Touching Up With Touch-up Paint

This one is beyond some touch-up paint, I’m afraid.

Stone Chips, Dings, and Scractches, Oh No!

Dings, scratches, and stone chips happen to cars, even if you’re careful. If you buy an older used car, they’re just part of the used-car owner experience. How much to worry about them? Read on for a quick guide to touching up the paint chips that can lead to rust.

Is it Something To Worry About?

Look carefully at the chip: if you can see white or a pale, dull version of your car’s color, the chip is only through the top layer of paint. What you’re seeing is primer. You’ll still want to touch this up, but it’s not as critical as if you can see shiny metal. You can definitely simply roll with these small flaws and let them be, especially if your car is older or has higher mileage.

If you can see shiny metal, however, the chip has damaged all the layers of paint and the bare metal is showing. This is a bigger deal, as bare metal will begin to rust pretty quickly, even in climates with no winter salt use.

So, if you can see shiny metal in the missing spot of paint . . .

You’re Going To Need Your Car’s Real Color

I bet you thought your car was “red,” didn’t you? Wrong! It could be any of these…

  • Brick Red Pearl Metallic
  • Stryker Red
  • Midnight Garnet
  • Dark Toreador Red
  • Diablo Rosso
  • Soul Red Crystal
  • Imola Red

There are dozens of shades of each color of automotive paint and they vary between manufacturers as well. The best way to get the best match is to look up the paint code for your specific car. It will be on a label inside the driver’s side door jamb and is often a combination of letters and numbers several digits long. Sometimes the color will be spelled out for you, like “Black Sapphire Metallic,” but more often you’ll have to suss out which of the numbers on the label is the color code. Here are some of the acronyms used on the labels.

CC means “Color Code”
PC is “paint code.”
C/TR stands for “Color/Trim”
BC stands for “Body Color”
CO means “color.”

Here’s a page full of examples for many popular manufacturers.

What’s Next?

Armed with the proper color name or code, you can go to handy Google, locate a company that sells touch-up paint kits, and order the paint. Choose one that offers a complete kit with paint, prep wipes, and a clear coat. For example, I really like what TouchUpDirect has to offer, with the paint in easy-to-use pens and everything you need included.

It’s not likely you’ll get a perfect, flawless paint repair with these types of kits. For flawless, you’d need to pay a good body shop to repaint the entire panel of your car. However, you’ll be able to cover the bare metal or the white primer that’s showing, prevent rust, and minimize the appearance of those small chips and dings.

I’m Here To Help!

I’m here to help if this gets overwhelming! Contact me!

And remember: not all paint chips are equally terrible. If your car is older, already has rust started, or the chips are very minor, you’ve got my permission to not stress about it at all.

Happy motoring!

Buying For 70% Of Your Needs

In my years of helping clients navigate the process of buying a new or used car, I’ve noticed that my shoppers sometimes feel they need a car that meets every need they could ever conceivably have.

But the truth is, your car only needs to meet your daily and weekly needs. Maybe your monthly needs. It definitely doesn’t need to meet a need you think you might have two years from now if all the stars align perfectly and Auntie Marie dies and leaves you her lake cottage!

Nor does whatever car you buy need to do jobs that you can accomplish other ways.

Here’s an example: It’s three years from now. Your eldest son, 22 years old, has come home for Thanksgiving, his new girlfriend in tow, to meet the family. You’re planning on visiting Grandma at the nursing home while he’s home. You’re going to need a vehicle that fits four adults plus the two teenagers still at home so you can all pile in the car and go visit grandma, right?

Nah. You can take two cars to the nursing home. Or, you can rent a minivan for the weekend.

It’s tempting to buy a truck or SUV for the life you wish you had, rather than the one you actually have. If you’ve just bought a pair of horses to start your carriage rides business, you’ll definitely need a big diesel dually right now, along with a comfy trailer. But usually, you can manage with a less than absolutely perfect solution at first!

For most hobbies and various outdoor sports, you can dive in (sometimes literally!) with the car or van you have. See if you like the lifestyle before you lock yourself into a 72-month loan on a truck capable of towing the camper you haven’t bought yet! I know an avid off-road trail cyclist who totes his mountain bike to the trails with a rack on a little Mazda hatchback, for example. I’ve seen kayaks strapped to Volvo station wagon roofs. RV rentals are common and most states have some rental operations that will tow a rented camper to the site of your choosing.

Another situation that prompts an urge for a new car is concern over winter driving. But before you give up your paid-off, well-loved current car because you “need” four-wheel drive for winter, look critically at how often per winter you absolutely must drive on unplowed, unsalted, bad winter roads. It may not be as often as you’d think it is. You may simply need a good set of winter tires ($600) rather than a brand-spanking-new car loan ($30,000). Or, it may be possible to simply work from home or delay activities on the two days a year the roads are legitimately terrible.

When you sit down to consider what kind of car, truck, SUV, or van you think you’d like to own, consider what might meet 70% of your needs. Think about what alternative options you can consider for the 30% remaining use of that car. A little creative thinking could save you from a very expensive mistake!

