Choose your own adventure: $3K repair on a 98 Honda Civic
October 22, 2021 3:23 PM   Subscribe

You have a 1998 Honda Civic with 210,000 miles that now stalls at intersections and some days won't start at all. It's been reliable around town but you haven't trusted it for any longer trips for years, which kinda sucks. New Mechanic You Like just did a comprehensive look and explained the many large and small repairs your car needs. You trust them. Do you repair it, or put that 3K in a pile with another 3-4K towards a newer used car in the current seller's market?

You are not rich but have been saving for this day and are able to think about spending $5-7K on a reliable used car. Nice Mechanic With Great Reviews said they can deliver a completely trip-worthy vehicle for about $2900 in repairs. You know many of the things they want to do have needed to be done for a while (new spark plugs, new engine and transmission mounts, new tires, alignment, replacing the brake fluid, and about 7 other non-sketchy things). They took a lot of time to explain things, and did a much more thorough review than your Now-Retired Previous Mechanic who did regular piecemeal repairs that didn't restore your confidence in the vehicle for longer trips but kept the car running.


If you gulp and do all of these repairs at once, turn to page 27.

If you say goodbye to your 23-year-old vehicle and put the $3K toward your fund for a more recent used car, turn to page 11.

If you ________, turn to page ____

What page do you end up on?
posted by mediareport to Travel & Transportation (29 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I have a car of similar vintage and I would not put three thousand dollars into it. You can buy a whole car for that money, one that’s newer, lower mileage, and doesn’t stall randomly.
posted by rodlymight at 3:31 PM on October 22, 2021

Page 11.
A 1998 - even a Civic! imo - is not worth the 3k that could go toward a newer, more reliable and updated vehicle. How long will the 3k make the Civic tripworthy, 6 months? a year?
(I should probably add I am not an expert on any car matters.)
posted by Glinn at 3:31 PM on October 22, 2021 [1 favorite]

About 6ish years ago, I had a '93 Accord that I put $2000+ of work into. I was told by the mechanic that it would be good for a while after that.

About two weeks later, it was totaled (not my fault!). I'm not saying that would happen to you but ...

I ended up buying car from 2013 a year or so later (a Chevy Spark, if you're interested -- good for me but I'm just one person who drives like 5-10 miles a day, if that) and I've had to do exactly three things to it (other than regular oil changes/etc.): Get new tires, get a new battery and get new brakes (that was a bit spendy, honestly). In five years, that was it. Previous to this, I felt like I was spending at least $1000 dollars a year trying to maintain my older cars.

I'd put the money toward a reliable used car. I think you'll be happier in the long run.
posted by edencosmic at 3:31 PM on October 22, 2021

$7k won't get you far in many used car markets, unfortunately. If that's to be a down payment, then maybe yeah that's a way to go. But if you're only looking to spend $7k, I don't know if it's worth it to inherit a new set of problems. $2900 to get a car with your mileage to a good place seems like a steal to me.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 3:31 PM on October 22, 2021 [10 favorites]

(Also YMMV based on your local used car market, but it's beyond bleak out there.)
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 3:32 PM on October 22, 2021 [4 favorites]

I would put the money towards a newer used car, another Honda of course! I had a similar choice when my Honda died just after I put 200k on it. I had bought it new and drove it for 20 years. It was a great car, but even if they could fix it I would still have a 20 yr old car. I sold the non-functional Honda for $500.
posted by Ochre,Hugh at 3:34 PM on October 22, 2021 [1 favorite]

What I would do is just see if you can actually find a car in your price range and make the decision based on that. From what I understand there's a car shortage right now and car buying is even more of a nightmare than it was before. I live in an expensive market but when I got my used Civic in 2019 I had a really hard time finding anything in a similar range and had to go quite a bit out of my comfort zone. So you might wind up opting to repair your car just because you might not have a choice. Just make sure you have both kinds of insurance on it (someone hits you + you hit someone else) so if something happens to it you can replace it.
posted by bleep at 3:40 PM on October 22, 2021 [16 favorites]

Hi, I just went through this with a similar-ish car ('06 Camry with 185k miles, needed $1500 to keep it running).

I ended up selling it and buying a newer used car. As others are warning you, the used car market is fully bananas. My original budget was $10k and...well, the cars that were available at $10k were mystery box garbage cars, frankly, though your market may vary. For $13.5k you could get a nice ~2015 that reeked of cigarette smoke or mold, or a considerably older car that smelled normal. You get the idea. I ended up paying $17k for a 2019 Civic, which, ugh, but I want to be clear that in this market that car was a steal and the cheapest I saw by at least $2k.

WITH THAT SAID: I would do it again, because after bringing my old car to a "we buy junk cars" place, they informed me that it didn't have airbags and hadn't in the entire time I'd owned it. Even aside from that, having a newer car has made my life appreciably better. I have a long-ish commute and being able to play stuff from my phone through the speakers has been a delight. It has a rearview camera so I can park it in these little tiny city spots. It also like...starts every single day. So nice.

