Fix it or Sell it
September 24, 2013 9:42 AM   Subscribe

Over the past month or two my car has started exhibiting several problems, and I'm trying to figure out if it's worth the expense and hassle of repairing it or start looking for a new car.

The car is a 2006 Mazda3i with all the trimmings (5-spd manual, 2L engine, side air bags, sunroof, 6-CD changer, alloy wheels - no leather seats, though). It has 73,000 miles on it. I'm the only owner and I've really liked this car, but repair expenses are starting to creep up.

-At the last oil change, the mechanic mentioned it's going to need new front struts soon (that explains all the vibration!). He quoted $1200 for the work.
-This weekend, the windshield cracked. It's an edge crack, and it's already gotten worse since I first noticed it. So, the windshield needs to be replaced. No idea what this will cost.
-There is some electrical problem that I am loathe to get traced down. I left for a four-day business trip a few weeks ago and the car almost didn't start when I returned. I just replaced the battery about six months ago.

I really haven't needed much in the way of repairs other than ordinary maintenance - I've had the tires and brakes replaced, and a small piece of metal near the muffler broke off awhile ago. The clutch is original and still feels fine to me, but I wouldn't be surprised if it will need to be replaced sometime in the next year or two. The body is not in the best shape; both bumpers have large dents and the roof has some dimples when someone walked over it (thanks, living-next-to-a-college!). Blue Book value is somewhere around $4,000-$6,000.

Is this worth keeping? If not, what do I replace it with? Other considerations that might be important:

-Any new/newer used car is going to be parked on the street.
-We live in Boston where there is snow and salty roads in winter. Front wheel drive has been fine so far, but I won't say no to all-wheel drive.
-I drive about 10,000 miles a year or less at this point.
-We don't take super-long road trips; this is mostly for my relatively short commute and errands.
-Budget for a replacement car is probably around $20k, but we also have a wedding to pay for next year that we're saving for. I have enough buffer in my monthly budget to afford a car payment but I'd prefer to keep it to a minimum.
-Any new car must get at least as good gas mileage as I get now (about 30/36 mpg city/highway).
-The original plan was to keep this current car for at least 10 years, but if it's going to be cost-prohibitive to do that then I'll have to get something else.

I love the idea of an electric car like the Leaf but I have nowhere to charge it. Any advice on whether to drag the life of this car out a little longer or should I be looking for a new one?
posted by backseatpilot to Travel & Transportation (21 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Like yourself, I recently had to have work done on my car, and the dealership pointed out further repairs that could cost hundreds of dollars. As my car is getting old too, I wondered out loud if it'd just be easier to replace it. For what it's worth, the service guy at the dealership said a reasonable calculation would be to divide the cost of the repairs over 12 months*, and then compare it to what the payments for a new car would be over the same period.

*The trouble, of course, is that said repair cost occurs all at once.
posted by Gelatin at 9:49 AM on September 24, 2013

(I am by far not a car expert, but I have had a crap car that needed a lot of repairs...)

I would take out the windshield in your estimate of keeping the car versus getting a new car. You could buy a brand new car and have the windshield crack the first day you drive it. (We got our windshield replaced to pass inspection here, and the first week it got a rock chip.) Of course it's an expense you need to worry about in general, but it could happen any time to any car.

Next, I would take it in and really nail down all the problems and total cost for repairs, along with when those repars will be needed. This can sometimes be vague though as far as how long the car can last. I took ours in because it was starting slow, and they said it was probably the starter - duh - and that it could die any day or last for months. That said it died the next day in a parking lot.

Personally, it comes down to if the problems mean that the car is not reliable. Do you think you will get stuck somewhere and need a tow? Do you have a second vehicle? A non-reliable car is in huge pain.

Also, you can't plan for what your car will need if you keep it longer. You only know what it needs now. And unfortunately that goes for any car - including new and used ones if you get a new(new to you) car.

I suggest that you also take a look around lots and see what you like. Maybe do some test drives. Do a bit of research on reliable car models with good MPG. I really feel you can get a great car for much less than $20K. (Many new vehicles are starting lower than that since the recession.) If it were me, I would be looking for a new/used vehicle, but I also just traded in a car that stalled 4 times on the way to the dealership. Maybe I'm car-buy-happy now, but it was great to know it wasn't going to fall apart. You can also set a maximum for repairs that you are willing to spend on this one, before getting a new car.
posted by Crystalinne at 10:11 AM on September 24, 2013

-At the last oil change, the mechanic mentioned it's going to need new front struts soon (that explains all the vibration!). He quoted $1200 for the work.

Struts are wear items. $1200 is on the high end, imho. Maybe get a quote elsewhere?

-This weekend, the windshield cracked. It's an edge crack, and it's already gotten worse since I first noticed it. So, the windshield needs to be replaced. No idea what this will cost.

Check with your car insurer. I've replaced three windshields over the years and have never paid a penny. It's a safety thing.

-There is some electrical problem that I am loathe to get traced down. I left for a four-day business trip a few weeks ago and the car almost didn't start when I returned. I just replaced the battery about six months ago.

