Time to Sell, Trade … or Junk It?

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Kids leave the house at 18, Christmas is always December 25th… but when is it time to sell, trade – or junk – your car? It’s a hard question, especially if you like the car. Even more so if it’s been reliable … up to now.sell car pic

But, a day will come when you’re faced with a repair that could put you on the wrong side of the cost-benefit equation. For instance, having to put a $2,000 transmission in a car that’s worth maybe $3,500. You commit to the repair – and it instantly becomes much harder to contemplate selling the car because you’ve just put a wad of money into the thing. But the $3,500 car is not worth $5,500 because it’s got a new transmission. It’s still worth $3,500. What happens if, a month from now, something else expensive breaks?

You can see where this is headed.

So, the smart move is to cut bait before you find yourself on the hook. Some general rules apply:

* Fifteen years for the drivetrain –

A good rule of thumb for any vehicle made since roughly the mid-late 1990s (this was when build quality began a general uptick that’s continued to the present day) is that its engine and transmission ought to be basically ok for about 15 years and 200,000 miles. It’s not at all uncommon for the factory clutch to last 150,000 miles or more (which would have been exceptional back when I was in high school in the ’80s). sick car pic

This assumes regular maintenance and decent treatment, of course.

But even with decent treatment and regular maintenance, wear cannot be eliminated. Eventually, everything wears out. Entropy, you know. For car engines, this point approaches as they enter adolescence. You may be able to nurse the car into its 20s, but (if it’s driven regularly) it’ll almost always be getting obviously tired by then.

Caveat: While modern engines are longer-lived than the engines of the ’70s, peripherals can still eat you alive with repair costs. Things like alternators can cost $400-plus (in part because these are powerful units, necessary to provide juice to all the electronics found in newer cars) and both the engine and transmission depend on a multitude of sensors and interconnected harnesses, all feeding data to a computer. When these parts begin to wear out – or get “buggy”  – the car can become a balky, aggravating money pit – no matter how sound the engine (and transmission) may still be.

If your vehicle is getting close to being a teenager, it’s likely getting close to that point. Once stuff begins to go wrong with it regularly, you’ll know it’s reached that point.

* About 20 for the body –rust pic

Rust problems, like mechanical and electric problems – have been pushed down the road. You’ll still get there, eventually, though.

But it may creep up on you – because “today’s” rust is often less obvious than “yesterday’s” rust. A vehicle may look solid on the outside – no perforation or bubbling of the exterior body panels – but nonetheless be crumbling to dust underneath. Frame (structural) rust is what many people think of first. But there’s another variety of decay that’s at least as bad because it can render the car just as undriveable – and can be very expensive to repair: Rusting-out fuel lines, coolant temperature sensor piping and brake lines, for instance. I recently had to deal with rusted out fuel lines in one of my getting-long-in-the-tooth vehicles (a 1998 pick-up truck). A person not equipped/able to “do it yourself” would have been facing at least $500 in parts alone to fix the problem. With labor, it’d have been closer to $1,000. And the brake lines were next. Which is why I decided to sell the truck. It still ran great; the engine – with only about 129,000 on the odometer – still had plenty of life left. But the rest of the truck? Time to cut bait. Or be willing to accept that instead of a monthly payment, I could expect unexpected payments for this or that with ever-increasing regularity as the truck gradually disintegrated.

Bottom line: money pic

Every machine made of steel (and aluminum, too) will eventually rot away. It may not happen as soon as it used to. But never forget that – eventually – it will happen. Just as – eventually – mechanical things will break down. And electrical stuff will stop working (or will work intermittently… if you jiggle wires, pray to the Motor Gods, and so on).

The “sweet spot” trade-in/sell-it time is when the vehicle still has some useful life left in it – and before it reaches the end of its life.

If you wait too long, it’s junk-it time. Which is actually ok, if you wrung every last bit of useful life out of the thing. And managed to do it without also spending more money on the thing than it was worth.

Therein lies the rub!

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  1. I’ve got a 94 Honda Accord EX 4 cylinder with 68k original miles on it. The only things I have had to replace are the battery twice, timing belt,water pump, and seals, a radiator, brake pads and rotors, and all the cooling system hoses. I do my own work, and can see driving this great little car forever. OK, so I also added Bilstein HD shocks, and Tanabe sway bars just for fun! I also have a 2000 Infiniti I30t with 188k miles, which has needed a bit more attention, the upper pan saddle seal replacement was too much fun. I couldn’t replace either car with anything anywhere near as good for less than $10k, so I maintain them and enjoy them. Mobil 1 in my cars, and Wix filters. Keep em coming Eric!

