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Ask the Readers: Replace the Car, or What?

Car troubles seem popular right now – not for my car, actually, but the high volume of friends complaining of costly repairs has left me resorting to voodoo rituals to keep my own car running smoothly (and boy, is my cat mad at me for it!). Rusty Car

People come to me looking for guidance, but I don’t always have the best answer. My answer is usually just to run the numbers and see what makes sense according the math. But that isn’t always the best solution for a person’s total well-being. So maybe you guys can help me brainstorm on this one.

The Problem

The Boyfriend’s car came back from a routine check-up with the diagnosis of “rust.” Rust on the rocker panel, rust on the fuel tank, rust on the brake lines. Inspection time isn’t until March, and there’s a snowy, salty winter between now and then, so he’ll be very lucky if the rust doesn’t eat through

His mechanic says it’s probably not worth the money to repair it – he’d just end up replacing everything underneath. So what should be done?


Here are the ideas that were tossed around – all are viable, but of course there’s no “clear right path” among them.

  • Get a “new” car (used, new to him), with a loan, in the $7,000 – $10,000 range. Pay off the loan within a year, year and a half of graduation. The con for this, besides the cost, is that he doesn’t have much of a credit history, due to getting through school loan-free. Who thought that would have a downside?
  • Get the underside of the car oiled, and then drip oil everywhere for a while. Won’t stop the rust, but will slow it down some, maybe long enough to pass the inspection in March.
  • Drive as little as possible. Thankfully he lives with a house full of people that are all primarily headed to the same place on a daily basis: campus! If he can keep the car off the salty roads over the winter, maybe it will last through inspection.
  • Move back on campus, and avoid driving nearly altogether. However, the school is in a housing crisis, so this might not even be possible. Even if it is possible, all of the places worth living on campus are likely taken, since classes start Monday. Also, I get the sense that he’s very happy living where he is, and rightly so – it’s a great place with good friends as housemates. Once again, if he does this, maybe the car will make it to inspection time.

So, who has thoughts and opinions? He’s one year away from finishing grad school, take that into account. And if you share “what I would do” type advice, please make it what you would really do. We can all say that we would literally live in a cardboard box in the basement of a building on campus, but we don’t mean it.

My Take

It doesn’t make “numbers sense,” but a “new” car seems like the best idea to me. Because even if the car makes it to inspection, it’s slightly dangerous to drive around a car that could rust out at any moment. Also, it would be more than a little inconvenient if when it rusted out – he could get stranded somewhere, or just stuck without a car while he shops for a new one.

JFK said “The time to repair the roof is when the sun is shining.” So, you know, buy a new car when you find out that you’ll need one – not when you’re stranded on the side of the road with a bottomed-out fuel tank.

So what do you guys think? Maybe someone with more car experience can lend some insight – I’m lucky I know where the gas pedal is!

Photo credit: freeparking

33 responses to “Ask the Readers: Replace the Car, or What?”

  1. MoneyGrubbingLawyer

    I like in what is likely the saltiest, rustiest place in North America (maybe the world!), so I have more experience than I care to admit with rusty, rusty cars :).

    How old is the car? Is the rust really bad enough to be a safety hazard? Rust is a gradual process, and I would be pretty surprised if the condition is suddenly that bad, or that it’s at the point where the gas tank or brake lines are close to leaking.

    If it is that bad, and replacing the brake lines and gas tank isn’t feasible, spring for a “new” car. Oil coating once rust has started will do little to slow it down, and even a parked car will continue to rust. Even if you make it through the winter, you’re going to need a new one soon anyway, so you’re not actually saving money, you’re just delaying the payment a little :).

    MoneyGrubbingLawyer’s last blog post..Foodie Friday: Pizza Pasta Salad

  2. zack

    @MoneyGrubbingLaywer: I’m “the Boyfriend”…maybe I should change my nick to that.

    So, to answer your questions. The car is a 97, with 75000 miles on it. Not much, but I’ve had it since 2003, and it spent the better part of its first six years in my grandparents’ garage. It’s also spent its entire lifetime in the rust belt.