Most shops will be able to do a charging system check for you, usually at no charge. From your description, I'd say you have an alternator going bad. Not a big, or particularly expensive, repair.

Keep the car. Make the repairs. Keep on truckin'.
posted by Thorzdad at 10:16 AM on September 24, 2013 [5 favorites]

My Massachusetts auto insurance policy covers windshields with no deductible - I'm not sure if that's required by law here, but it was definitely the default option when I signed up, so it's worth checking.
posted by songs about trains at 10:19 AM on September 24, 2013

The windshield might be covered by insurance. The car sounds fun to drive, and you know its repair history. Also, with a short commute, car repair won't put you out of business while it's in the shop. New car costs more to insure, more in excise tax. I'd keep it for several tens of thousands of miles more; cars are made much better than they used to be, and last longer.
posted by theora55 at 10:21 AM on September 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

In the grand scheme of things, 73,000 miles is nothing for a Mazda. If I were looking at cars, I'd actually consider that pretty much new.

The trick when making this decision is; total up the expenses of all the things you know you are going to need to replace, and decide if that amount is more or less than the cost of a replacement car.

If you are buying new, and willing to pay the extra for new, you won't have to think about this, but if you are planning on replacing it with something used, just remember that you know about all the problems in your car, anything used you buy will be filled with potential; the potential to be awesome, or the potential to start failing almost immediately in ways identical to what you've already got going on.

I like used cars, because I can buy them outright. If you are worried about the electrical system, remember that when one piece fails, it's not uncommon for all the other pieces to be concern worthy as well, so your starter and alternator are both on the block for shit that could be failing next and causing your unreliability. The thing is, both of those are fairly inexpensive and relatively easy to replace yourself should you need to (and are willing to look up youtube videos describing the process).

It's possible you could spend as little $200 (not counting the struts) and have a perfectly good car again. I'd lean towards keeping it, but then I don't mind getting greasy for the sake of being cheap.
posted by quin at 10:21 AM on September 24, 2013

I'm with Thorzdad all the way. The quote on struts seems really high to me. I'd call and get other quotes on that.

Given what you said about your position, I'd get these things fixed and roll on. Buy a new one or whatever in 2016. It should last that long.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 10:21 AM on September 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Windshields are cheap - $200-$300 to replace, but odds are you can get it done for your comprehensive deductible at worst. I have a 97 Mazda with 190,000 miles on it, so I might be biased, but I say keep the car. A newer car will also cost more to insure.

Over the life of my Mazda, and a 2004 Durango that we own, repair costs beyond routine maintenance have been fairly consistent at $1000 a year per vehicle, although it seems to work out that I spend $2000 in one year then almost nothing the next to get that average. But even if you budgeted $2000 a year, that is about $170 a month. Go look at what $170 a month will buy you (buy not lease) in a vehicle. I think the Mazda will look a lot better then.
posted by COD at 10:26 AM on September 24, 2013 [2 favorites]

I vote for doing the repairs; as mentioned, they can probably be done more cheaply than you've been quoted, and you'll be ready to handle the winter again. The Mazda 3 is a great little car.
posted by Kakkerlak at 10:30 AM on September 24, 2013

Don't spend a dime to fix it if you think you'll trade it in. It makes NO difference. Have your mechanic give you a list of everything you need, or may need in the next couple of years. Tires, brake job, the magillah.

I sank $4,000 in my car, expecting to drive it into the next decade, and then...we had to sell it. Now I'm in a new car, and I'm really liking it.

So YMMV. Is it easier to come out of pocket on a presumably one-time expense now, or does it make sense to just get a new car and pay monthly payments?

If you have value in the car, trade it and get a new one.

Do the math. See what makes sense.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:32 AM on September 24, 2013

It's pretty much always cheaper to keep an existing car than buy a new one. I was in the same boat last year, and what it came down to was that I a) could afford a new car and b) really wanted a specific, available new car. It wasn't cheaper, but it was the right choice.

New cars will also get dinged up, need repairs and maintenance, and cost money. They also sometimes cost more to insure (hi, 50% increase!) and if you have a payment, you may need *more* insurance than you currently carry, if you don't have comprehensive already.

It sounds like you're in pretty decent financial shape, and you could comfortably go either way. If you're saving up for a wedding, I'd hang on to this one until at least til that's done, but that's me.
posted by restless_nomad at 10:49 AM on September 24, 2013

I don't know how much you know about how mechanics operate, but basically all of them charge labor "by the book" - there is a book which has various repairs in it that they look up, and they charge you however many hours it says it will take times their hourly labor rate, which is usually in the $60-$100 range.

So if you look up the parts cost online, you can see how many hours of labor they're estimating. In this case, your front struts are $240 retail from O'Reilly, meaning they probably only pay $200. So they're charging you anywhere from 10-16 hours labor (!) to take off the front wheels and replace them. That $1200 quote fails the smell test.

I'm not a mechanic, but I don't think changing struts requires much more than a spring compressor and some sockets. $400-$600 is more realistic IMO, so I would go get a second quote on those struts before you decide anything.
posted by zug at 10:51 AM on September 24, 2013

I agree that the strut quote is out of line, and if you dispense with that then you're really not running into any terrible expense. The cracked windshield is a fluke that could happen to a brand-new car just as easily, i.e. a new car will not save you from problems like that.

