To Fix or Not to Fix Your Car?

by AJ Pettersen · 22 comments

Car repairs

For as long as I can remember, my family has purchased used and inexpensive cars. Subsequently, I never used a car that cost our family more than $5,000. I recently wrote about my decision between buying a used car or leasing a new one. If I decided to buy used, I would be on the hook for any repairs that needed to be done — which are often quite expensive. Some would say to repair all problems at any cost, but is this the most cost effective way?

When Not to Repair

When I was younger, I used to put a pop can in the spokes of my bike to make it sound cool. This noise isn’t so “cool” anymore. In fact, it has become slightly annoying. My 15-year-old car has recently been making a lot of noise. When I brought it to the mechanic, he informed me that it’d cost around $600 to repair the exhaust. Though this would eliminate the racket, the repair wouldn’t make my car any safer or increase its life span. I decided that a $600 repair for a car worth $2,000 was a bit hefty, so I ended up not repairing the broken part.

My friend recently informed me that his check engine light was always lit. The mechanic told him that his car’s computer was broken, and it would cost $2,000 to repair it. Since it was a non-essential fix, he politely turned down the offer.

One of my cars blew a radiator once. Since repairing it would’ve cost about the same amount as the car, we donated it for the tax write-off.

These are several examples of times when it might not be the smartest to repair your vehicle. If the repair is cosmetic or unnecessary, think twice before you hand over your hard-earned cash.

When to Repair

There are, however, times when expensive repairs need to be performed. Anything that prevents the car from starting (or running) obviously needs to be fixed, but anything that has to do with safety should also not be overlooked.

For instance, if your brakes are having problems, then they should be fixed no matter what. The last thing you want is having your brakes fail because you wanted to save a few bucks. If the repair will result in the car having a longer life, then the repair may also be worth the money.

What Does it Mean for You?

If you own a fairly new car, the major parts are probably still under warranty. With some manufacturers, your car may even be covered for maintenance items. This makes selective repairing unnecessary, as you can just drive into the dealership if anything malfunctions. If you have an older car that carries less value, though, repairs need to be thought about and researched carefully.

Don’t just make a repair because a mechanic tells you something is wrong. Do your homework and make sure that the value you get from the repair is worth the cost to you.

When was the last time you took a car in to the shop? Did you end up paying for an expensive repair that wasn’t worth the money?

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{ read the comments below or add one }

  • Jesse Jamison says:

    I think your method of deciding when to repair a car is a good one. I tend to spend more on repairs than you might, but it is because it is cheaper to fix my car than to buy a new one. So far I have only had to tow my car to a shop once and it has lasted me a year since then. However, I do always try to do research on repairs before taking my car into the shop, unless the car won’t start, in which case I always tow it. My only criteria is making sure I don’t have to repair my car more than once every 3 months.

  • donald says:

    my son bought a used 2001 chevy suburband 4×4 havent had it a year yet and it has leaks everywhere and now the fuel pump went out and fuel pump cost over 300.00. the warranty doesnt cover the fuel pump cost so dont know what he should do. and he is still paying for it

  • Eugene says:

    You make a very good point to focus on whether a certain repair is really necessary as opposed to whether to fix your old car or just get a new one. Old cars everywhere and the people who love them thank you.

  • Ellen Banks says:

    Lately I’ve been thinking about buying a used car. However, I’ve heard that used cars may present their own set of challenges, and you have to decide what problems are worth fixing. This article will help me differentiate between problems that require immediate attention and those that are less urgent.

  • Suzanne says:

    My sister’s car is 12 years old with 138K miles on it. It runs great, looks great, drives great. The only problem is the check engine light is always on. When she went to the mechanic he said it was an airflow sensor and would cost $600 to repair. Since the car is only worth $2000 she declined. When do you decide that a repair is worth it? It seems to me that she should just put up with it.

  • Kate says:

    I had a call from the CAA in which the guy said, “Can you be sure your car isn’t being stolen this very minute?”

    “Yes, I can.”

    “How can you be sure?”

    “I don’t have a car.”

    He laughed and hung up.

  • stephanie says:

    I own a 2002 Mazda Protege 5, because it was a practical car for me. It was used, priced at just below $8,000 and had 70-some thousand miles on it. I know nothing about cars, but I have learned a lot from going on YouTube,, and learning from people who do know about cars. If you fix cars yourself, and maintain them, they are not nearly as expensive to fix and maintain as taking it in to a shop. I took my car in for a tune up to a Mazda dealer once and it cost me $1300!!! Since then, I have replaced my brakes (every summer I do something to them), I have painted and replaced my valve cover and gasket, sanded down, patched and repainted the rust every summer, replaced my sparkplugs, and my newest challenge will be this weekend: I need to change my wheelbearings, as they are pretty much shot. To have a shop do my wheel bearings may cost me around $3-400, but for me to change them myself? They cost $25.99 each. There is definitely something to learning how to do it yourself. Plus, you have the satisfaction of learning something new and of course bragging rights.

  • Laura says:

    I have a suv that is 11 years old. I love it. I have been told it needs a new alternator and a gasket fixed as it is leaking oil. The first estimate I got was around $1500 for both of these. I am taking it to another mechanic for a second opinion next week.

    I live pay check to pay check and have been unemployed off and on the past three years. I have no savings and a bad credit rating. I don’t feel that I have any options in terms of buying another car.

