Owning and maintaining a beater to ensure safety is all about prioritizing your scarce (or tightly held) resources. We've grouped maintenance issues into three areas:
Priority No. 1: Maintain things that could cause your old car to lose control and possibly cause an accident. This includes your car's braking system, tires, steering system and what we'll call "the driver vision system." Spend your money here first.
Priority No. 2: This will include maintenance on things that will leave you stranded or cause other components — such as the engine — to fail. This includes radiator hoses, fuel lines, constant velocity (CV) joints and fan, accessory and timing belts.
Priority No. 3: The third priority will be simply to keep your old car alive. This includes changing the engine oil, transmission fluid and coolant.
Even if your do-it-yourself role will be limited to "inspector," get a repair manual for your vehicle: Manuals cost less than $20 new. You also could get one used or borrow one from the library. You'll also need at least one jack stand and a few tools: Look on craigslist.org or at a thrift store or flea market.
It's No Accident
The cost of an accident — insurance deductibles, lost work days, a traffic citation or increased insurance premiums — would go a long way toward paying for a better vehicle. A wreck can start you on the road toward becoming a lifetime beater driver.
Start by checking the brakes. Most beater owners wait until they hear grinding noises before taking action. Be a bit more proactive. Checking to making sure there's adequate material remaining on the brake pads for disc brakes is a good place to begin. It's also a task that most can do armed with only the car's standard jack and lug wrench and a jack stand. Remove the wheel, and with most disc brakes you can see the pads on either side of the disc. Leaking brake fluid means immediate repairs are required.
Just as doctors draw blood to help determine a person's health, "bleeding the brakes" will say a lot about your brakes as well. The job is only slightly more difficult than checking pad thickness: Consult the repair manual for details. If the brake fluid is dark black and contains bits of rubber, a serious brake job is mandatory. If not, flushing the brake fluid — bleeding the brakes until all the old fluid is expelled and replacing it with fresh fluid — is a cheap way to help the inside of the brake system last longer. Cost: about $12 for a do-it-yourselfer with the right tools and an assistant. Serious brake work requires either a professional or on-site help from an experienced amateur. Prices start at about $40 for a DIYer who only replaces the front brake pads.
Worn out and neglected tires cause more accidents than record-keepers can account for. Though it's painful when you see the credit card statement (about $200 to $400 for four non-performance tires), replace tires sooner rather than later.
Steering and suspension problems show up as uneven wear on the tires or by the way the car steers and rides. Have a professional inspect the system ($40-$75) to see if it's safe to drive, and suggest what repairs are needed.
A government report said "obscured vision" accounted for as many accidents as brake and tire failure combined. It's inexpensive (about $15) and easy to replace windshield wiper blades. Old cars' headlight lenses are often pitted or yellowed. A less used pair from a local or online auto recycling center (a.k.a. junkyard) or eBay could run anywhere from $50 to $150.
Stranded With No Way Home
Most beater cars need every hose replaced, and it's likely the heater hose, which carries hot engine coolant to a small radiator inside the car (about $30) has never been changed. For example, I used to drive a $450 Subaru as a winter beater. A heater hose sprung a leak one night on a deserted road next to a partially iced-up river. I ended up having to creep out to the edge of the ice to fill a plastic milk jug with water for the radiator. On another beater, I replaced all the hoses except for a tiny, difficult-to-access one on the water pump, only to discover how quickly all the coolant will blow through such a tiny hole. This public confession is intended to show that neglected maintenance can be dangerous for both people and engines.
Problems like this are avoidable, and there are often warning signals. It's almost certain that those who suffer car fires ignored the aroma of gasoline: Your choice is to replace an inexpensive fuel line or risk a fire. And if you hear squealing, it's likely a fan or accessory belt that should be replaced. A new belt is less than $20. The difficulty of the job varies greatly among vehicles. If you don't have the work done and the belt breaks, you'll be the one squealing.
Many old cars have engine timing belts that should be changed every 60,000 miles. This costs about $500 or more and is a not-for-amateurs task. Some engines — notably Hondas — suffer serious damage when the timing belt breaks, while others just stop running.
Owners of front-wheel-drive beaters need to listen for signs of a failing CV (constant-velocity) joint: usually a clicking noise that first appears during tight turns. Look at the rubber boots around the CV joint: Missing or boots torn long ago likely means the CV joint probably needs replacing. A professional repair can cost $300 per axle, but an experienced amateur can do it for about $80 per side.
To help make sure your old car will start, clean corrosion from the battery terminals with baking soda mixed into water and apply an anti-corrosion chemical (about $4). Inspect the battery cables (about $20 a pair) and their connections.
Another important note: If you've recently acquired a beater, you should have its oil and oil filter changed, (a $20 to $40 cost for DIYers). Have the automatic transmission fluid flushed and the filter changed. (I recommend paying a professional do to it, about $150.) Change the radiator coolant once a year (about $8).
Time To Dump It?
There's no easy answer to the question of when to get rid of your beater car. Some argue that shelling out $2,500 for a replacement transmission tops going further into debt to get another car. Besides, if you buy another used car that's less of a beater, it might soon need a $500 timing belt.
Don't sell just because you've recently been forced into a major repair. Since specific models tend to suffer identical problems, you get an idea of other big expenses that might be on the horizon by asking owners of similar vehicles on the Edmunds' Forums, or quizzing a mechanic who specializes in your make. Those who own expensive-to-repair European beaters should bail out sooner.
One way to find out if you can dump your beater is to determine the payments for the vehicle you'd like to buy and then start putting that amount into a savings account every month.
Beater Knowledge Can Pay Off
Knowing how to keep a beater car running as long as possible will save you money, particularly if you do it yourself. Sometimes there are other perks as well. I once met a young woman whose manual-transmission beater had problems with its clutch-actuating mechanism. This tough old car was built before clutch interlocks, so I taught her how to start it in gear and shift without using the clutch. The payoff? She eventually married me.