    I agree with your point about rust being gradual, but I think the reason I wasn’t aware of the extent of it before was that I never asked. This past time at the shop, I had them pay specific attention to the rust, and the prognosis was that based on the degree of rust on the underside, repairing the body isn’t worth the cost. The car itself is only worth about $1100 according to the Blue Book. I trust my mechanic isn’t feeding me a line about it, either. It’s an independent place, and my family (and a number of our friends) has had no problem with them for years.

    Is it a safety hazard right now? Maybe, maybe not. Is it something that might strand me in the middle of nowhere, and probably cost me large amounts of money from now until I decide to get a different car? Probably. The question is: how long do I wait, and what do I do in the meantime?

    zack’s last blog post..Resuming Pidgin

  3. Rini

    Is there an option for a cheaper car? You can generally find a reliable used car in the $2-3k range if you know where to look. Being near a college, there may be a student about to graduate and looking to upgrade from their clunker; perhaps there is a school or local newspaper with a decent car in the classifieds?

    With this option, of course, the problem becomes paying for it. Presumably if you made it through college loan-free, you have some sort of support system? An emergency fund, a family member willing to make a loan of this size?

    For that matter, my first credit card (a student card from then-MBNA) had a $4k limit, a 9.9% interest rate, and regularly gave me “convenience checks” at 0.99% for three months, then 9.9%. My “student loans” were actually balance transfers to a checking account for a couple of my mother’s cards: 3 and 4% interest rates for life.

    If you have access to something like this, a substitute car loan is a classic “good debt” usage of a credit card. But don’t do an introductory rate unless you’re willing to pay what it will rise to!

    Rini’s last blog post..Link Sharing: The Mom Song

  4. plonkee

    Looks to me like the only options that someone is actually likely to do are the first two. You’d need to be pretty committed to frugal/debt-free-ness to do the other options. Given that oiling the car probably won’t help that much, just get a new one. Pay as little as necessary and get rid of the loan asap.
    Stuff happens.

    plonkee’s last blog post..personal finance is like public health

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  6. michelle

    I was driving an old car during my high school and college years 1996 – 2001. Purchase price: $600. I was always afraid that it would die as it had 164000 miles on it when I bought it. It was an 85 Nissan Sentra that I fondly called Brownie, it was a square brick of a car. I live the in Pacific NW and rust isn’t quite the problem as you describe. But knowing that it was an older car and repairs might not make it worth fixing, I had to have a backup plan.

    My plan was to drive it until it died. I got the roadside assistance add on with my insurance company in case of emergencies (AAA is another option). I also had a cell phone. When my car did die on the interstate, I luckily was able to pull into a Rest Area and call my BF. We got it home and I was able to borrow my parents’ car for a while. (I had just graduated and had NO JOB, I was planning on temping). Dad ended up reviving my car with a new fuel pump. In the meantime, I was able to at least save a little for a new car.

    The car lasted longer than I though without any major repairs, and I bought a new car in late 2001. Luckily, this was during the finance rate wars and my loan was 4 years, 1.9% APR. I sold Brownie for $200.

    So, in short. You know your car is going to die. Save up a little for when you need to buy a new car, b/c you will need to buy a new car. And when you buy the new car, get the undercoating. See if you can borrow a car from a friend or family member for the time between the car dying and new car buying. Try to avoid driving – which is a very green thing to do anyway. And get AAA or roadside assistance + cell phone if you end up breaking down in the middle of nowhere.

    Good luck! Sounds like you’re trying to do the responsible thing.

    michelle’s last blog post..MY MOURNING BEGINS TODAY

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  8. Botox Guy

    I have also been contemplating buying a new car, but i’m not sure i can handle the loss o selling my current vehicle. IMO it is not worth selling something that is currently fulfilling it’s purpose. Even tho your friends car is rusty he will not get much outta selling it. Probably be worth keeping t and saving money for the year while considering a cheaper form of transportation like the bus to extend the life of the current vehicle.

  9. BW

    A good option could be to get a fairly reliable yet very cheap car, like a mid-90s Ford Taurus for $2000 or so. That would probably last for the remainder of your college career and then you could buy a nicer car when you start to work full time.