Inoculating Your Car Against The Salt Virus: Winter Car Washing.

Total rust destruction is not inevitable!

Maybe you’re lucky enough to live in a part of the country where there’s no winter to speak of. Good for you! You may want to skip on through most of this article.

I’ve chosen to live “where the air hurts my face” for lots of reasons, but I can’t deny that winter’s hard on people. Or that salt, while good for winter driving safety, is very bad for cars.

One of my hobbies is convincing people that even if you live in a state where salt spray is a given in winter, a car destroyed by rust within a few years is not. But! You’ve got to be willing to wash your car. In winter. More frequently than never. I’m going bust up some misconceptions I’ve heard about washing your car at a carwash. And then I’ll pass along a few winter car-washing tips.

Winter’s rough on people and cars alike.

Cold-Weather Car-Washing Misconceptions

  • Car-washing is really only for vain, status-conscious people. Wrong! Washing the salt off your car as often as you can helps prevent rust. The longer salt-spray stays on your car, the more rust you’ll have and the faster that rust will accelerate. If you’ve got an older car you’re trying to keep on the road as long as possible, washing your car is one of the simplest ways you can extend the structural integrity (and safety!) of your old car.
  • There’s no point in washing my car; it’s just going to get salty again! It will, yes, but unless you live in an extremely snowy place where multiple snowfalls a week are the norm, there’s going to be a few days or a week or even a month between storms. That’s time your car could be salt-free instead of carrying a thick load of damp salt eating away at your brake lines, your fuel lines, your suspension parts, and the structural panels that protect you in a crash.
  • I just let the rain wash my car! You’re going to bet your car’s longevity against fickle winter weather, which may not give you a thaw with heavy rain for several weeks or a few months? You’ve got more faith in Mother Nature than I do!
  • Who cares about rust? I don’t care how my car looks. Rust is just a cosmetic issue. By the time there’s visible rust on the body, rust on parts of the car you can’t see easily is already well-established. As rust progresses, it starts affecting the structural integrity and safety of your car. During an accident is not when you want to learn that your rocker panels are rusted enough to crumple in a crash, compromising the passenger compartment. During a low-visibility freeway pile-up is not when you want to discover that your brake lines are one panic-brake away from splitting!
  • If I wash my car in winter, the doors will freeze shut. This is partially true. Many automatic carwashes close at a specific temperature anyway and then you are out of car-washing luck. But you can wash a car at an enclosed, automatic carwash down to about 18-20 degrees without too much trouble. Make as much use of whatever air-dryer the carwash has as you can.

How To Wash Your Car In Winter Without Dying.

If I’ve convinced you that it’s worth the effort to wash your car reasonably often in winter, as conditions allow, here are some tips to make it a little easier:

  • Find a good carwash. One with an underbody flush! In the fall months, many car washes offer a sale on monthly access cards or punch cards. Pick a reputable car wash that has touch-free option. Soft-touch or brush car washes that won’t leave swirl marks on your paint are out there but they’re rare. Chose touch-free if you can! A good carwash will also have a high-velocity air dryer which also helps prevent some of the freezing that can happen during winter.
  • Temptation-bundle the task. If you dread the time involved, bundle the car-wash time with browsing your favorite guilty-pleasure social media site. Or treat yourself to an Uber-Sugar Mega Cappucino Double Chocolate Explosion from the local coffee shop to sip on while you wait in line. Take a friend or a teenager and get in some quality chat time.
  • At least in the Midwest, storms often follow a “storm-cold snap-mini thaw” pattern. Watch for the mini-thaw (not always a true thaw but at least a small rise in temps) and try to get your car through a carwash within three days of any snowfall that brings out the salt trucks. Not always possible of course, but get through the carwash when you can.
  • If you just can’t get the car washed, leave it parked outside, where the slush-garbage is more likely to stay frozen. Frozen snow-crud is a little less of a threat rust-wise than melting saltwater.
  • Given that many people in salt-using states wash their cars exactly never during the winter, if you get your vehicle washed even 2-3 times during the winter months, you’re ahead of the game! Good for you!

It’s always best not to have any salt on your car at all, of course. That’s why car culture really thrives in parts of the US with no winters, like California! But there’s definitely a lot you can do to slow down the rust that comes from the salt-scourge that the roads are during the snowy months in the northern United States. Total destruction within a few years is not assured. There’s hope!

Do I Need Snow Tires?

Last year I created a handy flow chart to help you decide if you should consider winter tires for your car, van, SUV, or truck. Continue reading for a free PDF download! The short answer could be summed up this way: If you’re considering shopping for a four-wheel or AWD vehicle because you hate driving in the winter, what you probably need more than a new car is snow tires for your current car.

