Car repairs too expensive to make, buying another car is too
June 27, 2019 7:02 AM   Subscribe

Car needs $4k worth of repairs on it. I can't afford that. I don't know what to do.

I have an old Volvo (2001) that is a pain in the ass to get smogged and has chronic "check engine light" problem, and that time of year is coming up. I went to my usual place and they said I'd have to go to the dealer this time in another town (public transport not available to go there) to get the check engine light to go off, so I took it over there yesterday. They said it needed $4k worth of repairs on it, most of which do not sound optional as far as I can tell.

The list: needs new censor for the check engine light, brake fluid needs flushing, timing belt cracked, front struts leaking, needs alignment, oil leaking all over, oil trap clogged. I straight up cannot pay for all of that, do not have enough available credit to do so and it would use up all my available credit and probably most/all of the savings to to do so.

People are now telling me to "shop around" for another estimate, but I don't even physically have the ability to bring the car around. I am using a rental car right now that has an agreement to shuttle people back and forth between the dealer, I don't know how I'd even do that, I can't really ask anyone else to give me rides or give me any help with this. I have to give an answer about whether or not to have them do any repairs this morning.
posted by jenfullmoon to Travel & Transportation (30 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
 
There are lots of options and it's hard to know which is right for you, but I can tell you the one that worked for me in similar circumstances was to buy the first good-looking rusty old car I saw for sale at the side of the road for $500. It lasted three years before falling apart; ymmv.
posted by sfenders at 7:14 AM on June 27 [9 favorites]


First, I am not a professional mechanic, but I have certainly driven some jalopies, and kept some pretty old cars hanging by a thread.

I don't know what the mileage is on the car, but your two big problems are the sensor for the "Check Engine" light and the cracked timing belt. The sensor is probably an oxygen sensor - you don't say why exactly that it's hard to get smogged, but a bad O2 sensor would throw a "Check Engine" light and cause you to fail smog. The O2 sensors do go bad on their own, but sometimes they are indicating other problems, such as a failing catalytic convertor.

The cracked timing belt is pretty bad. The reason is that if it does snap, the repairs could be incredibly expensive. If you name the exact model, we could Google whether your car has a "non-interference" engine, which might allow you to riskily punt on the timing belt.

Brake fluid flushing - are the brakes spongy? When you press down, does the pedal seem to go down really far and does it seem like the car doesn't want to stop? If the pedal is still firm and the car still stops as you expect, you could punt on this for a little while.

Front struts leaking - you could potentially punt on this for a long while, I think.

Needs alignment - you are probably wearing out your tires a bit too fast because of this, but again, you could punt on this.

Oil is leaking all over - it's an old car, and it may be that the people doing the oil change aren't too clean. It could also be that some of your seals are leaking, but you can punt on this as long as you change the oil regularly.

Oil trap clogged - without knowing what model of Volvo you have exactly, I don't even know what this means. Is the PCV, or Positive Crankcase Ventilation, valve clogged? You could punt on this, but it should also be a cheap part and a two minute fix.

If it is an O2 sensor, PCV valve and a timing belt ONLY, I think an independent shop should be able to do that work for $1000-1500, with most of that cost being the timing belt. If you don't know whether the timing belt has ever been done, then it may actually be necessary. Replacing the front struts is adding a fair amount of cost, as is "oil leaking all over the place." What do they propose is the fix for that anyway - new oil pan gasket, oil filter gasket and rear main seal? If so, that's ridiculous given your financial situation. So, I would punt on front struts, "oil leaking all over the place," brake fluid flushing (depending on how the brakes feel) and the alignment.
posted by Slothrop at 7:29 AM on June 27 [25 favorites]


I wouldn't rush a decision like this. If they need an answer this morning, tell them no. You can always decide later to repair the car.
posted by mundo at 7:36 AM on June 27 [3 favorites]


I would consider listing the car for sale for like $500 - $1 000 as is and put that cash towards another used car - you can get a decent used car that is 2005 onwards for less than your current car's estimated repairs. It sucks to use your savings but it would suck more to put any more cash into a nearly 20 year old car with that many issues imo (I am not a mechanic).

