99 Problems and a Car is One
November 30, 2010 7:24 PM   Subscribe

Should I repair my damaged car for significantly more than its original cost, or buy a new cheap used vehicle?

I have a 95 Ford Contour with around 165k miles that I bought for $800 last year from a friend. The car runs fine, except for an occasional electrical problem that has caused the car to stall out twice. Both mechanics recommended I take the car into the dealership to fix what they suspected was a wiring problem, but I avoided doing this because of the high costs associated with a dealership. Besides this, I haven’t had problems with the car.
Two weeks ago, I rear ended a truck that stopped suddenly to avoid hitting a car that cut them off their lane. They had a small scratch, while my car was significantly damaged. Both air bags went off, the hood crumpled, the front left light and frame for light was broken, and the windshield cracked in multiple places. That was just the damage that I could see. I don’t have collision insurance, so while I won’t have to pay for damages to the other car I won’t get any help with the repair of my vehicle, either.
So, I took the car into a mechanic specializing in body work that a friend recommended. His assessment was that it would cost at least 1k to fix the car, using parts salvaged from a salvage yard and not including the cost of replacing the airbags. However, this estimate does not include the possible damage to the radiator, which he hasn’t yet taken a look at, since he would charge me to open up the car and take a closer look.
Should I cut my losses on my old car and buy a cheap car to take me from point A to point B? Or should I attempt to repair my old car, despite the fact that the estimate may cost up to double or more of my original buying price? My spending money for this situation is quite low.
As a corollary, would it feasible to buy used parts myself and do the repairs on my car, or would the difficulties of replacing a hood and installing a new light frame be outside of the expertise of someone with basic tools? In addition, does an impact like this cause other damages that might not be immediately seen that could affect the car’s performance in the future?
If I didn’t have this car fixed, I’d be looking to buy another cheap car in the 1 – 2k range, which could potentially come with lots of other defects. And I’m not sure how much money I could get selling my car for parts, either – I’ve sold a non-working car for $200 in the past, which I guess it what I’d expect in this situation.
posted by ajarbaday to Travel & Transportation (13 answers total)
Get a new, cheap car. Realistically speaking, the '95 Ford is nearly at the end of its life anyway. You should be able to pick up an early-2000s Honda for a reasonable price.
posted by sonic meat machine at 7:29 PM on November 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

Don't fix it -- it already had major problems before the accident. You can find a 1-2k car that is in better shape than the contour.
posted by zug at 7:39 PM on November 30, 2010

Plus, you can squeeze a few hundred out of scrapping it.
posted by zug at 7:39 PM on November 30, 2010

Cut your losses. Any significant accident in a sub $1500 car is a write off. No question.
posted by Brockles at 7:50 PM on November 30, 2010

The advice you have received thus far is spot on. Take it. If you crumpled the hood and set off the airbags, there's definitely other damage. Likely the radiator. Your alignment is probably shot, and there's a gazillion things you probably bent.

TBH, I'd rather have an early 90s Accord than the 95 Contour anyway. Not that the Contour is a terrible car, it was a great car for a Ford of that era, but it's definitely not worth fixing. You can almost certainly find another one if you are in love with that particular model. The V6 with the stick shift was supposedly really nice.
posted by wierdo at 7:51 PM on November 30, 2010

Do you definitely need a car? For $1000-$2000, you could buy a sweet bike with racks for grocery shopping, plus have money left over to rent a car for those longer trips. And with what you save on insurance, registration and repairs, you can definitely replenish your rental car / taxi fund and still come out ahead financially.
posted by salvia at 8:22 PM on November 30, 2010

Putting ANY money into that car is a waste of time. Even if it were a great car before, it's not going to cost $1k. It's going to start at $1k, and go upward. You'll end up spending well over that on it, and it will have problems that it never had before. I had this happen. I rear-ended someone, spent like 3 grand replacing the front end. Was it worth it? Not really. And I wasn't having problems with the car beforehand. Scrap it.
posted by Slinga at 8:56 PM on November 30, 2010

The money you've spent is a sunk cost. If you can get another, better car for less money than repairing/disposing of the old one, it makes total sense to do that.

Based upon your description of the extent of the damage to your car, it also sounds like the airbags either saved your life, or prevented you from being severely injured. You should replace them, and it's going to cost you (much) more than the cost of a new, better car to do that.

(And, be warned that, under this philosophy, an $800 car is almost always going to be "disposable." Although it makes sense to do basic/routine maintenance on it (because you'll have to do that with any car), you'll be wanting to sent it straight to the scrap heap at the first sign of major trouble. Anything severe enough to involve major body-work shouldn't even be considered.)

It's an inanimate object. Don't get so attached to it!

Also worth mentioning, but Cash For Clunkers essentially eradicated the supply of sub-$2000 used cars in the US. Good luck hunting...
posted by schmod at 8:59 PM on November 30, 2010

Response by poster: I'd love to replace my car with a bicycle, but my job is twenty miles away and the time spent travelling would make it really difficult to keep up with anything else in my life, not that it would be impossible, only impractical at this time.

It sounds like it'll be more economical to buy a new used car, as much as I'd like to keep what I have rather than gamble with the unknown. It seems like the cost of fixing the car could continue to mount over time.

Even though the airbags were deployed and my car was damaged, I wasn't really thrown forward at all and the only injury I received was a burn on my wrist from the airbag going off - I was completely surprised by how much damage there was to the car relative to the mildness of the actual impact.
posted by ajarbaday at 9:18 PM on November 30, 2010

Electrical problems tend to be annoying to troubleshoot and difficult to fix. That, plus an accident strong enough to deploy the airbags, says to me that you're better off being glad you spent $800 and had a solid car for an entire year -- a few years ago, I bought a used car (that I knew the history of) for $2000, drove it for two years, and then gifted it to a friend in need. Less than $100 a month for a car that didn't need any repairs is pretty darn good compared to other options.

Best of luck to you finding another cheap, reliable car! May I recommend a Geo Prizm/Chevrolet Prizm? All the reliability of a Toyota Corolla of the same vintage (because that's what it is, a rebadged version built by the same people in the same plant with the same parts) with the crappy resale of a Chevrolet.
posted by davejay at 9:47 PM on November 30, 2010

Should I cut my losses on my old car and buy a cheap car to take me from point A to point B?

You already had a cheap car. It was $800. Anyhow, don't repair this one. Sell for scrap, sell for parts, whatever you can get for it is as good as you'll do. Replacing the airbags alone is more than $800, I assure you of that. Add in likely: radiator, alignment, possible axle issues, bumper, front quarter panels, existing electrical issues, etc.

Kelley Blue Book puts a car like this at roughly $1600 for excellent condition (it's not), $1200 for good (it's not) and $800 for fair (you might get this after repairs). It's really not worth fixing.
posted by Mister Fabulous at 11:40 PM on November 30, 2010

Nthing that your car is scrap. Very few 15 year-old cars would be worth fixing after an accident like that. A 15 year-old basic American sedan with high mileage and electrical problems is not among them.
posted by jon1270 at 3:01 AM on December 1, 2010

We had a $12k, 3 year old car deemed totaled by our insurance company after a similar accident. In which airbags didn't even deploy. I think you would be massively underestimating the cost of fixing the thing - I have a feeling you'd be spending more like 3-4k to fix it. Airbags are expensive, and it probably has frame damage as well as damage to other stuff under the hood. Get a new (used) car, for sure. Times ten.
posted by kpht at 8:10 AM on December 1, 2010

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