Protect Yourself From Pricey Car Repairs

Save money with these expert tips

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The best way to limit your auto repair expenses is to buy a reliable model. But what if you already own a car with high maintenance costs, or you have your heart set on buying a used luxury or sports car that you suspect is going to cost a lot to fix? You can ease some of the pain in your pocketbook by planning for the inevitable. Here’s how.

Sell It While You’re Covered
If you already own one of the cars on the most expensive to repair list, it’s possible that it won’t need costly repairs or service. But it might be worth selling it or trading it in before the warranty period expires, just in case.

Buy It With a Warranty
If you’re set on buying a used car that typically costs a lot to maintain, look for one with remaining warranty coverage. Certified pre-owned vehicles can sometimes cost more than noncertified cars, but they typically include extended warranty coverage. Although it usually isn’t worth buying an extended warranty to cover a reliable car, a warranty plan for an unreliable vehicle may save you money if it costs less than a few fixes. Remember that you can negotiate the price for an extended warranty just like you can a car’s price, and be sure you understand what the warranty covers and where the work can be done.

More on Car Repair & Maintenance

Get a Prepurchase Inspection
Ask the dealer or owner whether you can take the car to an independent mechanic. If they balk, consider it a sign that they might be hiding something. A prepurchase inspection can identify parts that are about to wear out and reveal past damage that even car history services like Carfax might not show. If a car you’re considering needs a few fixes, negotiate a lower price up front and plan for other repairs.

Check the Repair Records
Items like an alternator, a fuel pump, or an AC compressor aren't considered “wear items” and usually last at least 100,000 miles, says John Ibbotson, CR’s chief mechanic. But if a part wore out earlier than that, it might need a replacement sooner rather than later. In general, a record of repairs can predict what might be needed repairwise in the future. “In general, if a part fails at, say, 60,000 miles, you can probably plan on replacing it again at another 60,000,” Ibbotson says.

Go to an Independent Mechanic
Our 2018 survey results show that compared with auto repair chains and car dealerships, consumers tend to have a more satisfying experience at independent shops, where they’re also more likely to get a discount. But when it comes to luxury brands or rare models with hard-to-find parts, steer clear of shops that lack the specific tools or skills to do the job, and find one that knows the ins and outs of your car. “Independent shops are your best bet when they have the tools to do the repair. Shops that specialize in a particular brand are often even better,” Ibbotson says. “You may pay a little more for labor, but they will also know the best parts for you to use.”

Consider Aftermarket Parts
Aftermarket parts may or may not be built by the original automaker. They do the same thing as the name brand but often cost less. Although the quality of aftermarket parts varies, an honest and skilled mechanic will know which to use and which ones to avoid. Some are actually better than original equipment, says Jill Trotta of RepairPal. For example, she says some aftermarket suppliers sell suspension components that mechanics find easier to install than factory parts, so consumers pay less for labor. And some parts might be better built or have longer guarantees. “A lot of times the warranty is the same, if not better,” she says. But some parts can be purchased only from the manufacturer, Ibbotson says. “The more obscure the part, the less likely it will be available aftermarket.”

Editor’s Note: This article also appeared in the June 2021 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

Head shot photo of CRO Cars CIA editor Keith Barry

Keith Barry

Despite my love for quirky, old European sedans like the Renault Medallion, it's my passion to help others find a safe, reliable car that still puts a smile on their face—even if they're stuck in traffic. When I'm not behind the wheel or the keyboard, you can find me exploring a new city on foot or planning my next trip.