this. It sounds like you're prepared and you know what you have to do, but I know that shit ain't easy. Keep at it.
posted by Scientist at 10:19 PM on July 10, 2012

To begin, you can't let this kind of thing go until the last second. I would have recommended a state/county/city auction or something similar if you had a month or two to work with, but by this upcoming weekend? I'm concerned about your kid and if I wasn't broke as hell right now plus that 40 hour round trip, I'd buy a $400-600 auction beater from up here and drive it down.

That being said; Don't spend any more money on your pit of a car. Full stop. For your kid's sake, you need to get something that is economical, safe and above all reliable. A busted nine year old Hyundai is none of those. How many miles are on it?

For God's sake, if you can't afford it, please don't finance anything. Don't expect to get much for the car at all. If you can get $800 for it, awesome, let someone else pay $2k to fix the tranny on a car that was shitty to begin with.

Please don't go to anything approaching an auto dealer. Scour Craigslist, check your local/college newspaper, look at local supermarkets for cork board deals, check out your local Rotary club. You'd be surprised about how many people want to get rid of a perfectly fine car just because someone died, or their kid went to college.

P.S. If you don't know anybody with any car knowledge, you need to find someone and cultivate that right now. Knowing a mechanic or a mechanic's wife or other relative that will sell you a $500 car that runs like a top but looks like garbage is so important that I am having a hard time describing it.
posted by Sphinx at 11:32 PM on July 10, 2012

I nursed a dying car with very similar transmission and overheating problems around for about 18 months, and it wasn't quite dead when I could afford to get rid of it. HOWEVER, I was not using it as a daily driver-I only needed to drive it two or three times a week, though one of these was a (miserable, nailbiting) 50 mile round trip. My car was an '86 Civic and I was doing this in 2003-04. I recommend saving as much as you can while you drive it into the ground over the next few months-I bet it lasts at least until October as long as you keep feeding it with oil as necessary.
posted by Kwine at 12:30 AM on July 11, 2012

$350 for a "complete diagnosis" seems a little steep. You don't need the red carpet treatment, you just need the basics.

Nonetheless, unless the car has been terribly maintained or is in bad shape cosmetically, you aren't going to get as good of a car as you have now for the $800 you can get for selling it. Seriously: people only sell cars that cheaply because there is something wrong with them. It's only a 9 year old car.

The Accent is a dead simple car, it should be pretty cheap to fix.

My sole vehicle, and the only reliable transportation within my social and familial circles.

Get these people to kick in some cash.
posted by gjc at 6:19 AM on July 11, 2012

Have you checked with more than one mechanic? $350 sounds like too much for a diagnosis. $150 would be more likely.
posted by twblalock at 1:31 PM on July 11, 2012

misterbrandt: without the diagnostic, there's no real way to know what would make it pass inspection, between the oil leak, transmission issue, and overheating.

fshgrl: thanks for the good idea on seeing about "mechanic's specials" in addition to helping me pick between the two options!

schroedinger: that's exactly the approach I took to narrow it down to these options - the daily commute by bus would be 3hrs instead of 1.5hrs, the cost with bus pass and occasional cab (& very occasional rental car) would be less than current fuel + insurance total, and, yep, we'd be hemmed in a bit more until the replacement is procured, but it would be worth it if we ended up ultimately more mobile as a result. Thanks for prompting me check my math & take even more emotion out of it!

gingerest: agh, it's so tempting to just go after that thermostat! But...I think after thinking through the above things that it would be a few more dollars thrown away, since other, more expensive things are more likely to throw the inspection (especially since part of it is emissions).

Scientist: thank you for highlighting that option more - I appreciate it. I'm not much of an asker, but I have put the word out for folks to send reliable affordable car leads my way. Thanks also for the encouragement!
(because I am ridiculously committed to clarity, I find it embarrassingly necessary to needlessly note my co-parent is not an actual SO and it's otherwise just me and mini-batmonkey.)

Sphinx: er. I'm not quite sure how to approach your answer, but I'll give it a go...
This is the last possible choice to be made after several other attempts at resolution (legal, bureaucratic, personal connections) didn't work out. Definitely didn't let this go to the last second without ever having it addressed. It's been a circuitious and agonising process, and it's just short of devastating to have it get to the point it is now. But, yeah, the whole point of bringing it to the Hive Mind was to check my logic on which direction would prevent further spirals of doom. As much as I would love to have a new best friend who happens to be a mechanic, I'm going to have to instead invest in a "lemon check" when I get to that point in the process. Gods know I would not voluntarily choose to have me and my little one in this position and have been working every conceivable angle to try to prevent it. Definitely perusing all those sources, but I have been researching credit-rebuilding finance lots (as opposed to "buy here, pay here" scam lots), as that's how I built my credit in the first place a couple of decades ago. Whew. I hope I did your answer justice.

Kwine: I'd love to be able to drive it into the ground, but, as noted above, it can't be driven past this Monday. Also, I'm quite worried about the tow charges and lowered saleability if it were to crap out entirely. But thank you for weighing in!

gjc: I know I'm using the tilde in an off-label manner to indicate "approximate", but that's totally why it's there - that's not a firm amount, it's the upper end of what could result from a more thorough look. It's already had a quick inspection and a more thorough but non-invasive look-over in addition to having the engine codes read (transmission failure and a fuel line issue). In order to know enough to figure out if the car really is salvageable, I need to be able to commit to that upper-end possibility and not regret it, hence the question. The $800 is a sop, basically - it would cover part of the budget hole caused by investing in an ultimately disappointing diagnostic session and then fund bus cards for a few months. If the diagnostic isn't done, it still covers bus cards but then also kicks in a small amount toward future replacement. I'm afraid in the process of trying to prevent suggestions to lean on my network for rides, I introduced the possibility that there are people out there who owe me for transportation, and it couldn't be further from the truth. There just isn't any other transportation option I could lean on within my circles for work commuting, etc. Otherwise, everyone close enough to know the depths of my situation have contributed mightily enough that I definitely won't be asking them for cash to solve my problem. I do appreciate the input, though.

twlblalock: yep. 3 total, with a bonus free engine code reading to verify what I got off one of the machines involved. As explained above, the ~$350 is an upper limit for the deeper, invasive mucking about that would need to be done to ascertain what all would make it driveable for another year or so.

...I tried to be thorough in the above, but do please let me know if I can provide more info to help anyone weigh in. Currently, I'm leaning heavily toward putting an ad on Craigslist this weekend and planning to start the bus riding on Monday.
posted by batmonkey at 6:50 PM on July 11, 2012

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