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.