TTAC Commentator nickeled&dimed writes:
How does one keep an old car going on a shoestring budget? I do repairs myself, which helps, but sometimes I don’t quite pull it off correctly, as my power steering belt loudly proclaims every morning when I cut the wheels to pull out of my parking spot. With a list of items that are showing wear, how do I prioritize, and how do I know when to start shopping for another 10-year used car?
I like to do my own wrenching, and have a basic tool set, decent mechanical knowledge, and neighbors that don’t call the cops when I work on my car in the street outside my house. Actually all repairs take place in the street outside my house with hand tools only. This last piece, however, means that absolutely no involved repairs can take place at home.
My 2000 Subaru Legacy GT Wagon has got to be one of the better cars I’ve owned. It handles nicely in the wet and snow (which has decided not to appear this winter), and it invites a lead foot. It is, however, starting to eek up into the “high mileage” bracket, and I’m concerned about keeping it going. A bit of history – I bought the car four years ago from a curbing operation (before I knew what that was and to run away quickly). The car had a sprightly 102k on it, was nice and clean, and only had a teensy bit of trim that had gotten caught and bent back, which I wrote off as “just aesthetics”. It should have been a sign of general neglect. One of the first things I did, after the purchase, was to take it to a Dealership, who informed me how woefully I’d checked out the car – they ended up replacing the rear main seal and timing belt, and an 02 sensor that tripped the Check Engine light 10 miles after signing the check. Shortly afterward I replaced a leaky valve cover gasket myself, and discovered a stripped hex bolt on the side that wasn’t leaky… preventing me from doing the job on both sides. This other side has a slow leak now. I’ve also replaced the plugs and wires, and paid out the nose to have a leaky A/C system fixed. I’ve replaced tie rods, steering knuckles, boots, and brakes as those each wore out, and keep the car aligned and shod in decent all-seasons. At 160K I noticed the belts looked pretty bad, and when I replaced them they fell apart along the bottoms of the V-grooves, I guess I should have caught that sooner.
But, as the car has just reached it’s 170K oil-change, the maintenance items are starting to pile up. I’m not sure why the engine shakes so much, possibly just a trait of the H-4? The check engine light comes on intermittently, but is never on when I finally decide to take it in to see what it’s about. Thankfully it was off when getting inspected, too. It never lasts a full tank’s worth of driving. The aforementioned valve cover gasket with stripped hex bolt is leaking slowly, which gives a faint odor of burned oil from the engine compartment (I think, or else the smell is from a more serious problem). I’m concerned about the condition of the hoses, as I’ve had leaky fuel lines under the hood, at a connection, that I’ve had to re-tighten a few times. Part of why the car invites a lead foot is that to merge onto the highway you bury the accelerator and wait, and eventually the transmission will downshift and you’ll take off. The same trait makes it a bit of a struggle on West Virginia forest roads, mountain passes, or hotshoe passing maneuvers.
I use this car like a small pickup truck, it hauls plywood, sheetrock, lumber, construction debris, dogs, camping gear, costco runs, friends, beer, and takes me to work every day. I’ve totally wrecked the interior. I’m wondering what more I should be doing to keep this going. The little things I can take care of myself – I’m getting ready to tackle a transmission fluid replacement, with the next oil change. The hesitating and lack of power are things I’m not qualified to fix, if the fluid change doesn’t help. Things like shocks – it’s starting to wallow a bit in corners – maybe because of repeated overloading – might be more than it’s worth to fix, since it’s definitely beyond my shade-tree skills.
So, do I spend a few thousand dollars over the next two years fixing the Subaru, or do I sell for $1000, and browse the bottom of craigslist for a minivan with maintenance records, that might be able to fit the next sheetrock run inside, vs. on the roof? The thing I’m afraid of – not knowing what sorts of problems I’m inheriting, like accidents that didn’t make it onto the CarFax. Also, the car shows clear signs of total neglect now that I’ve used it like a pickup, and I’m not sure $1000 is even reasonable to dump it.
I hope this helps stock your Piston Slap Pipeline. I’m in no hurry. Unless, of course, I do something to the car during my untrained wrenching sessions that makes it stop being reliable.
Thanks for writing. At this age and mileage, it’s no small feat to work on a boxer engine’d Subie on the street. I hope you’re using the Subaru forums for help/advice on your diagnostic woes, and that you just forgot to mention that in your otherwise very comprehensive letter. If not, get on the forums ASAP.
The first thing to research is how to replace most/all rubber hoses under the hood. If you smell fuel, start there. Odds are they can help in replacing the coolant hoses too. And a bad idle/check engine light can be just a series of fried vacuum lines…maybe a bad PCV valve too.
Then start checking codes, since the check engine light comes on…there must be a stored code! Get the code, Google it, find a repair thread about it on the forums. And those are just the basics of any car in this condition. We haven’t even addressed the suspension wear!
Is this Subie worth keeping? Probably not. You have to really love the car to keep it in tip-top shape now, and I’m not feelin’ that in the tone of your note. Sell it whenever you feel the need, it’s been a fine steed but you know when to say “Uncle” better than anyone else: no one else can walk a mile in your shoes!
Send your queries to sajeev@thetruthaboutcars.