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  11. Slinky

    I was in roughly this situation all through college, except my car was a ’91 with 200,000 miles on it. We also have snowy, salty winters, so lots of rust. I just plain could not afford a new car though. I had to replace some smaller things, but the only major repair I ever made was the radiator which was completely rusted through. (no front grille will do that).

    Since getting a new car seems to be an option, I would begin saving money for a new car, and drive this one until it breaks. When it does, get the new one. I can advise this because it’s exactly what I did after school when my income increased to where this was an option. (My car broke two weeks after graduation.) So unless you think things are going to just start falling off, or your car has a history of breaking in a completely nonfunctional manner, that’s what I would do. Also if you have transmission problems, all bets are off.

  12. Jack

    The wife and I went through a similar situation with our 1995 Corolla with 150k+, except our problem had nothing to do with rust and everything to do with a leaky head gasket. For us, we decided to do what we could with our car until we saved enough money to get a ‘new’ (used) car. As of right now we have saved $5000 and still drive it around. The way things look we could be driving it for many months more until the gig is up and it finally goes the way of the buffalo.

    But we live in sunny San Diego so don’t have to worry about falling out of the bottom of my car at 65 MPH. I can also rely on human powered transportation 340 days a year without fear of getting wet or frozen to death.

  13. zack

    Thanks for all the comments, everyone. Gives me some perspective, anyway.

    I guess the hardest part of this is the timing. I can’t justify buying a cheap car to get me through from now until May any more than simply sinking that same money into repairing the one I have until then (which seems to be the greener and easier on my sanity option).

    I think what I may do is see the car through until January, driving less and making sure to keep it clean when the roads are salty. Once January rolls around, I’ll take it in to get inspected, and if it works (and the parts aren’t falling out), hold out until May. If not, I’ll be looking for a replacement, I suppose.

  14. Justin

    I think the previous post by BW might be the right idea…

    I would drive you car until you can’t drive it anymore. Just wait for things to rust out and keep periodically checking underneath the car to make sure things aren’t unsafe. Like you mentioned you should also rinse the bottom off as much as possible. Then once the car is no longer safe go out and buy a nice reliable used car in the $3,000-$4,000 range.

    There’s no need to spend $7,000-$10,000 to get a reliable car. I bought my 1997 Chevy Cavalier in 2003 for $3,000. It is comparable to yours and it’s lasted me this long and still going strong. 5 years is plenty of time for you to save up for a very nice car especially if you’ll be graduating soon and getting a job.

    Just on a side note… if you really want to be frugal when it comes to cars you should try to learn how to work on them yourself. It’s a huge help if you buy the factory service manuals as they lay everything out step by step as long as you have some mechanical knowledge.

    Last week I had an axle, bearing, and ball joint go bad. I got a free estimate at the place where I get my oil changed (they have a student discount) and they quoted me at $490. I went to the auto parts stores and bought parts with lifetime warranties and only spent $221 and some change.

  15. Lori Duprey

    The goal of my first car, which I got in high school, was to get me through college. I studied abroad my last semester, and when I came back, it failed inspection. I was told that the underside was completely rusted out, unsafe to drive, and not worth it to fix. This was very upsetting because it was only a 93 with maybe 80k on it. Stupid northeast! So, I feel your pain.

    I sold it for parts and got $300. It has been three months, and I have not yet replaced the car. When I got my job, I made sure to find an apartment within walking distance. My fiance is still a student, but he has a truck to get around. I walk to work everyday, and when I need a car- I borrow his, or catch a ride with friends or family. I pay for gas, and so far, it has been working out fine. I’m saving for a car, and have started to do some research on what I want.

    Personally, I really don’t mind being without a car. Sure I like driving, but I’ve never been stranded and not having a car payment is making saving so much easier! I dont think I could do this forever, but its good for the environment, I’m getting daily exercise, and saving up.

    My recommendation: talk to your friends. See if you can throw them some gas money, instead of putting it into the car you want to get rid of soon. Start shopping for what you want, so you know how much you need to save. If you car is unsafe, dont take chances, especially in Rochester. You really dont want to get stranded on a cold blustery day, even with a cell-phone, I wouldnt risk it.

    Best of luck!

