To Upgrade or Not to Upgrade: Weighing Car Maintenance Costs

Photo by kevin dooley, via flickr

OK, you reality TV watchers out there (and you know who you are) -- how about an automobile themed spin-off of HGTV’s hit shows "Love It Or List It" and "Property Brothers?"  I know I’m not alone when I say that I like watching the trials and tribulations when others make decisions to remodel or go for that new home.  I spend a lot of time commuting, so I was thinking during my drive one morning that there should be a reality show called “Grease It or Buy It” or maybe “The Grease Guys" -- both sure to be huge hits.

With our uncertain economy, high fuel prices, and so many other things I wonder if I should a) hang onto my vehicle longer or b) head to the showroom and buy the brand spanking new one.

From my side of the windshield, it doesn’t seem like many people keep their cars very long these days.  With leases and warranties running out, the thought of trading for that new model looks awfully inviting. With 335,000+ miles on my shiny well-maintained 2001 Japanese-branded SUV, I’m wondering if it might be time to trade her in for something less worn out.

An odometer registering that many miles makes me wonder if it’s just good vehicle genes or good maintenance.  Probably some of both, I would imagine.

Prompted by this curiosity, I asked Jack who is my auto dealership service agent (you could refer to him as my car’s “primary care provider”) how much money I’ve spent maintaining my car over the past 11 years.

A maintenance record that big took a while to total!  Jack tallied well over $15,000 spent maintaining my SUV.  That’s about $1,364 per year just changing oil and fixing and replacing worn-out or broken parts.  Doesn’t sound too bad, does it?  For me, it’s like having a part-time mechanic on the household payroll – sort of like having a personal trainer or landscaper in your monthly budget.

In my more than 24 years of commuting 120 miles daily to and from work, I’ve never kept a car over 11 years, nor have I maintained one as rigorously as the SUV I’m driving now.  In the past, I did the maintenance as long as the warranty was in effect.  After that, I mostly just kept adding oil and fuel. I guess my maintenance recordkeeping habits have matured because now, I dutifully record every fuel purchase and religiously calculate fuel efficiency.

I know you’re thinking, “Geez, does this guy have a “work/life balance,” or in this case, a “life/vehicle maintenance balance?” Well, it’s a part of life for me to dedicate some time on a Saturday every six weeks getting at least the oil changed, and sometimes more.

Thinking back on my decade plus of car maintenance, it’s mostly been routine things that needed attention.  But, there were a few “big ticket” repair items.  A short 75,000 miles ago, my SUV wasn’t climbing steep grades well, so a valve job was in order. And Jack in his best “vehicle-side manner” gravely counseled, “While we’re in there, we probably ought to replace the piston rings, too.”

I courageously faced Jack’s recommended “treatment” and “prognosis.”  The seductive thought of trading in my SUV for the showroom’s latest model briefly crossed my mind. Would several years of payments be worth it or should I just opt for repairing what I already had?

Let’s see, do I want a brand new $24,000+ vehicle, or should I hang in there with my looks-new-proven-reliable car, with its $6,000 bill?  Quickly, at least for me, the choice became clear.  I could have the benefits of a nearly new but paid for vehicle with the annual maintenance and repair costs. After coming to my decision, I splurged and added $3.59 for a “new car fragrance” deodorizer.  Now, my SUV runs, looks, and even smells like new!

Overall, this ride has pretty much been like driving a state highway - mostly smooth with a “pothole” here and there.  The potholes have come in the form of replacing an alternator, a couple of air conditioner compressors, brakes and the brake cylinder, alignments, and a battery or two.  And, believe it or not, it still has its original clutch!

If you’re like me and have foregone the decision to buy new recently, I recommend that you follow the vehicle maintenance schedule provided by the car’s manufacturer:

  • Oil changes, oil changes, and, more oil changes. (I’ve done about 96 of them to date.)
  • Tire rotation about every 6,000 miles. (That’s about 55 times for my SUV, so far.)
  • Replace tires as needed. (My “Proud Mary” is currently rolling on her 6th set.)
  • Replace the air filter as needed. (She’s gotta breathe clean air.)
  • Fill ‘er up! (At 25 mpg, I’ve used 13,413 gallons of gasoline.)
  • And often! (I’ve refueled about every 280 miles, meaning 1,198 trips to the gas pump.)

In my last conversation with Jack, I told him,“I’m going for 500,000 miles before I even start thinking about a trade.”  I was really angling for the Great Customer Loyalty Discount, and just paving the road, so to speak.

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buying a car, car maintenance, car repair, Decisions & Dilemmas, Dennis Gatlin