It’s something we’ve all dealt with, and something we all dread: fixing the dang car again. For those of us without much mechanical knowledge, the process can be especially scary, as the outcome could be hundreds, even thousands of dollars of repair—and there’s no way to tell what it will be until the mechanic hands you the bad news.
But fortunately, there are things you can do to reduce your risk of having to hand over a month’s worth of paychecks to save your daily driver—and best of all, you don’t have to know a thing about cars to do them.
Before you even buy a used car, you should take the first and most important step in reducing your risk of expensive repairs: have the car inspected.
Once you have the car, the most obvious step is to do all the maintenance your car needs before it becomes a chronic problem. That includes small stuff like keeping your windshield washer fluid full, rotating your tires, making sure coolant and oil levels are good, changing your oil regularly, having brakes in proper working order, and taking your car in to see a proper mechanic for a once-over at least every six months. These can all be typically rolled into one stop at a good independent mechanic, and will often cost you less than $100.
Don’t ignore your warning lights! This is a direct corollary to the proper maintenance principle above, but you’d be surprised how many people put off a trip to the mechanic despite a warning light on the dash. Just because the car will still start and run doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to drive it until it quits. The warning light on the dash indicates something potentially serious is wrong with your car, and needs immediate attention. If you know your way around a car, you can always use an OBD-II scanner to read the malfunction code and evaluate your next steps from there. If you’re a bit less automotively inclined, don’t worry—local auto parts stores are usually happy to provide a scanner and look up the codes for free.
It’s especially important in your maintenance regimen that you find a reputable independent mechanic. Chain stores often have under-trained and over-worked employees who have little motivation to do top-notch work—they’re just collecting a paycheck, without putting their name on the product or having to stand behind it personally. Independent shops, on the other hand, have to protect their reputations, and therefore are much more reliable in both the work they do and in helping to prevent your car from developing more serious issues. If you can, find an ASE certified mechanic, as that will ensure your mechanic is up-to-date on all the latest issues, and has passed tests certifying their competence.
Beyond basic maintenance at a reputable, independent shop, there are several other steps you can take to ensure you don’t end up forking over too much money on car repairs.
Shop around. If you take your car in for work and the estimate you get seems unrealistically high, don’t hesitate to take the car to another shop to get a second opinion. What one shop diagnoses as terminal engine failure may be revealed as a much simpler—and cheaper to fix—issue at another shop. On the other hand, the second shop may just confirm the fix will, in fact, be an expensive one—even so, you’re better off being sure. Of course, if you’re already taking your car to an ASE certified technician, you should be getting the right answer from the start. You can also take advantage of sites like AutoMD.com and RepairPal.com to see what others around you are paying for similar repairs once you have the initial diagnosis.
Change the way you drive. You’d be surprised how big an effect driving style can have on your maintenance intervals. Don’t want to spend $500 or more on a new set of brake pads and rotors every year? Slow down a little. It’s that simple. By not accelerating away from every stoplight like a jackrabbit, you won’t have to use your brakes as much, and that will make the discs (or drums) and pads last much longer. Likewise, more relaxed acceleration will put less wear and tear on the engine, suspension, and transmission of your car, making those bits last much longer before any repair is necessary—as well as avoiding the undue strain that can cause sudden (and expensive) failure.
Buy a new (to you) car. If you’re milking the last few thousand miles out of a car’s lifespan, sooner or later the inevitable is going to happen: a major system will break, and you’ll be out of pocket to get it fixed—or sending it to the junkyard for pennies per pound as scrap. To avoid that, it might be best to cut your losses and upgrade to a newer, more reliable used car, or at least one with more life left. A little money up front can save you lots more in the long run, and Instamotor can help save you some money on that new-to-you car, too.
automotive freelance journalist