When should a frugal person give up on a high-mileage car?
July 12, 2016 6:19 PM   Subscribe

I'm on a tight budget and my 2008 Honda Accord is coming on 150,000 miles. My income depends on my ability to drive to clients. In an ideal world, I'd hope to get another 20,000 miles out of the car. I'm just looking for advice on a "decision tree" type template for what I should do and when.

I guess what seems tricky here is getting the most out of the car while avoiding the risk of throwing a lot of good money after bad. I'm leaning to the strategy of lining up financing and checking out "Carmax" on a regular basis and then if something catastrophic happens, ditch the Honda, get a rental, and try to buy a used car from Carmax asap. Is this as foolish as a part of me thinks?
posted by Jon44 to Shopping (19 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
That is not an old car, and that is not a ton of miles, for a Honda. I would guess it's got at least another 5 years/100K left in it. Though, why are you asking? Have you had expensive repairs lately?
posted by rabbitrabbit at 6:24 PM on July 12, 2016 [16 favorites]

I think your logic is sound.

A confounding factor is the cost of risk - if your car dies, what is the consequence? Mild inconvenience? Loss of client? Loss of livelihood? If you can't miss a day of work, then you probably want a new(er) car.

If not, then old, well-maintened Hondas are great and cheap. If you can afford some downtime - I'd take the Accord to a good mechanic for some preventative maintenance, then drive the hell out if it until it dies.

Remember if you buy a car (new or used) from a dealer, be prepared to lose at least one entire day of your life haggling with pressuring assholes who are out to fleece you. This is stressful and time-consuming (and may be really expensive if you lose the game).

Your idea of alternatives such as CarMax, Costco, etc. that minimize this hassle is wise.
posted by soylent00FF00 at 6:31 PM on July 12, 2016 [2 favorites]

How much would you pay to drive 20,000 miles? If you bought or rented a car, and you knew it would die after 20,000 (after running perfectly), how much would you pay? That is how much you should spend on this car before buying a new one.

Alternatively, once you've figured out how much money you are willing to spend to drive 20,000 miles, consider how much money you will have for a down payment when this car dies. Do you have that much? If not, would you be better off if you added the amount you are willing to spend on the old car to that down payment amount? Then you should probably buy the new car now.

Basically, figure out that amount, then figure out which way you will be better off spending it -- on the old car or the new car.
posted by OrangeDisk at 6:44 PM on July 12, 2016 [6 favorites]

I'm currently driving a 2003 PT Cruiser with 168,000 miles on it; my previous cars have been traded in at 12years/150,000 miles, 14 years/163,000 miles, and 21 years/217,000 miles.

My 'decision tree' is always simple: when is it more expensive to keep than it is to replace?
posted by easily confused at 6:48 PM on July 12, 2016 [4 favorites]

Depending on how new you buy, and how good your credit is, your car payment might be between $150 and $350, something like that probably. For the same amount as a couple of months of potential car payments, you could have a nice little fund set aside to rent a car for a month while you shop for a new car or fix your old one, in the event of a major breakdown.

The smart money will be to keep driving your current car, rather than buying a newer car now "just in case," but also to be prepared so that if it does die unexpectedly you are not in a catastrophic situation.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:49 PM on July 12, 2016 [5 favorites]

really- what's it worth to you to not have problems? If the car is cleanish and you've kept up to date on preventive maintenance then you're probably on your second timing belt, have had at least one all around brake job, and your second clutch if you have a manual. And maybe your third battery. In which case... You might lose your alternator or have one or two other surprises in the next 20000 miles.

If the car is rusty or you haven't kept up on your preventive maintenance... Buy a new car.

But generally remember (at least if you have the money to do so) that it only takes two or three hours to buy a brand new car if the shit hits the fan. Sucks. Unpleasant. I wouldn't want to deal with it on a day like I had today. But if you've got the money you can do it.
posted by wotsac at 6:54 PM on July 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

150,000 miles? That's nothing for a modern car, especially Japanese cars. You will easily get 20,000 more miles out of it. Heck, with proper maintenance, you could double your current mileage. I did it with my two previous cars. Keep driving it.
posted by Thorzdad at 6:58 PM on July 12, 2016 [9 favorites]

