Many people are holing up at home and have been for months, which often means that their cars are sitting idle in a garage or on the street. While this can be a big money-saver when it comes to gas, not moving your car for weeks or months at a time can cause serious damage to your vehicle.
Last updated: Oct. 28, 2020
Letting your car sit for too long could cause your battery to die.
“Every time you start and drive your car, power from the battery cranks the starter motor, and the alternator then recharges the battery,” said Richard Reina, product training director at CARiD.com. “If a car sits, the battery slowly loses its charge, and the alternator doesn’t have the chance to replenish it. In a worst-case scenario, you may end up needing to replace your battery.”
The average cost for a battery replacement is between $408 and $420, according to RepairPal.
To prevent your battery from dying, “if your region allows it and it’s safe to do so, take the car for a 30- to 60-minute drive at least once a week to allow the alternator to help recharge the battery,” Reina said. You could also put a slow charger, also known as a trickle charger, on the battery.
Refilling Your Tires
“All tires slowly lose air, whether driven or not,” Reina said. “If you’re not driving, you may think there’s no need to check air pressures, but they still should be checked at least monthly.”
Fortunately, if your tires do need air, this is a cheap fix — air compressors at gas stations usually cost 50 cents or are free, according to Edmunds.
Replacing Your Tires
In addition to your tires losing air, they might also develop flat spots when they’re not being driven on regularly, Reina said.
“Flat spotting usually goes away after 10 to 15 minutes of driving; as the tires warm up and rotate, the rubber returns to a round shape,” he said. “In a worst-case scenario, the flat-spotting becomes permanent, and you may need to replace tires well before they’re worn out.”
The cost of a new tire typically ranges from $137 to $187 depending on your car type, according to Consumer Reports.
Fuel Pump Replacement
“Modern fuels go bad in three to six months,” Reina said. “The fuel turns gummy and develops a rancid odor. Normally, we buy fuel often enough that this isn’t a concern.”
If your car has been sitting for a long time and you haven’t run the car to burn off fuel or added new fuel, this could cause some serious problems.
“In a worst-case scenario, deteriorated fuel which is run through the fuel system could cause expensive parts like the fuel pump to require replacement,” Reina said.
The average cost for a fuel pump replacement is between $638 and $837, according to RepairPal.
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Fuel Injector Replacement
Deteriorated fuel could also cause damage to the fuel injectors, which are also expensive to replace, Reina said. The average cost for a fuel injector replacement is between $1,219 and $1,517, according to RepairPal.
To prevent needing to replace the fuel pump or injectors, drive your car for 30 to 60 minutes at least once a week to burn off some fuel and add fresh fuel whenever possible, Reina said.
Faded Paint and Upholstery
“Any car which sits outside is, of course, subject to the ravages of the weather, including the sun’s UV rays — not to mention other external factors like dust, tree branches and bird droppings,” Reina said. “However, if your car is sitting outside in the same spot all day and all night, the effect of sunlight can be especially brutal.”
Reina noted that when the sun hits the same places on your car day after day, it can cause the paint to lose its luster and the upholstery to fade.
“In a worst-case scenario, a car with faded/damaged paint and upholstery loses considerable value when it’s time to sell it or trade it in,” he said.
To keep your car looking its best, Reina said to invest in an indoor/outdoor car cover. “If that’s not practical, then at a minimum, consider a windshield sunshade,” he said.
Windshield Wiper Replacement
Rubber components could dry out due to extended sun exposure if your car stays in the same spot outside, according to Consumer Reports. This includes belts and wipers.
On average, the cost for a windshield wiper blade replacement is between $74 and $111, according to RepairPal.
Critter Damage Repairs
An idle engine compartment or the hood of your car could become home to unwanted critters. NPR Congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell tweeted that she found unwanted visitors in her engine after not using her car for an extended period of time due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“Just started our (car) for the first time in a week and we have rats living in the engine,” she tweeted. “The dealership said we are the fifth people to call this week with this problem.”
The cost to repair the damage will depend on which parts of the car have been compromised. Some repairs are covered by your car insurance, but they are typically not covered by your warranty, according to Carfax.
Brake Pad Replacement
Brakes can become rusty from lack of use, especially if your car is parked in a damp environment, NBC Bay Area reported. The average cost for a brake rotor replacement is between $406 and $559, according to RepairPal.
Parking Brake Repair
Your parking brake could also end up needing repair if your car stays parked for too long. If the brake has been set for a while, it may be difficult to release, Dave Cappert, executive director of the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence, told Cars.com. To prevent the parking brake from getting stuck, apply and release it regularly.
Blower Motor Replacement
If you park under a tree, debris can get caught in your car’s ductwork and harm your blower motor, Cars.com reported. The average cost for a blower motor replacement is between $420 and $467, according to RepairPal.
The drivetrain sits underneath the car and helps the wheels to turn. When you don’t move your car, this could cause damage to the drivetrain, Autotrader reported.
When a car sits still, all of the moving parts can dry out because no fluids are circulating, Business Insider reported. The transmission is one of the moving parts that is most at risk — and it’s very expensive to replace. A transmission replacement costs between $5,401 and $5,696 on average, according to RepairPal.
Driving your car once every week or two can keep your transmission working well.
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If it’s only been a week or two that your car has been sitting still, you can likely prevent most of the above expenses — just be proactive going forward.
“It’s not healthy for a vehicle to sit, undriven, for long periods, Reina said. “Cars need exercise. If it’s allowed and if it’s safe to do so, drive the car at least once a week for 30 to 60 minutes. This keeps the battery charged, the tires round and burns up old fuel.”
How To Store Your Car Properly
In addition to driving your car once a week, you should also make sure it’s stored properly when not in use. Here are some of the steps you should take to ensure your car is preserved well when it’s off the road.
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Keep the Parking Brake Off
As previously mentioned, your parking brake can get stuck if you leave it on for too long. Unless it’s absolutely necessary — say, you’re parking on a steep hill — don’t use your parking brake if your car will be staying put for a while.
Park Indoors or Cover Your Car
Parking outdoors leaves your car vulnerable to damage from the sun, debris from trees and bird droppings. Keep your car indoors if possible, and if not, cover your car — or at least put up a windshield screen to prevent your interior from fading.
Clean Out the Interior
Cars can get messy — yours might regularly be filled with empty water bottles or candy wrappers. Although a little bit of trash is usually harmless, traces of food left over time can rot — and attract critters.
Add Fuel Stabilizer to Your Gas Tank
“If your car is sitting, add a fuel stabilizer, available online or in most big-box hardware stores,” Reina said. “The stabilizer extends the shelf-life of the fuel.”
This could prevent issues caused by deteriorated fuel running through your car’s fuel system.
Add a Coat of Polish and Wax to the Exterior
Further protect your car’s exterior by sealing in the paint with a fresh polish and a coat of wax.
Change the Oil and Air Filters
If you’re due for an oil change, change it yourself if you can or visit a shop that allows you to stay in the car so you can avoid contact.
Air filter replacement is another thing you can DIY at home. Air filters can be purchased online, and you can refer to your owner’s manual for instructions on how to do it.
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Andrew Lisa contributed to the reporting for this article.