If my car had had airbags and I didn't spent 1.5 hours a day in my car, the calculus would have been different, I think, and I'd have spent the money to keep it going until the market gets better. The caveat there, of course, is who knows when that will be.
posted by goodbyewaffles at 3:53 PM on October 22, 2021 [2 favorites]

For what it's worth: my younger son had a 2007 Hyundai with 250,000 that our trusted mechanics told us just couldn't be fixed any more. In our search (NJ/PA area) it was VERY hard to find something decent around $5000. We did find a 2007 Toyota Camry with 180,000 for $4600...and subsequently found out that the same car, with similar high miles, is listed for $9000 at a dealership!!!

Also, my partner is a mechanic at a dealership. With the crazy costs of cars these days, both new and used, he would steer clear of used and go with fixing your original vehicle. But bank as much as you can, for the future.
posted by annieb at 4:06 PM on October 22, 2021 [4 favorites]

Best answer: new spark plugs, new engine and transmission mounts, new tires, alignment, replacing the brake fluid, and about 7 other non-sketchy things

Of the specific repairs you mention, only the spark plugs can possibly be a factor in stalling or failure to start, and even that's not super likely. If it would be an OK car if it started reliably and didn't stall then fix the thing that's preventing it from starting or causing it to stall, i.e. not the things you listed except maybe the spark plugs. Spark plugs are cheap. Don't try to make it into a newer car by putting more money into it than the insurance company would pay you if you totaled it.

Alternately, do this in two stages: First, tell new trusted mechanic to fix only the stalling / non-starting issue. If he succeeds, make an appointment for a month later to fix the other stuff. During that month, consider your options free of the fog of desperation.
posted by jon1270 at 4:40 PM on October 22, 2021 [31 favorites]

Last year I was faced with a similar repair cost for my similarly aged car, and decided it was time. I trusted the mechanic -- I'd been going to them for years and they'd never jerked me around. I cleaned the car out, gave it my thanks, and sold it for $300 to a guy who runs a demolition derby. It felt right to send it out in a blaze of glory.

If you don't have a demolition derby proprietor handy, call around your local scrapyards for the best price. You might get one or two hundred, minus the cost of towing.
posted by ourobouros at 4:55 PM on October 22, 2021

The flip side of the crazy car market is that you'll get far more than seems reasonable for your car, should you decide to replace it. I just sold a 2010 Kia Magentis/Optima with a little over 200,000km on it for CAD$1,100, and it had to be floated by the buyer. If they can drive yours away, you'll do even better. I''d be inclined to take jon1270's advice, and let them decide if they want to put in anything besides the spark plugs.
posted by kate4914 at 5:12 PM on October 22, 2021 [1 favorite]

Another vote for jon1270's proposal. Used car prices are fully insane right now.
posted by ivanthenotsoterrible at 5:30 PM on October 22, 2021

Get new spark plug wires, make sure the electric leads to the alternator are on tight. Check your battery. Those things are what, historically, made cars stall in my life.
posted by Oyéah at 5:35 PM on October 22, 2021

Also get some stuff you put in your gas to clean out the fuel injectors.
posted by Oyéah at 5:37 PM on October 22, 2021

The question here basically is... how much longer will you buy for $3K spent?

3K as down payment should get you a pretty decent vehicle that's a bit more reliable.
posted by kschang at 5:40 PM on October 22, 2021

15 years is considered the working life of an airbag. Depending on trim level, your 98 Civic may not even have a passenger side airbag. I think a newer car would probably be safer. (Speaking as someone who drove a 93 Civic for 26 years)
posted by brachiopod at 5:59 PM on October 22, 2021 [1 favorite]

You don't actually need to spend the entire $2900. You do need to fix safety issues like bad tires and whatever is causing it to randomly stall, though the tires can certainly wait until after you see if the stalling issue can be fixed. Given the present pricing of used cars, I'd probably be inclined to spend a grand on it unless you can get a good price for it as is. Assuming that it's already had the timing belt service that either was recently due or is coming up shortly, anyway.

Many of the likely causes of your stalling issue can be fixed yourself pretty easily if you can operate a screwdriver and a socket wrench. It's old enough that it's still pretty simple.
posted by wierdo at 7:27 PM on October 22, 2021 [1 favorite]

I recommend one of two things:

1. Listen to jon1270

2. Transcribe the whole list of repairs that have been recommended, and then wait for jon1270 to post again and listen to him then
posted by fritley at 7:32 PM on October 22, 2021 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks for the answers so far.

