When to say when on used car maintenance costs?
January 31, 2015 12:57 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking at yet another maintenance issue on my expensive-but-fun (and 100% paid off) sporty car. I'm starting to think the maintenance overhead trumps the value, and looking for advice on knowing when to say when, in terms of cutting my losses and buying another vehicle.

I own and drive a low-milage (76k) 2003 Nissan 350z. The car's been paid off for several years. KBB on this car in "fair" condition is somewhere between $6k and $8k for a dealer trade-in -- and it's definitely "fair" because of paint damage (thanks, Los Angeles smog!) The engine/drivetrain are in good shape, and it's very low milage!

I'm pretty sure my IPDM E/R (canbus relay box that controls various power systems) is shot -- my parking/marker lights are out, as are some cabin lights, and my maintenance manual suggests everything goes through a single (integrated, non-replaceable) relay in that box. The fuses are all fine. I can't get a clear idea of the price of a new IPDM E/R, but I'm guessing it's in the $1k range because this car loves to screw with me, in terms of maintenance costs. I obviously need to fix the lights, since it's not legal to drive right now.

So my question: I'm debating if I should sell the thing and buy a different vehicle, after I get this repair handled.

I'd say that on average over the life of the car, I've spent about $2000 yearly on maintenance -- some years I get away with just oil changes, but I had a $4k engine work bill in 2012, and $2k on the front control arms in spring 2014, and new tires ($600) in summer 2014.

My naive analysis suggests that, if my estimate of repair bills is accurate, I'm coming out ahead by keeping my car, because if I were paying that ~$2k as monthly loan payments rather than sporadic maintenance, I'd be paying about $170/mo at 3% for 5 years, which Edmunds tells me works out to somewhere around a $20k car loan, if I put $5k down on top of $6k trade-in on the Z.

I'm looking at a sporty wagon/hatchback as a next vehicle -- I would love a Subaru WRX hatch, but those aren't currently being manufactured and after the fun times I've had with my used-purchase Z, I'm skeptical of buying another used performance car. It looks like very few cars in this category are available at under $20k, so my logic is that if I can really maintain that $2k/year maintenance for a couple more years, I might do better to continue saving for a bigger downpayment, in hopes of affording something like this in a year or two. Of course, the Z will continue to depreciate and it is certainly possible that the maintenance costs will go up (but I'm putting very few miles on it so it should remain low-milage, at least!) so I'm unsure if that's really a net win...

I realize I'm stressing about this, and trying to think rationally so I avoid wasting money, and still end up with a useful car. Any advice would be welcome.
posted by Alterscape to Travel & Transportation (12 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
That seems like a lot of maintenance cost for a car and, if you can switch to a newer, better car and end up paying a similar amount, it's probably worth doing economically. If you're going to trade it in, you can save that $1k to fix the lights straight up. A newer car will have a higher trade-in value in a few years when you're ready to finally get that brand-new car, too.

Given that this is a car you like driving rather than a car you bought for reliability, economy and all that other boring stuff, it seems more like an emotional decision that a strictly economic one. Can you upgrade to a newer car that will cost you less or about the same overall, but that you will still enjoy as much as what you currently have? Is the maintenance cost of your current car worth the enjoyment you get from driving it? It's not easy to apply a purely logical approach to a decision like this.
posted by dg at 1:09 PM on January 31, 2015 [1 favorite]

Looks like the part is around 110 bux and not bad to install if you use your google-fu to find how others have done this job successfully.
Sure, KBB gives you a value on your car, you are wise to consider the replacement cost of the car.
posted by rudd135 at 1:11 PM on January 31, 2015

I've started leasing because after doing the math I found that I come out even. I had a paid for Accord that cost me as much to maintain as the lease on a new Civic. And with a new Civic, I get all the bells and whistles. Also, I didn't mind stepping down to the Civic.

So if you like having newish cars, with no maintenance at a nominal price. Leasing does work out. You do have to keep the miles down.

It's about how much bullshit you're willing to put up with.

It's a car, it takes you from point A to point B.

If you really want a cheap things, try a Leaf. They're practically free after rebates and tax incentives.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 1:20 PM on January 31, 2015

Best answer: It's not just the maintenance costs vs the car loan payments -- you need to include depreciation (higher for a new car than for an older used car, obviously) and the costs of having an unreliable car (which are both economic and the stress of never knowing if the car will start). I don't think there's a way to chart those in the abstract; you would need to be comparing specifics.
posted by Dip Flash at 1:27 PM on January 31, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: First of all, get this thing to a mechanic and find out what it would really cost to fix the outstanding issues, rather than speculating. Until you have that number, there's not much point in trying to make this calculation. If the problem is that unit, you may be able to get a used one for much less than a new one would cost.

