Is this free car worth taking?
December 2, 2018 7:05 AM   Subscribe

Relatives have offered to give us a 2007 Ford Focus they no longer use. It needs about $1000 worth of work (mostly brake replacement) to be driveable. Should we take it?

According to Kelley Blue Book, it's worth at least $1600, maybe $2500 or more. So if we pay to have the work done we'll be getting it for less than we would pay for an equivalent car. But we're wondering if a car that age is going to have so many maintenance problems that we'd save money in the long run by spending a little more and getting something newer. Shortly before my nephew stopped driving the car he had some work done on the transmission and he says he's not sure it completely fixed the problem.

This car would be driven by my teenage daughter, who will be getting her license soon. We learned from our insurance company that we can actually save money on insurance if we add an older car with her as primary driver rather than having her drive one of our cars, so getting her a car seems like a reasonable idea, as long as it isn't going to cost us too much for maintenance. But do we take this one that's being offered or look for something better?
posted by Redstart to Travel & Transportation (24 answers total)
What's its mileage? I happily drive an '05 and have had no major maintenance issues yet, but it has very low mileage.
posted by metasarah at 7:12 AM on December 2, 2018 [1 favorite]

I don't actually recall what the mileage is. I don't think it's either unusually high or unusually low for its age.
posted by Redstart at 7:16 AM on December 2, 2018

Do the relatives have maintenance records for the car - regular oil changes, other preventive maintenance? If so, go for it. Brakes...wear out. By design.

Edited to add: yeah, check the mileage.
posted by notsnot at 7:19 AM on December 2, 2018 [2 favorites]

Not enough info. The thing to do here is to have it inspected by a mechanic who can tell you whether the car looks like it's decent other than needing new brakes and rotors (I assume that's the brake work you refer to) or whether it looks like a money pit. An '07 could totally go either way depending on how well it's been taken care of up 'til now.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 7:19 AM on December 2, 2018 [2 favorites]

If your relatives wouldn’t be offended and are giving you the car, take it and turn it. You could possibly get a quick 500+ on it as is.

In general, the leading causes of death among adolescents ages 15 to 19 in the United States are unintentional injuries such as car crash-related injuries.

When my kids were beginning to drive, I was concerned about their safety so I actually got them larger (used) cars - which may have better crash resilience - with up to date restraint and air bag systems. However, this is FL with crazy drivers. If you’re located in the North with seasonal ice and snow, consider an all wheel drive.
posted by sudogeek at 7:28 AM on December 2, 2018

I'm all in favour of free things! However this car, because of it's age, sounds like it could be getting into "you never know when it might break down on the side of the road" territory. Which is fine for an experienced adult driver to potentially have to deal with, but kind of sucks for a new, teen-aged driver to have to worry about. I would suggest you get her something newer if you can afford it.
posted by fourpotatoes at 7:30 AM on December 2, 2018 [1 favorite]

Has the timing belt been replaced? This is recommended at =/- 100,000 miles and sometimes other work that is convenient to do at the same time.
posted by Botanizer at 7:32 AM on December 2, 2018 [3 favorites]

My daughter's 05 Focus lasted to 181,000 miles at which point it was not going to pass inspection without several thousand bucks of work so that was the end. YMMV of course, but if this car is in the high 100s I would pass.
posted by beagle at 7:35 AM on December 2, 2018

The car has been inspected by a mechanic. That's where the $1000 figure comes from. Not sure how much I trust this mechanic.
posted by Redstart at 7:39 AM on December 2, 2018

The transmission work that maybe didn't fix the problem would be the dealbreaker for me. Without specific info about that I'd regard it as a likely money pit.
posted by under_petticoat_rule at 7:45 AM on December 2, 2018 [1 favorite]

What did you ask the mechanic, though? Did you just ask what it needs right now to be drivable, or did you ask for their general impression as to whether the car would be reliable?

I disagree with folks who say that an 11-year-old car is automatically verging on being a money pit. The car I drive is considerably older than that, and it's pretty dang cheap to run. But it was well maintained before I bought it, lived somewhere where they don't salt the roads, and I've been taking good care of it since. It's also had its timing belt replaced, which shouldn't need to happen again during the time when I own it.