Snow (or winter) tires are made of softer rubber compounds that stay stickier and grippier at cold temperatures. They have wider tread patterns designed to grab and bite snow better. If you’re remembering back to Grandpa’s station wagon and the loud hum it always had during the winter, modern winter tire tech has come a long way since the 1970s. Current snow tires are much quieter than the chunky, noisy tires you may remember from years ago. And they’re surprisingly affordable for most cars! Although there’s an initial expense, you’ll be saving winter wear on your all-season tires, so over time, the cost of running winter tires evens out very nicely. The increased feeling of security while driving during the misery months of November through March is well-worth the start-up expense of a full set of winter tires for those who live where the roads can be brutal and dangerous in the snowy months.

Lots of people who think they need all-wheel drive just need better tires on their front-wheel-drive car. But not everyone should bother with winter tires! That’s why I created this handy winter-tire decision tool. If you have any other questions or want help finding a winter tire and wheel package for your car, contact me.

Winter driving can be a drag, but the right tires can increase your confidence on the road.

Four Things To Teach Your Teen About Driving.

It’s scary out there.

Launching a teen driver is a terrifying prospect as a parent. I know this, because this summer, I’ll be doing exactly that. I’ll admit it: I’m a bit scared. I have a lot of confidence in my generally-responsible and level-headed teen, but still… there are all those other people out there.

But I love driving! I want my teen to love driving, too, and to not be afraid of it. (Fearful and timid drivers are a danger to themselves and to others. ) I also want her to be as safe as possible on the road. As we all know, teen drivers can get in an awful lot of trouble.

We know the obvious, but there’s more.

teenage boy driving carDon’t drink and drive. Don’t text. Don’t Snapchat. Don’t speed. Don’t Snapchat your speed! Wear your seatbelt. That’s all good stuff, of course, but I have long been frustrated with the lack of real-world car-handling advice and instruction in driver’s ed courses. Driver’s Ed is primarily about teaching young people the rules of the road and scaring them out of those big obvious no-nos.

Understanding the handling (turning, accelerating, stopping) of your car is critically important to everyone for greatest safety on the road. It’s especially important when it comes to surprises like deer or debris in the road, poor road surface conditions, and accident avoidance. I bet you thought that once you can make the car go forward and backward, left and right, and stop in time for a red light you knew all you needed to know. Nope… there’s more. And Driver’s Ed probably isn’t teaching it to your kid.

Four Things to Teach Your Teen Driver

I was taught to drive by my dad, a man with previous dirt-track racing experience and who is a veteran of a decade of driving in West Africa. Besides his driving credentials, he’s just a plain old good teacher. He managed to keep his calm (at least outwardly!) teaching two daughters and two sons to drive, and taught his wife, my mother, to drive stick-shift, too, in our red 1978 Toyota Corolla. The advice that follows is culled from things my dad taught me and my siblings, plus some additional tips which come from friends who are experienced auto-enthusiasts and hobbyist racecar drivers.

1. Watch much farther ahead. And look where you want to go.

If you’re hitting your brakes after the car in front of you lights up his rear brake lights, you’re likely braking too late. The faster your speed, the farther ahead you need to be watching. This means that on the freeway, by the time the car in front of you is braking, you should ready to cover the brake or already doing so. Teens especially are prone to fixating only on the car directly in front of them.

If you’ve ever had someone mindlessly tailgating you, no matter how you slowed down or sped up, you’ve seen this car-in-front fixation at work. My dad taught me, “Don’t let someone else drive your car for you.” Don’t mindlessly follow exactly what the car in front of you is doing! Watch farther down the road. Watch the overall flow of traffic. Spot down lines of cars to what’s ahead of the cars in front of you. Be ready.

My friend Ann pointed me to another really important, related tip: look where you want to go. The exact mechanism is buried in our lizard-brains, but focusing on where you want the car to go (and not on what you are afraid of hitting!) even when you’re not in control of the vehicle, even when you’re not trained in evasive maneuvers, makes a difference in where your car ends up in a wreck. This means some coaching while you’re out practice-driving with your teen. “If you hit ice right here, where would you look? If the freeway up by that bridge was blocked, where would you look? If that truck is suddenly in our lane, where do you look?”

2. Start small, then escalate. Your first reaction should not be “stomp on the brakes.”

On an icy road, hitting the brakes hard can upset your car’s balance and throw you into a spin. In other situations, simply taking your foot off the gas may be all you need to do. Truth is, you can’t predict exactly what you’re going to need when, so it’s really important that your teen understands that overreacting can get you in as much trouble (and sometimes considerably more!) than doing less. Which brings me to another point…

3. In emergency maneuvers, use less steering than you think you need.

A common mistake that inexperienced drivers make is to dramatically yank a steering wheel back the opposite way when reacting to a mistake or a road hazard. This can throw the car off balance. This kind of overcorrection is the most common reason an SUV will roll over! Fasten in your teen’s mind the phrase “use less” so that when an emergency maneuver is required, your teen is less likely to overcorrect. You can always steer more if needed but you cannot undo a fishtailing, out of control car swerving across multiple lanes. Nor is there anything you can do to save a car or SUV that has started to tip or roll.

