How to Own Automobiles

Having a car is very useful, but it should match your lifestyle.

  • Cars save time, but create additional expenses, which may lead to less freedom for some people.
  • If you don’t have much money, consider using public transportation, a bicycle, motorcycle, or a motorized scooter/moped.
  • Even when you’re raising a family, you typically only need 1 vehicle.

Make sure your budget reflects the unspoken additional auto costs:

  • Vehicle registration fees for each vehicle, usually based on its value and generally proportional to the size of the city you live in.
  • Auto insurance costs, which increase with each car and individual on the policy as well as insurance history and driving record, and must be full coverage if you have a lienholder.
  • Generally, a vehicle costs about 20-30% more if it has built-in towing capacity (e.g., pickup truck, SUV).
  • Whether they’re running or not, autos have maintenance requirements.

Only get a second auto for the right reasons:

  • You need multiple vehicles for a growing family.
  • You don’t trust your current vehicle to reliably navigate from one place to another.
  • Your time is extremely important, so you want a risk management solution if your car fails.

Before getting rid of an old car, consider repurposing it as one of your children’s first cars, a commuter vehicle or a recreational vehicle.

Driving

On a regular basis, perform a trip inspection:

  • Windows and mirrors are clear of debris, and mirrors are calibrated correctly
  • Seat is comfortably set and protective features (seatbelts, airbags, etc.) are functional
  • All the fluids are topped off
  • All the lights work, including the reverse signal
  • Windshield wipers work
  • Emergency equipment (e.g., first aid kit, road triangle, extra fluids) is stocked

The secret to safe driving is not in avoiding accidents.

  • Professional race car drivers are exceptional at avoiding accidents (e.g., dodging debris).
  • Anyone can drive safe if they give as much time as possible to react to accidents (e.g., giving more time to hit the brakes, driving slower).

When driving, pay close attention to everything within 40 feet around you and a quarter-mile in front of you.

  • It’s our natural impulse to look at only a few dozen feet out (the max speed while running), but driving 60 MPH on the highway requires a long time to stop, especially with a larger vehicle.

Driving manual transmission is mostly a matter of muscle memory:

  • The procedure for a manual transmission is relatively straightforward, but requires a bit of muscle memory to perform correctly:
    1. Get near the top end of the RPM gauge with your foot on the accelerator, which you’ll often be able to detect by hearing. Keep your hand on the shifter with a mental expectation of where you’ll shift next.
    2. In the same motion, engage your left foot on the clutch while releasing your right foot on the accelerator.
    3. As soon as your foot has engaged the clutch, move the shifter to the desired gear.
    4. In a reverse motion, engage the accelerator while releasing your left foot.
  • In large vehicles (e.g., large trucks) it requires engaging the clutch twice.
  • The whole point of the clutch is to open up the window of RPMs a gear can shift into, so if you’re able to master the timing through a finely-tuned sense of hearing you can typically shift without the clutch as well.

Reversing:

  • While driving most vehicles, the tires steer the front, which means more stability but also less maneuverability.
  • When backing, be very mindful of the added maneuverability mixed with the unfamiliar reversal of where turning will take you. Take your time.
  • If you’re backing a trailer, that trailer is being pushed by the vehicle.
    • Longer trailers mean the vehicle has a much longer distance to travel before it jackknifes (angles farther than 90 degrees).
    • When backing straight, turn the steering wheel into the side that’s starting to oversteer.
    • Navigating a trailer requires lots of intuition mixed with a very clear mental map of where everything is located.

Parking:

  • When turning into a typical parking spot, make sure the corner of the vehicle misses the neighboring parking spot by approximately 4 inches to ensure a precise positioning.
  • Pull forward to keep your vehicle aligned with other vehicles and prevent the rear from sticking out into the motorway.

Parallel parking (to the right):

  1. Drive past the spot you want and stop about 5 inches to the left of the vehicle in front of the spot. Your car’s front bumper should be aligned with that vehicle’s left rearview mirror.
  2. Keep your foot on the brake and rotate the steering wheel hard to the right.
  3. Release the brake and slowly back in.
  4. At 45 degrees (when the vehicle is diagonal), hit the brakes again.
  5. Rotate the steering wheel all the way to the left.
  6. Release the brake and slowly back in, carefully watching the vehicle behind you.
  7. When you’re near the rear vehicle, step on the brake and rotate the wheel to even yourself out.
  8. If needed, pull forward to center yourself in the spot.

