Car Troubles. I'm stumped.
April 20, 2015 8:00 PM   Subscribe

Recent used car purchase is costing me money. What should I do about this?

Ever since I began driving, I've been buying used cars for no more than $2000. My first car, a Ford Taurus, lasted me a good six years before I got into an accident (no fault of mine). Unfortunately the car was junked and I got only $800 out of it. I put it towards another used car, a 2001 Buick Lesabre Custom for around $1100. The reason why I bought a used car for that much was because I didn't have a lot saved and I'm currently in financial trouble. (Saving up to move out, pay off my debt). Also, I have bad credit. It's not TERRIBLE but it's not good either.

Ever since I bought the car, it's been giving me nothing but trouble. Fixes like new spark plugs, exhaust system, fuel filter, fuel injector had to be done. And it was costly. I had no choice but to get them done since I needed the car for work and I didn't have time to shop around. Now the car's engine has been misfiring, the exhaust pipe/engine is shaking, and I think there's unburned fuel in my catalytic converter (there's smell of raw gasoline). I'm taking it to the shop tomorrow but I'm scared the cost to fix whatever is wrong will be way too much for me.

I'm not sure what I should do. Should I drop more money into the car or try to sell it to a private party or dealer? I've never sold or traded a car before. I checked the blue book value on the it in fair condition, and I can probably get $1000. I'm not even sure if I can even lease a used car with my credit. I'm currently working on rebuilding it. Would a dealership even take a car like this in fair or maybe poor condition?

Any help/advice would be appreciated. Thank you !
posted by morning_television to Shopping (11 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
You know that when you pay $1100 for a car it's going to have problems, right? Seriously, get an estimate from your trusted shop of what the repairs will cost. If it turns out that selling the car is the best option (if repairs will cost more than what you might pay for another car) try CarMax. They'll give you a reasonable amount of cash in an afternoon. If they have something to buy that you can afford then that may work. Alternately, you can probably find another $1-2000 car to last you a while longer with the CarMax cash.
posted by bendy at 8:10 PM on April 20, 2015


Yeah, it's a bitch. I drove beaters for most of my life. Look at what you're saying tho', the Ford lasted only until it was wasted.

What should you do? You should ask around to see if anyone has a beater Ford that they would trade for your Buick. Ask the mechanic if he would take it in trade for a Ford.

Because it's so easy to get Ford parts and get people to work on them, that's why. You don't want a Dodge Neon or another Buick.

Cars are machines. Some are built better than others. Learn which ones are better, and learn to do basic work on them, or find someone you trust to do it. Learn about how long your tires and brakes should last. I am a girly girl, but I can replace the plugs and points and a rotor on a car. I know to check the oil, brake fluid, etc. All those things that might make a car go downhill, I know how to check them.

Get an evaluation on the car, and then go from there. Don't be scared, be wise. It's a fucking machine, not a child. You can figure it out as long as you're willing to spend some time learning about them. I know it sucks, believe me, I know what you're saying and I've been there. If it's a waste, see if you can get onto a deal with another Ford. Even if you have to take a high interest, it's better than worrying about having to fix your car every 3 months.

You can do this, just calm down, and if there is any question, take a day or two to figure it out and look up all of your options.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 8:24 PM on April 20, 2015 [2 favorites]


If you've never looked into it, you may be surprised at the kind of car loans you can get with decent to bad credit. Car loans are a pretty safe loan to make, as they can fairly easily repossess the car if you do not pay, so many lenders are willing to take a bit of a risk. Before buying another beater, call a few places to see if you can get financed. Your monthly payment might not be as high as you would think.
posted by Rock Steady at 8:59 PM on April 20, 2015


