Oh the time I have had, my friends. I apologize in advance; this is going to be a long one.
On the evening of Labor Day, my car died in the middle lane of traffic on a busy street. I put on my 4-ways, but I was causing a pretty major traffic disturbance. People were honking and driving around me. I knew it wasn’t a good idea to leave my car there for very long, but I also had Evie in the car, and I didn’t feel like it was a particularly safe situation. I wasn’t sure if I could push the car by myself, but I didn’t really see any other choice, so one way or the other I was moving that car.
I braced my shoulder in the open door so I could reach in to steer and started pushing. Oh-so-slowly I got it going, and I crossed over a few lanes of traffic. I needed to make it around the corner to pull it safely out of the way, but the light wasn’t with me so I had to stop and wait. There must have been a little depression in the road there, because when the light changed I couldn’t get it going again. I started rocking it back and forth and eventually got it up and over the dip and back on track.
No one bothered to jump out of their car and help push (thanks citizens of Chicago!), but I did get it over to the side and out of harm’s way, even if it wasn’t in a legal spot.
Of course, then Evie and I had to wait for a tow truck to show up, and since it was Labor Day I had to wait quite awhile just to get a hold of someone. After finally getting off the phone with insurance, the tow truck dispatch said it would over an hour before they could get here. Luckily, when I said I had a kid with me, they ended up getting there in 30 minutes instead.
I had the car towed to a shop in my neighborhood that was only a few blocks away. Normally I have my car stuff done out by work, but that was very far away, so it really didn’t make sense to have it towed all the way out there. I had gone to this little repair shop attached to the Mobile gas station a few times before for very minor things and hadn’t had any trouble.
This time I had trouble. Lots of it.
But first things first, we had a funeral to attend in Michigan the next day. So we had to get a rental car, and I told the car people we’d be out of town for two days, but I could pick the car up on Thursday. The rental car and funeral part went very smoothly, so I felt like this whole ordeal was actually going to be relatively painless.
Unfortunately, when I called the shop up on Thursday they hadn’t started working on it yet. This meant I had to stay home from work that day, after missing two days for the funeral. It quickly became apparent that unless I was physically on the phone with them, they weren’t working on it. This caused me to call them every couple of hours to get an “update” on how it was coming.
Finally, I called them at about 7 p.m. and the car was ready. However, this conversation took place:
Guy: “My friend, how much did I tell you this was going to cost?”
Me: “Uh…you said $575.”
Guy: “Oh yeah. Okay, mi amigo, do you have any cash?”
Me: “Some, I guess.”
Guy: “If you bring $40 in cash, I’ll take $35 off, give it to you for $540.”
Now this was obviously some shady dealings, but then I decided I didn’t care. If that’s the way the guy wants to run his business, I guess that’s alright with me. There might be some risk for me on that $40, but mostly it’s risky for him to have shady deals going on with his business. Anyway, luckily this didn’t come back to haunt me, but I include it just as an example of how shady this place is.
Alright, so I show up to pick up my car, pay, and start to drive away. Immediately I notice that my check engine light is on, so I pull back into the shop.
Me: “The check engine light is still on. I guess the code needs to be cleared?”
Guy: “No, the guy with the computer isn’t here. You’ll have to come back tomorrow.”
Me: “Well, I can’t take the car while the check engine light is on.”
Guy: “No, no, no, don’t worry my friend. I checked everything out, everything is fine. I checked the oil. Just come back tomorrow, 10:00. The guy will be here, he’ll clear the code.”
I wasn’t too thrilled with that, but what was I going to do? So I took the car. The next day was Friday, so I put the kids in the car and we took it over there at 10.
Me: “Hi, I’m here to get my code cleared on my car?”
Guy: “Yeah, okay. The guy’s not here.”
Me, starting to get upset: “You told me to be here at 10. I’m here at 10.”
Guy: “Yeah, you’ll have to leave your car here.”
Me, gesturing to the kids: “I can’t leave the car here, I have my kids with me. This is my only car.”