I also disagree that size equals safety. That's just frankly a myth. The size of a car actually has almost nothing to do with how well it does in a crash—rely on the actual tests and ratings for that, because that's what they're for. People go to a lot of scientific effort and expense to find out how safe a given car is, and it's been shown for years and years that size basically doesn't matter at all.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 7:48 AM on December 2, 2018 [7 favorites]

For reference, here are the IIHS ratings for the 2007 Ford Focus, which are not awesome, I'll admit. But then here are the IIHS ratings for the much larger 2007 Ford Explorer, and they are essentially the same.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 8:01 AM on December 2, 2018 [1 favorite]

Another thing to think about is the state of the catalytic converter. When that comes up for replacement, you'll be pushing $1,000 to get it done and the car won't pass inspection without it. If it's close to needing to be replaced, that might be a problem. Same for the transmission, if that's in bad shape—I typically assume that any significant transmission work will cost four figures.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 8:09 AM on December 2, 2018

I think it might not be a bad option for a teen driver, especially if it's only for occasional use and someone can probably come to the rescue if it does break down. $1,000 to repair an otherwise free 11-yo car is not a bad financial gamble. You'd really only need to get 6-12 months of driving it without additional major repairs before you'd be ahead of the game financially vs. looking around for a newer car, given that you can still get a couple hundred bucks for it from a junk buyer and it costs about $1000-1500/year in averaged depreciation to drive around a no-frills sedan per year.

A Focus is not necessarily a Corolla, but I had a Corolla that I planned to drive until the wheels fell off. After 17 years and 180,000 miles the wheels stubbornly refused to fall off and I finally gave up and traded it in because the engine was so damn loud I couldn't hear the radio.
posted by drlith at 8:38 AM on December 2, 2018 [6 favorites]

As was mentioned above, we don’t have enough info. I’d want to be confident about the transmission before paying someone to fix the brakes. If it’s not currently drivable and that precludes testing the tranny, then pass. Let it go to a shade tree mechanic who won’t be risking so much.
posted by jon1270 at 8:46 AM on December 2, 2018

Did you get it inspected yourself? I once bought a car that the person who sold it said had been “inspected by a mechanic.” In reality, it had been glanced at by a mechanic and needed a lot more work than I was told about. A real inspection will take time and cost money.

Ignore if you paid for a real inspection.

Another thing to think about is what your daughter is like in terms of cars. I gave an old car to a teenager with a mechanical bent, and it was great for him, but I was getting rid of it because, as an older female who drives by myself at night and does not understand cars, I needed something more reliable.
posted by FencingGal at 8:52 AM on December 2, 2018

The average age of cars on the road in the U.S. is over 11 years, so this car is just average and certainly servicable. $1000 for a teen's first car seems like quite the bargain. I would be more inclined to take a chance on this type car from relatives than a complete stranger. They aren't going to be hiding any known defects from you. But definitely get more clarification on the transmission issue before proceeding because that can be a couple thousand dollars to fix.
posted by JackFlash at 10:37 AM on December 2, 2018 [6 favorites]

Ford Focuses are notorious for transmission problems but it looks like that's only the 2011 model onwards.

10 years isn't very old for a modern car if it hasn't been neglected. Hell, my current car (a Volvo) is old enough to vote and still doing great. (I just dumped $700 in suspension parts into it though which would've been even more if my friend wasn't doing the install, so maybe not best example...)

My take is that even if you only get a couple years of use out of the car before it gets crashed (because teen drivers) or requires an expensive fix (transmission), it was still $1000 pretty well spent.

Plus if this is mostly brake work, that's more "deferred maintenance" than "omg this car is falling apart". There's also value in knowing the previous owner; at least in theory you'd know how well it has been maintained. Maybe get a second opinion on the brakes if you don't notice any trouble driving it -- skimping on brakes isn't a good idea, but they're also a common upsell.