Related tip!  Teach your teen that if they do run a wheel off the pavement, they should gently steer back onto the road surface. Yanking the wheel in panic will get them in trouble fast and may punt them into oncoming traffic or the ditch.

4. When it all goes wrong, your brakes are better than you think.

Start small but don’t be afraid to go big when it comes to braking. Dan, a photographer and experienced autocrosser, suggests drilling this tidbit into your kids’ heads: your brakes are better than you think. In ordinary street driving, you use only a small fraction of even an average car’s braking power. When the poo really hits the fan, go big and stand on that pedal with everything you’ve got.

Nearly all cars built after the mid-1990s have anti-lock brakes, so the old rule about pumping your brakes in an emergency is no longer correct. The ABS system will take care of that for you, so just mash that pedal as hard as you can when all the other options are exhausted, and remember to look between the trees you’re headed for, not at the trees!  (Remember tip #1?)

And finally, teach your teen that the ABS system going off makes a low groaning or growling noise and makes the brake pedal vibrate! Have them brake hard from a slow speed on a slippery surface, such as a snow-covered and empty street or parking lot, so that the ABS goes off. This way they’ll know what it feels like and won’t pull their foot off the brake in surprise in a real emergency!

Finally, Consider A Defensive Driving Course (For You and Your Teen!)

I always recommend additional defensive driving instruction after your teen gets their driver’s license if you’re within a decent drive of a track where a course is offered. Here’s the course description of the class available at my nearby racetrack. These courses are usually $150-$300 and include professional instructors, vehicles provided by the school, and time on a skidpad (a surface made slippery to teach adverse road condition skills.) Many auto insurance companies underwrite these schools and some may offer discounts to policyholders whose teen driver has completed one.

If you need help locating an appropriate course near you, please contact me!

The biggest advantage of these courses is the chance your teen will have to experience emergency braking, recovering from a skid, and avoiding obstacles in a safe, controlled environment with a professional driving instructor beside them before they encounter these things in the family car on the way home from a football game late at night! That’s money well spent (and most of those courses cost less than having the family minivan pulled out of the ditch!)

Good luck, Mom or Dad! Enjoy these moments —

they’ll be gone before you know it!

The “I Only Buy American!” Myth

The automotive industry is a now a global one.

Gone are the days when your American car supported only a horde of American workers spread out across rail lines all terminating in the factories of Michigan and  the upper Midwest and nothing that went into your American car was produced overseas. Parts for your American car are made all over the world and parts of a foreign car can be made all over the US!

Buick sells and builds cars in China and builds some in Germany, too. General Motors, perhaps one the most American of brands in popular culture, has imported Australian-built Holdens from Australia and sold them here as Chevys and Pontiacs. Chevy sells a Korean-built Daewoo Matiz here in the US as a Chevy Spark. Ford used to build the Crown Vic, the iconic cop car that we’re all conditioned to hit the brake pedal for, in Canada. The latest version of the Ford Escape is a Ford-Europe Kuga, with small changes needed for the US market. (Safety regulations are slightly different, as are rules about where brakes lights can be and so on.) 

Acura, Honda, and Toyota all build some of their best American sellers here in the US.

Chrysler is partially owned by Fiat, an Italian company who also owns Maserati and Alfa Romeo, among others. Mercedes builds cars in Alabama for the American market and BMW builds a few of their cars in South Carolina. Volkswagen, part of the Volkswagen-Audi Group, who also owns Lamborghini and Bugatti, builds the American-market version of Jetta in Mexico. (Which is a different Jetta than the Jetta sold in Germany.)

As you can see, while you’re supporting an American car company if you buy an “American” car brand, you’re also very likely supporting overseas workers, both in final assembly (like of the Buick Regal X or the Buick Envision) and in foreign suppliers (even back in the dark 1990s, my Dodge Grand Caravan, built at the St Louis Assembly plant, had a Mitsubishi distributor, because the engines were sourced from Mitsubishi).

And if you feel you must avoid buying that Subaru Outback or that Mercedes C300 because they are not American, well, the over 4600 people employed in central Indiana bolting together Subarus and the 3700 or so employed in Alabama at Mercedes Benz- US International wish you’d reconsider, as do all the Americans building Hondas, Toyotas, and BMWs here in the US!

Certainly, “buying American” will offer the most benefit to your own country’s economy, but rest assured: if a non-American car is the right fit for your family, you’re still making a difference!  (But remember, that all-American Jeep you want? It’s… well, it’s complicated.)

Automakers are global companies, with global reach, and global effect on the world’s economies. At this point, in 2018, you’d be hard pressed to find a car sold in the US which is causing direct harm to the American manufacturing, supplier, or raw materials markets, even if the car itself isn’t “American.” At the very least, you’re supporting a local, very likely family-owned, business! 

To sum up, I encourage you to keep an open mind while you shop for your next car! What was true even a few years ago has probably changed. There are many “automotive maxims” floating around in popular culture that are just plain out of date or wrong. Not all American cars are the best. (The Chrysler 200 made Consumer Reports Worst Cars list.) Or the worst. (The Chevy Impala is a CR top pick!) Not all non-American cars are “hard to work on” and gone are the days when your little Japanese import required metric tools, which your local grease monkey didn’t have. (Nowadays, your American car requires metric tools, too!)