Eventually the guy made a phone call and told me to wait for 30 minutes. I was feeling distinctly jerked around at this point, so we left and played at a nearby park, before coming back. The guy was there and he read the code before clearing it. The code said that the evaporation sensor was bad, but I’ve seen that code before: that’s the code you get if you leave your gas cap a little loose. So it made sense to me, because I knew they had to drop the gas tank to put in the new fuel pump. So if leaving the gas cap open and letting air in could trip that sensor, then it seemed reasonable that actually removing the gas tank would let air in and trip that sensor. I figured it was probably normal and they just forgot to reset it after they were done working on it. I thought that was the end of it.
That Saturday we were actually driving up to Wisconsin, and right away I noticed that the check engine light was back on again. However, the car was driving without any noticeable problems, so we went ahead and went anyway. After the various experiences I had had thus far, I really didn’t want to go back to the same place again, so on Monday I first called my usual repair place. They agreed with my self-diagnosis that something was probably not sealed or connected properly, but said they’d have to charge $115 to figure out what, so I should probably take it back to the original place and force them to do the job properly. So I called the Mobile back and the guy told me the soonest he could take a look at it was Thursday at 10 a.m. So I continued to drive all week with the light on.
On Thursday I was prepared to do whatever it took to get this resolved. I had to stay home from work for yet another day (it would have been 3 at this point, except I was already home on that Friday), so I really wanted to get this resolved. I decided that I would just wait there while they repaired my car, no matter how long it took. There were two reasons for this, 1) they seemed to work better when they had a reminder, and 2) I knew there would be an argument, and I didn’t want them to do something to my car afterwards.
Unfortunately, it went exactly as I expected it to.
In retrospect, the initial posturing was kind of funny, how we were both doing that thing where we’re smiling at each other but carefully choosing our words to make our position clear, like
Guy: “Okay, mi amigo, you want me to look at the new problem with the engine light?”
Me: “It says here on my receipt that all parts and labor are guaranteed.”
Guy: “Oh, are you having a problem with your fuel pump?”
Me: “Yes, according to the light on my dashboard.”
Unfortunately, that didn’t last long, and we quickly escalated into shouting. His basic position was that he couldn’t possibly have affected the evaporation sensor by replacing the fuel pump, and my basic position was that it would be awfully coincidental that this totally unrelated problem happened while it was at their shop. In addition, there was a bit of a disagreement about when the work should be done, his basic position being never, and my basic position being right now.
Even though I knew 100% that they had caused this problem, I had no way to prove it (something that he pointed out many times). This is what makes the whole thing so frustrating; you’re being done an injustice, and there’s almost nothing you can do about it. And they weren’t even entertaining the possibility that they could have done it. How nice it must be to be so confident that you couldn’t possibly have made a mistake.
I had arrived precisely at the agreed upon time of 10:00, but the guy there claimed I must have set that up with someone else, because he couldn’t possibly do it at 10. I had never seen anybody else at the shop, but I gave him the benefit of the doubt. Unfortunately for him, I didn’t really care who I had set up the appointment with: I was there now for the third time, a week and a half after I had originally dropped my car off, and I wasn’t leaving until it was resolved. I also graciously offered to talk to this other guy, his boss, or anybody else I needed to talk to in order to get this resolved. I also super-graciously offered to take my money back if he wasn’t able to fix my problem.
I parked myself in the corner, which made him very upset, but what was he going to do? I think maybe he intended to make me wait as long as possible, but then I unnerved him by knitting, so he broke down and put the car up on the lift. He explained to me how the sensor giving the error and the fuel tank weren’t even remotely connected, despite the hose I could see running from one to the next (and which, by the way, I knew to be false anyway or else how could leaving your gas cap open trip that sensor unless there was some connection?)
Finally, after an hour or so, he said the boss had to order a part, and I would have to leave and come back when they had the part.
Me: “And you’ll fix it at no extra cost?”
::Guy, giving me a hard stare for probably 30 seconds::
Guy, sighing: “At no extra cost.”