Sorry this sounds really stressful, hope the dealership is nice to you.
posted by lafemma at 7:40 AM on June 27 [3 favorites]


The cracked timing belt is pretty bad. The reason is that if it does snap, the repairs could be incredibly expensive. If you name the exact model, we could Google whether your car has a "non-interference" engine, which might allow you to riskily punt on the timing belt.

Volvo 2001 S40.

Brake fluid flushing - are the brakes spongy? When you press down, does the pedal seem to go down really far and does it seem like the car doesn't want to stop? If the pedal is still firm and the car still stops as you expect, you could punt on this for a little while.

Brakes seem fine, more or less.

Front struts leaking - you could potentially punt on this for a long while, I think.
Needs alignment - you are probably wearing out your tires a bit too fast because of this, but again, you could punt on this.
Oil is leaking all over - it's an old car, and it may be that the people doing the oil change aren't too clean. It could also be that some of your seals are leaking, but you can punt on this as long as you change the oil regularly.


I do know about the oil leak, the place I have been going to wasn't too concerned.

Oil trap clogged - without knowing what model of Volvo you have exactly, I don't even know what this means. Is the PCV, or Positive Crankcase Ventilation, valve clogged? You could punt on this, but it should also be a cheap part and a two minute fix.

If it is an O2 sensor, PCV valve and a timing belt ONLY, I think an independent shop should be able to do that work for $1000-1500, with most of that cost being the timing belt. If you don't know whether the timing belt has ever been done, then it may actually be necessary. Replacing the front struts is adding a fair amount of cost, as is "oil leaking all over the place." What do they propose is the fix for that anyway - new oil pan gasket, oil filter gasket and rear main seal? If so, that's ridiculous given your financial situation. So, I would punt on front struts, "oil leaking all over the place," brake fluid flushing (depending on how the brakes feel) and the alignment.

THANK YOU. I need to head out to work, but please let me know what you think on the googling thing.

It's a rush for me because I have to pay for a rental car to get there and back.
posted by jenfullmoon at 7:40 AM on June 27


If it isn't overheating, stops ok, starts, and the lights work; I'd drive home and treat the event like a bad dream.A lot of Honda and Toyota can be bought for half of 4k, and you'll be in a far more gentle repair pool too. Volvo's can be kinda exotic, which means you have to see a dealer/specialist; which = $$$.
"Oil trap"? No real bounce means the shocks/struts are ok, no pull / drift / or wobble means the alignment is ok, and loose bolts are frequent causes of oil leaks. Modern timing belts are kevlar-esque car tire-esque items encased in rubber - so they frequently do have cracks. A crack is different from a split, or a tear, or a delamination - all different items and of different urgency. Depending on the car; a check engine light could me anything from low oil level to power window switch problems. Autozone will plug in for free and tell you (like your mechanic should have) what the light is signalling.
I am not your mechanic and have not inspected Your car.
If it isn't overheating, stops ok, starts, and the lights work; I'd drive home and treat the event like a bad dream. . And start shopping for a Honda or Toyota.
IMHO; bye bye Volvo.

***Overhead for a garage is Horrible. Tools, insurance, more tools, the lure of the shop being full of $$$ tools to thieves, payroll, taxes, trade schools and retraining, environmental fees for all from coolant to oil to fuel disposal, the gloves the mechanics wear now (oh my F-d up hands from so much oil gas heat grinding scraping wrenching outdoor exposure in the 80s / 90s - bad hands are often taken as a sign of low intellect/low skill in our beloved early 21st century), parts, cars with a dozen wrist thick strands of a hundred wires going in and about the car, more retraining, more tools, on and on. The 'shadetree mechanic' of the past has long been chopped down so to speak.
Garages are charging the seemingly violative hourly rates for a lot of reasons that are not obvious at first.*** TMI; just buy a Honda or a Toyota and dump the Volvo. :/
posted by Afghan Stan at 7:46 AM on June 27 [10 favorites]


