Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Simple Car Care Tips

 The best used car value is often parked in your own driveway - this car was over 13 years old at the time this picture was taken.  Garage kept its whole life!

Many folks squander an enormous portion of their wealth on automobiles - and not very nice ones at that. The go from car to car, paying enormous prices for new cars, only to dump them a few years later for a fraction of their original value.

Why is this? Many folks argue that they are scared of "unexpected repair costs" that could pop up.

This, of course, is a myth. You can never have a repair cost that exceeds the value of the car. So the idea that your car is going to bite you on the hind end for $10,000 is utter nonsense, unless you do something stupid like never change the oil.

The other thing is that modern cars are far more reliable than the "they don't make them like they used to" cars of the1950's and 1960's.

Most cars from that era had odometers that only went to 99,999 miles for a reason: Most were in the junkyard by 80,000 miles. Today, even a poorly maintained Toyota can easily reach 150,000 miles, and a lovingly cared for car can see 200,000 or even 300,000 miles.

Most folks don't have the skills, tools, or work space to do their own car repairs. But there ARE a lot of things you CAN do that don' t require much in the way of skill, that can make your car last a lot longer and look a lot newer. The latter is very important, as one reason people sell off cars prematurely is that they "look old".

Here are some tips:

1. GARAGE YOUR CAR: If you have a garage, your car should be in it every night. If your garage is full of JUNK and you have a $20,000 car sitting outside, you have your priorities backwards. Throw OUT the JUNK and put the expensive asset in the garage. Garaging a car keeps the paint looking newer by keeping off sun, rain (acid rain and other droppings) and also keep the car cleaner looking by preventing dew from forming. Cars also can leak (and do leak) and a garaged car is less likely to have funky mold smells than one left outside. Also if you garage your car, you are less likely to have water problems with electrical components (see below).

Don't have a garage? Think carefully before buying a fancy car. Living in an apartment building or (worse yet) government project and owning a BMW is never a clever idea. In addition to the wear and tear mentioned above, the car will be scratched, broken into, and possibly stolen. Save your money for a house with a garage, THEN get yourself a fancy car.

2. KEEP IT CLEAN: You don't need to be a brain surgeon to wash a car, but few bother. If you don't have the wherewithal to wash your car at home, get a coupon booklet at your local car wash and use it. Learn how to wash a car (there is a trick to it, and I learned how washing trucks at UPS to work my way through college) and don't use home cleaning products to do it. Cleaning the interior is just as important, as buildups of dirt grind into the carpet and destroy the nap and also make the car smell awful. Clean all the "junk" out of the car every time you use it - don't let it turn into a rolling version of your sock drawer. If you have kids, teach them the same thing - to treat this investment with respect - that it is something expensive and not a junkyard or a toy for them to break.

3. RESPECT: Treat it gently. This means simple things like not slamming the door like the vault to Fort Knox. Not only does this wear on the hinges, it can put a door out of alignment and even break the power window actuators (at least on BMWs). Most cars will close with a fairly gentle touch. No need to wind-up like you are pitching for the world series. The same is true with hatches, trunks, and glove boxes. I've seen people SLAM and JAM these things and wonder why the glove box door is falling off after 5 years (Hint: Don't put a lot of junk the glove box, either, and then try to SLAM it shut, you'll just break it). Don't wear riveted jeans in a car (don't buy them period, they'll tear the upholstery on your couch as well) and when you sit down, don't just do the "drop from three feet" which not only flattens the seat bottom, compresses your spine.

Children are especially fond of pushing open car doors with thier feet, which not only scratches the door, runs the risk of doing a "door job" on the car adjacent to you. Teach your kids to respect your car, and also others. I see a lot of folks fling open their doors and slam them in to a neighboring car, denting both. No self-respect and no respect for others!

I had a neighbor who bought a brand new car, and then attempted to clear snow off it with a shovel, leaving rows of deep gouges in the paint across the hood. She treated the car with no respect. Within a year, those gouges were rust gashes. Within two years, she was trading the car in at a great loss. What a waste!

4. CHANGE THE OIL & OTHER FLUIDS: This may sound self-explanatory, but bears mentioning. Generally, it is a good idea to change the oil every 3,000 miles if you are using regular (mineral) motor oil. Synthetic oils can go longer - some say to as much as 15,000 miles, although I am not quite comfortable with anything over 7K miles myself. Don't neglect other fluids, though. Some manufacturers recommend flushing radiator fluid and brake fluid as often as every two or three years. And transmissions and differentials may need to be changed every 5 years or so. Check your owner's manual to be sure. And if you have the work done, make sure you are there to witness it. Many quik-lube type places have been caught charging for such services while not actually performing them.