The misfiring may be just a faulty coil pack or two. Simple and cheap as long as you have an honest mechanic. Unburnt gas in the cat? Personally never heard of that, but you may have destroyed the cat, although I think your O2 sensors would be screaming codes as well at that point. If your Buick has a 3.8L V-6, those things are damn near tanks that will run forever unless they've been seriously abused. If it's got a 3.1L or a 3.4L, don't put any more money into it. 3.1s are fine, but they don't age well. 3.4s are nasty abominations that should have been recalled.
posted by InsertNiftyNameHere at 9:26 PM on April 20, 2015


In the short term you should get a diagnosis of the car's problems, with estimates of the cost to fix everything that separates what the car actually is from the reasonably reliable car you need it to be. If they tell you that they can't say for sure whether the catalytic converter will need to be replaced until the cause of the engine's missing is corrected, then get an estimate of what it would cost if you had to replace it, and ask them to guess how likely they think that scenario is. Chat with the mechanic in a sort of off-the-record way, and ask questions like "If this was your cousin's car -- a cousin you liked, that is, what would you tell him to do?" The idea here is to try and assess whether it's time to sell the car in its current condition. If the current value of the car plus the cost of repairs exceeds the value of the repaired car, then sell it to whoever will give you the most for it.

Longer-term, I recommend you buy better cars, even if you have to go into some debt to do it. Read up about car-buying negotiation, be careful not to overpay, and avoid car lots that actively market to people with bad credit because they'll prey on you, selling you a bad car at a high price with bad terms. I have driven beaters for most of the 26 years I've been driving and I can say with confidence that, at best, it's only worth it if you are capable of a fair bit of DIY repair work. The sweet spot in car ownership is in the long, uneventful middle of a vehicle's service life, during which few repairs are needed and depreciation is slow and steady. Buy as close as you can to the beginning of that calm middle period, and sell near the end of it. New cars depreciate sharply when they're driven off the lot, and old cars tend to be unreliable and depreciate sharply when they develop a problem that's not worth fixing. Avoid both.
posted by jon1270 at 4:22 AM on April 21, 2015


Whatever you do - do not go in and tell the mechanic what you think is wrong ("unburned fuel in my catalytic converter") if they are inclined to take advantage of you this will make things much worse. Especially if what you are suggesting sounds strange or is not a common problem.

Misfire can be lots of things, and could result in a gas smell from the exhaust - most likely you just have a cylinder which is not firing correctly. This could be as simple as a loose plug wire, a bad or misinstalled plug - or it could be something more costly. I would start with the shop who installed your new plugs - go back to that shop and indicate that you think they are causing the misfire...
posted by NoDef at 6:55 AM on April 21, 2015


Buy Japanese beaters in the future. That Buick was a dog when it was brand new.

$2500 is the low end for serviceable beaters anymore, in my opinion. And even there you tend to find high mileage cars that will soon need major service if they don't already.

If you can't spend $1500 a year keeping your car on the road you need not to own a car if possible. You're going to spend at least that much for any reliable transportation, not counting gas.

ETA: remember to include depreciation and opportunity cost of lost time and you may see the rationale for spending more up front next time if possible. You spend it anyway.
posted by spitbull at 7:37 AM on April 21, 2015 [2 favorites]


Also do you have a reason for preferring mid-sized American cars like a Taurus and a Le Sabre? You get a lot more bang for your beater buck with smaller (as well as Japanese or Korean) alternatives. You'd save money on gas too.
posted by spitbull at 11:45 AM on April 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


This question might have attracted the attention of more auto-enthusiast types if you had classified it under "Travel & Transportation" rather than "Shopping".

I'm with spitbull about Japanese cars generally being a better bet. And you sound like the sort of person who could really appreciate getting 35-40mpg.

Generally speaking, the way to operate cheap cars successfully is to carefully choose a reliable, inexpensive, efficient vehicle (typically Japanese, 4 cylinder, front-wheel-drive); form a close relationship with a trustworthy independent mechanic who understands the kind of car you have; and follow that person's advice as much as you can afford to. Local MeFites might be able to suggest mechanics in your area. It also pays to have transportation figured out for the times when your car breaks or needs maintenance - a bike, a bus, a friend you can carpool with?