Adverse weather conditions:

  • When braking on a slippery surface, rapidly stab the brakes instead of pressing steadily.
  • Drive and navigate turns much more slowly than you’d normally travel (~20-40% slower).
  • Give a longer period of time for braking, especially if visibility is low.
  • Sometimes, it makes sense to simply wait out a storm.

Always buy used

Many auto manufacturers tend to design their vehicles to fail precisely beyond the five-year warranty.

  • The only way to avoid “planned obsolescence” is to avoid purchasing vehicles that may be poorly engineered.
  • If you buy new, you can’t be sure how well-built that year’s make and model is.

Select a brand with a reputation for reliability:

  • The first-year model of every auto made is likely to have issues, so never buy them.
  • Some vehicle brands will go through troughs of poor reliability, so a vehicle brand that was reliable might not be anymore.

Never lease a car, since it it unquestionably the most expensive way to own a vehicle.

  • Right behind that, owning a vehicle within its 5-year warranty is the most expensive way to own it.

Buy autos between 5 and 15 years old:

  • Anything newer than five years old will dramatically drop in value, and if you absolutely refuse to learn basic auto repair skills, buy at least two years old.
  • Aim for a low-mileage vehicle whenever possible, since that determines how much wear the vehicle will endure.
  • Only buy older than 15 years if you’re willing to make frequent repairs yourself.

A dealership is their own authority to “certify” certified pre-owned cars, so it shouldn’t be part of your decision.

If you don’t need a larger vehicle every week, get a smaller vehicle:

  • Larger vehicles burn more petrol and are far more expensive to fix when they break down.
  • Even if you occasionally need a pickup truck or SUV once or twice a month, consider the price difference from renting when you need it.

Research beforehand

Check the car’s approximate value with the Kelley Blue Book, since auto quality varies wildly by brand and year:

  • High-end brands are excellent, but are expensive to repair and hard to find parts (e.g., BMW, Renault, Ferrari).
  • Large brands are highly reputable and tend to be affordable to repair (e.g., Toyota, Honda, Ford, Subaru).
  • Mid-level brands create reliable cars, but they have a higher chance of breaking down (e.g., GM, Nissan).
  • Value-priced companies make affordable cars that frequently break down (e.g., Volkswagen, Fiat, Kia, Hyundai).

Irrespective of brand, every used car is different.

  • The types of failures each car demonstrates gives it a type of “personality” (e.g., frequent transmission issues, engine runs hot).

Used vehicles will have 3 potential problems:

  1. Mechanical problems
    • Take someone with you experienced with autos when you inspect it.
  2. Poor maintenance
    • Request any maintenance records from the owner, like oil changes or repairs.
  3. Was stolen or involved in a major accident

Write down any questions or thoughts you have while examining the vehicle, since you can always disregard them later.

Inspect it before buying

Always perform a thorough inspection before you pay for a used car.

A. Ask for the VIN before arriving there and get a Carfax or other vehicle inspection report.

B. Examine the outside and body of the car in broad daylight.

  • Check underneath for oil leaks and white dust (body filler).
  • Look at the tires for cupping or gouges, which points to a more significant problem.
  • Inspect for body damage:
    • Open and close all doors, then check if the door seams are the same.
    • Pull back the rubber around the doors and windows to compare whether the paint is the same.
    • Slam the hood to see if it’s correctly aligned all the way around.
    • Compare the left and right side.
    • Pop the trunk to see any rear-end damage.
    • Check the factory seams underneath the trunk’s spare tire.
    • Observe the paint reflection to spot any dings or fixes.

C. If you’re allowed to, crank up the bottom of the car.

  • Check the CV joints.
  • Check if the engine or transmission has any leaks near it.

D. If you’re allowed to, scan it with an OBD-II reader.

  • OBD-II readers are as cheap as $40.
  • The OBD-II port is usually somewhere under the steering wheel.
  • Read any engine codes, if there are any.

