Car Buying Articles

The Debt-Free Car Project Chapter 2: Preventive Car Maintenance

Preventive Maintenance and a To-Do List


  • 1996 Lexus ES 300 Picture

    1996 Lexus ES 300 Picture

    The first order of business was to change the engine oil and get it analyzed. | June 06, 2012

3 Photos

Few 16-year-old cars purchased for less than $5,000 will be perfect. Almost any car will inevitably have a number of items that need attention unless the car was worked on right before it was sold. Being proactive with preventive maintenance will help your new car start off with a clean slate. None of this is free, of course, which is why you need to have a car maintenance strategy.

As a result, maintenance and repairs become a big part of owning a used car, and the 1996 Lexus ES 300 that we bought for our Debt-Free Car Project is no different. Our maintenance strategy is to make monthly payments to ourselves, which we will then put toward repairs.

For "deep subprime" buyers (those with a FICO score of less than 550), the average monthly payment on a used vehicle is about $365, according to Experian Automotive. We're using this monthly figure as the basis for our car maintenance budget. If we don't spend it, we can accumulate it over the months for fixes and upgrades. If we overspend, we'll try our best to delay repairs (when we can) or minimize costs in the following month.

First Service
After we purchased our 1996 Lexus ES 300, the first order of business was to get an oil change. We took the ES 300 to a local Lexus dealer to get an oil change and a more detailed report on its maintenance history. While the car was on the lift, we also asked Lexus service to take an oil sample. We then sent that off to Blackstone Labs for an engine oil analysis.

The $25 lab test had this to say about the car:

"Based on this report, it doesn't look like there are any serious issues developing in your new ES 300, although lead and silicon both read higher than average. Lead typically comes from bearings, though this amount is nowhere near high enough to call a serious problem. Silicon might show dirt (check air filtration), but it could also be from a harmless sealer or spray if any engine work was done recently. Universal averages show typical wear after roughly 4,800 miles of oil use, and based on wear, we'd say this oil saw roughly 3K miles. It looks like it should be a good engine for you!"

It was encouraging to know that our Lexus' engine was in great shape. But the engine only tells part of the story of the car's overall condition.

The Lexus dealer performed the maintenance. We also got a detailed report of the car's history dating back to 1996, which named specific parts replaced and services performed on the car. The visit cost us $151, some $109.05 of it going to labor, which tends to be high near our offices in Santa Monica, California. It was a costly visit, but the dealer inspection spotted a number of potential repair items, giving us a road map for items to take care of down the line.

Here is the repair list, along with the estimated prices:
New tires: $1,074 (mounted and balanced)
Four-wheel alignment: $140
Perform air induction fuel service: $198.68
Replace lower control arm: $2,237.60
The printout went on to say that the car needed a new battery, but only listed the price to charge a battery: $25

First Steps
So now we had an eyebrow-raising list of repairs. Clearly, we'd have to get a second opinion on these big-ticket items and rank them in order of priority.

The Lexus dealership reported that all four tires were worn on the inner edges. We also checked the sidewall of the tires, which have date coding to show how old the tires are. At 6 years old, the tires were heading toward the end of their lifespan. We decided to replace them, based on their age and uneven wear.

We found a set of inexpensive tires on TireRack.com and were prepared to wait for them to be delivered. But we also checked with a local shop, which had the same tires in stock and was able to match the price.

On the morning of the tire replacement, the Lexus had struggled to start. The tire shop tested the battery and recommended a new one. The price for the battery was reasonable and since the car already was in the service bay, we had the tire shop replace it. The total cost for the tires and battery was $519.

Finally, we rolled up our sleeves and installed a new air filter ($15), cabin air filter ($26) and wiper blades ($18). We replaced the battery in our key fob ($12). When paired with the recent oil change, these inexpensive upkeep items would help us clean our slate of pressing maintenance items and create a starting place for use and mileage-based upkeep.

The grand total for all our preventive car maintenance was $723.

Holding Down Costs
If you're trying to duplicate our process with your own debt-free car, here's where you can diverge from our path and save some money.

We planned to make at least two moderate road trips as well as a lengthy cross-country expedition in the Lexus, so we felt that fresh tires were a priority. If you are just driving to work, you can wait until you have the funds available for new tires before you replace them. And if you were to go to a quick-lube shop for an oil change rather than taking your car to a dealership, you could probably get the work done for about $30. You would forgo the dealer recommendations, however. If we had done those things differently, we'd have stayed well within our monthly budget.

The Debt-Free Car Project is a learning experience for us as well as our readers. We'll try some things and see if they work. If they don't, we'll learn from our mistakes — and readers will, too. For now, we're over budget and hoping that the coming months will even things out.

Related Articles:
The Debt-Free Car Project Chapter 1: Finding and Buying an Affordable Used Car
The Debt-Free Car Project Chapter 2: Preventive Car Maintenance
The Debt-Free Car Project Chapter 3: Curbstoners and Internet Scams
The Debt-Free Car Project Chapter 4: Dealing With Repairs
The Debt-Free Car Project Chapter 5: Driving Cross Country in a 1996 Lexus ES 300
The Debt-Free Car Project Chapter 6: Midyear Check-In
The Debt-Free Car Project Chapter 7: Sailing Past 150,000 Miles
The Debt-Free Car Project Chapter 8: Wrap-Up

Comments

  • texases texases Posts:

    So did you get a 4-wheel alignment? How much $$? And how hard was the cabin filter replacement? In through the glove box opening?

