Automotive recalls are continuing to mount at a record pace this year. Last week, Fiat Chrysler announced it will recall another 1.7 million vehicles, on top of what was, as of August, more than 32 million vehicles already recalled this year in the United States. That means a lot of consumers will be heading back to the dealership, and they could be making a very expensive mistake when they get there.
I myself don’t have to deal with a lot of recalls, thanks to the fact that I drive a 20-year-old car — my (t)rusty 1995 Buick Roadmaster Estate Wagon. Actually, I do have to deal with one persistent recall issue, and that’s getting my mechanic to recall where he can find parts for this aging hulk.
But the simple truth is that when it comes to my beloved 18-foot long Roady, any part that could prompt a recall has most likely already fallen off, worn out or simply been replaced, such as the original-equipment, coal-fired 8-track tape player.
Warning: Haggle zone ahead
Of course, recalls can be inconvenient or even worrisome, especially if you have to drive the car while waiting for parts or an appointment. But just because the manufacturer has to fix your car at no charge don’t think that a recall can’t get expensive, too. That’s because some dealers appear to be using recalls as an opening to sell you extra service or even a new car.
“We have talked to a number of clients who had to get recall work done, and they’re saying they almost feel like they’ve been dragged back into the sales process,” says Scot Hall, executive vice president of operations for the lease-trading service SwapALease.com.
Since most SwapALease clients are advertising on the site to transfer their leases to someone else, it makes sense that they’ll need a replacement vehicle and, hey, if you’re already at the dealership it can’t hurt to look around. But, if rather than a helpful, knowledgeable sales rep you end up playing an extended game of, “What’s it gonna take to put you in a new car today?” you could be making a very bad deal.
84 months of a long bad-buy
At an average price of $33,560 for a new car, or more than $16,000 for a used one, getting a new vehicle shouldn’t be an impulse buy. First, you need to know what you can afford that meets your needs, how you’re going to pay for it and how you’re going to finance it.
That means first heading to your local bank or credit union to be pre-qualified for an auto loan. You don’t want to be standing in a showroom haggling about your monthly payment. Instead, you want to focus on your total cost of borrowing. Otherwise, you will end up with a nice, low monthly payment — but one with 72-month or even 84-month payments. To show how bad the idea of a seven-year car loan is, consider that, on average, buyers don’t even hold on to a new car for that long, but for an average of 6.5 years. Or try this: If you’d bought a new car when Barack Obama was first sworn in to the White House, you’d still have four coupons left in your payment book.
Ideally, you finance a car you can afford for 36 months, then put that cash aside for your eventual replacement vehicle. Shop for financing first, then a car, not the other way around, and resist any trade-in negotiations until after you’ve gotten a final, best price. As for how much car you can afford, the standard rule of thumb is to keep any payment to no more than 20 percent of your salary. However, try to keep your total monthly debt and housing payments — including rent or mortgage payments, homeowners insurance, taxes, your car payment and all other debt — to 36 percent of your gross (pre-tax) income. Balance those two rules, and you’ll have a reasonable payment that doesn’t load you down with too much debt.
As for how long you keep your car, that depends on your driving conditions, how well you take care of the car, and the point where any necessary repairs would cost more than half the value of the car. In my case, the Roadmaster will probably retire in a few more months, and I’m looking forward to driving something built in this century, even if it doesn’t come with an in-dash butter churn.
Brian O’Connor is author of the award-winning book, “The $1,000 Challenge: How One Family Slashed Its Budget Without Moving Under a Bridge or Living on Government Cheese.”