With new cars seeming to pop up in every driveway, even people who normally scorn spending money on the latest automotive fashion are beginning to ask themselves if it's time to part with their old jalopies.
It's a simple question that defies a simple answer.
There are lots of reasons people buy new cars. Some covet the latest models. Others insist on state-of-the-art safety and convenience features. And at times, a family's transportation needs change along with jobs, commutes, and children.
Yet Jeremy Anwyl, chief operating officer of Edmunds.com in Santa Monica, Calif, lists two other reasons most people replace their old car: "Either it gets too old to fix, or you just get so bored with it you can't stand it anymore."
From a purely financial standpoint, he says, there's no better strategy than to drive your old car into the ground.
New cars are much more expensive to buy, insure, register, and finance, agrees Jennifer Nye, a spokeswoman for Intellichoice, a Hollister, Calif., firm that rates the overall cost of buying a new car.
But it's a balancing act, she says. As these costs drop, maintenance costs rise.
Certainly some cars are more reliable than others. Plenty of resources such as Consumer Reports offer ratings of a vehicle's reliability. But the magazine does not bother to rate cars over seven years old because of the multitude of problems older cars have. And that's about the average age of cars, says Consumers Union spokesman Douglas Love.
Today, though, Americans are keeping their cars on the road longer, with the average age actually creeping up to 8.3 years. Today's cars can easily exceed 200,000 miles if you maintain them and don't abuse them, says Mr. Anwyl.
Even rust is largely a thing of the past, say most experts. Today's car bodies are made of aluminum or plastic or are treated with zinc to inhibit rust. By the time a car is six, seven, or eight years old, though, serious maintenance costs start kicking in, says Christine Olson, director of client services at Intellichoice.
According to the Intellichoice's "The Complete Car Cost Guide," repairs tend to cluster around 50,000 to 75,000 miles, 100,000 miles, and 120,000 to 150,000 miles. And earlier problems tend to be less expensive than later ones. With each increase in problems, the car's value drops commensurately. On top of that, by 120,000 miles, the same parts that were replaced at 60,000 miles may fail again. Generally around 200,000 miles, problems arise that are no longer worth fixing, experts say, because the cost of the repair exceeds the value of the car.
Regardless of the odometer reading, trading in your car remains a uniquely personal decision. Many information brokers including Edmunds, Consumer Reports, and Intellichoice offer advice to make the process less mysterious.
Auto experts recommend that car owners turn to a mechanic to give their car a going over. While inspections can't turn up every problem, they can give consumers an idea of what their cars' needs are and how to budget for future repairs, says Donna Wagner, president of the Car Care Council in Port Clinton, Ohio.
Another consideration is the condition of obviously vulnerable parts like the tires, brakes, and clutches in manual-transmission cars. If you've just sprung for $300 worth of new tires, you may want to get some mileage out of them before dumping your heap.
In addition, how you maintain your car is key when deciding whether to keep your vehicle. If a car is meticulously maintained, relatively little may go wrong with it. But if you put off a lot of work and the car makes a growing cacophony of creaks and groans, you may need to unload the car sooner. Besides mechanical problems, how you maintain your car's paint and upholstery can also have a big effect on its value -and become a factor in how fast you tire of the car.
Still, there's no one right answer to when to sell. People determined to save every last nickel may spend a lot to maintain their cars as they deteriorate. For others, the criteria are simple: The first time they get stuck by the side of the road, it's time for a new car.
When you do decide to give up the old car, Anwyl says, you can save the most by buying a one- or two-year-old car rather than a new one. This way you avoid paying the first-year depreciation. Oh, and keep it forever, he says.
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