The timing belt is the only critical issue and how can they know if they have not torn the engine apart, it's pretty deep underneath stuff. If the belt goes the car needs to be towed away so be sure to have triple a. Learn how to add oil and keep a few cans in the trunk, drive very gently and start saving up for that used toyota. Just start looking around I'm not unhappy with a hundai that turned up on a local list for $2k a couple years ago, deals appear. Good luck and don't let the car stress overwhelm.
posted by sammyo at 8:04 AM on June 27 [1 favorite]


Do you have a community college nearby with an auto mechanics program? They often aren't advertised but will do similar work for far less (though it takes longer).
posted by veery at 8:19 AM on June 27 [1 favorite]


I concur with Slothrop. I would also punt on struts, alignment, and brake fluid flush. I wouldn't bother with oil leaks unless it's like spraying out all over. I don't know what an oil trap is. The timing belt is important, it looks like the 1.9t is interference - is this the engine you have? I don't know what they mean by cracked belt - it could be anything from "this looks old" to "this is about to snap". If the timing belt hasn't been changed within the last five or so years, then this likely is somewhat urgent - basically playing chicken with detonating your engine.

But, IMHO, you are pretty far into good money after bad territory - if you can at all swing it, trade it in as-is on as new a toyota corolla as you can? This repair could well be a year's worth of car payments or more.
posted by everythings_interrelated at 8:37 AM on June 27


This Volvo was built on the Ford C170 platform - same as the Mazda 3 or the Ford Focus. It's a fine car that has served you well. It's engine is likely some sort of Volvo I4 (inline straight-four) and is an inference design - meaning that the timing belt failure would be catastrophic. It's almost 20 years old - and it sounds like lots of deferred maintenance is coming due with the suspension, oil, sensor and timing belt.

Folks suggesting fixing the timing belt are assuming you want to keep the car long term. Just the parts for the timing belt are ~$300, and here in Chicagoland I would expect to pay about 600$ in labor for and independent euro shop to address. And that includes the water pump and other bits that usually get swapped out for a timing belt job. No - don't do it.

Here is what I would do: fix only the sensor to pass smog. Get roadside assistance through your credit card or AAA. Yes the timing belt is cracked. Yes it could fail tomorrow and leave you stranded. But it likely won't. Keep deferring as long as you can. Learn how much oil it's burning and how to top it off regularly.

Use this time to save up that money for a newer set of wheels and rely on consumer reports for what is reliable in your price range. And I wouldn't go listing all problems with the car - that makes you appear nuts to continue to depend on it when in reality you are taking a calculated risk.

Sell it for a thousand dollars when you saved up some money and spend 3500 on a 2012+ Ford Focus.
posted by zenon at 8:54 AM on June 27 [6 favorites]


From my Googling, it seems that most Volvos use interference engines and that the Volvo S40 was one that did use an interference engine. Why is that important? Well, the timing belt is attached to at least two shafts so that it can control the correct spinning of the parts inside your engine that make it go. If it breaks in an "interference" engine those parts will ram into each other, because they "interfere" with each other's space, but miss, under correct operation. So, as you can imagine, if your belt breaks in an interference engine, you have a super expensive fix (probably just have a new old engine put in). I had it happen once on an old car that was fortunately a non-interference engine, so I just coasted up an off ramp and called a tow truck.

It looks like I am in good company in suggesting that you not approve all these repairs. I do agree that you might do best to return the rental car and just pick your car up. Then take it to Autozone or O'Reilly's or most common auto parts stores and have them check the car's computer for the "Check Engine" light code. I have done that, too. Fortunately, it doesn't really require expertise on the part of the auto parts employee - they have a computer that talks to your car's computer and says "Why are you saying 'Check Engine'?" Again, my guess is O2 sensor.

Perhaps the least you could do is then call around to a few independent shops, maybe find some via Google or Yelp, if possible, and ask how much for the sensor to be replaced in your make and model. Do that, pass smog, and maybe look at selling your car? Trading it in on a Hyundai (my personal favorite car brand, right now)?

