Americans Defer Car Repairs Big Time (Especially if They Don't Trust Their Mechanics)

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Oct 12, 2015

In high school, my friend Bob drove a Plymouth Valiant he’d inherited from his father (who left a legacy of a headliner browned by his pipe smoke). Bob told me, and I believed him, that this dependable Slant Six-powered chariot hadn’t had its oil changed in 40,000 miles.

That right there is what deferred maintenance is all about. Americans are far more guilty of it than Europeans, who tend to be meticulous about keeping current with scheduled repairs. The typical American pattern—and you can usually track it closely in the little check-up log books that come with the car—is to be diligent about the appointments for the first six months, even a year of ownership. After that, not so much. The entries become spotty.

Let’s face it, we’re a lazy bunch, and we’re penny wise, pound foolish. The car’s still running OK, so why fork over all that money, especially when drivers don’t trust their mechanics anyway. Auto repair is a huge $135 billion industry, and fed by the advancing age of the average car on the road, it’s growing 3.2 percent annually. That’s despite drivers’ growing suspicion that they’re getting ripped off—27 percent report problems with their mechanics in a 2012 Consumer Reports survey.

One of the common complaints is from people who went in for a $50 oil change and came away with a $500 bill for stuff they’re not convinced they needed. Even though most repair shops are honest, this is what Tom and Ray mean when they talk about mechanics needing to make their “boat payments”

Amazingly enough, this distrustful situation is reversed for mechanics that have built up trust with their customers. If my local guy, Rob Maier of Maier’s Garage, tells me I need a new clutch, I’m giving the green light immediately. “Eighty or 90 percent of the time, when I tell customers what needs doing, they tell me to go ahead with it,” Maier said. “They know I’m straight with them. We treat people the way we’d want to be treated ourselves.”

Americans do indeed keep their cars for a long time these days (the average car on the road was 11.4 years old in 2013), and by the time the chrome is falling off and the interior is starting to look shabby the maintenance schedule is really slipping. A new AAA study says that 35 percent of Americans have ignored (or at least delayed) responding to their mechanics’ advice to get the car serviced or repaired. AAA claims that this is true, despite the fact that repair experts estimate that “drivers can save an average of $100 per visit simply by properly maintaining their vehicle.”

This is why there are so many smoke-belching clunkers on the road. (AAA graphic)
This is why there are so many smoke-belching clunkers on the road. (AAA graphic)

Erin Stepp, a spokeswoman for AAA, tells me, “We didn’t specifically ask people ‘why’ they defer the maintenance, but we suspect it’s a combination of things--some people are too busy, some people can’t afford it and some people just don’t understand how important proper vehicle maintenance is.”

Consumer Reports says the most commonly postponed service items are: manufacturer-recommended scheduled service (22 percent); wear items such as brake pads (17 percent); body or exterior damage (15 percent); major scheduled service intervals (11 percent); light bulb replacement (10 percent). So that's why all those cars with crumpled fenders and one headlight come my way.

The “not being able to afford it” thing is real. A 2011 AAA study found that 25 percent would not be able to pay a repair bill of $2,000—admittedly, a big blow—and one in eight couldn’t handle even a $1,000 tab (which are more common as cars grow in complexity).

One lesson here is not to buy more of a car than you can afford. It’s a funny thing—luxury cars lose value really quickly, so it’s easy to pick up a “bargain” used Rolls-Royce, Bentley Turbo R or Jaguar V-12. They cost about as much as an entry-level economy car. But the purchase price is just a down payment, and you’ll be in for a stiff awakening when Nigel at British Classics tells you the bill for that six-month service.

One more thing—there are some types of maintenance you absolutely do not want to defer. Brakes, for instance. Kelley Blue Book points out that brakes are the number one safety system on your car, and if your pads are worn down or the hydraulics are leaking, get them fixed NOW.

You should also not hesitate to fix these aging systems: steering (bad handling is a hazard, so get those ball joints, tie rod ends and rack-and-pinion systems fixed promptly); oil (don’t be like friend Bob—correct oil change intervals are 3,000 to 4,000 miles, but check the owner’s manual because it could be longer); timing belts (failures can ruin the engine); water pumps (these babies usually give you plenty of audible warning, then go spectacularly).

Systems you can defer (at least for a little while): mufflers and exhaust pipes; struts and shocks (which fail very slowly); constant velocity joints (a clicking sound means danger, but you have a little time); oil leaks (keep an eye on those levels).

This undercover video helps explain why some car owners don't trust their mechanics--this Las Vegas-based clown recommends hundreds of dollars in unnecessary brake work:


So what's the takeaway for car owners? If you can afford to get the service done, do it. While you're at it, save your receipts. If you want to resell the car later on down the road, having proof that you're a responsible owner will set you apart from all the other sellers out there. And if you don't have a mechanic you trust, find one ASAP! (Check out the Car Talk Mechanics Files to find a reliable shop in your area.) 

Get the Car Talk Newsletter

Got a question about your car?

Ask Someone Who Owns One