E. Test drive it.

  1. Cold start it.
    • A cold start is under 90°F without the keys in the ignition for at least 8 hours.
  2. Let it idle for 3-5 minutes.
    • Test the signal lights and all headlights.
    • Test the heater/defroster, rear defroster, and air conditioner.
    • Shift the gears several times.
    • Test the windshield wipers and radio.
    • Check the exhaust for drips or black smoke.
    • If the car is running hot after idling, turn it off and walk away unless they are giving it to you.
  3. Drive through the city to the highway from 25 to 40 mph.
    • Listen for buzzing noises, humming noises, clicking noises.
    • Set the inside fan to hot and defrost, then set it to high and try to smell any leaking fluids.
    • Hit the brakes quickly without touching the steering wheel and see if the car swerves left or right.
    • Test the power steering by turning the wheels while stopped.
    • Drive it through an alleyway or near a flat wall to hear its running sounds.
    • Swerve back and forth in a parking lot to test the suspension.
  4. Accelerate at 1/2 to 3/4 throttle onto the highway, then stay on it for at least 5 miles at 55-60 mph.
    • Check to see if the steering wheel shakes or the whole car seems to lean one direction.
  5. Drive through the city back to the location, continuing to test the different systems.
    • If it overheats during the drive, don’t buy it.

F. Assuming you’re allowed to, reread the codes with the OBD-II reader.

  • If the seller reset the codes, a test drive lets you see them.

G. If you like what you see, bring it to a mechanic you trust to do a final check.

  • A $100 inspection may save you thousands.

H. Negotiate the price down if you can.

  • If possible, avoid gender bias with a male present.
  • Do not let the seller exploit you.
  • If you can, have cash available to pay the full amount for the car.
  • Never look desperate, and always be prepared to walk away.

Preventative Maintenance

Auto parts have a predictable lifespan.

  • Diagnosing issues is much easier when you know when parts will likely break down.
  • Part lifespans vary between vehicle models and relative size.
  • Keep track of the date and mileage when parts are replaced.

Starting system

  • Alternator – 80K-100K miles
  • Starter – 80K-100K miles
  • Battery & battery cables – 3-5 years

Engine

  • Air filter – 10K-15K miles
  • PCV valve – 30K-40K miles
  • Engine belts – 40K-60K miles
  • Thermostat – 40K-60K miles
  • Mufflers and exhaust pipes – 50K-80K miles
  • Timing belts – 60K-100K miles
  • Electronic engine control module – 80K-100K miles
  • Fuel injectors – 100K miles
  • Spark plugs – 100K miles
  • Oil pump – the full life of the car
  • Valve lifters – the full life of the car

Fuel system

  • Fuel filter – 30K-40K miles
  • Fuel pump – 70K-90K miles

Cooling system

  • Radiator Hoses – 40K-60K miles
  • Water Pump – 70K-90K miles
  • Radiator – 100K miles

Transmission

  • Clutch (on manual transmissions) – 40K-60K miles
  • Front Axle Shaft – 70K-90K miles
  • Automatic Transmission – the full life of the car

Suspension and structure

  • Shocks (if no struts) – 15K-35K miles
  • Struts (if no shocks) – 40K-60K miles
  • Springs (if no struts) – 70K-90K miles
  • Lower control arms – 70K-90K miles
  • Tie rods – 70K-90K miles
  • Universal joints – 70K-90K miles
  • Leaf spring (in large vehicles) – 5.5 years

Brakes and power steering

  • Disc brake pads – 30K-40K miles
  • Drum brake shoes – 30K-40K miles
  • Disc brake calipers – 70K-90K miles
  • Power steering pump – 80K-100K miles

Exhaust System

  • Catalytic converter – 100K miles

Driving convenience

  • Power window motors – 60K-90K miles
  • Heater cores – 70K-90K miles
  • Windshield washer fluid pump – 70K-90K miles
  • Windshield wiper motors – 70K-90K miles
  • Air conditioning compressor – 80K-100K miles
  • Horn – 100K miles (assuming you’re not an idiot)

Making parts last longer

Avoid parking where the elements can destroy it:

  • Extreme heat or extreme cold (i.e., outside a garage).
  • High-salt environments like salted roads or at docks.
  • Consistently high-moisture conditions.
  • A region with annual snow can ruin a vehicle compared to a relatively warmer and drier area.