  2. Bought Lincoln Town Car new in 2003. In Spring of 2015, many small things require replacement.

    I have learned my lesson …… Do not keep a car after it’s 11th birthday, 10th would be a safer bet.

    These 20++ car pars are very expensive and some parts are not available anymore.

    • Hi Larry,

      Especially luxury cars like your Lincoln, which (usually) have more in the way of electronics and complicated (expensive) features, such as adjustable suspensions, digital dashboards and so on.

      The worrying thing is that such features are becoming increasingly commonplace features in “bread and butter” family-type cars and even economy cars….

  3. I’ve always gone with the “drive it until the doors fall off” approach. Being a Toyota man, most of my vehicles have at least 250,000 miles before I consider a replacement; I’ve never bought new. Even if I’m putting $2000/year into repairs on a vehicle that’s paid for, that’s better than $4000/year in payments.

  4. I buy used cars with low miles and they MUST be common models that are easy to get parts for. One of the biggest mistakes a person can buy when looking for used cars is getting a model that is hard to find parts for. Of course the Idiot and Thief’s cash for Parts Cars didn’t help a bit.

  5. 2000 Nissan Frontier 4-cylinder, has 262,300+ miles. I replaced the original clutch at 250k and installed a rebuilt manual 5-spd transmission (no electronics!!) a few weeks ago due to a noisy bearing in the original transmission (I changed the transmission oil a few times along the way, too). That’s been the most expensive repair (previously a water-pump) since I bought it used w/10,000 miles in 2001. I run it with Mobil 1, change the differential oil occasionally (Mobil gear oil), and it doesn’t leak/burn oil, still gives me 26mpg+ on the highway. Other than that, it’s tires/battery/spark plugs/oil changes for regular maintenance. I drive it very conservatively as per it’s original design as a utility truck. I can’t justify getting rid of it at this point only to spend $15,000+ for a newer used truck.


  6. Funny, I don’t think I have ever bought a car that was less than 20 years old. I have had the best luck with Toyotas, my 92 4 Runner is well past 200,000 miles. I paid $2 grand for it four or five years ago. It rattles a bit, and I have put probably half the purchase price into it in repairs over those years, but it still tows my camper, and provides daily transportation for my wife. It leaks a bit of oil, and I don’t do much in the way of regular maintenance except changing the oil every once in a while. Living in California helps. I expect to get 3 or 4 more years out of it. I’ll probably keep it as long as it still passes smog.

  7. I large thread of (I guess) logic that goes thru my mind with all of my old cars is: “The devil you know is better than the devil you don’t”. So, I have an old car, which I have ran for many years, so I know a lot of the ins-and-outs regarding the car. So, if I have to sink major $$ into it, I would do so with some level of confidence knowing about the other aspects of the car. Contrast this with getting rid of the car, and buying another cheap (~$6 or $7k) used car, and you may just have to turn right around and plop $$ into the replacement car you just bought! So, quite often I side with fixing the junker.

    My next struggle, which I know will come to pass, is when the damn heater cores go out! That may be the death knell for all of my old cars, since: a) I *will not* do that job myself, so b) it would cost into the 4 figures. (Yes, I could get the remainder of a year via by-passing the heater core, so maybe I would do that, then junk it when winter comes….)

    • I totally agreed. My 2009 Sedona is still purring and I wouldn’t think of trading it for another used, or even new car at this point.

  8. This is exactly why I’ll only pay a few hundred dollars for a car. I’ve bought my last 4 vehicle for less than a grand total. Each one lasted at least a year. I’ve had real good luck with early 90’s Ford trucks. I bought one for 200 bucks, had 230k , fixed the trans for 150. I drove that for 6 years, put 65k on it and out like no money into it. Most of the time when I’m done with them I either keep it out back for parts of scrap it for more than I paid for it.

  9. This has article has come at the right time for me. I own a 2004 Mazda 6, 2 litre petrol. It goes sweet, with 105k mileage, 75k my abuse of trying to make it go as quick as my last vehicle, a Bandit 1200. It is due for it’s yearly gubberment inspection. It has bubbling rust on the sills and had metalwork done on the last one. I don’t hold out much hope. It’ll cost me in sheet metal and welding.
    But I like the thing. It’s good on motorways, all the electrics still work and it’s comfortable for us and the kids.
    I suppose if it does fail it’s mot (ministry of twatsport inspection for my colonial friends) I could try to shoehorn the engine and gearbox into a bike frame. Mind you that’ll definitely fail the test too.

