It's my car! Now what?
April 22, 2010 11:53 AM   Subscribe

I am about to own my first car that's actually mine. No, this isn't a car-purchasing question. This is a, "What else do I need to know?" question.

I'm being given a car. It's an early-90s sedan with about 100k on it that's generally been well-maintained. It recently had the timing belt replaced and at the time, the dealership said it looked good otherwise. There's a little surface rust.

But despite being like thirty, I have never owned a car before. I have driven this one a lot, but only when borrowing it from the family member who is giving it to me; its maintenance was never my concern aside from occasionally being the one to take it in. What do I need to know about cars in general and what are good resources to learn this? And is there anything I can do to head off the rust now so it doesn't get worse? I'm not concerned about appearance but rather keeping the car in as good a condition as it can be in.

I currently know nothing about cars--i.e., I don't know what the timing belt is, just that it was replaced. Obviously the unexpected can happen, but I would be really tickled if I could keep this thing running until it hits 200k. What can I do immediately to be sure I keep it in top condition, and aside from that, what should I know as the first-time owner of an older car?
posted by gracedissolved to Travel & Transportation (8 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
As the previous owner of a very aged car (RIP 1994 Mercury Villager), the best piece of advice I can give you is to find an excellent, trustworthy, honest mechanic. You will develop a special relationship with this person. He or she will get to know the idiosyncrasies of your car, and most importantly how much you are willing to put into it, money wise.

Google the model of your car plus "maintenance schedule", and see where you are for your milage. Forecast what will likely need to be replaced or repaired in the future based on this schedule.

Read the owners manual. Yeah, seriously. It won't be the most entertaining hour you've ever spent, but I learned a lot.

Start budgeting for car repairs. :)

Realize you may reach the point where a $1000 repair will total your car. Then again, spending $1000 to have a working car is the cheapest "car" you'll ever buy. Are you going to spend that money to have less necessary repairs like the AC or suspension? Or will you put up with sweaty bumpy rides?

With every old car you will reach a point where you need to cut your losses. Keep that in mind, and decide what that point is for you.
posted by fontophilic at 12:35 PM on April 22, 2010

If it's any kind of Japanese four cylinder vehicle that's a good start! They are generally the most reliable vehicles.

Timing belt - very good that this has been done as it's one of those things that *will* fail eventually (~100K is common) and depending on the type of car can do thousands of dollars of damage when it does.

In general right now you should get a "major service" done if it hasn't been done already. This is a full inspection and service, with some major items getting replaced. The timing belt may have been done as part of the major service. You should have (or be able to get) the paperwork from the service if it was done - the mechanic will list any concerns/things that seem likely to need work in the near future.

Really important question: Do you have a trusted mechanic? If you do, this is much simpler! If you don't, that's the next thing you need to do if you want to make it to 200K. You *will* need a mechanic one the way to 200... a good mechanic will save you CONSIDERABLE money and stress.

Also, what's the make/model of the car?

More generally, in my opinion the keys to reliability are:

1) Buy the right model. If you buy a crappy model, there's little else you can do but pay endlessly for repairs. Use sites like Edmunds to research models:

2) Buy the right used car. A car that's been well-maintained for the first 100K will usually be more reliable than a car that has been abused or neglected. There are lots of complex, interrelated systems on cars where neglect in one area will - over time - cause problems in other areas. Now, even a badly abused car can be fixed but it will cost a lot of $.

3) Preventative maintenance. Find a mechanic you trust (easier said than done, hopefully you have one already. Otherwise asked trusted friends and family who can demonstrate that they have reliable car). Then you should expect to take the car in every 3,000 miles or so for an oil change and general check up. It might cost $100 (or more - depends on a lot of factors) but it's well worth it, especially for a car that's pushing twenty years old.

There are two main costs when you take your car to a mechanic. Parts and labor. Some jobs (like replacing a timing belt) are pretty cheap on parts, but might be very high on labor because (depending on the model) the engine may need to be removed and substantially dismantled/re-assembled as part of the job.

Many mechanics are unfairly accused of gouging for what in my mind is reasonable labor charges. No doubt there's crooks out there (trust is crucial if you're a non car-savvy person), but there's also a lot of customers with unrealistic expectations. Cars are potentially very dangerous machines, I think it's reasonable to pay someone $50+/hour to work on them. And then - having done this myself - it's entirely reasonable that it could take several hours to take out an engine and fix it. Hell, it could take a couple of days. So labor adds up fast, keep that in mind.

The cost of labor is a MAJOR argument in favor of preventative maintenance. Usually cars are designed to make maintenance relatively easy. It's when the mechanic has to burn hours of labor pulling out large, heavy and complicated mechanisms that things really start to add up.