Drive so safely a full cup of water on the dashboard won’t spill:

  • Lightly tap on the accelerator to save gas and engine wear.
    • Avoid going beyond 60 MPH, since every additional 5 MPH costs about 3-4% more gas per mile.
  • Rolling the windows down under 40 MPH to increase the lifespan of the air conditioner.
    • Over 40 MPH, it’s more economical to drive with the air conditioner on.
    • To cut back on cross-draft, roll down a front window and the opposite rear window.
  • Take 50-100 more feet to stop than you’d expect to decrease brake wear.
  • Turn the steering wheel slowly and while the vehicle is in motion to save wear on axles and power steering.

To keep the car from getting cold in between, make errands back-to-back.

Keep the tires inflated within 5 PSI of the recommended pressure levels:

  • Inflated tires save on tire wear and increase the brakes’ effectiveness.

Refuel petrol frequently:

  • Don’t wait until the fuel light activates, since the fuel pump may pick up debris at the bottom of the fuel tank and running out of gas can damage the catalytic converter.
  • Use GasBuddy to find the best prices in the area.
  • To ensure a competitive price, find fuel stations with at least one other station nearby.

Unless the manufacturer specifies otherwise, premium gas makes no difference in fuel economy or engine performance. Fuel additive is cheaper at an auto parts store than premium fuel, and can often repair issues.

Always stay on top of routine maintenance:

  • Keep the battery terminals clean.
  • Change the oil about every 7K-10K miles or when it looks dirty.
  • The air filter and spark plugs are easy and cheap to replace, so replace them at any sign of wear.

Inspect the fluids monthly and keep them filled:

  • Coolant
    • Should be 100% antifreeze (diluted antifreeze is a waste of money).
    • Keep water or coolant in the trunk in case there’s a leak.
    • Use stop leak additives if you detect a coolant leak.
  • Motor oil and oil filter
    • Replace the engine oil every 3-10K miles.
    • Older vehicles burn or leak oil faster than newer ones.
    • Try to keep the same or thicker viscosity rating as the manufacturer’s recommended.
    • Keep unopened oil in the trunk in case it needs to be topped off.
    • Use stop leak, lifter quiet, and high-mileage treatment after every oil change.
  • Brake fluid
  • Power steering fluid
  • Transmission fluid
    • Replace the transmission fluid about every 100K miles.

Basic repairs

As soon as you see a problem, fix it, since tiny problems can quickly become very expensive to repair later.

If you’re willing to research, you can swap out most parts on your car without a garage full of equipment.

  • Once you learn how, brakes, oil, air filters, and spark plugs are easy to change.
  • Keep your auto on a level area, and secure it with chocks or a sizeable rock.

Get essential equipment before you need it.

  • Jack and jack stands
  • Latex gloves
  • Air tools and an air compressor, which can be a few hundred bucks
  • Scan computer(s)
    • Learn how to read them online if you don’t understand how they work
  • Shop manual for your model that shows a complete teardown of the entire vehicle
  • If you live alone, a steering wheel holder and pedal depressor

You can also often improvise solutions:

  • Many medium-sized dents can be removed with a high-quality plunger.
  • In small cars, pantyhose can temporarily serve as a fan belt.
  • Use a spackle gun to hold brake calipers.

Try to buy replacement parts with a lifetime warranty, and keep the receipts in a safe place.

  • If you need a new battery, take the old one with you to test to be sure, since it may be an alternator issue instead and you can get some reimbursement from giving them the old battery.

Only replace the tires when you need to.

  • Unless you live in a mountainous area, you can still drive with nearly bald tires.
  • Test tire treads with a penny (replace when you can see Lincoln’s head through the groove).

Buy the specialized tools you need, since a $200 tool is less than a $500 mechanic’s repair, and you can use it later.

Technological Problems

The newer design features in autos have created issues for many drivers:

  • UX that favors adaptive panels over buttons can create risks when the driver is trying to change a configuration while driving.
  • Auto-assist AI which doesn’t work correctly can create risks for drivers.
  • Automation designed to make life easier can, sometimes, make life more difficult (e.g., automatically re-locking doors after a few seconds).

New technologies designed by a dysfuctional corporation will give new ways to make life more difficult.

The best solution is to deactivate those features whenever possible:

  • Deactivate any network-based components, such as GPS or cellular network communication.
  • Disable any automated features, such as auto-locking or auto-closing.
  • Disable the driving assists, or diminish them to alert-only status.

