When Car Maintenance Turns Expensive

Maintenance can be an expensive part of car ownership. Here are five tips for when it costs more than you expect.
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Written by Whitney Vandiver
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You went in for an oil change. You left with an itemized bill as long as your arm.

Costly services are a reality for many car owners, especially for those who have delayed maintenance. According to insurance marketplace SmartFinancial, the cost of car parts has jumped since early 2021.

Many people don't trust their mechanics to do only what's necessary. You shouldn't arbitrarily agree to every repair — but you shouldn't reject them out of hand, either. Instead, learn to ask the right questions, and ask yourself about the way you drive and how well you've kept up on service.

Quality of parts and driving habits influence maintenance timing

Some maintenance is recommended at regular intervals, like an oil change every 6,000 miles, while other services occur at irregular intervals. When variable maintenance will be required depends on the wear and tear of your car and how long parts last.

Items like batteries “usually have a lifespan, and the more you spend, the longer the lifespan,” says Nicole Miskelley, manager of PMR Auto & Diesel Repair in Marion, Illinois.

Driving habits also impact how quickly you’ll need maintenance. Two people driving identical vehicles might need the same type of maintenance at different intervals, says Miskelley.

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Show me the money — and the maintenance

Most car owners can probably spot balding tires, but the trouble comes when mechanics recommend maintenance for issues that drivers can’t see.

Miskelley estimates that about 60% of her clients who come in for regular maintenance learn there’s something else that needs to be done to their cars. In some cases, it’s based on a car’s mileage; other times, it’s something a technician noticed while giving the car a quick inspection.

But not being able to verify that a recommendation is legitimate rather than an attempt to take advantage of a car owner has some drivers skeptical of mechanics.

According to AAA, 63% of Americans do not trust mechanics’ recommendations. The top reasons were experience with unnecessary recommendations and being overcharged for services. However, mistrust in mechanics can lead to lapsed maintenance and higher costs later on.

Pay now or pay for it later

A 2022 AAA study estimates that the average car owner pays 9.68 cents per mile for maintenance and repairs over a five-year period — about $1,300 annually.

And these costs only increase as cars age: Consumer Reports’ 2021 Annual Auto Surveys showed the 12-month cost of maintenance and repairs for a 10-year-old car was nearly double that of a 5-year-old car.

So it’s no surprise that IMR Inc., an automotive market research company, found that 24.1% of drivers delayed services or repairs in the third quarter of 2022. And a recent survey by United Tires found that 52.2% of drivers who delayed maintenance cited price as a reason.

But little issues can “go from zero to 60,” says Miskelley, which can lead to more problems and higher bills down the road. And according to the same United Tires survey, regularly delaying maintenance adds an average of $1,193 to maintenance costs throughout the ownership of a car.

5 tips to offset unexpected car maintenance costs

1. Create an emergency car account

In addition to a general emergency account, having a savings account for unplanned car expenses helps you prepare financially, says Peter Locke, a certified financial planner and the head of financial planning at InSight, a financial planning company. Preparing for those expenses is a part of car ownership, just like planning for house maintenance.

2. Research the recommended maintenance

It can be expensive to agree wholesale to all recommended maintenance. Research mechanics’ recommendations to learn what they include, how they affect your car’s performance and when they need to be performed.

3. Ask questions

Don’t be afraid to ask a mechanic for more information about what the maintenance includes and why it needs to be done. This will help you make an informed decision based on your car’s condition.

“Whenever you talk to a mechanic, they should be able to explain pretty clearly why they’re doing it,” says Miskelley. “And what the long-term effects will be by avoiding it.”

4. Research maintenance quotes

Just like comparing prices for hotels or flights, compare quotes for maintenance on your car, says Locke.

Dropping off your car at the nearest auto shop might be the quickest option, but that doesn’t mean it’s the cheapest. Ask around to see if you can get a better deal.

5. Time your services

Some maintenance might not be as urgent as other services. Take a look at your budget and the recommended services to figure out a plan for tackling the necessities first.

Your mechanic should be able to help you prioritize the maintenance, says Miskelley. Safety issues should “be done immediately to keep your car alive versus ‘this is what we’re recommending just because it’s time.’”

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