It somewhat seemed like a victory, but I was also disappointed that even after all that, I wasn’t able to get everything wrapped up. Now I had to come back yet another day, and every time I even thought about the car or the repair shop, I felt sick to my stomach. Although I can be a real pain in the ass when I have to be, I absolutely hate doing it. I hate it. I mean, I’m sure nobody likes it (or at least most of us don’t, I’ve seen some people who I’m pretty sure actually enjoy it), but it was just the last thing on earth I wanted to do. I almost just wanted to say forget the whole thing and just go pay to take it somewhere else, but it was the principle of the whole thing. On the other hand, were principles really worth losing 2 years off the end of my life from worry?
I called later in the day, and they said to bring it in on Tuesday at 8, because they wouldn’t have the part until Monday. They also made it a condition that I couldn’t sit and wait for it, I’d have to leave it. As I said, they were pretty uncomfortable with me sitting there (or maybe they were afraid I was going to knit again). I was a little nervous about this, but I got a sense that I was pushing them pretty far, and they needed at least a little victory. So I let that one go.
I stayed home from work yet another day, and dropped the car off at 9 (because when I called on Monday to make sure they had the part, they said they weren’t going to be getting it until Tuesday at 8). I had been hoping maybe they could get it taken care of right away and I could still make it to work, but then they told me “afternoon”. When I pressed for what time in the afternoon I should be there to pick it up, they said, “5 or 6”. You know, 5 or 6 in the afternoon. Well, I needed to pick Evie up from school, so I told them I had to be there at 5 (which meant paying for aftercare, but I didn’t get into that…I just wanted my stinkin’ car fixed!) and they said, “I’ll try to have it done by then.”
I did not have very high hopes. Excuse me for doubting.
Finally, I called at 3:30 and they said it was fixed. I walked back to the shop, psyching myself up the whole way for another round of arguing about whether or not I would have to pay. Truth be told, I brought some cash with me, since I knew that had special allure for them. I figured that I had saved $35 originally, so I would pay up to $40 in cash if it meant that I could just end all of this.
It didn’t come to that.
The boss was there and he gave me a little talk, but they gave me the keys and didn’t mention payment. I think the boss was trying to intimidate me, but there was a bit of a language barrier, so it didn’t come off as very intimidating since I had to keep saying, “What? I’m sorry, what?” We finally left it as the evap sensor must have ruined itself, but they did me such a nice favor by fixing it for me, and I shouldn’t really bother coming back there again. As far as I was concerned, if the problem was fixed they could say whatever they want, and they didn’t need to worry about me coming back anyway.
In any case, I took my car, with no check engine light, and went home.
Sooooo, anybody have a good repair shop in the neighborhood? You might say I could use a new place.
My “new” car is not so new anymore.
My Malibu is the only car that I ever bought new from a dealership, so I still think of it as the “new car”. However, a few things here and there have started to break down recently, which caused me to reflect on the fact that it’s actually ten years old. I recently passed 166,666 miles (the mileage of the beast!), making it no spring chicken. (Side note, that puts me almost exactly dead on the average miles per year of 16,550 as calculated by the Federal Highway Administration, which is especially amazing considering how many different phases of life and locations of living the car has covered. They must be doing some good math over there at the Highway Administration!)
All of this has caused me to reflect on the fact that my Malibu might be nearing the end of it’s life. Sara and I thought back to all the old cars we had, and we realized that every single one was jettisoned when it was somewhere between 12 and 15 years old. Based on that, we came up with the following metric: barring anything unusual like an accident, you should expect to get 10 years out of a car. If you get to 10 years, you can’t be disappointed. However, anecdotally we usually got at least 12 years, so if you’re lucky you should get an additional 2 unexpected, “bonus years” out of your car. You shouldn’t necessarily plan on them, but I think it is reasonable to expect that you can get them. In a perfect world, you could get as much as 15 years. Plan on 10, expect 12, and hope for 15.
Now of course the 10/12/15 isn’t a hard and fast rule, but more of a guideline. This actually correlates well with another anecdotal metric of mine, which is that you should be able to get about 200,000 miles out of your car. Well, assuming I continue to do about the average miles per year of 16,550 on my 10 year old car, I’ll cross the 200,000 within 2 years.