Your car is nowhere near the end of its service life. If you have money to burn then you can get a shiny new car that will be a little more predictable, but it's not likely to be a good financial decision unless your time is unusually valuable.
posted by jon1270 at 11:00 AM on September 24, 2013

nthing the advice to keep your car.

My car is from 1999, gets terrible gas mileage, and costs me $1-2,000 per year in repairs (largely, because it is/was a "premium" brand). Every year, I do the math, and it's simply not worth it to replace the car.

A 7-year-old car with no history of problems is probably not going to be a maintenance nightmare. Start budgeting to replace wear items like your struts, but don't panic over needing a new car.

If your car is worth $4-6,000 right now, it's probably not even going to depreciate much further over the next several years. Cars are keeping their value a lot longer than they used to. When the recession hit, and Cash4Clunkers obliterated the inventory of old used cars, my car actually increased in value by about $1250. Failing a miraculous economic recovery, I don't think that your car's value is going to drop all that considerably over the next several years.
posted by schmod at 11:51 AM on September 24, 2013

A good friend and I have kept track of a friendly car competition for about 40 years. I have only ever bought used cars. He has only ever bought new cars. I look for very good used cars that suit my needs (and wants) and then drive and repair them until they basically fall apart. My friend trades in his cars for showroom models every 4-6 years so as to avoid dealing with repairs. Guess who has spent nearly twice as much money on cars...yep, the new car strategy is very, very expensive. If you want to choose the path of thrift, repair the Mazda. If you really want a shiny new car no one has driven before and you aren't worried about wasting thousands of dollars, buy your new electric or whatever. I will tell you though, that the Mazda you own is exactly what I would be looking to buy if I was in the market.
posted by txmon at 12:24 PM on September 24, 2013

the mechanic mentioned it's going to need new front struts soon (that explains all the vibration!)

Strut issues are not the first thing that come to my mind when I think about vibration issues. I'd suggest getting a second opinion from an independent mechanic. Could be something cheaper/simpler to repair.
posted by nacho fries at 12:26 PM on September 24, 2013

One vote for keeping it, relative to the upcoming wedding (and honeymoon) and otherwise.

The price for struts is extortionate. Quick search showed 'em with springs for about $160 per, without for $100. That's non-Mazda stuff, but it's fine.

Gotta be a shop in your area that doesn't shaft people and/or lets people bring their own parts, would be good for the other problem. (I've always been able to find shops like that in decent-sized areas.)

At 10k miles per year or less, there's a ton of life left in the Maz; I had one and the clutch lasted about double the miles you have.

In general, Mazdas last; my father is terrible for routine maintenance and his Mazdas keep going and going. He had one get to about 160k, someone hit it, he got another, someone hit that one when it had about 40k and his latest has about 130k.

He used to kill VWs well before 100k.
posted by ambient2 at 12:32 PM on September 24, 2013

Bad struts are not going to cause vibration. The only link i can think of for this would the struts have been bad for a while and cause irregular tire wear that is now causing vibration, and that 1200 includes struts, tires and maybe strut mounts to get to that number. Just a set of struts with labor and alignment(and this is required with new struts really) should be no more than 400 or so. a whole set of tires for this car shouldn't be 800 unless you are buying the best tires available or something so that estimate is WAY high. I have replaced lots of windshields and it usually runs about 300 or so and is a good idea anyway because windshield get pitted over time and degrade and a new clear windshield is SOOO much easier to see out of and keep clean.

Unless the rust monster is eating the car, keep it and fix it. Chances are about 1000 will fix all your problems (including a new alternator if needed) and that is only 3 months of new (cheap) car payment.

BTW the best way to keep the rust monster away is frequent washing of the underside of the car during the winter. It washes off the salt and mud so it won't rust up. You do have to go to one of the DIY washes with a high pressure hose and get in their with lots of water to flush it all out, especially in the wheel wells and nooks and crannys of the suspension.
posted by bartonlong at 12:53 PM on September 24, 2013

Alright, sounds like it's worth getting a second opinion on the struts and trying to repair everything. That's kind of what I was leaning towards anyway.

(The vibration quip was maybe a red herring - I'm fairly confident what I'm feeling in the car is the strut going and the wheel bouncing around.)
posted by backseatpilot at 1:50 PM on September 24, 2013

Vibration may just be the wheels need rotated and re-balanced. At worst, you may need an alignment. Those are low-dollar fixes.
posted by Thorzdad at 3:32 PM on September 24, 2013

Don't sweat the windshield. I needed a new one, and found many places that would send a truck TO YOUR CAR (home or work), and have a guy replace it there. I had mine replaced at home while I watched for something like US$160. No leaks ever since either. And that electrical problem could be as simple as a dying alternator. Also, don't take it on a single mechanic's word that your struts are shot. Maybe they really are, but that's a classic scam.

Odds are that that car has oodles of miles left in it.
posted by InsertNiftyNameHere at 9:11 PM on September 24, 2013

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