It pays to get a car looked at

For the past month or so, my wife and I have been trying to figure out whether she should get a new car. It had been a very difficult question, especially given our current finances. Yesterday we concluded our search and decided to stick with her car for the time being. Our lesson is below.

Her 1997 Dodge Neon is better described by what it doesn’t have (no A/C, no cruise control, no ABS, front speakers don’t work, no CD player) compared to what it has (it runs and gets her back/forth to work). She puts on about 8,000 or so miles per year on it, simply because she only uses the car when she isn’t traveling some place with me (to her job, visiting her friends, etc.). Whenever we are together, we use my Subaru Forester, since it runs much better and has the extra perks that are good for driving around (A/C, cruise, CD player, ABS, etc.).

About a month ago she mentioned to me that the transmission was starting to have problems. Sometimes when she pressed the accelerator it would take a second or two for the car to actually move. The car’s transmission would also shift gears very hard at times. Over time, it was getting worse.

I immediately feared the worst: that the transmission would have to be replaced. We also had a deadline to decide what to do: the car was due for inspection and registration in just a month and most likely needed new tires. In a worst case scenario, you are talking a one to two thousand dollars to repair the car; more then than the car is worth.

We decided to see what was available in the used car market and see what we could get for her car as a trade-in. It can never hurt to look after all. A tough situation was made even tougher when we found out that the used car market was facing a shortage of good and reasonably priced cars in our price range. Almost all the reputable car dealers in the area didn’t have a single used car below $10,000. The car dealers that did were either shady or the car itself had a lot of miles on it. To make matters worst, the general consensus on Katie’s car was that it was worth between $300-$500.

This wasn’t even getting into our financial situation. I had previously hoped that once my car was paid off (just over three years left on a five year car loan), we could use the monthly payment to get my wife a new car. Getting her a new car before paying off my car would throw a huge dent into our finances. It could very easily postpone another hope I had, which was taking advantage of the housing crisis and getting a good deal so we can own our first home sometime in 2008.

Last week, I was talking to my dad and he made a good point that we should have someone look at her car. After all, it could be something as simple as the transmission fluid needing to be replaced. Fixing that is cheaper then just 1 monthly payment on a car loan.

So I took Friday off from work and brought her car up to a mechanic I have my full trust in. He looked over the car and found the problem. The transmission fluid was low and slightly burnt, so a flush and brand new fluid were done. Plus some other minor things that needed to be tweaked. The car was then inspected and the sticker slapped on the wind shield. The tires were legal, but being winter he recommended that they get replaced, especially since the tread was low and there were several different tires on the car. So I bought four real nice all-season tires that match. Given that we will probably have the car for at least three more years, we will get our money’s worth out of those tires.

So what did this cost? $30 for the inspection. $90 for the car registration. $177 for the transmission work. $394 for the tires and an alignment.

Grand Total: $691, with a few cents tacked on. Or just about 2-4 monthly car payments depending on the price of the new car we looked into.

Moral of the story: My wife’s car really has a sole purpose, to get her to work and home in a reliable manner. It doesn’t have A/C, cruise control, a CD Player, or heck, half her speakers don’t work. But it has been pretty reliable and she only uses it about 20-30 minutes, five days a week. It pays to see what it would cost to fix it, instead of blinding assuming that it is the end of the world.

Plus it beats having an unneeded monthly payment. Not to mention, the car drives pretty nicely now for a 1997 Neon. Four (matching) new tires make a world of a difference and the transmission, while not shifting like brand new, is working very well now.