Good luck!
posted by richyoung at 1:45 PM on April 21, 2015 [2 favorites]


Let's look at these repairs individually.

New spark plugs- Should not be hugely expensive. A fairly routine bit of maintenance for an oldass car.

Exhaust system, fuel filter and fuel injector- Old emissions systems are just going to go at some point. Even new emissions systems have issues all the time these days because the standards have become ever stricter. But the older the car, the worse the problems with accumulating crap on the fuel filter, etc. That is a fairly normal, standard, expected and routine repair and is not an indicator that the car is going to explode on you or anything. Should also be fairly reasonably priced.

Catalytic converter- see above.

Engine shaking, misfiring- Bad news bear. Replacing the engine or the short block is going to cost you a pretty penny. Probably more than the car is worth.

See what the mechanics say about the engine. If it's toast, take it to Car Max. Then just buy another beater. I recommend a Honda Civic. I had a 14 year old one with well over 100,000 miles on it and the baby was ticking just fine. I sold it for $2,000.
posted by quincunx at 5:18 PM on April 21, 2015


One thing to be aware of though is that even a well kept car with 100K miles (or more) will have major component failures or major required maintenance in its near future. No car just works without a thought at 10+ years old or 100K miles plus. They all require major things -- exhaust and catalytic converter, timing chains, seals and gaskets, alignment, brake and transmission work, body rust, major suspension and steering components -- somewhere before 200K if you're very lucky and own an impeccably maintained and gently driven car. For the American mid-sized cars you are buying, of the 15+ year old vintage, that number (beyond which you can expect to spend the price of an average beater car keeping a beater car running a few more years) is typically 100k miles in my experience. For a well maintained Toyota or Honda, it's closer to 200K (except the timing chain/belt, at least on Hondas it must be done at 100k or it can cost you an engine). With older cars, avoid turbos, elaborate electronic fuel injection systems, and any car that has been in a serious accident, no matter how well repaired.

Beater cars are one example of how the system is designed to keep poor people poor. Typically they are sold with bad financing, and incur repair expenses that are debilitating but can't be avoided because you didn't have the money up front to buy a more reliable car, but in the end start to add up to more than you would have spent just buying a better car in the first place. I've been there. Unless you can do your own work or know local shade tree mechanics (typically they'd be good at something like a 2001 LeSabre!) or are wiling to hunt around for used parts, etc., the difference between a $2000 car and a $5000 car is often made up very quickly. One transmission repair and one major engine or exhaust repair and an alternator or radiator (common parts to go on older cars) and you're there. ($5000 cars have problems too, but that's the threshold where basic, mostly still holding together reliability starts for small cars of any modern vintage.) Never mind all the stress and lost time of arranging the repairs and alternate transportation. Heck, the odds of good tires on a $2000 or lower car are slim to none, and new tires alone will run you $300 or so.

If you rely on a car for work or income or health or other reasons and have no other realistic alternatives, it might make sense to make a longer term transportation budget plan, figure out your real costs, and adjust other expenses so you can afford a car like my relative's 2003 Honda Civic. She's not selling it, of course, but it has 160K on it, minor body issues, and recent exhaust and brake work (all since the full 100K service recommendation, not cheap) and a new alternator. It will need a clutch and suspension work in 50k miles or so. Blue book is about $4500 in the condition it's in. You could probably find it for $4K from a private seller. She has owned it since new, has all the maintenance records, and an extra set of snow tires. Her mechanic inspected everything before a long trip last week and declared he'd send his own mom on a cross country trip in it. It has 3 solid years and about 75K left in it before it wouldn't be worth fixing (where rendering it solid would not recoup the cost of that in the relative used sale price). It rattles and creaks a little and has a few dings and rust spots, but it drives like a top and gets great gas mileage.

You want that. They are out there.
posted by spitbull at 5:44 PM on April 21, 2015


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