4) Budget for maintenance and repairs. I don't know the right number for your situation, but I would make an estimate of what you're going to spend on maintenance/repairs in a year (maybe talk to your trusted mechanic about a reasonable estimate). Then divide that number by 52 and ensure you're setting aside that amount each week as part of the cost of owning/driving the car. Do this for a while, and it will seem really cheap, trust me!

5) Stay mostly stock. Some of the worst used cars out there are owned by young wannabe race/drift drivers who put cheap aftermarket crap on their cars. Factory spec is usually your best bet for trouble free service. That's not to say that modifications are always a bad idea, but if you're not into cars as a hobby the bottom line is "more trouble than it's worth to you".

6) Drive like a sane person. Go easy. Be patient. Don't accelerate/brake hard unless you have to. As well as saving you gas and making you a safer driver, patient driving is easier on the car, consumables (tires, shocks, brake pads) will last significantly longer... if your habit is to brake hard and late on every corner and light, it really adds up in terms of wear and tear, and you're less likely to break something expensive (like an engine or transmission mount). Oh, and slow down a bit of rough roads.

7) Pay attention. Some simple things:

* Keep your tires properly inflated. It will save you $ on gas, increase the lifetime of your tires (saving you more $), and improve the handling/safety of the car. It's pure win. Learn the right pressure for your car (often it's written on a little plaque on the inside edge of the driver's door), and check ~once a month when you're refueling (or pay $3 for a little gauge and keep it in the glovebox).

* If the Check Engine light comes on, get it checked out. Unless it's a computer fault (uncommon but not unheard of) the car is doing you a big favor - it's saying "hey, I'm measuring something out of range. If this persists, something is going to wear out or get covered in gunk. Then that will cause some other issue. Let's get it checked out while it might be a very minor thing).

* Use your ears. Hopefully the car doesn't have any major issues right now, so get used to how it sounds. If you hear a new sound, get it checked out. If you think there's a new sound, try having a friend rev the car while you walk around it to figure out where it's coming from (front? Back? Engine?). You can also drive with the windows down through a tunnel or between buildings - you'll hear ticking/clicking sounds reflecting back at you more clearly.

If you're hearing a noise, try to figure out what it's related to. Does the ticking get faster/slower with engine revs? That means it's likely to be something in the engine. Or if the ticking varies with the speed of the car (regardless of engine revs) it's more likely to be something in the suspension or brakes. Is the sound related to a specific situation - e.g., in front wheel drive cars it's common to hear a loud clicking noise when you make a tight turn (this is the classic symptom of impending CV-joint failure - go see your mechanic if you have this!).

Disclaimer: I'm not a mechanic, but I know cars pretty well and my wife's car (2002 Mazda Protege 5) was chosen for reliability. She's had it for years and it's never let her down even once (touch wood!).
posted by gribbly at 12:38 PM on April 22, 2010 [5 favorites]

Oil needs to be changed every 3,000 miles or 3 months. This may vary depending on the area where you live (i.e. - this is for NY, you might be able to get away with less down south where the weather isn't as harsh - oil types & longevity vary with climate).

I personally keep an "Oh Shit Kit" that is a Rubbermaid in my trunk, with Jumper Cables, Flares, a spare can of oil, paper towels, and a funnel for car fluids as needed. I've used it more for my friends than for me, but it's good to have.

Windshield wipers are a small investment that can make a huge difference. Cheap ones streak, squeak, and fall apart quickly. I put some cash down for good ones from, and have been happy with them, not needing to replace them in some time.
posted by GJSchaller at 12:41 PM on April 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

Learn to check your own oil levels and check the tire pressure. Make sure you get regular oil changes done. Keep the tires properly inflated, rotate them now and then. Then find that good mechanic.
posted by QIbHom at 1:14 PM on April 22, 2010

My father said something to me about cars back when I started driving and it's always stuck with me: you will generally pay about the same amount in car repairs whether you are doing preventative maintenance or you wait until something breaks to have it fixed. Better to spend that money as a preventative measure when you've saved & budgeted for it than to be stuck somewhere with a broken car and a tough financial situation. It put things in perspective for me in terms of spending money on my car.

Something I have learned myself: if you can get car insurance through an actual person (i.e., a representative in your town for the insurance company you choose), it can really be to your benefit. At the beginning of the year I got a letter about some accounting mistake that the corporation had made that was going to raise my rate by $40/month. I didn't understand it, but all I had to do was call my guy and he fixed it. When my husband got an enormous speeding ticket that could've raised our rates, I called my guy and he offered suggestions for getting the ticket reduced or taken care of completely. It didn't end up affecting our rates. It's nice to have an actual person to talk to who knows me & knows I'm on a tight budget. He also explains all the crazy-ass insurance language to me. Much better than having to go through a huge phone tree and talk to a random person. Hopefully you can find a good rate with a company that has an agent near you.

