Ask the readers: How do you know when your car is dead?

Earlier this month, I shared a link to a comprehensive guide to certified pre-owned vehicle programs. In doing so, I mentioned that Kim and I both believe that you should drive a car until it dies. This prompted a great question from Tired Scientist in the comments. She wrote:

Exactly what is the definition of “until it dies”? My husband and I have gone around and around on this question ourselves. We both believe in driving a car “until it dies”, but disagree slightly on the definition of this–because, unlike with the human body, almost all problems on a car are fixable given enough money.

[…]

When is a car considered “dead”? When the cost of repairs exceed the value of the car? When the average monthly cost of repairs exceeds the amount a car payment would be? Is my husband right, and the car is “dead” once it tries to make you dead?

I'm not sure there's any one right answer to this question. There are several ways to decide that a car is dead, and it's up to you to decide which definition applies to you. Let's look at a decision I made recently — then talk about what other people think.

My Mini Cooper

My Mini CooperIn April 2009, after years of wanting one, I bought a used Mini Cooper. I paid $15,600 to purchase a 2004 Mini with 60,000 miles on it. I've had that vehicle for over eight years now, and I've put another 75,000 miles on it. In that time, I've spent less than $1000 on repairs — until recently.

I love my Mini. I love how compact it is. I love its fuel economy. (It still gets over 30 miles per gallon even at this age!) I love how fun it is to drive. And I love how reliable the car has been despite not always being treated well. During our 15-month RV trip around the U.S., Kim and I towed the Mini behind the motorhome — and we used it for the kinds of off-road adventures that Minis were never intended to have.

That said, my Mini has started to show its age. Parts that are expected to wear out have begun to wear out. Plus, problems have begun to appear.

Two weeks ago, for instance, the car died while climbing the 16% grade near our house. The clutch went up in a cloud of stinky, stinky smoke. When I had the car towed to our mechanic, he found evidence that the transmission was failing. “It'll cost about $1600 to fix the clutch,” he said. “And I found a used transmission I could install for about $1900.”

As much as I love my Mini, $3500 is a lot of money to put into repairs for an older car. In fact, that's nearly as much as the car is worth! (According to the Kelley Blue Book website, my 2004 Mini Cooper is worth roughly $3741 if I were to try to sell it to a private party. It's worth much less in dealer trade-in value.)

I had a decision to make: Do I scrap the Mini and buy a replacement? Or do I make the repairs and continue to drive an older car?

My Thought Process

Kim and I talked about it. Since moving to our country cottage in early July, it's become very clear that we could use a compact pickup truck. We've had to haul things nearly every weekend. It's a pain to squeeze them into the Mini or her 1997 Honda Accord. (Believe it or not, the Mini has better cargo space than the Accord.) It's an even bigger pain to run down to the family box factory to borrow the cargo van — but we do that fairly often.

So, we've been talking about buying some sort of beater pickup from the 1980s.

With a $3500 repair bill looming for the Mini, we were faced with a decision. Do we make the leap and use that money to instead buy a pickup? Or do we proceed with the repairs? We chose to proceed with the repairs — but we're not convinced that's the right choice. (Or that there is a “right” choice.)

Note: Before I approved the transmission repair, I got a second opinon. My ex-wife Kris is dating a guy who spent years working on Mini Coopers. “Manual transmissions just don't fail on the 2004s,” he told me. “But you towed yours behind a motorhome for fifteen months and 18,000 miles. Minis aren't really designed to do that. In this case, it's not surprising that the transmission is trashed.”

Why did we decide to make repairs instead of declaring that my car was dead? For several reasons:

