Your aging car’s engine has been knocking loud enough that turning up the radio doesn’t help anymore. You take it to your trusted mechanic, who gives you the bad news: One of your main bearings has worn out, and the repair will cost around $3,000.
Since you can’t know for sure if this is just the beginning of your car’s transition into a rolling money pit, or if the $3,000 repair will get you motoring happily along for another 50,000 miles, it can be nigh-impossible to figure out whether to stick it out with Old Faithful or cut your losses and buy a new car.
Thankfully, there are some guideposts that will help you to make this difficult decision. Here’s what you need to consider if you are trying to decide whether to fix up your old car or get a new one.
Consider the age and safety of your ride
If you are still driving a car that emerged from the factory in the early-to-mid 1990s, you might want to factor safety into your decision of whether to repair or replace. Safety standards have grown and changed a great deal in the past 20 years, and upgrading your car to something that was built in this millennium could make a big difference if you were to get into an accident. This is especially true for anyone using an older car as a family vehicle. Newer cars have made it much easier to properly install car seats, for example, which can offer parents a great deal of peace of mind.
Take rust seriously
According to automotive journalist Steven Lang, there is one type of car problem that indicates your automobile is ready for that big garage in the sky: “If the integrity of the car’s frame has been compromised by rust, then you should plan on getting a new car.”
While a little surface rust on a car’s frame is not necessarily a big deal, your mechanic will let you know if the frame has rusted to the point where it has become dangerous to drive. “It’s game over at that point,” Lang states. “Cars cannot come back from that kind of damage.”
Find an online forum for your make and model
Even if you are not concerned about the safety of continuing to drive your aging car, you might still worry that a repair is just the tip of the iceberg, and that you’ll continue throwing good money after bad if you head down this path.
While this kind of quandary was very difficult to figure out pre-internet, these days you don’t have to decide what to do by yourself. Start by searching for an enthusiast forum online that is dedicated to your specific make and model of car. (Believe it or not, there are such groups for everything from Kia Sorentos to BMW E30 M3s — although the former are more likely to be “support groups” rather than enthusiast forums.)
Once you’ve found a forum, you can ask about the specific repair you are considering. It’s likely that someone else has faced a similar problem on the same car, and they can let you know just how much more drive time their repair was able to buy them.
You can also use the forums to find out if there are common problems facing your specific car, as some cars have known issues that crop up as they age. These forums are also a great place to ask about recalls or other issues that you might not be aware of, especially if you bought your car used.
Determine cost vs. worth
So how do you know if the cost of a repair is worth it to you? For insurers, simple subtraction makes the decision easy. If the cost of a repair is higher than the Kelley Blue Book value of a car, the insurer will total the car. And if you are in a position to purchase a new car, this kind of simplified equation is helpful.
However, what a car is worth to you is not necessarily as simple as that. If you own your current car free-and-clear, and would struggle to take on a car payment, the determination of whether the cost of the repair is worth it becomes a little more difficult. A good rule of thumb in this situation is to buy a new car if the repair would cost more than one year’s worth of car payments — but keep the clunker if it is less.
And don’t forget the potential value of trading in your clunker, even if it needs a repair. It’s tougher to sell or trade in a car in need of a major repair, but your old ride may still be worth something and can help you with the purchase of something newer or more reliable.
Answering the impossible question
You can never know for sure if you made the right call with this kind of repair-or-replace decision. But gathering all the information you can about your car’s safety, its common problems, and its worth can help you to determine if a repair will serve you better than a new car.