Buying a new car will cost you. But the financial stress that comes with putting money down and making monthly payments is nothing compared to the stress of driving a vehicle that you probably should’ve already sold.
From frequent breakdowns and high repair costs to poor performance and unreliability, scooting around in a subpar ride can be downright terrifying. Find out which scary warning signs mean that it might be time to bite the bullet and sell your car.
You're Afraid Its Resale Value Won't Last
Although it’s great when a car still holds a respectable resale value, it can be scary when the driver finds out that it no longer does. Given enough time, the latter scenario is inevitable for most cars.
Sites like Edmunds and Kelley Blue Book (KBB) offer quick, easy and reliable resale calculators. If you’re worried that you’re holding on to your car for too long, take a moment now to find out what it’s worth — and keep in mind that it probably won’t be more valuable than it is today.
You're Hearing Strange Noises
When your car starts talking to you, it’s wise to pay attention. Squealing during braking means the brake pad indicator is rubbing against the rotor. And squealing under the hood indicates a worn or loose serpentine belt.
There are dozens of sounds a car can make when trouble is on the horizon, and none of them are good. Strange noises are your car’s way of communicating, and you should get to know those sounds. They just might be yelling, “sell!”
You’re Nearing the 100,000 Mile Mark
Hitting 100,000 on the odometer used to be a milestone that relegated cars to senior citizenry — meaning the car was running on borrowed time. Although modern advancements allow today’s vehicles to live well beyond 100,000 miles, perception is still a generation behind, as resale value drops considerably at this watershed mileage moment, according to Edmunds.
You’ve Learned Your Car Has a Lousy Safety Rating
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) performs comprehensive crash tests on new vehicles and issues them corresponding safety ratings, as does the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). The two organizations test how virtually every aspect of the car performs in an accident, as well as how its safety features contributed to or mitigated the crash and the ensuing damage.
If you didn’t check your car’s rating before you bought it, now is the time. What you learn could compel you to keep on driving — or to sell.
The Tires' Treads Are Wearing Unevenly
Premature tread wear, uneven tread wear or both can sometimes be caused by something as simple as underinflated or overinflated tires. It could also, however, signal big problems in the suspension, which are much harder and more expensive to fix than your local gas station’s compressed air pump can provide. If that’s the case, it might be time to sell.
Your Gas Costs Are Terrifying
In 2018, Reuters reported that the average fuel economy for cars and trucks rose to a record 24.7 combined mpg. You, however, can do a lot better than that with today’s most fuel-efficient vehicles. The U.S. Department of Energy Fuel Economy Guide lays out which cars offer the lowest cost of ownership in terms of fuel costs. And if your gas receipts are starting to frighten you, it might be time to consider trading up.
You See Rust
Many car owners are afraid of rust — that’s because oxidation is relentless and gnawing, and it spreads like a rash. You can mitigate and remove it, but once it starts spreading, it’s rarely easy to contain.
Oxidation can attack everything from the doors and the exhaust to the suspension and the vulnerable undercarriage. It’s one of the first things savvy used car buyers try to spot. So when you see rust begin to emerge, it’s time to consider whether you should offload your car while you still can.
You Were Rattled by a Near Miss
The Association for Psychological Science recently studied the psychological impact of surviving a near miss — almost getting in a car accident without actually crashing. It turns out that drivers are more likely to have an accident after narrowly avoiding one. Psychology aside, a near miss might scare you into taking a second look at your existing car.
Ask yourself why you almost crashed. Was there a blind spot? Did your rear wheels fishtail? Did you hydroplane? How did your car perform during the incident in terms of braking distance, driver control, skidding and so on?
The bright side of these dangerous, terrifying situations is that they give you a chance to evaluate your vehicle’s weaknesses in an involuntary, but informative real-world test of how your car behaves when you need it the most.
Your Safety Systems Are Outdated
Forbes recently developed a list of valuable car safety features. Among them are adaptive cruise control, automatic emergency braking, lane departure warning, blind-spot detection and rear-view cameras. If you’re doing without them because you bought your car before these features were available or when they were still novelties, you might have a dose of healthy fear about the car you’re driving.
The Check Engine Light Keeps Coming On
Few automotive indicators are more foreboding than the harbinger of doom that is the check engine light. The meaning behind its illumination could be something as benign as a loose gas cap or as significant as a misfiring engine. If a lit check engine light becomes a staple of your display, resurfacing after each visit to the mechanic, you might want to consider how attached you really are to your car.
You're Constantly Putting Money Into It
In almost all cases, it’s cheaper to repair an old car than to buy a new one — repair it once or twice, or even several times. When you get to the point, however, where it seems like constant repairs are depleting what could have been money saved for your next down payment, it might make more sense to sell and start fresh.
The Hits Start Coming in Groups
When you think you need one minor repair only to learn that two or three other problems are lingering in the background, it’s time to worry. An unscrupulous or incompetent mechanic might diagnose secondary issues that don’t exist while making the initial repair. But if you trust your mechanic, or if a second opinion confirms that mechanical failures are beginning to come in groups, this might be a good time to sell.