Also, comparing repair costs against the car's value is a red herring. You should really be comparing repair costs against the cost of buying a car that would provide equivalent service. So it might cost $2,000 to repair a $1,500 car; the question is, what kind of car could you buy for that $2,000 that would provide equivalent service, and how much more would you have to spend on that car to make it dependable long-term? Unless it has terminal rust, it almost always makes financial sense to keep repairing the car you have.

When you take it into your mechanic, have him go over it with a fine-toothed comb. Tell him you are trying to decide whether to keep or sell it, and you want to know how much you'll have to put into it to keep it on the road for another five years.

If you put on as few miles as it sounds like you do, buying a new car is going to be a huge waste of money. Leasing, assuming you can get a really good deal, may make more sense in that case but of course, at the end of the lease, you're left with nothing.
posted by Leatherstocking at 1:47 PM on January 31, 2015 [7 favorites]

The overall qualitative difference between a 2003 and a 2015 vehicle is enormous. There's been some real revolutions in that time with regard to comfort, safety, amenities and electronics. I highly recommend you go on some test drives for best-in-class cars to compare/contrast.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 1:50 PM on January 31, 2015 [4 favorites]

Yeah, I was going to make one of the same points as Cool Papa Bell: safety features are a great reason to consider upgrading sooner rather than later.
posted by Andrhia at 4:09 PM on January 31, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: First off, it isn't just the car payments you need to consider, it is also the insurance differential. For what it is worth I remember the Subaru WRX being listed as the car most pulled over for moving violations. So not only are you trading up for the cost of the car payment, but also the newer year and insurance liability adjustment.
posted by Nanukthedog at 5:56 PM on January 31, 2015

Best answer: I don't have any help to offer but as an ex-WRX owner, I can say I wouldn't buy one used either. I had a lot of fun in that car.
posted by doctor_negative at 6:24 PM on January 31, 2015

Best answer: Leatherstocking is onto something. Speculation about what the cost of repairing your vehicle without actually knowing what needs fixing and how much it will really cost is useless. Get a few estimates and go from there. But unless your vehicle is completely shot (unlikely, unless it was neglected or abused) when you combine a payment (either lease or finance) with the increase in your insurance cost you would likely need to be spending perhaps 4k in repairs a year to match what you'll be putting out in payments.

Personally, I have only seen such lunacy take place when the used vehicle was expensive and German.

I agree that vehicles have made great leaps in safety, but when looking at cost of ownership buying a new vehicle because it's safer doesn't remove the high likelihood that you will be spending a lot more money for that feature. You have an early '00's Nissan, not a late'80's Yugo. And as for replacing your Z with something like a Leaf, any improvement in safety has likely been negated by its very small size (At least regarding walking away from an accident). Even in 2014 physics continues to reign supreme.

Car ownership of anything other than a classic collectible is an expense. Owning a vehicle that has done the bulk of it's depreciation remains the best way of keeping that ongoing expense to a minimum. After you have done some comprehensive number crunching and taken an honest look at your motivations for changing vehicles it is likely that you will find that keeping your present vehicle will leave a lot more money in your bank account. Good luck!
posted by chosemerveilleux at 7:51 PM on January 31, 2015

That car is sounding like a dog to me. I have a fun car (99 MX5), it sees a certain amount of track duty, and all it gets is pads and tyres. Boring is my 03 Liberty, and it is not a money pit either.

Unless you get A LOT of fun out of it, AND can convince yourself that you are on top of the maintenance issues now, I would move it on. I won't presume to advise you on a replacement, but I will advise you to take your time, and when you know what interests you, talk to people in the relevant car club (mainly if it is a fun car, that will work harder than the average commute).
posted by GeeEmm at 9:48 PM on January 31, 2015

My simple rule of thumb is: when the repair costs near half the monthly payments of a car purchase, I bail. I'm assuming there are costs I haven't thought of - like the safety factors and insurance rates - that more or less make this method a financial break-even.

One big bill isn't what I'm talking about, but if the three-month or six-month payments would broach this 50% level, I'm out. I paid $1k (ish) in August; then $150 in Oct - started wondering if I should; December brought another problem and I bailed, even though it wasn't expensive.

Or, if it just feels too unreliable. There's no pleasure in trying to shake the "I'm driving a time bomb/lemon" feeling.
posted by IAmBroom at 11:41 AM on February 2, 2015

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