To aid in your shopping (and maybe blow your mind a little, if this is an issue you care about a lot) here’s a link to the most American Made cars from last year. Spoiler: #2 is a Honda!

Five Craigslist Car Deal-Breakers

There’s buying a used car, and then there’s buying a Craigslist used car While there’s a lot to be aware of when buying any used car, there are a few circumstances that are more likely to occur when shopping for a car on Craigslist. A few of them are, in my opinion, deal-breakers. Here are the biggest ones.

Deal-Breaker #1 Rocker Panel Rust (Or Other Terrifying Holes)

Rocker panels are a key part of your car’s structural rigidity. A little surface rust is no big deal on a cheap car, but you definitely do not want to see big holes all the way through metal, or worse, missing sections.  This Mercury Milan (same car as a Ford Fusion) I spotted locally last winter has no rocker panels left at all under the rear doors. While this is something that can sometimes be fixed, it’s not cost effective on most cars to do so.  No reason to bother with this. Move on to something less disastrously rusty!

Deal-Breaker #2 Sketchy Safety Equipment

This is not something to mess around with. A seat belt that doesn’t retract against your body properly when you buckle it may not perform correctly in a crash. Likewise, airbags are often expensive to deal with, so do not take a seller’s word that an airbag light on on the dash is “just a sensor” that “costs $15 at AutoZone.” (If the seller will let you take the car to shop for a pre-purchase inspection, go ahead and ask a shop to check out the airbag light. If it’s a simple fix, they’ll tell you.) The airbag may have been tampered with or be missing, or there may be other difficult-to-track-down electrical faults in the car.  Move on to something less sketchy.

A note about brakes: brakes and brake system issues are often quite fixable on a car and are also a wear-item (i.e. something intended to be refreshed periodically, just like tires) so I do not include squealing brakes in my deal-breaker list, as long as the brakes are actually stopping the car on your test drive. The only exception here would be brake lines which are clearly leaking or spurting fluid, or which have been declared by the seller to be rusted through. Do not proceed without talking to a shop about the costs involved in running new brake lines! In all but a few special cases, though, it’s best to just pass on anything that has bad enough rust that brake lines are leaking brake fluid.

Educational moment! Brake lines are skinny tubes about the thickness of your pinky finger running in tidy rows along the bottom of the car. They’re easy to see. Surface rust is common, but they should look dry. If they look oily, they may be leaking. Brake hoses are located between your tire and the metal walls of the wheel-wheel. They can leak, too, although they’re much easier, cheaper, and simpler to replace than the metal brake lines which run under your car. And on old cars, there’s sometimes oil and crud sprayed around behind the wheels, making it hard to tell if what you’re seeing is brake fluid or oil from elsewhere.

Deal-Breaker #3 Trouble in Title-Town

Title troubles include (but aren’t limited to): no title at all, “explanations” about why the seller doesn’t have the title in hand, the name on the title not matching the seller’s name, address or city, with an implausible story about why, promises that the seller will “mail you the title,” or situations where the seller doesn’t physically have the title due to a bank lien (car loan) on the car. Nope. Walk away. The world is full of cars; you don’t need any of these particular headaches.

If the seller will be paying off his car with your purchase of his car and cannot get the title until he does so, you can make arrangements to make the payment for the car at his bank. But I generally do not recommend this route. If the car in question is new enough that the first owner is still paying on the loan, the car is new enough to be found at a dealership as a certified pre-owned used car, possibly with a warranty and definitely with a clean title and no title headaches. And I don’t advise buying a car which is 10 years or more old on which the seller has a car note.

Presenting buyers with a clean, correct, and proper title is the seller’s responsibility. Not yours. Never take possession of a vehicle from a Craigslist purchase without a title to go along with it. It’s never as simple as “just requesting a new title at the DMV.” If the seller lost it four years ago, it’s his job to file for a new one, not yours.

Deal-Breaker #4 Mysterious Check-Engine Light Codes

If you’re shopping for a sub-$3,000 car and do not have required emissions testing in your area, a check engine light on is not usually a big deal. You can usually drive your uber-beater with the light on. If, however, you’re shopping for something a little better, something that’s going to be a family hauler, a commuter you need to rack up miles with, if you live where you must pass emissions testing or smog testing, or if you expect to need keep this vehicle on the road for several years, don’t buy a car with a check engine light on before finding out what the code is! AutoZone will read the codes off of a car for you for free. Or, you can buy a simple scan tool to pull the codes yourself when you go to look at a car.  Then find out what it might cost you to deal with the problem.