  • If you are buying a very inexpensive car, you should have $400-$500 set aside for immediate repairs. It is certainly possible to buy a cheap car that needs very little done to it, but it's not likely.

  • jdbee jdbee Posts:

    Can you comment on the $2237 control arm replacement (why it was recommended and why you chose not to do it)? Thanks for a real-world article that most of us can relate to!

  • rm2008 rm2008 Posts:

    jdbee, The control arm replacement was recommended because a bushing was cracked. We will discuss those repairs in Chapter 4. Chapter 3 will be out shortly and goes over another topic. -Ronald Montoya

  • gsemike gsemike Posts:

    $2,000+ for a control arm????????????????????

  • gsemike gsemike Posts:

    btw: wish that it was easier to navigate through and see all the articles together

  • snow_driver snow_driver Posts:

    gsemike: that was the point of my original complaint about choosing a Lexus (or any other luxury car) as an "affordable" used car. Parts prices are going to be much higher than on a normal car. What if that control arm really ends up being defective and needs replacing? A $2200 bill will be completely out of reach of the kind of drivers that Edmunds is claiming to be aiming at. That family would either have to decide to drive an unsafe car or junk it and buy something else. Like, say , the much newer Taurus/Focus/Malibu/Altima/Legacy/etc./etc./etc. they should have bought in the first place.

  • Not repairing the control arm will likely significantly reduce the useful life of the tires recently purchased. Not repairing a faulty control arm can lead to multiple problems, not the least of which involve vehicle occupant safety. What's going on? 1. Noise When you are driving your vehicle and going over a bump or pothole in the road you will hearing clunking noise. Ride smooth degrades when the control arm is wearing out and you will inevitably notice a reduction in the quality of your driving experience. 2. Movement Another obvious symptom of a failing control arm is too much wheel movement. If you place your hands on one of the wheels and push it you will feel more of a wobble. This is likened to the same symptoms of a bad CV joint or ball joint. There should be no play in the wheel beyond the acceptable level, so if you feel too much movement, have the car checked. 3. Steering Wobble Driving at higher speeds of between 45 and 60 miles per hour will demonstrate control arm failure by exhibiting a wobbling in the steering wheel. This is similar to when the tracking and balancing is off and the steering wheel wobbles heavily when you drive. If you are sure your tracking and balancing is fine, the control arm is probably the cause.

  • Not repairing the control arm will likely significantly reduce the useful life of the tires recently purchased. Not repairing a faulty control arm can lead to multiple problems, not the least of which involve vehicle occupant safety. What's going on? 1. Noise When you are driving your vehicle and going over a bump or pothole in the road you will hearing clunking noise. Ride smooth degrades when the control arm is wearing out and you will inevitably notice a reduction in the quality of your driving experience. 2. Movement Another obvious symptom of a failing control arm is too much wheel movement. If you place your hands on one of the wheels and push it you will feel more of a wobble. This is likened to the same symptoms of a bad CV joint or ball joint. There should be no play in the wheel beyond the acceptable level, so if you feel too much movement, have the car checked. 3. Steering Wobble Driving at higher speeds of between 45 and 60 miles per hour will demonstrate control arm failure by exhibiting a wobbling in the steering wheel. This is similar to when the tracking and balancing is off and the steering wheel wobbles heavily when you drive. If you are sure your tracking and balancing is fine, the control arm is probably the cause.

  • Not repairing the control arm will likely significantly reduce the useful life of the tires recently purchased. Not repairing a faulty control arm can lead to multiple problems, not the least of which involve vehicle occupant safety. What's going on? 1. Noise When you are driving your vehicle and going over a bump or pothole in the road you will hearing clunking noise. Ride smooth degrades when the control arm is wearing out and you will inevitably notice a reduction in the quality of your driving experience. 2. Movement Another obvious symptom of a failing control arm is too much wheel movement. If you place your hands on one of the wheels and push it you will feel more of a wobble. This is likened to the same symptoms of a bad CV joint or ball joint. There should be no play in the wheel beyond the acceptable level, so if you feel too much movement, have the car checked. 3. Steering Wobble Driving at higher speeds of between 45 and 60 miles per hour will demonstrate control arm failure by exhibiting a wobbling in the steering wheel. This is similar to when the tracking and balancing is off and the steering wheel wobbles heavily when you drive. If you are sure your tracking and balancing is fine, the control arm is probably the cause.

  • rm2008 rm2008 Posts:

    gsemike, Thanks for the suggestion. We have now added links at the bottom of every chapter. -Ronald Montoya

  • laesquire laesquire Posts:

    I recently read an article about buying a beater truck that said one way or another, it'll cost $5,000 minimum. Either to buy, or to buy and to fix up. Seems this car meets that rule of thumb. So in fairness to the economically challenged who may be reading this, they need to have some reserves for repairs, insurance, maintenance, etc., they can't blow their entire wad on the purchase price.

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