Spending Smart

Car care can pay off

By Dave Copeland
Globe Correspondent / May 31, 2009
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Maintaining a car in the United States costs anywhere from $100 to $350 per month, according to the American Automobile Association.

But specialists say costs can be reduced with preventive maintenance and small changes to driving habits.

In some cases, the fixes help drivers avoid big repair bills down the road, while other suggestions can save you money almost immediately.

"The biggest way to save money on your car really is to keep it. That may sound overly simplistic, but when buying a new car, you pay higher insurance, higher excise tax, sales tax, interest on a loan, and the car will lose 15 percent of its value on the drive home from the dealership," said Andy Betts, who owns the AAMCO Transmission Center in Walpole.

"Cars today are very well built and will last 250,000 miles or more if you want them to."

Know how much to pay
When Betts was trying to figure out how much to charge at his shop, he commissioned Buxton, a research firm, to determine what the average per-hour labor cost was in eastern Massachusetts. The firm found that the average cost - which includes overhead - was $93 per hour. Not surprisingly, some dealerships charged more, with some charging as much as $140 per hour.

"Find a mechanic you can trust," Betts said.

The other big cost of repairs is parts. Betts said his shop marks parts up 1.5 to 2.5 times wholesale. He recommends customers call retail auto parts stores and find out what they're charging; a markup of two times the retail price should be about the maximum.

Splurge on the GPS unit
Nothing wastes gas like being lost, and even directions on a printout or PDA require you to take your eyes off the road - something that can result in a costly fender bender. Some in the electronics manufacturing industry estimate a global positioning system unit can save drivers about $200 per year in gas costs, depending on driving habits.

And Melissa Garcia, a supervisor at the Best Buy in Watertown, said many GPS units now include an added feature that helps save money at the pump: The GPS device will search nearby gas stations and tell drivers which have the lowest gas prices.

"Because gas prices typically go up during the summertime when everyone's leaving town or driving to the beach, using a GPS device with a gas price feature has become really helpful this time of year," said Garcia, who noted sales of GPS units typically increase around Father's Day and graduation season. "You can find the cheapest gas prices in your area or simply the closest gas station to your destination."

Regular oil changes
The longstanding rule of thumb has been to change oil every 3,000 miles or every six months, but some manufacturers now say cars can go longer (anywhere from 3,500 to 4,000 miles) between oil changes because of better car designs and oils. Still, Mark Stellato, of Breakaway Automotive in Oakham, Mass., said you shouldn't wait too long between oil changes because they offer mechanics a chance to find small problems that could turn into bigger problems later on.

"Coolant leaks, fuel leaks, oil leaks are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to catching potential problems that a good preventative maintenance schedule will allow a professional mechanic to catch," he said.

Gas is gas
Betts, the Walpole mechanic, said there is no difference among brands of gasoline. Drivers should find the cheapest gas they can for the octane rating recommended by their vehicle's manufacturer, he said, and stick with it.

"Lower octane fuel is not a problem in most cars, unless the manufacturer specifically prohibits this due to potential engine damage," Stellato added. "Some high performance cars simply cannot run on the lower grades."