If it were mine, I would try to do the Autozone thing, so I knew which exact sensor it was, then replace the sensor and replace the timing belt at an independent shop. If you know someone replaced the timing belt previously, then yes, you might get away without doing that, but odds are it's the original and it's both old and past its mileage. You might get lucky and have the two jobs cost less than $1000.
posted by Slothrop at 8:55 AM on June 27 [2 favorites]


By the way, I don't totally disagree with the people who are saying to punt on the timing belt, but I had a 94 Ford Escort with only 70,000 miles snap its belt in 2008 or so. They can get old and snap. You might also be just fine waiting on it. I guess it depends on your risk tolerance. I definitely agree with folks telling you to get an online subscription to Consumer Reports (I think it's about $7/mo) and researching what used cars they recommend in what price range - that's how we've bought all of our cars. It's just that I might go ahead and do the timing belt so that I have as much time as I need to save up for a more practical car. It depends alot on what your quoted, I guess, as I could see different cars costing a bit more or less depending on how many parts have to be removed to access the belt.
posted by Slothrop at 9:10 AM on June 27 [1 favorite]


Seems like your choices are pretty simple. You can't currently afford either full repairs or a newer car.

So just have them do the minimum to allow you to pass the emissions inspection. If it is an oxygen sensor, this shouldn't cost more than a couple hundred dollars. None of the other stuff will prevent you from driving the car.

Nobody can tell you how long your timing belt will last. You may just get lucky. In the mean time, start saving as much as you can for a replacement car.
posted by JackFlash at 10:05 AM on June 27


I got a quote from my mechanic of about $350 to replace my O2 sensor, which I already knew I needed. I did some research and bought the appropriate O2 sensor for my car for about $35, and an O2 wrench for about $7 online. I went to a tool library near me and borrowed a jack, and replaced the sensor my self for all of less than $50. You can find all kinds of YouTube videos demonstrating how to replace O2 sensors. I can't speak to the other issues you described, but this part is something you can absolutely do on your own with the help of a friend if you are worried about going under a car yourself. I am a relatively small person (female, 5'5") and it was honestly easier for me to repair this than my large male friend who helped out.
posted by erattacorrige at 10:12 AM on June 27 [5 favorites]


I owned this exact model for several years (miles ~110k-~175k). To echo, if the timing belt fails the car is a goner (catastrophic damage) - if you need to keep the car alive as long as possible, that's what I'd prioritize fixing.

If you can't afford the timing belt, you can certainly punt it while you save up for a different car, but be conscious that as soon as the belt goes the car goes too.

S40s are great cars - after mine was totaled in a wreck I went out and upgraded to a 05' S40 (with 130k on it)
posted by matrixclown at 11:20 AM on June 27 [1 favorite]


I had a timing belt snap on me and the car was a writeoff.

Potential signs of an impending breakage that I encountered were

1) loss of normal power when pressing on the gas pedal
2) a "whup whub whup whub" noise

Which may go away for a little while, but if you get these, pull over immediately and turn off the car. Get it towed.

When the belt snaps, you'll hear a "crinkle ting crinkle ting ting ting" as the pistons shear through the valves.
posted by porpoise at 11:40 AM on June 27 [3 favorites]


If I were you, based on the looming timing belt matter, I might spend 20 minutes inputting the car's specifics into the buy-it-now tools available on line from AutoNation, CarMax, etc. and then use whatever they offer as a down-payment on another vehicle, whether through them (simplest and quickest) or from another source. Be forewarned that when you arrive they may not offer you as much money as the on-line tool implied based on whatever their quick inspection reveals.

However, if you buy through them it's one stop selling/shopping/loan obtaining and that's worth something vis-a-vis your time and stress. It's always sad to say goodbye to a loyal auto-friend, but there's nothing worse than having to dispose of a wreck and buy a new car under duress and immediate need. Get out while there's still value in the car.
posted by carmicha at 12:02 PM on June 27 [1 favorite]


The dealer wants to do lots of work that would be nice to do, and they charge top dollar. Get on local groups like nextdoor.com and see if you can find a mechanic to fix the timing belt and reset the light for a lot less. Timing belt will not be cheap, as it does require a lot of work.

