When AAA tallied all the costs involved in owning a car, including car payments, insurance, fuel, maintenance, repairs and more, it found that the average American pays more than $1,000 per month. So it is more important than ever to make savvy decisions when it comes to your vehicle. Bottom Line Personal asked master mechanic Shahe Koulloukian for his strategies to keep your expenses under control…

Find a trustworthy mechanic. The time to select a mechanic is when your car is running fine. Your first visit to the repair shop is an opportunity to gauge whether you trust the mechanic…not the time to make a major commitment. An oil change is the mechanic equivalent of a first date…

Stop by the shop, and ask if the owner is around. It’s promising if a garage is owner-operated—it suggests that the decision maker is someone who understands cars. Ask if the owner has a moment to chat with a new customer—you might have to wait a bit, but he/she should find a few minutes for you. Tell the owner you only need an oil change now, but you are hoping to find a mechanic you can work with long term.

Ask the owner, “How long have you been in business?” A local shop that has been around for more than a decade is likely to be reliable. They rarely last long if they treat customers unfairly. Exception: Garages that are part of a chain sometimes survive even though they’re untrustworthy—chains often generate business through advertising rather than reputation.

Ask how many techs are on staff, whether all of the techs are ASE-certified and how long the longest-tenured tech has been working there. Automotive Service Excellence (ASE) certification is a good sign that the technicians are knowledgeable. You can search for ASE-certified shops in your area at ASE.com/find-a-repair-shop. If none of the techs have been working at the shop for more than a few years, it might indicate that this garage can’t hang onto experienced techs, perhaps because it doesn’t pay well.

Glance into the garage. A messy shop often is a poorly run shop.

Ask when the garage can fit your car onto its schedule for an oil change. It is a good sign if they can’t get to you right away—good mechanics are very busy these days.

Ask what oil the owner would recommend for your vehicle. Be wary if he doesn’t recommend the oil in your owner’s guide. A mechanic who tries to convince you to pay more for some super-special oil that isn’t recommended in your owner’s guide isn’t trying to protect your engine…he’s trying to upsell you.

Ask whether the garage guarantees its work. A good shop should stand behind its repairs—a one-year/12,000-mile parts-and-labor warranty is the industry standard. Warning: If a garage offers you an “extended warranty” that stretches beyond one year/12,000 miles for an added fee, turn this down. When repair work fails, it does so quickly because the repair was done improperly or the replacement part was faulty.

Determine if it is worth having the repair work done at all. The high cost of buying a new car or even a reliable used car is encouraging many drivers to keep their current cars as long as possible—but old cars can become money pits as their repair needs rise. If the cost of a repair exceeds the vehicle’s value, it’s clearly time to move on—but what if the car endures a series of smaller problems rather than one massive repair? How can you know whether to agree to the latest repair or replace the vehicle? The key is to make this decision based not just on the current repair estimate but also on the vehicle’s recent track record.

How to do this: Tally the car’s repair and maintenance bills for the past three years, including this latest repair estimate. If the total is less than $7,200—that’s $200 per month over 36 months—it’s probably worth having the repair done, unless you no longer like this car and/or your mechanic warns that even pricier problems are on the horizon. In today’s market, you’re unlikely to find a car that costs you less than this much per month. If your three-year repair costs exceed $7,200, it may be time to see if you can find a different car that fits your budget and you would prefer to own.

See if someone else is on the hook for the repair bill. One way to trim auto-repair costs is to get the manufacturer’s warranty or your insurer to pay the bill. That isn’t always an option, of course—warranties and insurance are limited. But here are two situations when car owners might miss their chance to hand off repair bills…

Your warranty might not have expired even if a dealership says it has. New cars typically come with bumper-to-bumper warranties that last at least three years/36,000 miles—sometimes longer—and power train warranties that last 10 years/100,000 miles. If you take your car to a dealership for a repair near the end of its warranty period, an employee might point to the vehicle manufacture date inside the driver’s side door as proof that the warranty period has expired, meaning that you will have to pay the repair bill out of pocket. But that might not be true—the warranty period doesn’t start on the date the car was manufactured. It starts on the date it was first purchased or leased, which might be many months later. The dealership knows this, of course—but it can charge car owners a lot more for repairs than the manufacturer would compensate it for doing warranty work. Helpful: The date that matters here is the date the car was first purchased or leased. If you bought the car used and don’t have paperwork that lists this initial date, you can order a vehicle history report from AutoCheck.com or Carfax.com for $25 to $45.

Damage caused by driving over road debris usually is covered by insurance. Your mechanic just gave you the bad news—your engine or transmission is ruined, and replacing it will cost thousands of dollars. Ask the mechanic what led to this problem. If the answer is normal wear, a part failure or poor maintenance, you’re out of luck…but if the failure occurred as a result of running over something unavoidable—perhaps a piece of metal on the road punctured the oil pan, for example, allowing oil to escape and causing the engine to seize—then your auto insurance should cover the repairs, less your deductible.

Beware of cheap parts. It’s fine to opt for “aftermarket” auto parts rather than expensive original equipment manufacturer (OEM) parts as long as your mechanic provides a warranty on parts and labor. But some low-priced parts are not money well-spent…

Low-cost tires often provide far fewer miles of use and worse grip than pricier tires made by well-known tire brands. Likewise, discounted name-brand tires sometimes are marked down by retailers for a reason—they’ve been sitting around unsold for years. Rubber in tires degrades over time even if the tires haven’t been used. Rule of thumb: Tires should be replaced five years after manufacture. Before buying any tire, check when it was made. Look for a “Tire Identification Number” printed on the sidewall—the final four digits of this number reveal the week and year of manufacture. Example: If the final four digits are 1523, the tire was made in the 15th week of 2023. Don’t buy tires that are more than a year old. Helpful: When you check this code, check the tire’s traction and temperature ratings as well, which also are printed on the sidewalls. Choose tires that have a traction rating of A or AA…and a temperature rating of A or B. Anything rated lower is risky.

Inexpensive brake pads provide far fewer miles of use than high-quality brake pads. Even worse, they could damage your brake rotors. Pay a little more up-front for ceramic brake pads, and you’ll end up paying less in the end.

Smart Buying and Selling

To control costs, buy a car made by a Japanese, Korean or US manufacturer, not a European brand, which tend to have higher repair costs than other makes.

What about electric vehicles (EVs)? EVs are costly to purchase and predominantly more expensive to repair. Typically, EVs are taken to dealerships for repair, though there are some specialized independent shops. With that comes high labor rates. This also makes it difficult if you’re traveling either locally or out of town. If you have car trouble, you can’t just pop into any nearby repair shop. Another consideration with EVs is the battery life—they can lose charging capacity at an average of about 4% per year, meaning after five years an EV’s battery capacity may be only 80% of what it was when new. Furthermore, when the battery goes, it usually goes with no warning except for all the lights on the dash telling you to take the car in for repairs immediately.

Best time to buy a new car: The final days of a calendar year. A dealership that hasn’t met its annual sales targets could be motivated to offer potential buyers competitive deals on these days.

To sell a used car: Sell through Cars.com (free listings) or Autotrader.com ($49). You likely will get more for the car selling it yourself than if you trade it in…and listing on these sites tends to deliver a higher percentage of legitimate buyers—and fewer scammers—than Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace.

Carvana and CarMax were paying high prices for used cars during the pandemic due to demand, but they have slowed down on aggressive purchasing. Use
Carvana and CarMax to determine the base price for your used vehicle.

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