  16. LAL

    Interesting dilemma. We’re getting close to the same boat. However, I think I would keep driving the new car to milk it till May. At which time you should figure out where you get a job and what your car needs will be. What if you get a job with a car provided? Or what if you need something fancier and get a car allowance?

  17. Cabe

    I hope that my car doesn’t rust through. It is a salty winter already and it is kind of an old car. I will have to check it out for sure. I say he goes for a new car and pays off the loan fast. That would keep the most money in his pocket it seems.

  18. Gabe

    I compeltely agree with you when it comes to simply getting a new car because I have been through about 4-5 used cars and with repairs I could have bought a 30+ thousand dollar car and had it paid off by now.

  19. Redline

    The tough part about getting rid of old cars is all of the fun you had in them, and all of the memories. Plus, many of today’s cars are big plastic heaps, and do not have as much character as older cars do. I’d say repair the car, keep it running, and eventually get those paint spots fixed πŸ™‚

    Pass it down to your kids!

  20. Jake

    i think it is very practical to buy a new car instead of recycling an old one then just replace car parts like bumpers, tires, toyota replacement parts, etc. i am pretty sure a new car is cost efficient.

  21. Scion

    With today’s economy, you can get such good deals on new cars, it’s almost hard to pass them up. For example, some Chrysler dealers are actually losing money on cars just to get rid of them… that’s pretty crazy. I’m sure that this will never again happen in our lifetime, so we need to take advantage of this.

  22. Ty

    Its still a massive investment though buying a new car and a worry if times are difficult economically.

  23. Tint

    Great JFK quote, I definitely think this is one of those situations. We had a couple of Dodge dealerships that lost there franchise license with the Chrysler bankruptcy and were blowing cars out at like 50% off, I took a look and there were some serious steals on the lot. Now is one of the better times we’ve seen to buy a car!

  24. Anon @ truck parts

    Well, for me, the best option really is to buy a new car. Sometimes, being practical is not buying the cheapest in the market. People should learn also to value an expensive automotive for the sake of durability and performance. My best suggestion is for him to buy a truck. Trucks are durable and can withstand even during winter season.

    1. Zack

      I’m moving to Northern Virginia, where I’ll spend most of my driving time in traffic. MPG–. There’s only been one instance in the last two years in which I’ve needed to haul something larger than I could fit in my car. Convenience–. I like a vehicle with some semblance of handling. Driving–.

      Also, trucks may be safe for the driver, but they’re terribly dangerous for, oh, anyone else on the road.

      It’ll be a cold day in hell before I buy a truck.

  25. Jerry

    a new car is definitely the way to go. especially a car from a dealer that has been inspected. right now you can find great deals, almost private party values, but you get the security of knowing it’s been checked out and will last a bit. your blog is great, btw, i really enjoy reading it and i’m 36.

  26. Rebekka

    you might want to evaluate D-Rust-It for the rust. They have two products, one removes rust and the other covers it up with a primer that turns rust into a hard barrier that blocks the oxygen and water from getting to the rusted surface..

  27. Rebekka

    They suggest using a rust converter that actually converts the rust into a hard coating, so you will not need to grind off the rust. You could also use the rust remover, but you would have to pump it on and capture it with plastic sheeting, etc.

    Hope this helps!

  28. Rebekka

    there link is or

  29. Tine Tracy

    I suggest you to choose the option of getting a β€œnew” car, although you need to pay off the loan within a year.

  30. Rusty

    Your boyfriend should also know that if he sells his car when it’s running before it’s been all rusted and busted then he’s going to get more money for it as well. Instead, if he waits for it deteriorate and corrode the resale price is going to go down… and he’ll still have to buy a new car!

  31. Tires Dude

    You know, if you’re really strapped for cash, you can just go from used car to used car.

    Try to find a good deal on another used car..sometimes you might be able to find a gem which is just as good as a brand new car at a fraction of the price…

    It also helps to either be a bit of a handy man or handy woman..or at least to have a few friends who are…OR…if not even that, at least know of a good place to go to in order to get cheap repair work done.

    One thing I often say when getting my car done is “Look, I’m out of a job at the moment and I’m not going through my insurance on this, so please give me a reasonable estimate”… This was when I kinda messed up my car in a bit of an accident, but the approach helped me save a lot.

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