    • BobT says:

      Laura try looking up the estimated cost of those repairs at
      you can also look for various garages in your area that are rated well or recommended. Another source would be yelp to find a decent garage. Having most of my maintenence and repairs done at the dealer would cost almost double what some garages do it for. Some repairs you have to do at the dealer with more recent cars but most…like gaskets and alternators can be done by an independent garage. Also you may want to shy away from the national repair chains(Midas, Firestone,Meineke and others) While some are great they are in the business of selling repairs needed or not. The other thing that can keep your costs down are to get aftermartket parts. Most parts like alternators are pretty much the same as the manufacturer parts. NAPA Autozone and others have parts across all price ranges and if you are willing to look on the internet you can save huge $. I bought a light for my car on the internet for $65, the dealer cost was $229 and Autozone was $129. Yep a headlight cost that much but the light has been in the car and working perfectly for a year so it pays to do a little research before you part with $. Good luck.

      • Laura says:

        Thanks for this information. I took it to the dealer as it had recalls on it. I do know one local mechanic, but I’m definitely going to look at this site you recommend.

  • KM says:

    Another thing to consider is the value of the repair and the cost in the long run (if any). My husband’s car was leaking coolant, which he was buying once a week or two, and that cost was adding up. Finally we decided to pay to fix the seal and replace a sensor. We calculated that the upfront cost of fixing it would pay for itself within 3-4 months, and since he was still planning to drive the car that long, it ended up being a better deal, not to mention the fact that he doesn’t have to drive out of his way to buy more coolant every time he is low.

  • Daisy @ Everything Finance says:

    I didn’t fix my old car because it was older than me and it would have cost a couple of thousand dollars to fix. On top of that, I was pretty sure it was riddled with problems above and beyond what was making it not run. So I bought a new car (new to me – used). I don’t anticipate any problems with it for the next 5-6 years.

  • Lance@MoneyLife&More says:

    I had a sensor go bad in my first car but it didn’t effect safety, performance or value. I just left it alone and disclosed it when I sold the car a year after the sensor went bad.

  • BobT says:

    Depends on if you think by making the repair the car will last longer or be safer or just have the piece of mind that its done. It sounds pretty optional, if it had to do with the engine suspension or brakes..yeah I’d do it even If I thought I could get even 6 mos. out of it, I would probably do it. The cost of a newer car,plus insurance and taxes probably may make fixing it a good option.

  • MoneySmartGuides says:

    I am in this situation right now. I have an issue with my car that is probably only worth $2K. I’m debating between fixing it (it will cost $800 to fix) or just trying to sell it to someone looking for a cheap car to work on. It’s not a safety or performance issue, but I was told that eventually the car might break down because of the issue. The likelihood of that is 5%.

  • MoneyNing says:

    I almost never fix any cosmetics issue if the car doesn’t seem new anymore (determining whether a car is new is purely by feel so this isn’t an exact science).

    Note though that if you decide not to repair the broken part, some of your colleagues may think you are cheap so even though it’s really none of their business, you will have to deal with the unfair perception of your actions.

    • BobT says:

      How others perceive us is mostly from within ourselves. Think about it. The guy across the street from me drives and even older pickup truck that cosmetically has seen better days(the paint is faded and there’s a couple dings in it). I’ve never seen it broken down and he drives it to work and back every day about 40 miles each way. I know for a fact he could pay cash for pretty much any truck he wanted. He doesnt care what I think of his truck nor do I care…actually I respect him for not buckling into perceived peer pressure that many of us might

      • MoneyNing says:

        You are absolutely right. But how your colleagues perceive you will affect work opportunities and likeability etc. It’s unfortunate but people who can successfully manage their image will get the better end of the stick in the long run.

        • BobT says:

          I dont know if my colleagues really care what I drive, I am sure in some professions it may matter. Actually in my profession, insurance sales, some might argue that it matters. I seem to not really notice if a client cares about what I drive or not. I know my boss doesn’t even know what I drive so that’s moot. I’m not judging or criticizing you but I am wondering why you think you will lose opportunities or that people will like you less depending on the car you drive?

          • MoneyNing says:

            I’m not necessarily saying that “I” specifically will lose opportunities depending on the car I drive, but the type of car you drive (or how you handle repairs) offers hints to the person that you are. Again, I’m not saying that people will lose opportunities per say (in some cases, you might even gain some, or people will like you more because they can relate to the fact that you are prudent with your spending so this goes both ways) but your car, along with your clothes, your background, your behavior will all affect your image, which will indirectly affect your life journey.

            The key is probably to fit in with the group that you are close to. Or put another way, you may want to start hanging out with other people if your money habits (or at least the money habits that you want to have) don’t align with the people around you.

            And no worries about question what I’m saying. Curiosity and difference in opinion is what makes life great! 🙂

  • BobT says:

    I have a mixed opinion on this. I am the proud owner of a 2003 Acura TL. I did buy this new and it was in my “spendy” days. Anyhow the car has 240,000 miles on it and still gets better than advertised mileage at 27 in the city and 33 on the highway. I have spent $3000 on repairs over the last year(brakes, timing belt and struts/suspension. I know the car itself is not “worth” more than $4000 with the mileage that it has but the car is solid. The engine burns no oil and leaks no oil. There is no rust on the body and the interior is clean. I like how it drives, its predictable to me. I’ve asked two separate mechanics what they thought about the car. One was not my regular mechanic just to make sure I was getting similar advise. They both thought that I can reasonably expect another 50 to 100K miles on it without a major engine repair. So to me that is 2-3 years of driving(I am in sales and have been averaging 30K over the last 3 years) and well worth spending the $3000(plus my costs(or mileage) are tax deductible which helps. I’d rather spend the $ on a known quantity rather than another car with its own quirks and problems. There is a “piece of mind ” factor that is difficult to account for.

  • Kent @ Money Educate says:

    One thing my mechanic buddy told me, is that my ‘known’ car might be better than buying another used car that will need repairs. It might not make sense to repair our van for $800 even if it is only worth $1,200, but if I know the rest of it is maintained well and can get another year out of it, that might be better than buying another used car that might need a lot more to keep it going for a year.

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