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Wait! Don’t Sell Your Clunker! Unless. . . .

Written by Gary North on January 6, 2012

If you have an old car that you still drive, hang onto it. I still drive a 1993 Dodge minivan. I used to haul my dogs in it. The old one died. The survivor doesn’t go for walks these days. But I’m not selling the car.

The car is my back-up. If I take my 2005 Toyota minivan into the shop, I still have a car to drive. That will let me drive the Toyota longer. The same applies to my wife’s 2006 Chrysler minivan.

It’s also good for hauling around gardening supplies. This includes rabbit manure. Bags tip over.

There are signs that indicate junk-it time.

You can’t depend on it anymore

Like our physical bodies, cars are really multiple different systems operating in concert. When it’s just one thing that’s gone wrong and once that one thing’s fixed the car can be counted on to run reliably for some time to come, doing the repairs makes sense. But when the entire car is getting obviously tired and several systems are on the verge of collapse, it’s probably time to say your goodbyes.

It’s no longer safe

Rust is the major factor here. Not cosmetic rust – structural rust. The frame (and critical mounting points on the frame). Structural damage to the frame/mounting points due to corrosion takes longer to manifest nowadays because cars built since the late ’80s are much better protected (and have better body integrity) than vehicles built before that time – when it was common to see cars only a few years old with significant rust problems. . . .

If structural rust is found, it’s time for Last Rites. The only way to fix this sort of problem is by cutting out the bad section(s) with a torch and welding in new metal – which is neither easy nor inexpensive. And then you’ve only fixed one cancerous area. If you’ve got one, odds are you’ve got more.

It’s becoming hard to find essential parts

Even if you succeed in finding the part you need, it’ll be a used part that comes with no guarantee it will work any better than the one you’ve got. Or it might only last for a few weeks/months. There’s no way to know – and no alternative.

You are putting more money into the car than the value of the car

Here’s the Catch-22 you don’t want to find yourself facing: The transmission in your 16-year-old car fails and a new/rebuilt replacement will cost you $2,000. But the car itself is only worth about that much much. If you spend the $2k on the new transmission, the car will not be worth $2k more. It will be worth about the same as it was worth before the old transmission failed.

On the other hand, if you don’t put the $2k new transmission in, the car (not-drivable and needing a major repairs) will be worth… nothing. Or almost nothing. You might get a few hundred bucks for it as a parts/scrap car. Maybe.

You can’t win.

I buy cars used. I sell them far more used . . . or give them away. This has worked for me for 35 years.

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19 thoughts on “Wait! Don’t Sell Your Clunker! Unless. . . .

  1. AMEN on used cars. I paid 2000 for a 1988 Isuzu 4X4 pup, drove it 10 years at minimal expense, sold it for 1500 with front and rear engine oil leaks, weak brake booster, loud p.s. pump, and thin tires. The guy who bought it for a farm truck said "oil leaks won't matter on the dirt".

  2. Several years ago we stopped buying new cars with car payments and now we buy old cars for cash and drive it away " Paid For in Full ". Keep those old treasures repaired and change the fluids often and they will be good to you. We donated my old Plymouth Duster to charity when two mechanics could not put in a clutch that would last more than a month; that old Plymouth had 286,000 miles on it. With the Government bailout of GM and Chrysler, you have already put your tax money in those companies so why buy a car from them and give them more of your hard earned money ?

  3. There is one thing this writer fails to mention. I have a 1987 Ford F350 diesel dually that runs well, but was losing coolant and overheating. This is my dump truck which has over 153,000 miles and is a real workhorse. It plowed for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts for the last six winters. As it turns out it was head gaskets – actually one gasket on the driver side. I had that replaced which was just under $1,800 (I have the other gasket because they are sold in pairs.) Now conventional wisdom would say "time to get rid of it." However the thing the writer fails to mention is cost of replacement. To get a brand new F350 diesel with dump body and 9' plow and not even 4×4 (mine isn't) would cost over $60,000. The head gasket job would be just over one payment. Divide $60,000 by 60 months (5 years) and you get $1,000 per month. That is with no interest and no money down, and that would be a payment that would have to be made EVERY MONTH FOR THE NEXT FIVE YEARS! Thanks but no thanks.

  4. It's very nice that the author of this article has three cars all together. I have one and it needs a new gas tank, but I'll hang on since I cannot afford another, even a used one.

  5. Failed to mention, my car is 15 years old with over 123,000 miles, so I feel very blessed even with it on its "last legs".

  6. Still driving my '96 Buick Century. 53,000 miles on it. No rust. Runs good. Gets me there and back. And paid for.

  7. I too bought an 1986 Mazda Pick-up for $3,000 never did anything to it except buy a set of tires, then sold it year 2000 for $1,400 only because I needed to have a car with air conditioning. Bought another Mazda Pick-up and until now, all I do is change the oil every 3000 miles. Best investment I ever made.

  8. Keith Mathison says:

    Smart people have always saved big "cash on clunkers" by running the wheels off them. High mileage cars are cheap on insurance; no reason to pay for anything but basic liability insurance. Keep the cars washed/waxed/vaced, fluids changed, don't run them hard, and many cars will last +-300,000 miles reliably, and still look good. It is a completely bad investment to take out a loan on a car. Banks get rich on the money people throw away on car loans… Pencil it out and you are buying two or three cars for the price of one car loan. People need to change their mind-set about this. Quit lining the pockets of the Banks.

  9. 40+ years ago my grand dad told me that the first car I bought should be the only car on payment, once paid for drive for another 10 years and during those 10 years put the money that I would have been paying on payment up and at the end of the 10 years I could pay cash for a new car, which I did. I still do that today and yes I still buy new cars and pay cash but I don't drive them 10 years any more I drive them 200,000 miles and then get a new vehicle. This way I sell them for more add that money to the money I have saved and never have a car payment.