  • First, the Mini is still in fairly good shape. Yes, it needs expensive repairs right now. But those are the first expensive repairs I've made. It's required a few minor things over the past couple of years, but generally speaking the car is in great condition. Now that the repairs are complete, I don't see why it couldn't last until the 200,000 mile mark. For me, that's another five or six years (or more!).
  • Second, the Mini is a known quantity. We know its quirks. I've been its primary owner, and I know that I've taken care of it. Any time you buy a used vehicle, you have to guess about how the previous owner(s) treated it. I'd rather stick with the devil I know.
  • The Mini is no longer the ideal vehicle for where we live. It's not a pickup truck. However, we're done with most of the major remodeling now, so we don't think we'll need to haul as much anymore. Plus, the Mini can carry more than the Accord. And it's newer than the Accord. If we replace a vehicle, we should probably replace the Honda.
  • Honestly, keeping the Mini was the easiest thing to do. Searching for a quality used compact pickup would have taken time that I didn't have. Fixing the Mini was the path of least resistance.
  • The Mini gets great gas mileage. As I mentioned, it's still averaging just over 30 miles per gallon. I doubt that a compact pickup would get anywhere close to that. I'm not a heavy driver, so fuel economy isn't that big of a deal, but it's still something I consider.
  • Finally, there were emotional reasons for me to make the repairs. I love my little Mini Cooper, and I'm not ready to part with it.

For me then, it made sense to keep the Mini. But Kim and I are conscious of the fact that it's nearing the end of its lifespan. We also know that her Honda Accord probably should be replaced the next it needs a major repair.

How Do YOU Know When Your Car Is Dead?

So, that's how I made my decision about whether or not my car was dead. But I'm curious: How do folks in the Get Rich Slowly community decide when their car has died? I posed this question to the Get Rich Slowly page on Facebook, and 118 commenters shared their personal guidelines and experiences.

A few folks advocated the common advice that you know your car is dead when repair costs exceed the car's value. Not everyone agreed:

How do you know when your car is dead?

The most common response was that you should consider replacing your car when the cost to maintain it exceeds the cost to purchase a new one. Most people look at average monthly maintenance costs and compare those to what payments would be for a new vehicle. (Or, if you're not going to finance the car, then your expected cost of ownership.)

Another group of people base their decision on safety rather than cost:

How do you know when your car is dead?

I'm curious how Get Rich Slowly readers handle their car-buying decisions. Do you drive your car until it's dead? How do you know when your car is dead? For you, what's the deciding factor? Is it based on money? On safety? On some other factor? And when you do replace your car, what do you replace it with? A late-model used car? A new vehicle? Something different every time?

More about...Transportation

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Alex
Alex
2 years ago

Spending more on repairs than a car is worth is the same as paying that much for the car. If repairs are $4000 on a $3500 car, then you are spending 4000 to get 3500. That’s just bad economics. You should get something worth at least 4000 if you spend 4000. If you don’t have the cash to move up a few thousand in car at least get the best car possible for the money you are going to spend.

Jerry Brown
Jerry Brown
2 years ago

Great question. My 2012 Nissan Altima is now 5.5 years old and has 100k miles on it. My decision to declare it dead is complicated since it generates revenue for me via Ubering.

Julia
Julia
2 years ago

My “dead” is when no longer safe. My last car needed new tires, new brakes, there was an issue with the fuel gauge, the head gasket was cracked (had to add coolant every month), and then the check engine light came on. It was no longer safe to drive me and my son around town. I knew the cost to repair would be more than the car was worth. Also a move to Tacoma is imminent and I didn’t want to drive a repaired car from Las Vegas to Tacoma. Still found a used car but purchased under book value… Read more »

Terrell
Terrell
2 years ago

I tend to drive my cars until they die. For me, it’s really a gut feeling. I am however a bit mechanically inclined. I tend to try to asses the overall condition of the vehicle. Take for example the toasted transmission in the article. What’s the overall shape of the vehicle other than that. Is it rusting? Do you have minor fluid leaks? Any odd noises or minor items that have broken? If not and everything else seems solid, and you feel the if the issue is repaired you’re going to get a good value for the remaining life of… Read more »

dh
dh
2 years ago

I always buy small pickup trucks brand new for cash — Toyota Tacoma four-bangers that cost about 19k. I drive them like crazy with my businesses until they’ve got about 320k miles on them. At that point, they seem to start needing significant repairs (1k or more) every other weekend kind of thing lol. That’s when I go get a new one.

Rachael
Rachael
2 years ago

Pretty much until the cost of the repairs makes it more expensive to keep. I had an ‘07 VW station wagon I bought in ‘12 (Paid $14k, a few hundered under blue book from a private party). Got 5 years out of it, then it needed 3 big expensive repairs within 6 months last winter – timing chain, timing belt (it had both!) and one other issue I couldn’t tell you. The first bill (including new tires and an interval service) was $3k. 2nd repair 2 months later was $2k. When the 3rd repair was needed within just a couple… Read more »

Dale
Dale
2 years ago

I’ve never been the happy about having to give up an old car and upgrade. I prefer the beater years of car ownership when it can get a little dent or scratch without it ruining my day.