Deal-breaker #5 Low Mileage For the Model Year

“But wait, Jenny! Isn’t low mileage a good thing?”  A car with stupid-high mileage can be a disaster waiting to happen, sure, but a car that has sat parked an awful lot can be just as big of a maintenance headache. Cars need their fluids circulating to keep everything well-oiled, well-sealed, and well-running.  Exhaust systems and emissions control systems work best when they’re allowed to come up to full operating temperature. (That doesn’t happen when a car is only driven a few miles twice a week!) When cars sit, rubber hoses dry out, seals start to leak, brake fluid collects moisture and start to rust brake lines from the inside out, and tires dry-rot.

Figure on 7,000 to 15,000 miles per model year as a rule of thumb for appropriate mileage. That means if you’re shopping in 2018 and looking at a 2004 Toyota Camry, you probably should walk away from anything under about 100,000 miles (i.e. a minimum of 7,000 miles per year x 14 years = 98,000.) Beware the “Grandma only drove it during the summers” car! The biggest exception to this rule is specialty or collectible cars, and in those cases, you’ll want to see evidence that the car was mothballed or stored properly when it was parked over the winter (Feel free to check with me; I’ll help you figure out what questions to ask!)  Another possible exception would be a car that the seller has been driving extensively in the past few years and which has a pile of service records showing the seller has dealt with problems that often emerge when an under-driven car is put back into normal use.

Remember, There Are Over 270 Million Cars Out There

If you’ve got to walk away from a car you’re looking at, do not lose faith! You will find something else. I promise. Here are some final tips to help you avoid making a decision you might regret:

  1. Don’t let frustration with the search influence your decision. Making a “well, okay, I guess, whatever” decision because you just want to get the stupid car searching over with often ends in sadness and bills at the repair shop.
  2. Don’t let distance or time invested force your hand, either. The longer we travel to go look at a car, the more likely we are to just go ahead with the purchase and to talk ourselves out of gut feelings that it’s not the right car. Unless you’re looking for something very unusual or very specific, limit your search to nearby metro areas or places to which you can drive comfortably and chalk the outing up to a nice day out if the car is a total bust.
  3. Trust your gut. You may not be a mechanic, no, but I bet you’ve got a pretty good sense of when someone’s lying to you! If the seller says his grandma took good care of the car but there are fifteen empty Monster Energy cans in the back seat, well… he may be lying. If your gut says “Nope!” listen to it.  Remember, there are over 270 million cars in the US.  One of them is your next car. But maybe not this one.

Should I Rent a Car For My Next Big Trip? Help For Life With a High-Mileage Car.

You’ve Got an Old Car. Will It Make The Trip?

Ideally, when you’ve got an old high-mileage car, you’ll take it into the shop and ask them to get it in tip-top shape before any long trips. But what if you know what the car needs and have been delaying major repairs due to budgetary concerns? Or what if you don’t have time to get it into the shop before you need to leave? Should you rent a car for your trip instead?

I’ve been in this situation several times myself. Here’s a look into the thought process I go through when trying to decide whether to pay for a rental car or risk driving my old car on a trip.

Warning! If you’ve been told that a repair your car needs is critical to safety, you must not drive it on a long trip. Period.

In this case, proceed directly to a rental car! Or reschedule your trip. Not all car maintenance needs are critical but some are a serious accident waiting to happen. Some will simply strand you if they break (a bad alternator or battery) or are uncomfortable (bad shocks in the back). Others can cause you to crash and die if they fail suddenly (broken steering or front suspension parts, bald or corded tires, brake line leaks) or mean the end of your engine (large oil leak, no oil, serious coolant leak, overheating.)

So, Drive The Beater or Rent a Car?

First, you’ll need to consider a few questions. Jot down answers to the following . . .

Do you have AAA or other roadside assistance? What’s the included free towing on the plan you have? Is your destination farther away from your favorite shop than the included towing on your roadside assistance? How far over the mileage limit is it? (AAA’s basic plans include five miles of towing free, but you’ll pay $2.50-$5 per mile over what is included with your roadside assistance plan for distances farther away.)

How comfortable are you having an unknown shop do a major repair on your car? If you know what’s likely the next thing to break, how much was the estimate for that work from your shop? Are you ready to pay at least that much at a shop or dealership between home and your destination? Or would you much rather be sure your own shop can do that work?

How Interruptable Is Your Trip?

Now, think about the trip itself. On a scale of “Hello? I’m the groom!” to “No plans, it’s just the two of us, just for fun,” how interruptable is your trip? How much trouble will you be in if a car break-down delays your arrival at your destination?  Are you traveling through populated areas with a common-as-dirt minivan (2010 Honda Odyssey) where there’s likely to be a shop almost anywhere that can work on your car? Or are you traveling through rural America with a French-built rear-engined Renault that was only sold in the US for two years in the 1980s? (A quiet shout-out to my internet-friend Fodder for that suggestion. And thanks to him, I spent way too much time on Wikipedia just now!)

“Adventure, yeah. I guess that’s what you call it

when everybody comes back alive.” – Mercedes Lackey

Make Some Ballpark Cost Estimates.

Now that you’ve thought about all of that, estimate what a breakdown, tow, and repair at a shop (if you have an estimate for the next chunk of work) might cost you. Then price out your theoretical car rental.