Sometimes, the design of the vehicle will make deactivating features difficult or impossible, and you may have to find a clever hack to deactivate them.

  • Delete or modify parts of the computer code that run subsystems.
  • Reinstall an open-source operating system created by a developer community to run your vehicle.
  • Retrofit the vehicle’s engine to a non-computerized system.

When you can’t fix it

It’s always worth paying for a towing service beforehand.

  • There are many to choose from, and they can be affordably bundled with phone service or existing auto insurance.
  • Have a mechanic who can service it before the car breaks down.

When something fails, write notes to diagnose what’s broken:

  • Weather conditions
  • The angle the vehicle was traveling (uphill, downhill, etc.)
  • How much weight it was carrying
  • The gear it was in and how shifting gears feels
  • Check any codes in an OBD-II scanner

When searching for engine codes online, check for three specific things:

  1. Direct information on the code, similar to what the repair manual will say.
  2. A step-by-step video where someone walks through how to fix the problem.
  3. A message board or blog post about that issue associated with the vehicle’s make and model.
    • Look for consistent information across everything to find the most accurate answer.
    • If you can’t find that specific year, expand your search to nearby years and similar models.

Either fix the problem yourself or give it to a technician with your written diagnosis.

  • They won’t have to diagnose, so your analysis helps them skip it and saves you money.
  • They’re also less inclined to take advantage of you because you’ve proven your mechanical aptitude.

Where to service it

Pay attention to where you go:

  • Check for certification in the shop and a state license (in the USA).
  • Look for a clean garage, since a cluttered floor shows a lack of organization.
  • Unless it’s a nuanced computer issue that requires the dealership, pick a small business owner over a large chain store, unless it’s a nuanced computer issue.
    • Hourly workers are never as ethical or industrious as someone paid in referrals and consistent clientele.

The mechanic will want to finish the work by the weekend (and many people give them work on Fridays and Saturdays), so visit on a Monday or Tuesday instead of a Friday.

Watch what they tell you:

  • Be vigilant against scare tactics (e.g., they wouldn’t drive your car another foot).
  • If they say they don’t need fancy equipment like a conventional engine analyzer, go elsewhere.

Communicate carefully:

  • When getting a second opinion, do not give the second mechanic the first one’s diagnosis.
  • Before signing anything, always get a specific estimate for each job, and never sign a blank work authorization form.
  • Ask about a labor estimation beforehand, since they’ll often charge double labor for tasks.
  • Request factory equipment to ensure you have legitimate parts.
  • Ask for your old parts back to be sure they put the new ones in.

Frequent markups

Learn the market price for the parts before walking in.

  • Buy the part at an auto parts store and give it to them to replace.

Many mechanics perform unnecessary services to markup the price:

  • You don’t need your fuel injector cleaned.
  • Coolant flushes are usually a gimmick, and you can do it yourself.
  • Power steering flushes are usually unnecessary.
  • Transmission flushes aren’t recommended by manufacturers and cars almost never need them.
  • Avoid lifetime mufflers, since you’ll still have to pay for pipe repairs.
  • Dealers are often legally required to replace catalytic converters or emissions systems for free if it’s the original one that came on the vehicle.
  • Metal particles in a transmission pan is completely normal.

Avoid markups for things you can do yourself:

  • You can change your air filter by yourself, and an air filter full of dirt might not have come from your vehicle.
  • Fuel and fluid additives are easy to add, and available at any auto parts store.
  • While you can’t do tire balancing and alignment, you can do rotation yourself, and most mechanics offer it as a free service.

Watch for any cut corners:

  • If your tires are unusually cheap, you may be getting old treads.
    • Ask the build date.
    • There are no government standards for used tires, so personally inspect them.
  • Be vigilant about brake jobs, since a mechanic will often break even on an advertised $100 brake job.

Know when to say goodbye

Even if you extend an automotive’s life by keeping it well-maintained and away from the elements, it’ll eventually become more expensive to repair than get another car if you use it regularly:

  • It’s certainly a good idea to replace the vehicle when the repair costs over 6 months becomes greater than the value of the vehicle.
  • However, a $2,000 major repair every year is still more affordable than a car payment.

Thankfully, each time you have to buy a car, it becomes simpler from experience.