Getting Stranded Has Become the Norm
If mechanical breakdowns leave you stranded on the regular, you have some serious decisions to make — especially if you’re running out of sympathetic friends who are willing to pick you up. Above everything except safety, a good car is, first and foremost, reliable. Once a car is reliably unreliable, it’s time to move on.
You Have Constant Starting Anxiety
Almost as nerve-racking as being stranded by your car is the feeling of getting into the driver’s seat and turning the key only to have nothing happen. Between the starter, the alternator and the battery, if your car’s electrical system has become so fickle that starting your morning commute has become a crapshoot, then you might consider alleviating that car-start anxiety with a new electrical system, which you’ll get with a new car.
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You Need To Use Physical Force To Get Things To Work
One indication that you should start saving for a down payment is when physical force is the remedy for any of your car’s faulty features or systems. That includes tapping the dashboard to get the air conditioning to work, banging the door to get it to lock, kicking the door to get it to close or anything else that requires a ritualistic bumping, tugging, tapping or banging just to make your car work the way it should.
You’ve Reached Your Repair-Cost Threshold
In the quest to never put more money into your car than it’s worth, Edmunds points out a good rule of thumb. If a repair costs more than half the value of your car, you should never make that repair. That money is better spent on a down payment for a new, dependable vehicle. In any case, be honest and upfront with the next owner about the issue during the sale.
Your Mechanic Gives a Dire Warning
When you visit the mechanic for regular maintenance or a minor repair only to learn that a major, costly breakdown is impending and inevitable, sell before the mechanic’s premonition comes true. Here, too, be honest with the new owner about what they’re facing during the transaction. If all else fails, sell the vehicle for parts.
You're Seeing Signs of Engine Failure
Keen drivers can tell the warning signs of an engine that’s about to call it quits. Those signs should scare you into shopping for a new car you can afford. They include things like the dreaded check engine light, a rough idle, lousy performance, increased exhaust and a knocking noise coming from under the hood.
You're Seeing Signs of Transmission Trouble
Even worse than engine failure is the granddaddy of all auto repairs — a busted transmission. Signs of impending transmission trouble include unfamiliar noises in neutral, grinding of the gears, fluid leaks, a burning smell, poor shifting response and clunking and whining sounds coming from under the hood.
You're Losing Gas Mileage
Another telltale sign that you might want to sell your way out of a bad car while you still can is a sudden dropoff in fuel economy. If you’re noticing that you have to stop for gas more frequently than you did when your car was in its prime, you might have an issue with your engine’s compression stroke, according to Pep Boys auto parts store.
Try using a fuel cleaner. If that doesn’t work, have your mechanic run engine diagnostics and brace yourself for bad news — it might be time to sell.
You're Afraid That You've Outgrown It
Maybe you bought that Camaro or Charger when you got a promotion, received an inheritance or simply opted for payments you couldn’t afford because the car was just so awesome. If you’ve reached a point, however, where a bullseye-red, 300-horsepower cop magnet no longer matches the person you’ve become, swapping out for a Subaru or Volvo isn’t selling out, it’s proof of evolution.
You're Afraid That Your Family Has Outgrown It
Trying to cram an adult passenger between two child car seats in the middle back seat of a Nissan Versa is uncomfortable, unsafe and unnecessary. If that small, easy-to-park car that suited your needs for so long has become a storage shed for sports equipment, toys and miscellaneous stuff of all stripes, it might be time to face the facts. Your fears are real — your family has outgrown your car.
You're Scared To Lose a Good Offer
You might have received an offer on your car from a private seller, from a dealer offering a trade-in or from a service like Carvana, CarMax or AutoNation. If you originally balked but are now spending your nights lying awake wondering if you’ll ever get as good an offer again, it might be time to pick up the phone, reach out and accept.
You're Afraid of Losing the War of Attrition
Some drivers stay with the same car for so long that sticking with it until the bitter end becomes a point of pride. If the only reason you’re still with your car is that you vowed to drive it until you can’t possibly drive it anymore, then you’re almost certainly clinging to an obsolete clunker that’s at the end of its run.
From safety and performance to emissions and reliability, you’re in it for the wrong reasons. It’s OK to sell it.
It Pains You To Look at It
Although this last one has less to do with fear and more to do with taste and dignity, it might be time to sell if you get a sinking feeling every time you look at your car. Maybe it’s the duct-taped side mirror, the mismatched body paint or the mosaic of dings, dents and gouges.
Cosmetics aren’t everything, but you should love — or at least be able to tolerate — your car. When the romance dies, maybe it’s time to get a divorce.
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About the Author
Andrew Lisa has been writing professionally since 2001. An award-winning writer, Andrew was formerly one of the youngest nationally distributed columnists for the largest newspaper syndicate in the country, the Gannett News Service. He worked as the business section editor for amNewYork, the most widely distributed newspaper in Manhattan, and worked as a copy editor for TheStreet.com, a financial publication in the heart of Wall Street’s investment community in New York City.