I’ll hold on to it for as long as I can, but it does sort of feel like a death sentence for the old girl. She’s been given two years to live. All in all, the Malibu is a very good car, and I am very satisfied with it. However, I probably won’t buy a new car again.
My car had a price tag of around $22,000 when it was new 10 years ago. So that averages to $2,200 a year (not counting car ownership costs like insurance, plates, oil changes, etc.). However, according to edmunds.com, a 2012 Malibu costs $22,110 and a 2010 Malibu costs $13,603. So we could say a Malibu loses about 38% of its value in the first two years. I’m making a lot of assumptions here (although not crazy assumptions, since Edmunds predicts you will lose on average 31% of the value of a new car in 2 years), but if we apply that same formula, that would mean that if my Malibu new in ’02 cost $22,000, I could have gotten it used in ’04 for about $13,640 (which actually seems kind of high for a 2 year old used car). If I then owned that car for 8 years (because I expect 10 years out of a car, but it is already 2 years old, so I only get 8), it would only have cost me around $1,705 a year. I would have saved $495 per year by owning the exact same car, just purchased at a different time. In other words, I just gave myself $3,960 of free money.
My quick calculations assume you paid cash for everything, so none of this includes the 7% interest rate I had on my 5 year loan. So if I spent those two extra years saving up to pay cash for my car rather than taking a loan, I give myself an additional $4,137.58 in free cash, for a total of around $8,000 in free money.
Of course, these numbers are just my quick calculations, and I’m no expert. There are mitigating circumstances on both sides. Hypothetically, if you paid cash and got a phenomenal deal, you could be the one who beat the system, but even then you just come out even with the used car case, not ahead. Chances are you didn’t beat the system (and you don’t really even know if you got a good deal or not until you can compare used car sales in a few years), so if you are a betting man, the odds are on the used car.
Anyway, the numbers work fairly well as a rough guideline for me, and it gives me an opportunity cost number to consider. Even though buying a new car is never cost effective, it might be other things effective. For example, most of the time I had my new car it was hassle and stress free. That’s got to be worth something I suppose, but for me personally it was probably not worth $3,960 (Of course, I didn’t have any trouble with the car in the first two years, so if you think about it, buying it at two years old wouldn’t have given me any more hassle or stress than buying it new). On the other hand, I bought my Malibu when I got my first job out of college, both as a sign of independence and a splurge to celebrate my new financial security. So I guess those might be worth something. And if money is not an issue for you, then the “cost penalty” might be lower for you (i.e. if $3,960 isn’t a lot of money to you, then it might seem like a small price to pay compared to other things). For example, you might value “looking good” more than $3,960.
Anyway, we’ve had a good 10 years together so far, and if the Malibu dies tomorrow, I’d be satisfied that I got my money’s worth. However, we’ll keep our fingers crossed for at least another 2 and hope for the full 5.
The other day, Sara told me that her heat wasn’t working on her car. “Better get that looked at before winter,” I said. A couple of days later I drove her car to the grocery store and I noticed that the temperature gage was showing the engine getting pretty hot. Usually Sara drives the car for very short distances only, around the neighborhood, but I was on the highway here. So the first thing I did when I saw it getting hot was to turn on the heat, full blast. Of course, the heat didn’t work, so it was only blowing out cool air and not cooling down the engine. However, when it would get really hot, the heat would suddenly kick on and the engine would cool.
Now this was a bigger problem than just the heat, but the two things were obviously connected. My guess was maybe a thermostat problem or something. So I made an appointment to take it in. My mechanic is out by my work so that I can drop the car off in the morning, work all day, and then pick it up at night. This seems to be the least disruptive way to handle car problems. However, that means driving the car out 45 minutes on the highway to get there. You can probably see where this is going. The heat would not kick on and, despite keeping my eye glued to the thermostat and driving as slow as I could without being rear-ended, the car overheated and I had to pull over on the side of the highway. It took half an hour for the tow truck to get there.