Clarification of sorts: The Nice Mechanics did a full series of diagnostic tests and said the stalling issue was major and not just spark plugs, wires or alternator leads. I didn't start writing stuff down until halfway through the call so forget exactly what it was (I'm going back first thing Monday to get an itemized list of the repairs they recommend) but fixing the stalling/not starting thing was a big part of the total, which sent us down the "and here's everything else" path. I'll let you know what I find out but they assured me it wasn't a cheap or easy fix.
posted by mediareport at 7:55 PM on October 22, 2021

Yep, I’d say if this beater is doing the job and could get you through the winter if it wasn’t stalling, and the stalling is a sub-$500 fix (it may well be, any of the spark/ignition issues mentioned above would be a cheap fix), then given the used car market, which is not only insanely expensive right now but offers shitty options even at those high prices, I’d try to make it last another season for as little money as possible and drive it into the ground. Your tolerance for risk is a variable. But so is only having $7000 to throw at what is currently an obscenely expensive market. Much of what you could get to replace this for that money will bring its own fresh set of problems.
posted by spitbull at 8:01 AM on October 23, 2021 [2 favorites]

At this age, things on the car will keep breaking. The car is letting you know it's time to move on.
posted by theora55 at 8:05 AM on October 23, 2021

The repairs you listed are all wear and tear maintenance, and any car you can buy in the current market for $7k-ish will also have those issues, if not now then in the near future. I have a very slightly newer Honda - a 2008 Element with about 140k miles on it. I just did every single thing you listed recently: new spark plugs, new engine and transmission mounts, new tires, alignment, replacing the brake fluid (all those things cost me maybe $1500 at the most? get another quote). I did the alternator and ignition last year.

According to KBB, my Honda is worth $8200. That's DOUBLE what I paid for it when it had 80k miles on it a few years ago. I've been thinking of selling it and taking advantage of the appreciation, but I have the same problem as you: you can't buy anything with that extra money right now. I think maybe the people suggesting "just get a new car" haven't really been in the market recently.

Stalling is probably because of spark plugs, which is something you can do yourself with a single wrench and a few minutes at a car parts store. Watch a Youtube video, could solve your biggest problem for the cost of cheap plugs you need anyway. Then get quotes for the other stuff and get it done as cheaply as possible is what I'd probably do right now.
posted by bradbane at 9:30 AM on October 23, 2021

I’d take it to another mechanic for a second opinion. I once saved about $4,000 on an old beater by doing that. I’m not saying Nice Mechanic is scamming or lying to you but when you’re at the point of deciding whether or not to spend close to the car’s value on repairing it, I think it’s worthwhile to get a second opinion.

(FWIW, that $150 I wound up spending got my car halfway across the country and then another ~5 months before it died of unrelated causes. Sure glad I didn’t spend $4k on it!)
posted by lunasol at 9:38 AM on October 23, 2021 [1 favorite]

I think the best course - financially - would be to spend the money on the repair. It is unlikely that you are getting a much better car for 6K. To get to the “reasonably certain not to cough up repair bills and almost certain not to leave you stranded”, that 6K is a down payment. Then you get to substituted payments and interest for repairs.

Almost always (barring known money pits like land rovers and off warranty German cars), keeping an old car going is cheaper than replacing. In your case, the difference is 3K vs 6K + years of payments. The latter also doesn’t guarantee no repairs or costs. My 2010 pinnacle of reliability Toyota cost 2K in repairs this year. Even our still in warranty VW’s scheduled maintenance was 600 for the year. No car costs nothing to maintain or repair.

Even if you only get one year of use from that repair, that’s 250/mo cost of ownership ex gas and insurance. That’s a steal of a deal. Google tells me the average car payment for a used car in the US is 400$.

Now, if you just want a nicer ride and some comforts like Bluetooth connectivity and driving aids, by all means go out and get another car. But even if it weren’t one of the worst times historically to buy a car, it’s not the cheaper option.
posted by bumpkin at 10:09 AM on October 23, 2021 [2 favorites]

I'm in a similar position (with a similar vintage Civic) and I'm planning to take the jon1270 approach, because I already know everything that's wrong with that damn car. I don't know what's likely to be wrong with any other car -- an inspection by a mechanic only goes so far -- and it's a complete seller's market right now.
posted by holgate at 11:09 AM on October 23, 2021 [1 favorite]

Okay this has been super answered but please please get a new car!! Safer and more reliable and you won’t have to spend another 3k in a couple months!!
posted by Kestrelxo at 8:53 AM on October 24, 2021

Response by poster: Just to be clear I am still very much interested in hearing more folks' opinions.
posted by mediareport at 4:13 PM on October 24, 2021

Response by poster: So the stalling issue is the ignition switch, specifically "the electrical portion of the ignition switch; the car thinks the key's out of the ignition." They say that's a $550 repair.

Alternately, do this in two stages: First, tell new trusted mechanic to fix only the stalling / non-starting issue. If he succeeds, make an appointment for a month later to fix the other stuff. During that month, consider your options free of the fog of desperation.

That sounds like a good plan. I've been looking at other cars, and Kelly's Blue Book is telling me there are ten 2008 Honda Civics near my zip code in the $6500-10000 range, with 110K to 160K miles. I'm debating the unknown problems vs known problems stuff. We'll see how it goes. Thanks, everyone, for the thoughtful advice.
posted by mediareport at 4:04 PM on October 25, 2021 [1 favorite]

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