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Repair or replace? And last straws piling up...

Peter McCormick


The question of whether to 'repair or replace' rises to the surface as any product ages, be it a household item like a washing machine or dishwasher, a vehicle, or a piece of turf equipment.


In our increasingly disposable culture the answer is most often 'replace'.  Products manufactured overseas in countries with economies very different than ours keep the cost of replacement artificially low. Rates for service technicians ranging from $50 to over $100/hour further sway the decision toward replacement.  We simply don't have tradespeople with the skills to repair shoes, TVs or vacuums anymore.  As a society, we don't want our shoes repaired... we want new ones.


As a society, we don't want our shoes repaired... we want new ones..."


So small ticket items get replaced (and that threshold keeps rising) while larger ticket items require further consideration.


Case(s) in point: The ages and mileage of the vehicles in our garage have slowly increased over the last decade or so, for many reasons. The kids are gone, so we're not shuttling them around all the time.  My wife retired from teaching. She doesn't commute anymore, but she does run around town a bit.  I work at home. My vehicle sits for days on end at times.


We could almost get away with one car, except for those times when we NEED two.


As vehicles age, insurance costs decline. They're paid for, so there's no monthly car payment.  Both sway one more toward repair than replacement.  A $500 repair a few times a year is still way less expensive than buying a new car.  The mindset becomes to "drive it 'til it drops".


But reliability becomes a concern.  Breaking down is a PITA, no two ways about it.


But reliability becomes a concern.  Breaking down is a PITA, no two ways about it..."


I guess one could say our vehicles have morphed from a critical role in our lives to a supporting one, like a primary greensmower might be relegated to fairways or approaches after age has loosened it up a bit.


Or, one could look at them like an aerator or other specialty piece of turf equipment that's not used every day. But when you need it, you need it to work and work reliably.


My wife has a 2000 VW New Beetle Turbo, 13 years old but only 82,000 miles on it.  5-speed, sunroof, has some zip to it from the turbo.  Very good shape.  Fun to drive.


We were toodling along in the Beetle back before Memorial Day when it stalled at 55 mph. Oops. Turns out the timing belt broke.  I had never really thought about it since the suggested replacement interval is 105,000 miles, and we weren't close to that. At about $800, it's not something you do on a whim. But, in hindsight, chronological age should be considered. Over 13 years belts can dry out, crack and break.


...in hindsight, chronological age should be considered. Over 13 years belts can dry out, crack and break."


That was an expensive oversight. With that type of engine, when the timing belt goes it takes the rest of the engine with it, scoring the pistons and cylinders in the process.


So, we had a decision to make. An engine rebuild would run $2200+. A junkyard engine would be closer to $3000, with a lot of question marks.  When dropping the engine, the clutch and water pump should be done too, at additional expense.


We looked at used cars in the $10K range, all high mileage and with their own question marks.  New cars with a 5- or 6-speed (increasingly rare) and with a turbo are well over $20K.  My wife likes the VW, enjoys driving it, and it's in good shape for it's age.


I found a supplier of new OEM replacement engines on the web. $4000 plus freight from Arkansas. I was quoted an additional $2500 for labor, clutch, water pump, and associated belts and hoses. $7K total with tax.  After some deliberation, we opted to go that route, figuring with a new engine it will likely be the last 'second car' we'll ever need.


It took about a month to get everything done. I wrote the check, we picked it up and the next day I noticed a puddle of oil on the garage floor. Back to the shop. Apparently a defective part in the new engine, which the supplier covered... but another two weeks went by and additional aggravation accrued.


We picked it up again and the next day the "check engine" light started coming on. Seems that other components a new engine gets attached to are still 13 years old.  A plastic tee in a vacuum line cracked and was causing the fault. Another two days in the shop, then about three days running it around before we left for our summer place. So it sits until we get back, but all seems in order now.  All in all, a test of patience and wondering whether we had made a costly mistake in judgment.


...a test of patience and wondering whether we had made a costly mistake in judgment."


Toward the end of this process the air conditioning in my 2004 Mercury Monterey minivan STB, for the second time... a $1000+ repair.  With 155K miles on it, the "last straw" repairs had been piling up.  You know, the ones that you swear will push you over the edge the next time one happens.


After the VW experience, I didn't have it in me to invest another grand into something old and creaky.  Nor did I have the cash sitting around. Let's say the capital budget was shot... but the operating budget could likely withstand a reasonable lease payment.  Not unlike many golf course situations these days.


We're somewhat at a crossroads lifestyle-wise, so what to buy?  Ford minivans have been the mainstay of our fleet for the past twenty years.  With the driver-side second-row seat removed and sliding doors it becomes our traveling dog-mobile, with easy in-and-out for our Goldens.  Plus, I haul a lot of stuff around but am not a pickup truck guy. It's overkill size-wise most of the time, but when we pack for our summer trip it's to the gills — including the Thule box on top — so we really need the space.


Ford doesn't make minivans any longer, so we opted for a new Toyota Sienna at a stupid-cheap lease rate. I put $2000 down (the salvage value of my old one, sold on Craigslist) on a $35,000 vehicle for a lease payment of $350/mo.  Figuring we won't put that much mileage on it, we'll probably buy it at lease-end.


This "purchase" decision was the one that I had been putting off, but in the end was much easier to make than the earlier repair/replace decision. Plus, let's face it, there's something nice about a quiet, tight new vehicle with all the technology gizmos, MUCH better fuel economy, and full warranty.


Not unlike putting a new fairway mower fleet out there and (hopefully) leaving the maintenance headaches behind.


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