I drove my last Subaru from 0 to 226K miles over 16 years. (4 of which the car really did not get driven). I had paid it off at Year 2.5. So for 13.5 years I really didn't have a car payment. At year 12, I started saving a monthly payment, and cut back maintenance on it. At year 14.5, I stopped all maintenance on it - even oil changes (excluding replacing whatever the piece of equipment prevents the gas pump from continually turning off. I had to replace that). At year 16, the car's exhaust provided clear information that the car was not going to go any longer without maintenance. I found a replacement car for the car payment I had saved and traded in my car for (effectively) scrap. I had saved a down payment, budgeted to afford my car payment, and not wasted money on keeping my car alive.
posted by Nanukthedog at 7:03 PM on July 12, 2016 [4 favorites]

You should be able to get 300,000 miles on a Civic or Accord with sensible regular maintenance, including bigger investments like the timing belt every 100k-ish miles. (You can get a million miles on a Civic, but that's somewhat more extreme.)

That said, the '08 Accord is the model year with the most complaints over the past 20 years -- like the 2003, it was the first of its generation, and had all the teething troubles associated with a new model -- so if you're dealing with persistent brake wear and oil consumption, then you're right to be wary about its long-term reliability. Then again, those problems aren't as severe as the 2003 Accord's dodgy transmission, which is a "stranded by the roadside, tow truck and four-figure bill" kind of flaw; they allow you to think more about saving up a healthy downpayment and nursing the car along as best you can.

(My '97 Civic is from a fortuitously good year for overall reliability, and has reached a point where plenty of peripheral things are annoyingly broken but tolerable and not really worth fixing, but the engine and transmission and steering etc. are sound. I know every single thing that's wrong with that car.)

So it all depends on the condition of the car, and the kind of repairs you've been paying for recently. For not much money, a decent mechanic will give it a once-over and an honest assessment of its fundamental soundness.
posted by holgate at 7:25 PM on July 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

If the cost of a repair exceeds the value of the car, time for a new car. Otherwise, keep driving it!
posted by jeffamaphone at 8:54 PM on July 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

I too think your logic is sound. Keep abreast of the current used (or new) car market, keep up on financing rates, look for really good sales or deals on financing and keep on driving your current car doing regular maintenance until it either dies or needs a major repair. At that moment, since you are abreast of your alternatives (buying another car versus repairs) make your decision at that point. I can only speak for myself or my own truck, but I have 150,000 miles on an '08 F-150 truck and it is in great condition. If I needed major repairs, I would at that point look at my alternatives and decide. I kind of feel that it is a function of what the repair is, and how much. Generally, I look at it as, if I do the repair, with the car fully repaired is it worth more than the repair? For example, if I had to put 4,500 into a used replacement engine and then decided to sell it the next week, would the car be worth more than $4,500 plus whatever it was worth before the repair.

Also, at the point you are ready to buy a replacement, I have had a dealer lend me a car for a few days while I was deciding between one of two cars, one at their dealer and one at I think a related dealer about 15 miles away. I am not sure how Carmax works, but if you need a car that day while you shop for one, ask them to give you a loaner or test driver.
posted by AugustWest at 9:30 PM on July 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

For example, if I had to put 4,500 into a used replacement engine and then decided to sell it the next week, would the car be worth more than $4,500 plus whatever it was worth before the repair.

I don't have quite that approach, because major (four-figure) repairs tend not to pay themselves back on resale or trade value. Instead, you balance it against the cost and inconvenience of having to find another car, and of potentially inheriting another person's set of car problems. It's the old 'market for lemons' principle: although Carfax and Carmax and online research tools make it easier to avoid clunkers, you don't intimately know the specific problems with someone else's car the way you do your own, and whenever you buy a new car, you reset that relationship timer to zero.

So, a $1500 repair to a car with a resale value of $3000 may make sense if your budget for a replacement maxes out at something like $5-6000, because that's a price range where you have to sort through a lot of cars with long and varied histories whose and even with the best of research, you could end up buying a nightmare on wheels.

All of that's if you just need a car to get you from A to B; if your clients judge you on the car you drive, it gets more complicated.
posted by holgate at 10:23 PM on July 12, 2016 [4 favorites]

Why just Carmax, though? Are you just trying to get a used car as fast as possible should the need arise?

Honda-specific: I have a 2010 Fit that is months-out on getting the airbags replaced under recall. Have yours been fixed? It might be difficult to sell/trade in your Accord without that. I just bought a Subaru and they said they won't take in a Honda subject to recall at this moment.

I assume you're not making payments on that Accord. Do you want to have a car payment or not? Are you looking at buying another used car in cash? Are you open to leasing? How's your credit?