  10. The writer forgets that a car's value won't go up with any repairs you perform no matter what. I say that if the ONLY thing wrong with your car is the 2,000.00 transmission, and you can afford to pay cash, don't go into debt buying a new car. I have a 1998 Altima that has been extremely reliable for almost 14 years (I still haven't hit the 100,000 mark yet) I have taken good care of it and the interior is like new. If something goes wrong with it that costs a couple thousand, I will pay for it simply because if I buy a "newer" used car, it will cost more than double the cost of the transmission, I wouldn't know its true history, and I refuse to go thousands of dollars in debt for a new car that will depreciate the nanosecond I drive off the lot.

  11. I've got a 1999 F 350 with 260,000 miles on it and still runs good, change oil every 3000, I look to get another 300,000 uot of it.

  12. extrasmooth1 says:

    I don't get it. You are encouraging people to hang on to inoperable vehicles? And store them indefinitely? Create ugly personal junkyards? Don't we have enough blight in the countryside already?

    On the other matter of repairs, the author makes good points. As long as the body & frame are serviceable, I plan to rebuild my pickup until I can no longer drive. I just can't stomach the idea of paying the outrageous dealer prices for new trucks any more.

  13. MY 1994 F-150 has 311,000 miles on it and it gets me back and forth to work every day. Minor repairs here and there but nothing serious. I look at it this way, an occasional repair ( altenator, brakes , tires, water pump, serpintine belt) is still cheaper than a car payment for a car that will also need fixing along with a payment.

  14. One caveat here.
    You MUST have a good mechanic.
    Most franchise shops are clip joints. If you take an old car in to them, they will try to charge you through the nose for repairs, but won’t do them properly, because they don’t expect the car to last. I took mine in to a national franchise chain to fix an oil leak, and afterward they told me that all the bolts on the wheels needed to be replaced. They gave it back to me with the check engine light on, and one of the chrome caps missing off one wheel. These problems didn’t exist when I took it in. In franchise places, if you have problems with the repair, they will always say that something else is wrong with the car that is interfering with the part they repaired, and it has to be fixed (for a fee) also.

    I have a good shop now that is willing to do the work correctly, for a good price that I can pay and they can survive on, and they stand behind their work. When they put on a new alternator or A/C condenser, if there are problems, they fix it for free and cover the tow in, if necessary.

    The repairs on my “worthless” car cost much less than new car payments, and new cars depreciate far faster than I can pay for them — my last new one had PLASTIC parts in the engine that cracked. My “Hoopy” with the cast iron engine costs me about $1100 a year in repairs and about $50 a month for insurance. Add up the sum of your car payments and the sum of your high-end collsion protection for a new car and see what it comes out to.

    The last brand new car I bought gave me a choice every month: I could use the money I had to pay to have it fixed so it would be drivable, or use the money to make the car payment so that it wouldn’t get repo’d. The last day I owned it, I paid $125 to get the title in my name, and ended up getting $65 for it for scrap — when it was five years old.

    I’ll keep my 21-year old wreck.

    I just wish it were old enough that it had a carburator so that it wouldn’t be vulnerable to EMP attack by terrorists.

  15. MetfanLou says:

    I try to maintain and keep my cars for as long as possible. One reason is the exorbitant Ad Valorum taxes you have to pay in Georgia plus the tage and tax fees. Ad Valorum charges are computed every year and each county and city set their own rates. On a new 2005 Titan p/u I paid over 500 dollars for tags the first year. I still pay a lot but gets cheaper every year. What a scam.

  16. DEFEATOBAMAIN2012 says:

    I've had ford falcon, dodge charger, VW, lasted 5 years, in shop for this and that every time something happen, had a number of all failed too costly to keep repairing and make payments, not that I'm a hard driver or drive a whole lot of mies a year, bought a 1998 toyota sienna, now has 105,000 miles hope to drive it for another 105,000 miles, got sand blasted by hurricane and needs paint job. American cars have failed me too often in past, will never buy any again.

  17. MetfanLou says:

    Agree but I don't buy any car made by union thugs. The Toyota is a great choice.

  18. I'm seeing all these references to '94 this and '96 that,where's the OLD cars and trucks mentioned in the article? I guess people have different ideas of old "beaters" in this discussion! My NEWEST is an '84 Bronco II I was GIVEN,needed a clutch. It's my daily driver. It has about 220,000 on it. My other driver is my '57 GMC pick up with over 500K on it (it was also my most expensive one,I paid $370.00 for it,30 years ago.);it starts and runs okay but really needs to be rewired. My OLDEST is a '54 GMC 2 ton I'm using to move semi trailers for a short time,then it'll get its flatbed reinstalled and the rest of it restored as best I can,and IT'LL be a "frequent driver". I also have a '66 Pontiac Catalina 2 door hardtop my folks bought new,has serious rust,but still runs okay. I don't drive it much because it doesn't haul or tow,the front end needs to be rebuilt,and the Bronco II gets better mileage. It's worth it for me to keep these vehicles because each one performs different functions the other ones can't do. One thing they all CAN do is get me where I need to go on a spur of the moment,no hassle,no fuss.

  19. Scott Todd says:

    My wife and I have been looking for MONTHS for a decent used vehicle to replace our rusting out 91 Pathfinder. Unfortunately Obummer's "cash for clunkers" has taken most of what we could have bought off the road since it didn't take the really dilapidated rust buckets off the road, but a lot of only partially used up vehicles.