Sunday, February 17, 2008

Maintaining my car for the long haul

My goal for my car: to make it to the average lifetime of 150,000 miles. Not an insignificant goal, but one I have not achieved quite yet. This is only the second car I have owned. In college, my parents loaned me their car so I could drive to work and home on the occasional weekends (they got tired of picking me up, driving me home and then driving me back to my dorm). My parents actually purchased my first car outright, a 1988 white Chevy Beretta for $2,200. (After seeing my dad in action, I will not go car shopping without him!) However, my parents did require me to pay them back and charged me interest. It took me some time as I was in graduate school, had only had a small stipend and therefore, my car payment was small. The advantage of getting a loan from First National Mom and Dad: if I skipped a payment, my car would not be repossessed.

My memory is hazy, but I do not think I skipped a payment but I may have paid less sometimes depending on how tight the money was. I owned that car for 6.5 years and sold the 14-year-old car to my sister who totaled it in less than six months. It was a good little car, but I did want something newer for my new industry job--and a few more creature comforts.

For this second car purchase, I intended on taking out a car loan. I knew what I could afford as a monthly payment and my goal was to find something under 100,000 miles. My first car I purchased with 112,000 miles and sold it to my sister at 135,000 miles. My dad suggested I look at minivans, but I adamantly refused. Instead, we ended up eying a 1997 Dodge Stratus, Candy Apple Red. Can you say pretty? Can you say "it's not white!" The drawback--it was not immediately available. I bought the car from a man who purchases salvage cars, fixes them up and resells them. He had been in business for nearly 20 years when I bought my car and my dad was willing to bargain with him so I felt like this was a good situation. I certainly purchased my car for cheaper than a similar mileage car on a lot and it had 74,000 miles on it, meeting my goal. My engine was also upgraded to a V6 so I did not mind the horsepower increase.

Nearly six years later, it is running well, just over 115,000 miles and still going strong. The car loan was paid off six months sooner than the term of the loan so I have owned it free and clear for nearly four years. I have been conscientious about maintenance and hope to make it last until I have the cash saved to buy a vehicle outright. Here is how I do it:

I take the car into an trusted auto shop twice a year, once in spring and once in autumn. By taking my car in for its twice yearly checkup, I can head off problems before they create dangerous situations. I trust my mechanics to tell my the car is in good condition or inform me if something that needs to be repaired. Of course, usually something does need to be fixed or replaced, but they have caught issues that could have become serious. For example, part of the rotor on my rear brakes was wearing unevenly, costing me braking power and could potentially give out at the wrong time. This is not something that squeaky brakes would inform you that it needs to be replaced. This is why I like my shop: the mechanic showed me the part and it was obviously not working correctly, answered all my questions and went ahead with the repair immediately. This is why I also set aside money each month for car repairs. Sometimes it is a quick fix and sometimes an expensive fix, but I usually can cover most of it from my car maintenance fund and savings for the rest.

I change the oil regularly. Until now, I have changed the oil every 3,000 miles or 3 months as the adage goes. However, I finally looked at my manual and it recommends changing this often only if I stress the engine with lots of stop-and-start traffic or towing heavy items. Otherwise, it suggests changing the oil every 7,500 miles. I am compromising and changing around every 5,000-6,000 miles or every time I visit my mechanic. Most of my driving is on the highway (50-55 mph) with only occasional city or stop-and-go traffic. I also have an engine with higher miles on it so I do not think I want to wait to hit the 7,500 mile mark. Again, this cost is covered by my car maintenance fund.

I keep at least a half a tank of gas in my car. I understand that this is not practical for everyone. However, I live in the Midwest where it gets cold, below zero cold, in the winter. More liquid in the tank means lower chance of freezing. It also means less air in the tank and decreased chance of water vapor condensing onto the gasoline, causing engine problems. I use some of the fuel additive two or three times a year to help with the water issue. I do not know how many miles my car can go when the needle is on "E" unlike my dad and my brothers. I do not intend to find out and will continue to keep my tank at half full or more regardless of the season.

I check the air in my tires every three to four weeks. Keeping the tires properly inflated not only maximizes fuel efficiency but keeps the best traction on the road. In winter, traction may not account for much, but I want to make sure my tires make the best contact with the road they can. I always take a gas mileage hit in the winter. If my tires are inflated properly, I can get the most out of the gasoline I use.

I have been very pleased with my car. It has been quite reliable but, as with many items that depreciate, costs me money. However, it has not been expensive to maintain and the gas mileage averages 26 mpg (lower in winter, higher in summer). I believe it will get me to 150,000 miles and beyond before I need to purchase a newer used car.

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