If you want to be really nerdy and methodical, consider the difference in gas mileage between your own car and the class of rental car you’d pick. On my last trip, the difference was 18 mpg on my car versus 40 mpg on the Jetta we rented! It made about $30 difference in fuel costs, recouping some of our rental car costs in fuel savings.

Write your two numbers side by side and look at them. Is the breakdown and tow number scary enough to make the rental car estimate seem like smart insurance against spending the larger number?  Or is the cost of a rental car high enough that risking the repair away from home seems like the smarter option?

Measure the Financial Aspects of Your Decision Against Time And Bother Factors.

Can you afford a delay in the trip? If so, maybe risking the potential repair on the road isn’t a huge deal and maybe can be a potential for a new adventure. Sometimes the best vacation memories are the ones that happen unplanned. Note that some roadside assistance programs offer trip interruption reimbursement, too, offering coverage for a rental car and an overnight hotel, if needed. Check the fine print of any plan you have. But if you’re traveling for the wedding of your baby sister, arriving on time is critical; time to reserve that rental car!

A Quick Case-Study From My Own Old-Car Life.

In spring of 2017, we had an out of state wedding to attend. At the time, we owned an early 2000’s Ford Crown Victoria with about 175,000 miles on it. We knew it would need rear wheel bearing work soon; you could hear it howling, especially at highway speeds. We also knew, from owner forums, that due to the design of the wheel bearing, there was a risk of the axle snapping if you let things go too long.  Although it was an additional expense, my gut told me that renting a car for the trip was good insurance against that wheel bearing blowing apart in weekend traffic on crowded, busy interstate through Chicago. So we did the rental car. It cost us, with a discount through Costco Travel, about $100 for the three days. A new rear-end (axles, wheel bearings, differential) on our car, at a Chicago-area shop, could have cost as much as $1500, and that’s not even considering the potential for a crash, injury, and damage to other drivers’ cars.

My gut instinct was proven correct a couple months later when we sold the Crown Vic in advance of buying our anniversary car.  (I’ll tell that story sometime, too.) A couple weeks after the new owner paid us for the car, he messaged me with pictures: the rear axle had indeed failed, at about 50 mph, causing the rear wheel to come off, causing body damage and flying debris, which cut through the neck of the gas-filler tube. Thankfully, nobody was hurt; the new owner was able to wrestle the car to a stop safely. I felt absolutely awful, even though we had advised getting the repair done immediately, and the new owner had even gotten estimates for the work before paying us for the car. But my thought process on deciding to rent proved to be really valuable.

If You’re Still Not Sure, Ask Me!

I can’t guarantee your old car is safe to drive on a long trip. But I can look at your shop estimates and decipher them for you. I can describe what can happen if that particular thing breaks. I can definitely help you clarify your decision to rent or drive your own car. If renting is out of the question due to costs, then I can help you mentally prepare for a big trip in an old car too, so if the worst happens, you can handle it with as little stress as possible. I even offer affordable on-call services so you can phone-a-friend while traveling if something comes up unexpectedly! Message me on Facebook for a free quote.

Super-Simple Car-Leather Care

I personally prefer leather car seating, because dirt tends to stay on top of it, rather than soaking down into the fabric. (Ask me about that old Buick we owned; I think you could have fed a starving nation with the Kool-aid and spilled soda which had soaked into those seats!) Leather does require a very small bit of basic care, though, in order to last as long as the engine and other oily bits of your car.

A simple guide to caring for automotive leather.

1. Keep it clean.

Wipe up spills with a cleaning wipe, damp cloth, paper towel, baby wipe, whatever. A quick go-over every season will mean dirt doesn’t get ground into the leather to become permanent discoloration or staining. A bucket of warm water with a tiny splash of Murphy’s Oil Soap and a well-wrung-out soft cloth is adequate. You don’t have to buy fancy cleaners or be obsessive; a basic wipe-down is good enough.

2. Keep it soft & flexible.

In order to prevent cracking and tearing, treat the leather periodically (a couple times a year is fine) with a quality leather treatment designed for automotive use. My personal recommendation is a product called Leather Honey, available on Amazon. I like it because a little goes a long way, it has no odor or scent, and it will not stain or spot your clothes. If it’s been years or never since you treated the leather, do the treatment on a warm sunny day, then park the car and let it sit the rest of the afternoon, allowing the heat of the sun to help the treatment soak in, then wipe down the seats of any excess the next morning. Most instances of horribly cracked automotive leather are due to the leather having *never* been treated.

3. Keep it intact.

Treat small tears and rips promptly! Small tears become big tears quickly if you don’t stabilize the rip somehow. There’s an excellent product on the market designed for the extreme temperatures of a car interior and which will stretch and move with the seat surface and will not become gummy or gross in the heat. It’s called “Tear-Aid Type A.” You’ll need to clean the surface of the leather with the included alcohol wipe and then apply the clear patch over the tear. You’ll be able to tell it’s been patched, but stabilizing the tear will mean it won’t *continue* to tear farther.