I personally hate the dread that a 150k+ mile car produces in me. The Japanese cars I've owned in this century are FAR FAR better than what I had before, but all high mileage cars incur costs. You have to figure out what you'd like your total cost of ownership to be- and come up with a point where it makes more sense to make a car payment instead of getting hit with a few hefty repair bills a year (and don't forget about the cost of potentially getting stranded somewhere due to car trouble). Unfortunately, it's rarely as simple as that one, catastrophic, $3000 repair bill that makes the decision for you. More likely it's going to be things here and there that add up.

If you are comfortable leasing, there's a lot of lease programs around $200 per month. I'd prefer that, and driving a new car, to $2400 of repair bills per year.
posted by tremspeed at 1:30 AM on July 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

Do you have a car allowance with your job, or are you accounting for car usage on your taxes since it's required for you to drive to clients?

The reason I ask is because a lease might not be out of the question here. During the July 4th holiday, a dealer around here was offering Civic LXs for $79 a month on a 3-year lease with around $3K down. It wasn't on one car, either - it was any LX they had on the lot. And they had a lot of them, and while looking at them it occurred to me that new Civics are about the same size as old Accords. (It would be a de-rail to argue the merits of a lease - it either works or doesn't for you, so lets not get into that - I was just pointing out the economics might work relative to your job.)

If something like that isn't appropriate for you, then I'd say take the car to a mech who specializes in Hondas, get rundown of everything it needs. Hondas are really amazingly reliable cars, and if you take care of major maintenance - especially the timing belt - then you will easily get another 100,000 miles out of the car.
posted by Thistledown at 5:00 AM on July 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

If you own the car, and pay for repairs, then downtime for service costs you money two ways: 1. Cost of service, 2. Loss of income.

Only you can determine how much cost and lost income you are willing to risk. There is a threshold beyond which you won't recover those costs before the car really does implode.

You might consider identifying a replacement vehicle, and a dealer, and assuring yourself of the financing involved, and be able to purchase that new vehicle on very short notice when something happens to your current car that convinces you to ditch it.

Also, consider leasing.
posted by justcorbly at 5:10 AM on July 13, 2016

If the cost of a repair exceeds the value of the car, time for a new car. Otherwise, keep driving it!

The better calculation is not the value of your car, but the cost of a replacement. If a replacement will cost many thousands of dollars, then you can justify some major repairs even if your current car isn't worth much at all.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:29 AM on July 13, 2016

Do you have a mechanic you trust? For me, that is factoring into my decision tree for my 2003 Civic with 143,000 miles. Totally random shit has started breaking on my car in the last couple years (my drivers side door wouldn't open from the outside, my trunk wouldn't open with my key but only from the interior release, exterior plastic components started cracking or flapping, etc.).

My independent mechanic has been awesome about fixing these things as they pop up. They were less skilled at troubleshooting my dead defroster/weak heat/eventual dead AC issue, which was frustrating and expensive (turns out my climate control panel fried, but we only figured that out after a couple months when summer came). My car has a salvage title (bought from my mechanic cousin), so I'm pretty much obligated to drive it into the ground. But I'm much more aware of the $500+ repairs vs. repairs that are actually related to routine maintenance that would be due soon anyway vs. routine maintenance when nothing is broken. After a couple years of paying for maybe $100 in repairs annually, this $1000 year sucked but was still cheaper than buying a newer car and starting the cycle again.
posted by Maarika at 6:37 AM on July 13, 2016

Hondas are really amazingly reliable cars, and if you take care of major maintenance - especially the timing belt - then you will easily get another 100,000 miles out of the car.

I've driven old Hondas before and they are great. The big deal is that the timing belts do need to be replaced every 70,000-90,000 miles (depending on model) and this is expensive maintenance (which is why you see so many Hondas for sale right under these milage limits). But otherwise if the body is in good shape and you've been maintaining it, you can keep it for a good long time.
posted by jessamyn at 7:07 AM on July 13, 2016

I had a car that was getting old, and it got to the point where the amount of repair work it required every year (work done by a shop, not by me, so obviously more expensive) was worth more than the car, and was a significant fraction of a new-car payment. That was the point where I felt like I was throwing good money after bad, so I bought a new car.

It doesn't hurt to be prepared for wildcards, like your car getting totaled through no fault of your own. Insurance will help, but it won't put you in a new car that you want.
posted by adamrice at 8:01 AM on July 13, 2016

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