It turns out that there was a crack inside the intake manifold which allowed all of the coolant to leak out (hence the overheating and no heat). This might not have been so bad, except that the leak was directly over the engine, so all of the coolant that was leaking out was being sucked into a lot of really bad places. They said it would be $900 to fix the damage they knew about, but there was a high likelihood that there would be more problems with the engine. Later, when I learned that at least one cylinder completely filled up with anti-freeze and had to be drained, I suspected that there was a high, high, high likelihood that at least some of the engine would need to be replaced.
Thus began the great debate: do I fix the car or get rid of it? The car was 15 years old and a few minor things had started to go wrong with it all at once recently, which I took as a sign. According to what I found online, it was worth between $1,000 and $1,500. If the repairs were $900+ (and maybe a big plus if the engine had to go), so it just didn’t seem like it was worth fixing. On the other hand, until the day the intake manifold cracked, it was a perfectly good car that seemed like it had some good years in it yet. Eventually we decided that it wasn’t worth keeping the car. Sara had bought it used for like $3,000 and we had it for 8 years. That seemed like a pretty good go.
I thought that making that decision meant the hard part was over, but it was just the beginning. The next question was, if we’re not going to keep it, what were we going to do with it? I didn’t want to pay to fix it and then try to sell it, because that’s a gamble: if we didn’t sell it for what we put into it, then we lost money. So instead I decided to not fix it, and try to sell it anyway. I thought if I explained the problem and set the price really low, maybe someone who could do the work themselves or get the parts for cheap might want it. I figured that the car was worth between $1k and $1.5k, so split the difference and call it $1,250. The repairs were around $900, plus a little more, so I figured the magic number was around $300 or so.
But how to get it home? It was way out in the suburbs. I got some towing estimates, and it was around $150. Our insurance would cover the original tow into the shop, but not the “convenience tow” (their words, not mine). It seemed kind of silly to pay $150 for a tow if I was only going to sell the car for $300, but I didn’t know what choice I had. Finally I called the place and said, “If I stuff it full of coolant, could I make it back to the city?” “Maybe,” he said, “Probably.” Very well, decision made. Until, that is, he called me back a little later. “I changed my mind. The leak is a lot worse than we thought. I don’t think you could make it.” This is where I learned that the coolant had filled up the cylinders. After they drained that, they put some water in to see how bad it was leaking and the water flowed right through.
Well, I still didn’t want to pay to have it towed, and they were getting antsy about keeping it on their lot any longer, so I still didn’t have a choice. I showed up bright and early the next morning, 2 jugs of anti-freeze in my hand. I figured I wouldn’t make it home, but every mile I drove was less money I’d have to pay for the inevitable tow.
“Oh, you can’t drive it, it doesn’t start.”
“Wait, what now? You said you didn’t think I could make it home, but you didn’t say it didn’t start!”
“Oh, well I thought they had got is started, but I guess they didn’t. The water we put in yesterday ran into the cylinders and hydro-statically locked them. You can’t even turn it on.”
::blank stare from me, standing there stupidly with my anti-freeze::
“Well, I guess I won’t be picking it up today…”
At this point, I was running out of options, so I started calling scrap yards. I found a place that would tow the car for me and give me $310 for it (above my magical $300 line). So, not only could I get about what I wanted from it, but I wouldn’t have the extra expense of towing it home, and I wouldn’t have the hassle of trying to sell it. I still debated for another day or so, after all it seemed such a shame for a car to go from perfectly fine to junked in a matter of days, but eventually I just didn’t have any other viable choice.
All of the trouble, time and effort this had cost me so far wasn’t quite over with yet, there was one more hurrah left! I needed to be at the car with the keys and title, so they could tow it away. They wanted to do it on Friday, which wasn’t super convenient for me, but I arranged to be there between 1 and 2. I would just try to bring enough stuff to keep Oliver and Evie occupied until the truck showed up.
He called at 11 and said, “Okay, I’m ready to do this.”
