How do you determine if the used car you bought is a success or a bust? Is it reliability — whether the car has ever left you stranded? Do you add up all the repairs and compare them to the purchase price of the car? Or do you base it on how much the car costs you to operate on a monthly basis?
There is no clear-cut answer. Each car owner has his own tolerance level for repairs and maintenance. Some people own the same car for years, handling small fixes and big repairs, while others will sell a vehicle at the first sign of a big-ticket problem.
Is It Going To Die?
Our 1996 Lexus ES 300, also known as the "Debt-Free Car," has been with us for about six months. In that time, we've driven it more than 13,000 miles. It has gone across the country, made three trips to Las Vegas, withstood the heat of Death Valley in the middle of the summer, traveled to the mountains for an editor's hiking trip and, of course, it's taken us to work, home and around town. It left us stranded just once. We had set out to drive the car for 15,000 miles, but at this rate we can easily reach 20,000 miles, which is what we expect our much newer long-term cars to do.
This is a sign of a great experience to us, but other people see it differently. Omnius, a commenter in Chapter 5 of the Debt-Free Car Project, had this to say about our Lexus:
"I have been following this series with interest. At first, it seemed like a smart play, and I was actually envious that you seemed to have found the ideal car — a cheap Lexus — and what with all your vetting in advance surely out of all the lemons it was 'the one' which would be in mint condition despite its mileage. Skip ahead to article 5 in the series, and not only are you spending hundreds of dollars on repairs routinely, but the car is in a perpetual state of 'Is it going to die right here?'-ness. This is despite the absurd level of automobile savvy you (and apparently everyone in your life) exhibit. Your dad has a car code reader handy? You've been fixing things yourself? Your friend knew how to diagnose that heater thing?"
Omnius is correct in saying that we have a number of resources available to us at Edmunds, but we purposely have chosen repair methods that are easy enough for the average person to do. Despite some of the automobile savvy that surrounds us, the bulk of our research involved doing little more than running searches on Google and calling places to compare prices.
It's true that the Lexus budget got off to a pricey start. The car didn't win true debt-free status until recently. But time and a solid foundation of preventive maintenance have balanced the budget and now the car is in the black. Keeping track of the expenses helped us see a telling pattern of automotive wellness.
Tracking the Expenses
In Chapter 2 we discussed the maintenance budget we set for this car. To keep things organized, we set up a repair spreadsheet. Each month, we added $365 — our monthly maintenance allotment — to the running total. We entered the repair totals in the chart, along with the month in which we spent the money. This allowed us to see how much we spent each month and how much money we had left over, if any.
Right after we bought the car, we purchased new tires, a new battery and had a pricey oil change from the Lexus dealership. (We had it done at the dealership in order to get a comprehensive look at the car's condition, but this immediately put us over budget.) The following month we repaired the suspension control arms, and in the third month the mass airflow sensor needed to be replaced. For the first three months the budget was in the red, and we worried that expenses would continue to snowball.
But they didn't. In the fourth month and the two after it, the expenses came in well under budget. The only expense in the fourth month came from a scheduled oil change and tire rotation. In the fifth month, the Lexus had returned from its cross-country trip and was due for another oil change. We used Yelp to research a mechanic and found a highly rated and reasonably priced shop to perform the oil change.
Once the major repairs were behind us and the finances were evening out, we could afford to take care of some nonessential repairs. First up was a new set of sun visors.
The passenger-side sun visor broke off soon after we purchased the Lexus, making for a blinding ride at certain times of the day. The driver-side visor drooped when it wasn't in use. Senior Consumer Advice Editor Philip Reed found a matching set of visors on eBay for $30. The installation was quick and easy, and anyone who could wield a flathead screwdriver could do it. There was only one screw to remove on each side and a wire to disconnect. The whole procedure took about 15 minutes.
Next we wanted to address the faulty hood struts. We had been using golf clubs and other improvised prop rods, none of which were really safe.
We ran a Google search for hood struts for our make and model Lexus. A few clicks later, we discovered the "Strong Arm Hood Lift Supports" in a Lexus owners' club forum post. Our first inclination was to visit the manufacturer's Web site, but the company was also selling the struts on eBay and the shipping rates there were slightly cheaper.
The struts cost $14 each. The price with tax and shipping was $37.07. The Lexus dealer near our office was asking $177 for each strut. Going the aftermarket route saved us roughly $350.
The hood struts came with instructions, but we took our research a step further and found an installation video on YouTube. The video made it seem simple enough, so we did the job ourselves. Access to a bolt was tight on one side of the car, but overall, the installation was fairly straightforward. The job took us about 20 minutes.
Finally Above Water
Omnius had a parting shot for us: "Bottom line is, despite your experience and circle of support, and despite the careful shopping and preparation, this car is costing you on a month-to-month basis more than a new car — except this car has the added benefit of threatening to stop driving at any time."
But this isn't the case. The average new car payment is about $450, according to Experian Automotive. After six months, we have spent $2,379 in repairs and maintenance. This is an average of $396 per month. However, 88 percent of our total was spent in the first three months. In the past three months, the Lexus has cost us an average of $99 per month — a far cry from a new-car payment. And as of this writing, the Lexus maintenance budget has a $176 surplus that will carry over into the following month.
How Is the Lexus Stacking Up?
Every used car — especially an older one — has its share of initial problems to sort out. Most people don't sell cars of this age with everything in order. We've learned that with any used car, it is crucial to leave money in your purchase budget for immediate repairs. We recommend about $1,000. When you're shopping for a used car, try to find one near the bottom of your budget. We did the opposite and ended up paying for it in the first few months of ownership.
It is too early for a final verdict on our Lexus, but we have seen a significant decrease in the monthly expenses. The preventive maintenance we did early on has paid off, and our Lexus has been exceptionally reliable ever since.
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
To find a dealership that knows how to treat shoppers right, please visit Edmunds.com's Dealer Ratings and Reviews.