Catherine
Catherine
2 years ago

Is it as bad as a car payment? That’s how I used to look at it. That works when it’s your main concern. I had to sell our beloved 1998Honda Civic in 2012 when it had $366k miles and needed a head gasket. It would have lasted with low repair costs for another couple of years, but I was working swing shift at a casino 30 minutes from my house. The next breakdown could leave me stranded in the wee hours of the morning. The cost of getting a new vehicle was well worth the peace of mind that came… Read more »

Evangeline
Evangeline
2 years ago

I think it’s perfectly okay to invest a substantial amount of money into car repairs provided you can afford it (no debt) and it helps you avoid a car payment as well as the expense of paying higher auto insurance. (did this for our teenager). When is a car dead or possibly dying? My rule of thumb is to never let it nickel and dime you. Standard repairs are one thing; emptying your bank account on a regular basis is quite another.

lmoot
lmoot
2 years ago

I never really got the general rule of don’t pay more than the car is worth in repairs. Most people use this as an excuse to upgrade. Rarely do they decide to pay in equalish value, for another car. in the $3000 range are a small pool, so much more is usually spent. Cars in the $5k range are a ticking timebomb. At least with a repaired vehicle you already know what wires have been cut. Now I get it if it’s things like bodywork and other non-mechanical issues, or the thing is just the lemon and keeps breaking down… Read more »

Accidental FIRE
Accidental FIRE
2 years ago

Like anything in life it’s a gamble. Sure, you can say “get it fixed, that should last me another few years or till xxx miles”. It might, or it might not. You might then have another major thing break. It’s basically like trying to predict the market, you can’t. But you can make a more informed decision as to whether or not it’s worth getting fixed based on the make/model etc etc. You did that by looking at the history of the Mini and getting opinions. It might turn out that you’re right and it’ll keep faithfully chugging along to… Read more »

Goob
Goob
2 years ago

I replace cars based on convenience rather than cost. If it starts breaking down enough that the trips to the mechanic are an inconvenience (more than 2 issues/yr. for me), time to get another car! Free time is too precious to waste on worrying about a car breaking down…

Debbie
Debbie
2 years ago

I drive a 2007 Toyota Tacoma which is nearing 200K miles. This truck is worth much more on the open market than the Blue Book value. Last time I looked it was worth about $7K; similar used trucks are selling for $12K in Southern CA. Please look at the price of similar used cars before deciding to sell your used Mini.

infmom
infmom
2 years ago

My mom moved cross country and left us her beat-up Toyota. It worked well enough to get my husband to work and back, but since my mom was clueless about auto maintenance it was already in marginal shape when she left it (it would never have survived a cross country trip). Still, it kept going for nearly two years. We got it fixed a few times. But there finally came a day when our mechanic told us it just wasn’t worth trying to fix any more. When he showed us the estimate just for the parts we believed him. The… Read more »

Mike
Mike
2 years ago

I look at the sum of the unrepaired value of the vehicle (and by that I mean what I can realistically expect to sell it for with minimal effort which is likely less than the “blue book” value) and the cost of repair. I understand that mathematically if that sum is less than the repaired value I should likely not do the repair. However, for me while the foregoing analysis is helpful I make my primary consideration based upon what I could potentially purchase (again with minimal effort) for that sum. I live and work in the same small town.… Read more »

Jeannie
Jeannie
2 years ago

For me it’s a safety thing. I don’t know very much about cars, so I’ll get rid of it when it starts to need more and more repairs and I just don’t feel safe anymore.

Adam
Adam
2 years ago

I drive a 2004 Elantra with 134k on the ticker. It’s a hatch, a stickshift, and isn’t yet completely computerized like everything else on the road. The throttle is operated by a cable that runs from the pedal; the e-brake likewise, from lever to the rear wheels. I know how to get it to do what I want and generally how to fix it when it doesn’t. And here’s the kicker: I haven’t used it to commute since 2006. If the engine fell apart and the transmission evaporated and the brake lines all rusted out at the same time tomorrow,… Read more »

Cybrgeezer
Cybrgeezer
2 years ago

I last had a car payment from 1999 through 2002 and it was about $250 per month. So that is my benchmark. If my present car (it’s 12 years old and I’ve had it almost 10) starts costing me more than $250/month for anything other than gas, oil or tires, it’s time for it to go. A $1,000 repair, for instance, means no other non-gas, oil or tire expenses for at least 4 months ($250/month average).