One last thing: AAA is not as good as it used to be. Check with your insurance policy; mine provides roadside assistance and so I can go without AAA.

Like everyone else has said: find a trustworthy mechanic. Avoid the chain oil-change places unless you have multiple trusted recommendations; in my experience the chains do not train their people well and they make costly mistakes that they are reluctant to reimburse you for.

Keep your tires inflated & your wiper blades fresh; keep the wiper fluid full; keep a tire gauge, ice scraper, first aid kit & flashlight in the car. Also consider adding a blanket, some heavy gloves, and an old sweater or jacket, in case you need to change a tire yourself or you get stuck somewhere chilly. Don't be afraid to call roadside assistance or the police if you get a flat at night or on the highway; it can be very dangerous to change the tire yourself in that situation, even if you know how to do it.
posted by Fui Non Sum at 2:25 PM on April 22, 2010

I think the most important thing you can do is ask around for a good mechanic. Once you take your car there for an oil change, you can get a sense of the place yourself. If a new mechanic does the following, I usually decide to keep coming back:

Even after a simple oil change, they'll give you a quick run-through of what they did and what they checked.

They will occasionally recommend against a costly procedure/replacement, or will offer a different (cheaper) way to do accomplish the same result.

In the course of routine maintenance, they will occasionally find other things that are wrong with your car. When they do, if you are sitting around in the waiting room they will find you and bring you into the garage. Then they'll point out what they've found and ask you if you want it fixed.

If you come into the shop and tell them that your car is "making a funny noise" or something equally vague, they'll ask you a couple of more specific questions without making you feel like an idiot, and then will be able to diagnose the problem fairly quickly.

Also--as someone mentioned above, I think it's easy to be worried at first that every mechanic is trying to bilk you, just because cars are such foreign territory to most people. But once you find a good mechanic, I think you do better if you just decide to trust their judgement, rather than worrying all the time that they're trying to pull a fast one on you. And, remember that even normal car maintenance is expensive, especially with an older car.

Oh! And learn how to change your own windshield wiper blades. It's super easy, and if you live in the U.S. and have an AutoZone or the like near you, they'll generally show you how if you ask. It's a lot cheaper to do it yourself than to pay for labor at a garage.
posted by colfax at 2:37 PM on April 22, 2010

Well everyone already got it with the mechanic. I am so indebted to mine!

Honestly, I wish someone had taught me how to keep my car looking decent before it was too late. I got my current car in high school, and I was very fortunate that it was brand new, but 10 years later the clear coat is peeling and it doesn't seal very well. My dad always nagged me about washing and waxing it, but I thought it was just because he was materialistic. No, it's because all that crap eats away at your paint. Also, those crispy dry leaves that float down and get caught in the grooves around the door, trunk, etc. end up turning into wet, decomposed nastiness and rot out the nice rubbery bits that keep everything sealed and nice. Oh, and all the crumbs and shit inside end up building up and getting nasty. At least wipe the dash and stuff down frequently, and try to vacuum.

Roadside assistance is totally worth it. I personally have AAA, which is pretty affordable if you have a basic plan. Changing your own tire is just *not* worth it. They have this sweet hydrolic machine thingy to undo the lug nuts and it takes about 5 minutes. Oh also they will bring you gas if you run out and get stranded.
posted by radioamy at 8:08 PM on April 22, 2010

You can't do much about rust. That's just life with an old car. Maybe park in a garage?

If the Check Engine light comes on, get it checked out

You can get it checked for free at Auto Zone. Other places might charge you $50-$80 just to check. I think AAMCO does free diagnostics too, but they'll offer to fix it - Auto Zone is just an auto parts store.

Roadside assistance is totally worth it. I personally have AAA...

Me too, I totally agree.

Oil needs to be changed every 3,000 miles or 3 months.

No, it needs to be changed based on what the manufacturer tells you. My Toyota maintenance schedule says every 5000 miles. I'm in New Jersey.

Those oil changes, get them. You can find gas stations that'll do them for $20-$25. The oil change, btw, also includes a new

If you start hearing a squeak from your brakes, that's the brake pads telling you they need replacing. They're designed to squeak before they're used up. After the squeaking comes grinding, that's you ruining the rotors.

Start listening to Car Talk. It's hilarious (once you get used to it) and you'll learn a bunch.

You usually have an extra gallon of gas after your fuel gauge hits zero.

Buy a Toyota. If you can't, get a Honda. Trust me, you can treat these cars like crap and they'll keep chugging along.

You can change your own air filter. It's easy.
posted by exhilaration at 12:05 PM on April 23, 2010

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