When does a car become a money pit?

Don’t worry, it’s not such a disaster! But last week my check engine light went on. I needed an oil change anyway, so I dutifully took it over to the local garage I use, and it turns out I need a new oxygen sensor. Not sure yet how much that will run — they estimated $300-400 depending on how much the part itself costs.

Again, it’s not such a big deal. But it got me thinking about how long I plan to drive this car. I’ve had it for not quite three years, and a little over 20K miles; it’s had about $1200 of work during that time (excluding routine oil changes) so let’s call it $1600 of repair work in three years once I get this o2 sensor done. That’s certainly a heck of a lot cheaper than having a car payment, and it’s only at 112K miles altogether; it could have another 80K to go, 8 years at my current pace. On the other hand, it’s 18 years old and I think things are just going to keep breaking and/or wearing out from now on.

At what point do you decide to quit? Do I just wait until I’m confronted with a $2000 repair instead of a $500 one? Or do I decide at some point to sell while it still has value (I figure I could get $2000ish, maybe $2500, for it now), stop putting in an average of $500-600/year in repairs, and roll that money into paying for a new(er) car?

I’ve never liked this car much — it was available and cheap when I needed a car, but I want a four-door hatchback, not a two-door sedan, and I don’t like how low to the ground it sits. On the other hand, the virtues of not having a car payment are pretty abundant….

10 thoughts on “When does a car become a money pit?

  1. Oh gosh, sorry about this. For me the breaking point was a repair of about $1800 — I paid the smaller repairs up until that point, but $1800 basically meant my car was totaled. I hear you that it can be a tough call. Is it worth scouting around to see what other cars are available to see if there’s something that looks appealing and reasonably priced? (Though I suppose there will always be some bargaining involved when you actually try to buy something…)

    1. thesingledollar says:

      Yeah, $1800 would probably be the end of it for me too! That is a lot of $$ and it would be hard for me to pay out approximately what my car is worth!

  2. Alicia says:

    Oh I hear ya. My hatchback was only 9 years old when I was in an accident that wrote it off, but I had this same question all the time – when is it time to call it? Since the decision was taken out of my hands, I can’t really shed much light on it, but it was something I thought about frequently. That said, after never having a car payment in my life, and now having one (probably too large of one), I would keep going with it as long as you can without it being too expensive in repairs. I absolutely HATE the idea of having another mandatory bill, and that’s what I signed myself up for. Also, it’s really hard to tell when something is going downhill, because if you get a few of these $400 or so repairs, it isn’t horrendous, but cluster a few of those within a month or two – is it now time to get a new vehicle since you have (or would) shell out $1200? It’s hard to draw that line.

    1. thesingledollar says:

      Yeah, exactly! I guess I’ll just see how I feel in another year or two, sigh.

  3. This question has been popping up a lot lately, in our social circle and on budgetsaresexy.com today. J makes a good point–that $400 repair is equal to many people’s car payment every month. I think when you could replace your car for the price of a repair–or it’s getting close, it’s a money pit. Or when the pricey repairs are repeating frequently. (Not sure how many people drive cars that low in value; we do.)

    1. thesingledollar says:

      I’m thinking that you’re right that when I could replace my car, that’s the time to let it go…I might let it go earlier, though, while I could still actually make some money from it.

  4. I think it’s so tough to make the call! I’m a drive a car into the ground kinda person, so I probably tend to hang on longer than I should. But my 12-year-old Civic has never needed a single costly repair (the only major thing was a recall issue — those pesky Takata airbags — so that was free), and I completely dread the moment when it starts needing repairs. I know that day is coming, though. I think Kalie’s point is a good one, to compare the cost of the repair(s) to the cost of trading up. Hope this isn’t the start of a string of necessary repairs!

    1. thesingledollar says:

      Yeah, I think at age 12 this one had not had much wrong with it either. It’s just really old now, despite its low mileage, and it’s been parked outside for several years now so its innards and undercarriage are exposed to all kinds of moisture — every time I take it in for something it’s all “well, it’s very rusty.” Eh. We’ll see!

  5. Cindy says:

    That is a tough one. I think cars definitely fall into a category where, for some (many?) people, it’s more than just the numbers logic. Dependability, comfort, safety, environmental impact, etc. can all have varying degrees of importance for different people. I’m definitely an outlier in the personal finance community: I bought a brand new car, with a loan! I don’t regret the decision though. It was what worked best for me at the time.

    1. thesingledollar says:

      I’m pretty sure I’m going to do that in the relatively near future. The car I want costs about $20K and I don’t think I’m going to want to hold on to this one long enough to get that much saved (and there’s no real point buying used because it would be nearly as expensive; Honda Fits hold their value really well.)

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