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?

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