A Focus is not necessarily a Corolla, but I had a Corolla that I planned to drive until the wheels fell off. After 17 years and 180,000 miles the wheels stubbornly refused to fall off and I finally gave up and traded it in because the engine was so damn loud I couldn't hear the radio.

QFT. I neglected the hell out of my '96 Prizm (same thing) and it didn't give a shit. I doubt the same applies to the Focus though.
posted by neckro23 at 10:53 AM on December 2, 2018 [2 favorites]

Cars are built way better than they used to be, and last longer. If she can get a year out of it for 1,000, that's a pretty good deal. A proper inspection should be detailed. Get one of those.
posted by theora55 at 11:15 AM on December 2, 2018 [2 favorites]

Newer crash technology greatly reduces the risk of death and injury, and yet motor vehicle accident deaths are by some measures still the highest cause of death in people aged 18-35 - at least part of that statistic is skewed by the fact that younger people tend to driver the older, less safe, smaller cars. So this question really depends, unfortunately, on your income range: how much additional risk are you comfortable taking on by saving money on a vehicle?
posted by xdvesper at 2:17 PM on December 2, 2018

Not to quibble with @Anticipation of a new lovers arrival, but vehicle weight does improve cash worthiness.

To quote the IHSS,
Frontal crash test results can't be used to compare vehicle performance across weight classes. That's because the kinetic energy involved in the moderate overlap and small overlap frontal tests depends on the speed and weight of the test vehicle. Thus, the crash is more severe for heavier vehicles.

Given equivalent frontal ratings, the heavier of two vehicles usually offers better protection in real-world crashes. In 2009, IIHS demonstrated this principle with a series of tests in which small cars were crashed into larger cars, all of which had good frontal ratings in the moderate overlap test.
Within weight classes, they can be compared, but not among cars of different weight. Obviously, Focus versus semi favors the semi, even though trucks tend to have poorer safety ratings than automobiles and are not held to the same standards. But on US1 in Palm Beach, if I had to bet on the Ford Focus versus Grandma just peering over the steering wheel of her Town Car, I’ll take Granny anytime.
posted by sudogeek at 2:24 PM on December 2, 2018 [1 favorite]

How much insurance money would you be saving. If it is significant the car my be essentially free even with the brake work.

IMO any car in this sort of price range that you don't have to immediately buy tires, battery and brakes for is a bargain. Any $1000 car is going to have some problems (though my latest $700 19 year old Escort has been going strong with nothing but winter tires and light bulbs for the past year).

drlith: "I think it might not be a bad option for a teen driver, especially if it's only for occasional use and someone can probably come to the rescue if it does break down."

This. I mean it depends on your area but here nowhere my daughter is likely to drive is more than 400m from a transit stop.
posted by Mitheral at 2:35 PM on December 2, 2018 [1 favorite]

I agree with fourpotatoes: it's a car that, had you owned it for the past five years and grown to learn its quirks and maintenance burden, would be one you'd be comfortable driving. Your relatives aren't going to hide anything dodgy. But a new driver isn't going to be as familiar with abnormal noises or the transmission acting strangely or some of the other warning signs to get it into the shop. Before taking the car, you'll want to consider whether your daughter is okay with keeping track of that stuff, or whether that puts too much of a burden on a young new driver.
posted by holgate at 6:26 PM on December 2, 2018

You're going to buy your daughter a AAA membership, right? Put out $80 and you'll get four (count them -- 1 2 3 4) four times of a guy coming to tow your car, and if you get the $80 policy they'll tow it 100 miles. Or they will come out and get you in the car if you lock the keys in it. They'll give you a jumpstart, and turn that into an incredibly good deal on a high quality battery, if it turns out that your battery has given up the ghost. Not sure if this is just some special they were running or not, but when I purchased a membership maybe 4 months ago, they also gave me another membership, which I gave to a friends 18 year old daughter, so she'll never be left hanging. AAA membership is in its way insurance for older cars.
posted by dancestoblue at 2:14 AM on December 3, 2018 [1 favorite]

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