Warning! Do not use packing tape, Duck tape, duct tape, gaffer’s tape, or anything that is not rated for temperatures over 100 degrees, as most adhesives in all-purpose tapes will either simply let go (best case) or turn into a gooey mess (worst case) on the first warm day of summer!

4. Keep it safe.

Diamonds aren't your car's best friend.

If you love your car, don’t love those rhinestone jeans with all the bling on the pockets, which seem specifically designed to tear up car upholstery! Put tools in your toolbox, not your pockets where you’ll sit on them while driving and scrape up your seats. Throw a towel or old blanket on the seat when transporting anything with sharp or rough edges. Install child car seats on pads designed to protect the seat below.

And finally, know when to call the pros.

5. Consider a professional.

When disaster strikes and a tear has become quite large or foam is exposed, consider getting a quote from a local upholstery shop for a professional repair. Sometimes a single panel can be replaced or seam can be repaired without producing an entirely new leather seat cover. There is an extensive array of automotive-rated and marine rated vinyls available (a shop will have books of samples to match to your car; marine vinyl is UV-protected so it will not fade in sunlight) and sometimes parts of the seat can be replaced with matching or closely matching vinyl for much less cost than having the entire seat re-upholstered in new leather.

A New American Station Wagon. Except It’s German.

The last time there was a real honest-to-goodness station wagon available from an American automaker, it looked like this.  Ouch. Practical and roomy, but to most of us, that’s about as beautiful as a trip across Nebraska in July with the A/C broken and your stinky brother sitting next you.

“Daaad he’s touching meeeeee! Make him stop!”

The mid-90s marked the end of the big American station wagons. The Buick Roadmaster and its sister, the Chevy Caprice Classic wagon, faded away, lost to the rising popularity of SUVs and minivans.

But there’s a lot to be said for a car-height family hauler instead of an SUV! If you don’t absolutely need a third row of seating, it can be a really smart family choice. You’ll get better gas mileage due to better aerodynamics and (sometimes) have slightly lower upkeep costs due to car-sized brakes, tires, and suspension parts instead of truck-sized parts. And the normal-car height of a wagon means accessibility for those who aren’t able to heft themselves up into full-size SUV.

There hasn’t been a lot to choose from lately, though, especially in the mid-price range. And if you’d prefer an American automaker, you’ve been out of luck for a long time.  Gone are the days when pretty much every sedan came in a wagon version. There were a few attempts here and there along the way, but only Subaru, Volkswagen, Volvo, Mercedes, BMW, and Audi currently make a sedan-based station wagon. A few of those options are pretty pricey luxury brands. (The Mercedes E-class wagon begins above $60,000. Ooof.)

General Motors has decided to try again, though, in spite of the growing ubiquity of the CUV and dozens of new, high-ground-clearance sort-of-car, sort-of-SUV things which, well, what are they? Tall hatchbacks? Short minivans with no sliding doors? In light of all the confusion, I’m really happy to see a return to a classic form in the new Buick Regal TourX. It has better cargo space than the visually-larger Buick Envision. And it actually looks okay. Maybe even good. The last time there was a Buick (a Buick!?) that I thought looked good, I wasn’t even born yet.

You’re going to have to click over for more photos yourself because I haven’t taken any at my local dealership yet.

This new unBuick-ey Buick comes standard with a roof rack and a 250-horsepower turbocharged four-cylinder engine.  It’s priced to compete with the Subaru Outback, and like the Outback, has four-wheel drive standard on all trim levels. Pricing starts at $29,995, which is competitive with Subaru’s Outback. It’s more expensive than VW’s Golf SportWagen, which starts at $21,685, but that’s a smaller wagon and has significantly less horsepower, which will show up when you’re on the way to Grandma’s house for Christmas, fully loaded. It’s also a VW, with all the usual caveats and stern cautions I give my clients about buying products from Volkswagen Audi Group (about which more some other time) when they want basic, reliable transportation which they can own for 150,000 miles.

Initial reviews indicate the TourX may not be as off-roadable as some of its competitors, but if we’re honest, most of us who buy all-wheel drive want it for the snow performance, not back-country rambling. (If you do need serious off-road performance, come talk to me. I can help!)

What complaints I’ve heard in the press regarding the TourX so far are things mostly car enthusiasts fuss about, things like slightly less than sporty handling and an 8-speed transmission that sometimes causes irritation. Or that the interior isn’t as nice as the Audi Allroad wagon (well… duh. It’s $15,000 cheaper!) I hope to drive one myself, soon. I’ll report back when I do. Until then, I’ll continue trying to convince people to buy a wagon instead of an SUV.

“But wait! Jenny, you said it’s German!” I did. And it is. The first American station wagon in thirty years or so… is being built in Germany, in a plant that used to belong to GM’s European brand, Opel.  If you really neeeeeeed your wagon to be built by Americans, you might choose the Subaru Outback instead, which is built in Indiana.  Isn’t globalism wild?