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The joy of (repairing) older cars

Maintenance on our two vehicles set me back nearly $3,000 on a recent visit to the mechanic, and it was money well spent.

By MSN Money Partner Apr 13, 2012 10:57AM

This post comes from Len Penzo at partner blog Len Penzo dot Com.


Len Penzo dot Com on MSN MoneyParents, if you want your kids to become independently wealthy, don't encourage them to go to college. Tell them to open up a car repair shop instead.


Image: Man changing oil (© Ron Chapple/Getty Images/Getty Images)I say that because I just paid my mechanic almost 3,000 bucks for services rendered. I know.


Of course, that's what happens when you own a couple of cars that are meticulously maintained but getting a bit long in the tooth.


This week, along with the typical "full-service" oil change, our 2001 Honda Odyssey had its brakes and transmission serviced. The old girl also had her valves adjusted, and received a brand-new set of spark plugs. The makeover was made complete with a new timing belt, water pump, and a fresh set of outer drive belts.


A day later, it was my 1997 Honda Civic's turn: an oil change, transmission service, the valves adjusted, new spark plugs, and the rear brake shoes replaced.


After the Honeybee tacked on the obligatory vanilla air freshener for her Odyssey -- the automotive analog of a kid getting a lollipop after a visit to the doctor -- the entire bill came to $2,867.73. (Post continues below.)

Quite frankly, after all the money we spent, I was a bit surprised my mechanic didn't just throw the freshener in as a freebie. "They're on the house, Len -- and take one of those cucumber-melon fresheners for the Civic too! It'll make you wish your commute was 400 miles instead of 40!" Heh.


Unfortunately, no such luck.


Anyway, despite the hefty maintenance bill, I have no intention of selling either of our old cars.


Why should I? As I detailed in an article on the financial virtues of old cars last summer, the annual maintenance costs for the Civic and Odyssey averaged just $400 and $600, respectively, through 2010, although those numbers are trending upward.


Spread those costs over an entire year and it becomes obvious why so many people are willing to accept the added responsibility that comes with properly maintaining an older car in exchange for avoiding a monthly car payment.


Even so, I can hear a lot of you out there saying "Thanks, but no thanks," that the possibility of large and/or unexpected auto maintenance bills is just too much to bear.


It's really no big deal, though, for those who establish a rainy day fund, which is meant to help you weather short-term, relatively low-impact financial storms of less than $2,000.


Another alternative is to set aside a fixed amount of money each month into a separate vehicle maintenance fund.


For example, if you average $600 per year to keep your car in good running order, that's equivalent to $50 per month. You can then set up an automatic deposit into a special car maintenance savings subaccount with a bank like ING Direct.

What's particularly nice with this method is that, over time, you can gradually increase your contributions to your maintenance fund subaccount, so you'll hardly notice the difference. And if you do happen to encounter higher-than-average or unexpected maintenance expenses -- or even get hit with a double-whammy like we did this week -- you can make up the difference by tapping into your emergency or rainy day funds.


Best of all, you won't have to worry about leaving the repair shop without one of those cucumber-melon air fresheners.


More on Len Penzo dot Com and MSN Money:

Apr 13, 2012 3:22PM

Pay your car off and continue putting that payment amount in savings.  You will almost always have enough set aside for major repairs that way.  Eventually, you will have enough put aside for a good used replacement vehicle. 


Funny - once I started taking cash money out of savings to pay for a vehicle, I lost the appetite to spend a lot of money on new cars.

Apr 13, 2012 12:30PM
I agree- no new cars for me. The most I have spent in repairs at one time is $2,000. The rest (brakes, muffler, etc.) are going to eventually happen no matter how new or old a car you have. So when my car payment bearing friends try to make fun of me for a $2k repair bill, I tell them to add up their car payment for the year and subract $2k and thats how much I did NOT spend on my car that year. A car payment is a guaranteed cost, repairs/maintenance are not. 
Apr 13, 2012 9:52PM
Better yet, learn how to do this stuff on your own.  Most of what you had done can be done by a home mechanic with just average skills.  Probably 75% of your bills were for labor and sales tax on that labor.
Apr 15, 2012 1:05PM
$3,000 spent on 2 cars 10+ years old, - 10 years monthly payments, -insurance savings on overall worth of the cars, -cost per mile, +inflation = sound monetary decision. A new car may have slightly better fuel economy, but not on a 40 mile commute. 3 years ago I replaced an engine in my 1997 Buick for $3,000, +or-. I just yesterday finished a partial rebuild on my 1964 VW @ a cost of $250, the Buick gets 28mpg highway(no highway where I live), the VW, 32 mpg overall. No payments, low insurance, the bug costs me $12 per month in insurance and as an added bonus, it's really fun to drive.
Apr 13, 2012 2:44PM
I agree with "Insurance Girl", my friends also tell me I'm wasting money my 1999 Land Rover Discovery II when I had repair bill for $2500. This SUV is paid for and maintenance & insurance are my only cost...
Apr 15, 2012 9:04AM
I'm so glad I drive American vehicles with manual transmissions. Wow! I don't think I've spent that much on maintenance in 12 years for my S-10. But I agree with the article, though. I have no interest in new cars with touch screens. bluetooth, navigation systems, etc. I prefer inexpensive, low maintenance manual transmissions and crank windows. I paid $4,400 for a 1995 S-10 with 59,000 miles on it back in 1999, and now it's about to hit 190,000 miles and it's still on its original alternator, water pump, fuel pump (and filter!) and it's still got it's original clutch! Back in 2000 I did have to replace the gas tank (pinholes due to rust) for $129.00, I replaced the U joints in the drive shaft. I've replaced the front brake pads on it at 90,000 miles and again at 150,000 miles (the pads were still in good shape, but the rotors had developed a warp so I put in all new hardware) I also replaced the rear brakes at 150,000 miles but they were in decent shape as well, however, my axle seals were leaking, and as long as I had to take the brakes off to replace the seals, I just put in all new rear brake hardware at the time. At 120,000 I had to put in a new head gasket, vacuum lines and serpentine belt. And at 160,000 I had to replace all my brake lines (more pinholes from rust) but I did it myself, and it only cost about $140.00. But that's it for the last 12 years. Thank you Chevrolet for making such a dependable truck and keeping the maintenance parts costs down.
Apr 18, 2012 1:13AM
This guy got hosed.  I just got a quote from my mechanic to change the timing belt, water pump, idler pulley and three belts on my 2000 Nissan Xterra - $650.  But then again, I live in rural Wisconsin and the author of this article probably lives in New York City.

You have to be prudent when spending significant amounts into older vehicles. I know someone that spent 7K in 1 yr. on an expensive foreign make and at least 3-4 more previously and had a collision. ACV was less than repair cost so they totaled it out. No car, no money, still a few payments left. For best results with older vehicles, Another scenario you get a bunch of work done only to have something major like the engine or transmission fail and you realized it is not worth the cost.  I find it is a good idea to have a spare so if one is down you can work on it, find used parts, service etc. for less money that if you have to get it fixed right away. Also having at least one newer vehicle gives you piece of mind especially with loved ones. Night driving, long trips, commutes that go through sketchy or rural areas are not a good place to get stranded especially for those that may not be in a position to get themselves back no the road or defend themselves. Older vehicles typically don't have the latest safety equipment depending on who is driving and where/when you drive you may want to have them.

Apr 13, 2012 8:54PM
$3000 for only 2 vehicles - a minivan and an economy car!??!  WTH?  Maintaing a Honda IS expensive I know (had 2 - not again, thank you) but this guy's shop is fleecing him! That's European car bill territory, and actually, I spend less on my Volvo.
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