Monday, March 1, 2010

Old Car Smell

An old car like this may run fine, but minor nuisance problems
may make it less worthwhile to own.

One problem with keeping a much older car (10 years or more) is not just the prospect of repairs and the sagging resale value, but the numerous small problems that cumulatively make the car less and less appealing to own and drive.

After a decade or so, most cars have little in the way of resale value. Most cars, even BMWs and Mercedes, at the decade mark, are worth maybe a few thousand dollars in private party sale (what we would get for them, not a dealer).

The reasons are not hard to fathom. At that age, some major components, like the transmission, could break, resulting a repair bill in the thousands of dollars. It is a real risk, and one not covered by warranty. So people shy away from such vehicles, as most people are not risk-takers.

In addition, a car at that age might not be considered stylish and modern, and many people buy cars based on how they want to be perceived by others, and an old car doesn't carry any panache of style and wealth (however phony that is).

So old cars are not worth much. And they can need a lot of repairs. But on top of that, they can get annoyingly worn, to the point where you really should think hard about investing more into them.

Interior parts eventually wear out. At this age, upholstery, particularly on the driver's seat, may be worn. The steering wheel may be dirty and cracked. The door panels may be delaminating. And small plastic trim bits, almost impossible to find at a reasonable price, may start to crack, delaminate, fall off, or are missing.

Then there is the old car smell. Yes, old cars can start to stink after a while, particularly if you don't take care of them. A/C systems can be havens for mold and bacteria. Carpet, if it gets wet, smells like a wet dog. If the car develops any leaks, which is common, and is parked outdoors, water may get in and start a mushroom farm in your floorboards.

And increasingly, it is harder and harder to fix this problem. In the old days, you could buy a molded carpet set for your car for $100 from JC Whitney. It would fit like new and give the car a new car smell and appearance for not a lot of money. But cars today have elaborate carpeting that is backed with molded foam and even Styrofoam that is molded into the floor of the car. Finding such carpet in the aftermarket is nearly impossible, or very, very expensive.

Even fixing leaks is hard to do, as door gaskets have become complex moldings, sold only at dealers. In the old days, you could buy these gaskets by the yard and replace them yourself.

So "old car smell" is hard to dodge and hard to get rid of, in cars made since the 1980's.

(There was a trick, I recall reading many years ago, of cutting up some vinyl upholstery scraps, placing them in a tin with a teaspoon or two of toluene and putting it under the seat. The outgassing chemicals would smell like "new car smell" and help you sell an old junker).

Taken collectively, you may end up with a car that runs well, and is even reliable, but is not very fun to ride around in. Or, as in the case of one friend, a car the wife refuses to ride in.

Restoring interior pieces to their former glory can be costly these days. Back in the old days, upholstery shops could recover seats and door panels, replace headliners, and generally clean up a car. But today, composite headliners are generally not repairable, and the cost of labor has driven the re-upholstery business out of business. Getting your car "re-upholstered" just isn't done anymore. The upholstery shops have gone the way of the lamp shade shop and the haberdasher.

So what does this mean for you, the consumer? Well, it means that from an economically practical point of view, repairing many older cars is simply not worth it. Unless the car is collectible (and they generally aren't, until they are over twenty years old) putting the hundreds, if not thousands of dollars into a car to "restore" it to perfect condition is not worthwhile.

Sometimes, you have to call it quits and fish further upstream.

For example, a friend has a 13-year-old car worth maybe $2500 on a good day. It needs a lot of work, on the engine, the suspension, and the interior. All told, even doing the work himself, he may be looking at $3000 in parts, perhaps more, if he hires someone to do the work.

As a general rule of thumb, it is best to sell a car when the repair cost exceeds the resale value.

But, he argues that for $3000, he will get a "reliable" car for another 50,000 miles and thus the repairs are "worth it".

On the other hand, if he sells the car for $2500 to some other idiot who wants to "fix it up" and takes the $3000 he would have squandered in repairs, he could go out and buy a $5500 car, which would be "reliable for 50,000 miles" and have a car with more resale value as well.

You see, the problem with putting $3,000 into a $2500 car is that if it needs another $1000 in unexpected repairs down the road, you will think, "Well, I have $3000 into it, might as well spend another $1000" and so it goes, until suddenly you have $5000 to $10,000 invested in a $2500 car, and you wonder how you got there.

For example, one fellow put 160,000 miles on his 15-year-old BMW. The wife let the car overheat and it needed $5000 in work. He spent the money, only to later have transmission troubles. He realized that the resale value on the car was only a couple of grand, and much of the interior toys were broken. He should have junked the car after the overheating episode. As it was, it was five grand down the toilet.

And that is the problem with the " end game" - many of us don't know when to call it quits, and often we spend more money fixing an older car than it is worth, only to be confronted with more repair bills down the road. We spend more, repair more, and then finally get frustrated with the car and sell it. Cut to the chase and quit when the first big bill appears - at least in most cases.

At high age and high miles, cars wear out fast. A 10-year-old car with 150,000 miles on the clock realistically has its best years behind it. Yes, some cars go 200,000 miles or even 300,000 miles, but often those are either all-highway-miles cars or are cars that were meticulously maintained at a very high cost.

This is not to say that in every circumstance you should throw away an older car. For example, a friend of mine has a battered Subaru with 200,000 miles on it. It is worth maybe $1000 in resale, and that's being generous. But she drives it only 3,000 miles a year, locally. You can drive a car like that "into the ground" and then discard it. But I would not put $2500 into repairs into it. No way. Not worth it. When it dies, just take the tags off it and walk way. Sell the hulk to a scrap dealer - they'll come pick it up for you!

Fish Further Upstream. For most consumers, owning a decade-old car is simply not workable, as they need reliable transportation to get to work and back. Figure out when the "end game" is going to happen for your car, and be prepared to walk away from the car when that occurs.

Throwing more and more money at older cars makes little or no sense for the average consumer.