“Well, I’m not. I’m in the city. I have to pick up my daughter from school at 12. That’s why I scheduled it for between 1 and 2.”
“Hey, no problem,” he said in an understanding voice, “these things come up during the day. Just try to get here as soon as possible.”
Well, no, my day was all planned out. YOU were the thing that was unexpectedly cropping up! But it was nice of him for being so understanding (that was sarcasm). Nonetheless, I picked up Evie from school and we managed to make it out there by 12:30, and I gave him a call.
“Well, I’m picking up someone else right now. Let me call you when I’m coming out so that you can wait at home until then.”
“I’m already here, at the car. I came as early as I could.”
“I can be there in an hour.”
Okay, no big deal, that would put him there at 1:30, which was solidly between my 1 and 2 appointment. We brought food and stuff to do, we could occupy ourselves for an hour.
After 2 I gave him a call. I was a little steamed by this point.
“Well, sir, I just have one more pickup to do first…”
“That’s what you said last time, and that was an hour and a half ago!”
“I’m very sorry, but we’re very busy today.”
“So am I, that’s why I scheduled an appointment!”
“Towing is very unpredictable. We don’t know how long these things are going to take. That’s why I told you to wait at home until I called.”
“Then why are you picking up another car? I’ve been waiting for an hour and a half. How long has he been waiting?”
“Well, he’s very close to base, so my dispatcher told me to pick him up first.”
“Next time tell him too bad! Tell him I’ve been waiting with an infant and a toddler in an alley next to a dumpster for an hour and a half, and you have to do me next!”
“Well, I have no control over it. You’re welcome to call and complain. If you can’t wait then call back and schedule another pickup at your convenience.”
“Today between 1 and 2 WAS my convenience. THAT’S WHY I SCHEDULED AN APPOINTMENT!”
The tow truck finally arrived at 3:20, an hour and 20 minutes after the end of my appointment and almost 3 hours after I arrived. We had walked around the neighborhood, had a dance contest on a nearby stump, eaten a bagel at Dunkin Donuts, re-read the same book several times, given Oliver a bottle, played any number of games I could make up, and Oliver had even had a nap. Things were looking desperate.
Finally, Evie had said her goodbyes, the check was in my hand, and the car was gone. What a day!
Thus ends the saga of the old car, and begins the new saga: finding a new car!
Originally I had figured that when Sara’s car died we would buy a van. However, we thought about it a little bit and decided we didn’t really need a van, at least not yet. There are only two times a year or so when we are hurting for space, and we’ve always managed to make do thus far. So what we decided to get instead was a very small car with great fuel economy for me to take back and forth to work. With the money we save on gas, we can rent a van twice a year.
We’re currently cross-referencing the consumer report’s reliability list with the fuel economy list and price guidelines, and making a spreadsheet. While we’re doing all the research, however, we have to figure out how to manage our hectic weekly schedule with only one car. Sara has been busy learning the bus route, and it’s actually working okay so far.
In fact, it’s working out so well that it’s got us thinking: do we even need a second car? Of course, it’s not going to be easy, but it is going to be a lot cheaper. If we could make some of the difficult things work, it could be worth it. The one hitch in our plan was that Sara had to go one day a week to another hospital, so we would need two cars for sure on that day. However, it looks like she coincidentally might not need to do that anymore. Is the universe trying to tell us something?
So, for now, the plan is to give it a go with only one car until Thanksgiving, as a trial run. Can we do it? I’m sure I will keep you posted.
In light of my recent camping post being linked to by a camping blog, I thought I would put up a little poll about something that came up when we were camping. I meant to include this in my original camping post, but I forgot to write it down on my blogging notes from the weekend, so it slipped my mind.
In other news, we are down to a 1 car family as Sara’s car takes an extended stay in the shop (should be about a week when all is said and done). And there will still probably be more repairs in the future. We are having a pretty bad run as far as car trouble goes. I think when all is said and done, we’ll have spent about $1,300 in about two months between our two cars. It’s really not too bad when you consider we haven’t had much car repair for the past few years, so maybe we should count our blessings. Still pretty annoying though.