  10. Mechanics are good with their hands and adept at fixing things, but give very poor advice on these matters. Almost all mechanics always insist that if the engine, transmission, and body on your old car are OK, it is much cheaper to fix it rather than buy a new one. They overlook the vital fact that, even if the engine, transmission, and body are going great, there is no limit to the number of little things that can go wrong, and no limit to how much you can spend fixing them. I never ask a mechanic anymore whether I should fix my car or trade it, because I know what the answer will be.

  11. There’s an approach no one’s brought up yet: fixing the car beyond its resale value and continuing to drive it. This might not work with more modern cars and their insane complexity, however.

    What if your 2000$ heap requires a 2500$ repair? Depending on other things, it might still be worth fixing. If you sell it for 2000$, what will you buy to replace it? Another used pig in a poke that will cost you more and possibly have a greater problem than your current car?

    An example: A few years back I bought a pickup at an auction after getting an oral affirmation from the owner that it “ran fine.” I quickly found out that the differential was shot and that not all old farmers are honest. I had a choice: cut my loss (about 700$ for the truck) and sell it, or fix it (about $2200). The truck had what I wanted, so I fixed it. It’s run well the past few years and if it continues so for, say, another six or seven years, that repair will only average out to about 200$ a year. Compare that to a monthly payment on even a used vehicle.

    My old Geo Metro got fixed and maintained well beyond its resale price because it was reliable, cheap to run, and nearly impossible to replace with anything that had its qualities. Some 330,000 miles later, my kid flipped it and finished it off. But it was worth every penny I put into it.

  12. And let’s not forget the cost of “luxury” cars. Hell, the only time I spent less than multiple hundreds of dollars on servicing my bmw was when I had the side mirror fixed. 🙂

  13. How true Dale,people want to hang onto things because of sentimental values,these shows about “hoarders” ask why do you have to have the whole object,just to remember the good time associated with it. I’m sorry but when someone passes away,they no longer have a vote(even wills can be contested)
    My late brothers significant other has building full of tools and stufff that belonged to my brother(also a Geo Metro) She wont part with any of it and everything is getting scattered and going to pieces,She doesnt even own the Garage that the stuff is stored in(Its on my youngest brothers land).
    As for the aggrevation and expense of my past junkers(throw it in the woods!) er,I mean crusher-good riddance-Kevin

  14. Just wanted to add one insight to that quandary about whether to “get out while you’re ahead” or hang on to a vehicle. Ask yourself “do I really like this car?”

    If your answer is “yes,” then it’s not just a bean counter’s dollars and cents equation. Even if you have to make a big expenditure (or three….or four,) you’re still driving a car that you enjoy.

    So what if your “investments” exceed the car’s trade in value? You’re probably way ahead of what you’d spend to replace it….especially to get something you really like.

    Yeah, there are many things to consider. But don’t overlook this factor.

  15. I’ve found $5 spray on white lithium grease to be a rust savior on the underside- keeps everything nice and water free, and is quick to apply to rusty areas too

  16. Always remember the priceless want-ad:

    67 VW Bug, New paint, new suspension, new floor pan, converted to 12V, new tires, brakes, interior, engine recently rebuilt, new clutch. $97,000 invested, must sacrifice for $1500.

    Would have been money ahead if driven off a cliff before the rebuild.

    I received a phone call from a friend regarding their daughters Ford Windstar (which was old when brand new). I had recently fixed rat problems in the CKP circuit, replaced a A/C mode door motor/flap (plastic) and other things. The interior had suffered the ravages of several years of small children.

    Every time I “visit” their Ford with a tool or a scanner, I have mentioned that it is time to donate it (not enough value left to try and sell it). Two days ago, I get the phone call that the trans is shot. $3000 for a $1000 car. GREAT! The car has now made the decision easier for you. And who said cars don’t have a soul.

    • Forgot to mention that when I brought my girlfriend to Calif from PA, she had a Chevy Celebrity. The trans in that one packed it in too. Phone call to shop confirmed that one of the more common pieces that die in the trans was worth more than the car (with the crappy headlined de-laminating from the crappy cardboard backing). Ah…the 80’s…pinnacle of domestic car development.

      Car was donated later that day. Homey don’t play that game of pissin’ money down a rat hole just because somebody got their first Sex-Ed experience in the back seat.

    • Dale, Eric, et al,

      WRT the 67 VW, it was already 12V….I owned one. I know this is an apocryphal story, but my 67 VW was easy and cheap to work on. It was the first car that I ever actually learned to do maintenance on….a full engine rebuild cost around $150 and that included new cylinders and pistons, full head rebuild, turned and balanced crankshaft, all new bearings etc. A carb rebuild cost $7.50. But, when it was time for that highly abused car to go, I did not hesitate…..(I actually wish I had one now for a round town errand runner).

