In the course of owning a very inexpensive used car, there are times when things need to be fixed — or, worse, the car breaks down and leaves you stranded.
As we said in Chapter 2 of the Debt-Free Car Project, the Lexus dealership had given us a $3,600 list of suggested repairs for our 1996 Lexus ES 300, including $2,200 for the replacement of the car's front lower control arms (suspension components that connect the chassis to the wheels). A tally like this can be daunting if you don't have a game plan in place. The tough part is deciding what fixes need to be done first, which is why we sought a second opinion on the items the dealer presented.
Even before we got the rundown from the dealer on our used 1996 Lexus ES 300, we had decided to take care of some of the things on the list (principally, new tires and a new battery). But then, one item loomed large: the very expensive replacement of the lower control arms.
Lowering the Control Arm Bill
We took the car to Mark DiBella, who runs an independent repair shop, MD Automotive in Westminster, California. DiBella specializes in Honda, Mazda and Toyota models, and so would be familiar with our Lexus. We asked him to give us a second opinion on the control arms. He charged $45 for an inspection, which would be applied to any repairs he would perform.
DiBella verified the need for a control arm fix. Then he not only gave us a better price than the Lexus dealer on replacement of the control arms, but also offered an even cheaper alternative. And he spotted something that the Lexus dealer had overlooked: The heater valve was leaking coolant. This would cost about $176 to replace.
DiBella's price to replace the control arms was $1,050 — less than half the price of the Lexus dealer's quote. DiBella also gave us a money-saving option, which was to rebuild the existing control arms with new bushings. This would cost $540, plus $75 for a recommended front-wheel alignment. This was still a fair amount of money, but it was a significant improvement from the original price quote from the Lexus dealership.
Since we had just bought new tires, we decided to address the control arm issue rather than postponing it. To leave them unattended would have affected the alignment and could cause the tires to wear out prematurely. We chose the least expensive option — replacement bushings — to keep the costs to a minimum. The final cost was $567, a $1,671 reduction from the dealer's recommendation. We decided that the heater valve would have to wait until later.
The next repair caught us off guard. One morning, the Lexus had trouble starting. The engine cranked into life, but the driver had to step on the throttle to keep it running. With no foot on the pedal, the engine would not stay at idle. It just shut off.
Edmunds Engineering Editor Jason Kavanagh suspected the idle air-control valve was the culprit. We ran a Google search on this and found a YouTube video that involved a similar scenario. It outlined a quick fix that involved cleaning the intake manifold. It seemed simple enough. If a $4 bottle of carburetor cleaner would solve our issue, why not give it a try? The Debt-Free Car Project's goal is to duplicate the average person's ownership experience. As such, we wanted to keep costs down and find alternative solutions. So we opened the hood and went to work.
It took Kavanagh less than five minutes to remove the air intake hose. He sprayed the small opening in the throttle body as the video instructed. We waited for the cleaner to dry, put the hose back on and started the car. No go.
We were disappointed that this fix didn't work, but were generally satisfied with our attempt to avoid a potential costly repair. We called a tow truck and had them take the Lexus to an independent shop a few blocks away from the office. Neither of us had an Auto Club membership at the time, so we had to pay for the tow out of pocket. The 9-mile trip cost $141. That hurt.
We dropped the Lexus off on a Friday afternoon. We received a call from Sergio, the mechanic, that evening. He said the mass airflow sensor needed to be replaced and that an original equipment part would cost $1,000. Sergio said he would try to find a less expensive alternative over the weekend. And here's where our troubles started.
We didn't hear from Sergio until we called him on Tuesday. He said he had called a number of places over the weekend but couldn't find anything cheaper than the $1,000 factory part. We told him we would find the part on our own and bring it to him. His $1,000 price wasn't off base. One place we called was asking $980 for an aftermarket part.
We're not sure how thorough Sergio's search was, but we were able to find and buy the part in less than 10 minutes. An online search pinned down the part at an O'Reilly auto parts shop nearby. We called and priced the part at $220 (plus a $39 "core deposit," which was refunded later). We ordered it for delivery the next day. The shop was less than five miles away from the mechanic, by the way.
Fixing the Leak
Since the car was already in the shop, we decided to get a second opinion on the heater valve leak. We had filled the Lexus' coolant reservoir to the "max" line a week prior and it had since dropped to the "low" line. Clearly, the leak was larger than we thought and needed to be addressed. Sergio verified that the heater valve was indeed the problem.
O'Reilly was asking $40 for the part. But an independent parts shop nearby quoted us $25 over the phone. When we arrived, however, an employee brought out a $72 part. We pointed out that we had already been quoted a different, much lower price. The man we had spoken to on the phone remembered our conversation and showed the other employee the cheaper alternative. We ended up getting the part for $20.
At this point, we had been out of the car for five days and weren't happy about it. We hitched a ride from a colleague, picked up the parts from both shops and took them to the mechanic. He was surprised that we'd found the inexpensive parts and agreed to install them both for $140. We called the following morning. He said he had finished the repairs late the night before. We picked up the Lexus and it ran fine. But we decided to shop for a new mechanic.
DIY Brake Job
Dan Edmunds, our director of vehicle testing, drove the car a couple weeks later and noted a persistent shake and steering-wheel shimmy under braking, which can be a sign of uneven wear of the front brake rotors. Dan's quick check revealed a pair of thin front rotors that had been resurfaced more than once already. Turning them again was not an option. New ones were in order, especially since the car was about to go on a very long road trip. (More on that in Debt-Free Car Project Chapter 5.) Since we were going to get new rotors, it made sense to get new brake pads as well.
We got a baseline parts price from the Lexus dealer. The pair of rotors would cost $300 and brake pads would be another $51. Next, we called our local parts shop and received a much more palatable price: $62 for a pair of lesser-quality rotors and $44 for the brake pads. The total was about $118 with tax. Of course, we needed to have them installed.
Dan Edmunds is no stranger to DIY projects, having performed brake jobs on a number of cars in our long-term fleet. He volunteered to install the pads and rotors for us. This was the equivalent of a real-world debt-free driver asking his friend or relative to do the job. Dan had it done in a couple of hours, and the Lexus now comes to a stop in a way that inspires confidence.
The repair of the mass airflow sensor took too long and we will not go back to that shop. We chose it out of necessity, but we will screen our repair shops more carefully next time. We also made sure that everyone on the Debt-Free Car team has an auto club membership with a good towing plan, which will ensure we won't get stuck with another triple-digit towing bill.
The grand total for all these repairs and the tow was $679. Although we are over budget, we're seeing a downward trend in our expenses.
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