4 steps to determine if your car is too expensive to repair

Should I Repair or Replace My Car?

by Austin Davis

My car is getting old and my repair bills are getting larger and more frequent. How do I know when to get a new car and stop repairing my existing one? Is there a formula for deciding whether to repair or replace my car? Or some guidelines to help me determine when my car is just too expensive to repair?
Concerned Car Owner

Dear Concerned Car Owner,
I get asked this question quite often, but in some cases not often enough. Seems some people have a "problem" with a $300 a month new car payment, but they are perfectly comfortable paying the same if not more on monthly repair bills and accept the inconveniences that come with them. I don't know what "drives" people to a high mileage goal? I hear customers comment "This car has to go another 20,000 miles" or brag about how many miles they are determined to put on their vehicles. "I am going to drive this vehicle 180,000 miles whether it likes it or not". Now if this is a challenge for you, go ahead and take it, but I can think of many other challenges less costly. Granted, some cars will last a long time and do so with relatively low maintenance cost, but this is not the norm.

How does one know when to throw in the shop rag and get a new car? Well, I don't have a crystal ball bearing, but I can provide some helpful guidelines to assist you in your evaluation process.

First: Perform an evaluation of your vehicle yourself using the used car checklist from Popular Mechanics. The check out is self explaining and easy to use. If you have a concern or a potential problem you might uncover with an item on the list, have your mechanic inspect it during the next step.

Related: How to Select an Auto Repair Shop

Second: Determine what future maintenance cost will or could be. I have assembled a helpful maintenance schedule to help you forecast costly maintenance items. Print out the maintenance schedules that are closest to your current mileage and the next higher mileage schedule. Take your car to the mechanic (hopefully the mechanic that you regularly visit and have a good relationship with) and pay them to inspect all the items on the two schedules. The cost of these inspections should be fairly inexpensive, and the information they will provide will be more than worth the expense. Add up all recommended repair costs plus all previous repairs during the year. Divide this number by 12 to determine your average repair cost for the given year. This number will not however include any breakdown or unexpected repairs.

Get free quotes on local used cars.

Third: How much is your car worth? Trading in your vehicle for a new car is the easiest but will not bring in the most money for you. The new car dealer will pay you a wholesale price for your car, and in doing this you are leaving money on the table. Selling your vehicle to an individual at a retail price will require a little more work on the part of the seller, but there can be greater financial gain in doing so. Autotrader.com can provide you with similar "comparable" vehicles like yours, so you can get a feel for the market in your area. I recommend going to see and test drive your competition before you set a price on your car. Take along the used car checklist and evaluate the competition just as you did your car. How does your car compare? Could you place a higher price on your car after your evaluation, or is your competition in better shape? Another helpful site is KellyBlueBook.com where you can obtain loan, trade in, and retail values for comparable vehicles. This book is commonly used as the standard in vehicle base values, but you can always add or subtract from that number things like overall appearance, well kept maintenance records, upgrades (stereo equipment, tires and wheels, bug shields...etc) and customer added items.

Related: Car Trade-In Tips

Fourth: How much will your next car cost, and how will you pay for it? Now that you have determined your yearly repair costs, the value of your current vehicle, and a possible sales price you must calculate the monthly payment of the new car. Paying a larger down payment on the new car will lower the monthly payment. How much of the sale of your current car can you use as a down payment on the new car? When buying the new car be sure to take advantage of rebate incentives and low or zero interest on certain models the factory is trying to move out. Keep in mind you are replacing a vehicle that you know will be incurring future repair costs, so don't take on more money debt than you can handle. Hopefully you have a month or two before these expected repair bills will be required, so you will have some time to price shop the new car, and have time to sell your current vehicle.

calculator iconCalculator: Auto Loan Calculator

Some things to consider: In my opinion, I would replace your current vehicle if your average yearly repair bills are more than 10% of the price of the new car you would like. These four steps are just a guide to help you remove the emotion tied to selling your current car and buying the new one. After doing these steps, you might find that you are not in the "money pit", and the maintenance schedules and check list will have given you an easy way to forecast and plan for up coming repair expenses.

Updated March 2018

Take the Next Step:

  • Use these 13 questions to determine if your car worth repairing.
  • Get all the facts before you buy or sell a vehicle. Edmunds.com will give you what you need to know to make a confident deal.
  • Make sure you are not overpaying for auto insurance. See how much you could save with just a few clicks. Fast, free quotes and online comparisons.
  • Open a savings account dedicated to your auto fund. Find the best rate so you can earn the interest you deserve.
  • Stop struggling to get ahead financially. Subscribe to our free weekly Surviving Tough Times newsletter aimed at helping you 'live better...for less'. Each issue features great ways to help you stretch your dollars and make the most of your resources. Subscribers get a copy of Are You Heading for Debt Trouble? A Simple Checklist And What You Can Do About It for FREE!
  • For over 63 years Austin Davis' family has built a reputation in the auto repair business for being honest, dependable, and for serving customers at a fair price. To help those who can't visit his garage he's authored What Your Mechanic Doesn't Want You to Know.

Stay Connected with TDS

Little Luxuries

to the Dollar Stretcher newsletter and get a copy
of our ebook
Little Luxuries:
130 Ways to Live Better...For Less
for FREE!

Your Email:

View the TDS Privacy Policy.

Debt Book