      Eric, I prophylactically had the clutch in my 2002 Tacoma replaced at 165,000. The guy who did the work showed me the clutch plate…..it was nowhere near worn out. The flywheel was smooth as a baby’s butt. It may have been due to my driving style….my girlfriend totally destroyed the clutch plate and throwout bearing in 65K miles on her Forester…..but IMO Subarus are very poorly constructed. Anyway, I guess the point is that things are relative. For people like me, the newest cars look like a no-go due to government mandated “features”. I want a reliable, economical, non-intrusive vehicle. What’s available now includes more and more intrusive “safety features” like backup cameras, GPS tracking, scores of airbags etc. Further, the often poorly designed software/firmware that’s piled into new cars offends me as a former software designer. So, that’s essentially why I intend to keep my Taco until it falls apart. When it does, I’ll look for something from around 2007, if the powers that be let used trucks continue to be sold. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Grandma was beating off the Indians.

      • Ditto, Giuseppe!

        Ages ago, I owned a ’73 Super Beetle; I learned a lot from it – and had all kinds of fun with it.

        Once, it caught fire – as old VWs were prone to do. I managed to put the fire out before it got too bad, but the wiring harness was roasted beyond repair. I replaced the entire thing with a used harness I pulled out of a junked Bug and bought for $60.

        • eric, a friend bought a new Super Beetle convertible in ’73(actually, in ’72). We froze our asses off in it on the high plains and suffered accordingly in hot weather. He didn’t have that vehicle very long. They might do well in places where weather extremes aren’t the norm but that wouldn’t be Tx. I recently saw one on a trailer on I-20…..but I can say that about nearly every vehicle made since I recently saw a ’67 Corvair, all original it appeared, being pulled by an old man like me. I know what he had in mind and I salute him. I just hope he only uses it in those rare occasions where it’s not well into triple digits or well into minus temps. I doubt he’ll get it out on the interstate and set the “cruise” on 80. That would probably amount to putting a stick between the seat and the go pedal as people used to do frequently on not so high horsepower cars.

          BTW, if anyone wants one, I still have a line on several early TA’s.

      • Grandma must be real popular. So what was the prophylactic cause of your clutch replacement? Last time I replaced a clutch that wasn’t worn out was because of a fool who installed it and used the needle bearing pilot bearing instead of getting a bushing style. He ruined the thing installing the tranny so it never operated as designed. Next time I paid his brother, who is a certified mechanic with his own shop and that clutch never did anything but play nice although it’s probably not up to the load pulling the original dual mass clutch could perform.

        For anyone with an older diesel pickup, let me warn you of the “new style” clutch for them. The new style is simply not a dual mass and has nowhere near the surface area of the original. For years you couldn’t get a dual mass clutch, even from dealers. They finally went back to them simply because of a lack of surface area and not as many springs. The single mass clutches would not do what the dual mass’s would.

      • Yeah, so I was off for the year of the 6-12V conversion. Ground a lot of bell housings to get the 200 tooth flywheel to fit though. The 66-67 was the bug to have as it was light. 68 went to the “H” case which wasn’t worth a damn because of the Magnesium content.

        As far as cheap to rebuild, that’s a good thing as you do it a lot. The cylinder heads crack either between the valve seats (ok they say) or the spark plug, the studs pull leaving you with the sound of a bad exhaust that won’t go away after the third muffler replacement, the valves stretch and break everything, the case cracks in the #3 cylinder area, the case opens up at the middle main bearing causing the oil pressure light to glow at idle, the cams go flat, the valve guides wobblelate out, the cylinders overheat with the old style oil cooler, the brass tube to the carb falls out (because the Germans didn’t learn the value of a bubble flare to hold it in) pumping gas all over the engine and causing all those paint failures of the rear hood that one used the see at the side of the road, the idle jet that peens over the jet and caused stalling, and every case needed an alignbore, and just when you get your precious darling running well, someone gets the idea that a 2180cc kit would be great shortening the fuse even more…shall I go on? Should I mention the early buses with the reduction gearing that wore motors at at 60K instead of 100K? By the way, please note that I didn’t even begin with what fails in the chassis/body/transmission.

        Back when I was a young Padiwan working at a VW independent, I rebuilt 3 engines a week as well as other maintenance work. No love lost, but regular BIG paychecks. Also worked in a machine shop specializing in VW’s. Really got a kick out of the pinheads coming in with a fistful of dollars and the latest Hot VW’s mag for the latest engine build of the month. More dollars in my pocket.

        Really sorry to see VW’s go. As far a cheap to build, that was correct in the beginning. A supplier by the name of PI Automotive in the SF bay area would supply for cheap, but they went big, forgot where they got their money from and went broke. Donsco in Belmont took up a lot of slack then.


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