You car is probably worth a lot less than 4K if you tried to sell it, but the value of a running Volvo probably justifies keeping it running. However, replacing the O2 sensor to resolve the check engine light and keep it stickered is another option, and driving it until its sudden and inevitable death. This means you have to ramp up the emergency fund for its replacement, which you kind of have to do anyway. I assume it has 225K+ miles or thereabouts, and 18 years is old, even for a Volvo.

I'm sorry, it sucks, and owning cars is just stupid expensive.
posted by theora55 at 12:41 PM on June 27 [1 favorite]


If it were me, I'd fix the O2 sensor to pass smog at most and start looking at trading the car in for one in better shape that you can afford monthly payments on. I feel like you're going to pretty quickly hit diminishing returns trying to keep your old car running, and any money spent on it is money that could be going to something that will last longer.
posted by Aleyn at 1:21 PM on June 27


Here's how my day has gone so far:

(a) A coworker referred me to someone at a non-dealer shop, I gave him a list of the problems and I got an estimate around $1680 for the same work, which is better, at least.... If I end up fixing it, the sensor and timing belt will be top priority and I will not worry so much on the rest of it (thank you so much for the list of priorities!).

(b) I told the Volvo dealer that I just can't afford to do repairs there. I do want them to fix the antenna they broke(!) while at it so it's not ready to pick up yet. I plan on doing so tomorrow.

(c) Said coworker also referred me to her car dealer, which is close to the dealer that the car is currently at. I am planning on driving the car over there and see what can be done about getting me a replacement car and trading in even if it's bad at this point. He also has dealt with my credit union and the coworker really trusts him, so we'll see.

What this basically boils down to is that I can either attempt to fix this car by using all my available credit and then have no money for another car + lowering my credit score, or give up and get another car/get a loan and not fix this one, which may just be how it's going to be at this point.

"Potential signs of an impending breakage that I encountered were
1) loss of normal power when pressing on the gas pedal
2) a "whup whub whup whub" noise"


So far no noise, it seems a little slow when pushing on the gas pedal but hasn't gotten that bad yet. Mostly the car just seems sort of shaky to drive, so hopefully it lasts long enough to take it...to one final place, I guess.

This thread has helped a lot today as well, especially knowing what to prioritize worrying about and whatnot.
posted by jenfullmoon at 1:28 PM on June 27 [1 favorite]


If you borrow an OBD reader from an auto parts shop (just ask, IME most chains let you), you can clear the CEL code using that. It'll probably come right back, but maybe worth a try. You'll at least be able to verify what the code is yourself that way.

I drive your car's sibling ('01 Volvo V70 XC) myself, and while I like the older Volvos a lot, they are not really worth much, mostly because they're pretty spendy to repair. An '01 S40 is definitely not worth $4k. Blue book value is about $2400, it looks like. Even if you want to stick with Volvo, you could probably find a replacement S40 (or even upgrade to an S60) for less than that. My V70 was $1800 in pretty good mechanical shape, but I got a good deal on it.
posted by neckro23 at 2:00 PM on June 27


I came here to say what neckro23 said: go to Autozone or wherever and clear the Check Engine Light and see if it comes back immediately. Maybe it will. Maybe it won’t. I don’t know diddly about Volvos, but IME the Check Engine Light in many vehicles can be triggered by all kinds of hand-wavy things. For instance, my wife had a Honda van that was finicky about the gas cap being properly tightened.
posted by doctor tough love at 2:24 PM on June 27


Hoooo, boy.

So the dealer issue is everything is too expensive. Copy. Got that ,and agree. I understand you need to get the check engine light fixed, but the wording 'sensor for check engine light' makes zero sense. Also, if it is a bad (engine) sensor for the check engine light, then I'm not sure why any normal mechanic can't change it unless they didn't have the equipment to tell them WHICH sensor it is. Other than the more complex machine to diagnose the sensor issue, there is no reason at all the dealer needs to do ANY of the other work, so doing that somewhere cheaper is perfectly fine, as is punting everything but the timing belt.