SG
SG
2 years ago

I know this is a finance blog. But while people have talked about safety, what about convenience? My time is worth something. Even if I had a bunch of small repairs, the hassle of back and forth to the mechanic or part store can really dig into the rest of your life.

I consider what’s broken, what’s likely to break, and how much of a hassle the whole thing is. The hassle can be a real factor if I’m in and out of the shop every could months, even if they’re small issues.

lmoot
lmoot
2 years ago
Reply to  SG

I find that if you are in and out of the shop, you don’t have a very good mechanic, or they don’t do a very good diagnostic test. I have my car serviced at the dealership, and yes while it might be a little more expensive, I get a detailed health check when I go, and I can see the status of the wear and tear on all of the major components. This allows me to address issues before they become an issue, and I can do several preventative fixes in one visit so I don’t have to worry about… Read more »

lmoot
lmoot
2 years ago
Reply to  lmoot

This ensures that I rarely have to bring the car in for a specific service. I try to only have it serviced when I need an oil change anyway.

Plus they have free shuttle service which will drop me off and pick me up from the house or work, when I used to work out of the office.

s17m33
s17m33
2 years ago

my 82 s10 had one good brake, one mirror, and one bolt and some twisted rusty metal holding the bed on, I beat it to hell and hauled everything with it….it wasn’t dead when I parked it in the rock pile and updated to a 72 c10

lisa
lisa
2 years ago

As my husband states, “It’s always cheaper to repair a car than it is to buy a new one.” True. We repair for as many years as we can to keep things going. One repair we couldn’t fix was when the electric windows wouldn’t go down. We checked salvage yards, ebay, etc. for parts, but no luck. After a couple of years of me bugging DH about window safety, we sold it for $200. That Honda had 300,000+ miles on it. Besides, the Honda was purchased from a friend for $3500. After a hail storm damaged it and totaled it… Read more »

JimW
JimW
2 years ago

only reason I don’t buy newer and nicer is I don’t want to pay more state taxes. I would have paid for the repairs too.

Wally1
Wally1
2 years ago

I am a car guy, I don’t buy newer cars, the technology and computerized systems are very failure prone and very expensive. Some computer fails on newer cars cost more to repair than a complete engine or transmission overhaul on a older vehicle. I like 60’s and early 70 muscle cars, while they can be expensive to purchase a nice restored example, I have never lost money when selling. They are old enough that they are emission exempt and any repairs can be done at home with minimal tools, they get decent mileage and are just fun to drive. A… Read more »

JoshT
JoshT
2 years ago

“…I’m not ready to part with it”

To a lot of people, this is the deciding factor for repairing cars. I know I’ll do anything to not part with my ’06 Mini Cooper 🙂 It’s just one of those things I choose to spend money on. Congrats on remaining a PDX Mini’er!

Bernard
Bernard
2 years ago

I make a living with cars. I’ve been a car guy for as long as I can think back, and in my 2nd career, the current one, which I started in 1999, I deal in classic cars, ranging from 1915 ’til about 1989. It’s a good business that has allowed me to buy commercial real estate even, and I love what I do. When it comes to my personal cars, I almost always make money when I sell them. If not, we’ve been driving the car for a very long time. Before I met my wife, she had bought a… Read more »

ChadM
ChadM
1 year ago

What a wonderful question with an infinite number of answers, only one of which is right for me. While we consider total cost of ownership, the tipping point is not “dollar” value driven. My justification/rationalization point is when the emotional cost of not having transportation exceeds some undefined threshold. We usually follow preventative maintenance schedules and put +200K miles on before calling it “dead.” Recently traded a 2009 Hyundai Sonata with 223K on Ford F-150, similar reasons you considered but came down on the other side of the fence; still driving the 2005 Jeep Liberty with 189K. When my peace… Read more »

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