5. DRIVE GENTLY: Hitting potholes full force and banging into curbs, or even taking every off-ramp at full 1g cornering capability will wear on your front end and cause your ball joints, tie rods, and shocks/struts to wear prematurely. Fast starts and standing on the brakes at the last minute will wear your drive-train and brakes rapidly. Brake wear, in particular, is particularly variable with driving skill. If you ride the brakes or accelerate toward red lights (only to slam on the brakes once you reach the crosswalk) you'll be buying pads and rotors more ofen (and possibly suspension bushings as well). Peeling out and smoking the tires not only wears on your tires, but also on the clutch, transmission, and other driveline components. How you drive radically affects how long a car lasts. That's why a car in the hands of a teenager rarely lasts more than a year or two.
Note also, in these days of wildly fluctuating gas prices that driving gently and more slowly can really save on gas. One of my cars has a mileage computer than shows instantaneous and average milage. It is very accurate. On a recent trip, towing a trailer, I found that driving 70-75 mph, I was getting an appalling 12.5 miles per gallon. On the return trip, I found that by slowing down to 60-65 mph, my mileage shot up to over 18 mph, a 50% increase in gas mileage. Slowing down made the trip more enjoyable, put less wear and tear on the car, saved me 12 gallons of gas, and added less and a half-hour to my overall trip time.

6. WAX IT: There is no big secret on how to wax a car. If you can't figure it out, ask a friend who is into cars. It can be a relaxing weekend hobby and a great way to build upper body strength. Even if you do it only once or twice a year, it will help the paint last a long longer. The secret is to get the car very clean first, and have lots of soft clean rags. You needn't buy fancy caruba waxes (which often don't last very long). The "once a year car wax" in the orange bottle does the job just fine for most folks. Car wax prevents water damage, causes water to bead up and also helps with sun damage. Next to garaging, it is the best thing to protect the paint on your car. The paint is a part of the car, and an expensive one to replace.

7. KEEP THE ENGINE CLEAN: I am a nut on engine cleanliness, and you don't have to detail your engine like I do. But you should periodically clean out any dead leaves and other debris when you open the hood. Dead leaves and particularly pin oak leaves and the like (and some pine needles) can clog vent holes in the body, allow water to accumulate and flood sensitive electronics. Also, if you have a sunroof, don't let dirt and leaves accumulate in the tracks. There are usually FOUR drain tubes in a sunroof track and these exit below the car. If they clog, your sunroof will "leak" and your car will smell funky and you won't be happy.

8. CHECK YOUR TIRE PRESSURE: This is so easy to do, it is hard to understand why there is an epidemic of low-tire pressure induced blowouts in this country. For many car ignorati, the myth persists that a tire blowout is caused by "too much air pressure". The opposite is true. A tire's ability to carry a load is proportional to air pressure. If tire pressure goes low, the tire "squats" and the sidewalls flex. At speed, this flexing is like bending a coat-hanger very fast - the sidewalls heat up, and eventually fail, blowing out the entire circumference all at once. It is a very dangerous event, particularly in some top-heavy SUVs. Buy a simple tire gauge and check your tire pressures constantly. Usually there is a tire pressure chart in the inside of the driver's door or in your glove-box. A new tire can be over $200, so it pays to take care of the ones you've got - and possibly save your life in the process. Get in the habit of looking at your tires and if you see too much "squat" get our your air gauge and check it.

9. FIX THE LITTLE THINGS: Oftentimes small things break on a car - a trim piece, for example, or a small scratch. Most folks say "It isn't worth fixing those small things" so they just let them go. As a result, the car looks like heck, and the owner ends up selling it sooner than they should. Small trim pieces may be expensive, but without them, the car looks like a junker. Ask your parts guy if he can get you a part at a discount. Or maybe you can replace a simple part yourself. Touch-up paint may make small scratches less noticeable - and also prevent the car from rusting.

These are all very simple things that anyone can do without a lot of tools or special skills. If you keep the car LOOKING good, you'll feel better about it and want to keep it longer. If you take care of it, it will be less likely to break down and you'll feel better about owning it.