My suggestion:

"needs new censor for the check engine light" - this is hand wavey bullshit. Ask them WHICH sensor needs replacing. And are they sure that is the cause of the engine light or is this a 'first step' diagnosis to working it out.

" brake fluid needs flushing" - absolutely not dealer necessary. Punt this and get it done at an independent mechanic when you can afford it.

"timing belt cracked" - do not punt. But also, not a specialist job. Get this done at the independent place soon. Visible cracks (which are very easy to see with minimal work, so the people saying 'how can they know' can be ignored) are a serious issue and the belt (and hence your engine) is going to die before too long. This would be a priority for me.

"front struts leaking" - medium priority, and can make a sizable impact on the safety of the cars handling. Do it before the brake flush, but plan to save up for this and do it when you can afford it, then the brake flush when you can afford that. I would likely not push it out too far in terms of time or mileage, depending on how much and how you use your car - if it is around town it is less problematic. If it is highway and/or twisty roads at speed and/or inclement weather, it is more important.

"needs alignment" - get this done at a cheap shop, after you have or when you get the struts replaced.

"oil leaking all over" - don't care. Just kep checking the oil level on a regular basis and keep it full.

" oil trap clogged." - need more info. May be linked to the check engine light, but not sure what they mean by that.

So, in summary the only main dealer work is the check engine light if it is difficult to diagnose. Ask them how much to just fix that bit. Also, ask what sensor it is, as above. Then do the timing belt at the local garage and whatever else you can afford (struts+ alignment first, then go down the line as you get money).
posted by Brockles at 2:26 PM on June 27 [3 favorites]


Omg I was you last year!! I had a 99 Volvo that just was way too much to fix. We sold it for $800 and bought a 2006 Toyota Corolla for $1500. The thing is Toyotas are so freaking cheap to fix if anything goes wrong- you will love it. But like Volvos they last forever if you take care of them. My "new" Corolla will last another 5 years no problem and we have spent nearly nothing on repairs.
posted by KMoney at 5:21 PM on June 27 [1 favorite]


Is it at all possible that it’s the timing belt *cover* that is cracked, not the belt itself?
posted by MonsieurBon at 5:49 PM on June 27


Not with the size of that quote, no. Also, a dealer is unlikely to make that mistake. Rubber belts fail on use and just age over their life, and an 18 year old belt is extremely likely to have degraded and cracked.
posted by Brockles at 7:08 PM on June 27


Just as a side note, if the car is going to be out of commission for a week or two, you might consider a car-share service for a temporary replacement. Not Uber or Lyft, but something like Turo or Getaround. People put their cars on those for daily or weekly rates that are well, WELL below what you'd pay for a traditional rental.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 8:06 PM on June 27


There is no way in hell that I am putting $4,000 or even $1,680 into an eighteen year old car. It's time to jump ship. Sell it for as much as you can get for it, which is probably in the $500 - $1,000 range as stated above and look for something that wasn't built during the Clinton administration.

Generally, a ten year old car is vastly more reliable and fuel efficient that the car you're driving at the moment, not to mention more safe. The oxygen sensor might just be a mileage thing where it trips at a certain mileage so your get you sensor checked, or it might be indicative of something more serious, but for me the timing belt is the big deal breaker.

Try to divorce yourself from emotional feeling about your daily driver (I have huge problems with this), and be objective about what you and others think it might be worth.

Good luck.
posted by Sphinx at 9:58 AM on June 28


I think you might be located in California; if so, it could be worth looking into the state of California's program which will pay you $1,000 (or $1,500, depending on your income) to take your car to a scrap yard and get it off the roads.
posted by Theiform at 11:28 AM on June 28


I ended up getting a brand new car. They agreed to take the old one in trade for $1000 even though it was worth $1 :P A coworker friend of mine hooked me up with her friend who is a car dealer so the whole experience was thankfully painless. Huzzah and also whew because I was pretty well afraid the old car was about to keel over just driving down the street to the dealer.

This thread helped really save my sanity while I was trying to figure out what to do here, even if I didn't end up keeping/repairing the old car. Thanks, all!
posted by jenfullmoon at 4:51 PM on June 28 [4 favorites]


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