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Survey: Consumers are running risks by postponing car maintenance or repair

Consumer Reports News: December 20, 2011 11:08 AM

Forty percent of consumers involved in repair decisions are postponing car maintenance or repair on their primary vehicle, which can be a costly gamble. Putting off service on items such as brakes, tires, light bulbs, or mechanical parts can compromise the safety of a vehicle. And the failure to have a small problem promptly repaired or regular maintenance performed on schedule can lead to larger, more costly problems down the road.

This is among the highlights of a new survey by the Consumer Reports National Research Center, which conducted 1,699 random, nationwide telephone interviews of adult car owners from November 3-7, 2011.

According to respondents, these were the types of non-warranty work most commonly postponed:

Repair work Percent
Minor manufacturer-recommended scheduled service 22%
Wear items (e.g., break pads, tires) 17
Body or other exterior damage 15
Major manufacturer-recommended scheduled service 11
Replacement of exterior light bulbs 10
Repair of mechanical issues 8

Those in lower-income households are more likely to delay necessary work. And the youngest drivers, aged 18 to 34 years, were more likely to delay work on wear items, such as brake pads or tires. One-fifth (21 percent) of this age group admits it did not attend to a wear item in a timely fashion, compared to 14 percent of those aged 55 and over.

Overall, 44 percent of those who deferred work in the past year admitted that they felt the value, safety, or reliability of the vehicle would suffer, with some even saying the car was becoming an embarrassment.

Perceived impact of delaying work Percent
The car is worth less 30%
Hesitant to take long-distance trips due to reliability or safety concerns 17
The car is less reliable 14
The car is less safe 9
Becoming embarrassed by the car 8

Due to the poor economy, drivers are holding onto their vehicles longer, which makes the need for expensive routine maintenance and repairs more likely. We found that the typical respondent drives a 2003 vehicle—many bought used—which has been owned for five years. Moreover, on average respondents said that they expect to hold on to their current vehicle for another five years. The survey shows that older drivers, residents of western states, and lower-income owners go the longest before replacing their vehicles.

On average, owners have 78,000 miles on their current vehicle. This means many are quickly approaching major maintenance milestones, where replacing timing belts, brakes, and shocks becomes common and mechanical systems may begin wearing out. Drivers reported spending an average of $808 in the past year to keep their car running.

Interviewees stated that a major repair bill, costing an average of about $2,000, would become a serious financial burden. Lower-income households ($1,418 average), women ($1,601), and younger adults ($1,749) were shown to be most vulnerable. This means that a major repair bill could be 2.4 times the size of what respondents actually spent on maintenance and repairs over the past year before it would become a serious financial burden across the demographic groups.

Recognizing the increased role that maintenance and repairs are playing in keeping our vehicles running reliably, Consumer Reports has launched a new car-repair information service. A free basic Car Repair Encyclopedia explains how components and systems work so you can understand common problems and better communicate with your mechanic. subscribers can access the full encyclopedia and the Car Repair Estimator, which shows local prices for many repairs so you can make an educated decision about where to have service performed and get the best value for your money.

Survey: Consumers trust their shop for car maintenance and repair
Survey: Better reliability is why most consumers replace their car

Jeff Bartlett

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