I am debating whether to repair a very old car or buy a newer used car. There is a particular newer used car I have easy/trusted access to, so I will use that as the example below...

The old car:

  • 1989 Toyota Corolla 5 speed manual.
  • 189k miles.
  • Lives in an area where rust is a serious problem. Has body rust.
  • In my state, a safety inspection is necessary, and it has failed. The mechanic said it needs $1,500 worth of repairs in order to pass. He also said it is a shame, because the engine is good and the frame is good. The repairs are things like brake lines, exhaust repair, headlight, and some significant body work that he will do with compound, as well as some other things (I did not get a written estimate).
  • The car has driven well, but it is now about 25 years old.
  • It is not a very enjoyable driving experience: the stereo basically doesn't work, it is drafty, the headlights are so-so, and it feels a little tinny to drive. I do occasional long (500 mi each way) trips with it. But it's also not horrible, and mostly serves quite well. My main concerns are reliability and keeping costs down.
  • I put maybe $$1,00 to 1,500 in it in the past year for various repairs, but often perhaps a bit under $1,000 a year in repairs. I have traditionally driven it only about 6,000 miles a year.
  • It's KBB value is probably about $500, but with the current rusting body, possibly less. I live close enough to another state that it is feasible to sell it used to someone there, and that state doesn't have the inspection requirement this one does. But there is a good chance I will only be able to sell it for scrap for about $350.

The used car:

  • a 2004 Toyota Camry automatic, owned by a trusted friend (a 60something woman).
  • 147k miles
  • Selling for $4k.
  • Timing belt may never have been changed--we're checking on that.
  • No visible rust, the paint shines, and her mechanic tells her the car is in great shape.
  • Obviously a more comfortable car (good stereo, better ride, not drafty, etc).
  • Probably a safer car (air bags, better headlights, newer technology).

Finally a few other factors I'm wondering about:

  • I have always driven my cars into the ground and sold them for almost nothing to junkyards, but I'm wondering though if it is time to let this old one go now.
  • I would never even consider buying a brand new car, and historically have bought cars for very cheap, around $1,500--$2k, so a $4k car is a big bump up for me.
  • This coming year is going to have many more very short (1.5 mi) trips than ever before, due to a move. I know that can be hard on cars.
  • I have not owned an automatic in a while, and wonder if the possible down-the-road repairs to an automatic transmission could be something to really worry about. I have never even had a clutch repair in 11 years of driving the manual, as I am either really lucky or really easy on it the way I drive (I never ride the clutch, etc).
  • If I buy the newer Camry, I don't want to have to buy another car again for absolutely as long as possible. I do not like the process of buying cars at all.
  • I'm also very frugal, and although I can spend the money in either scenario, I would like to do the sensible thing, money-wise.

I'm wondering what's the right call here. Thanks for any light you might shine.

  • 2
    I'm sorry to put a close vote on this question, as it is a very detailed one (something which does not happen all that often). It just seems to me that all questions of this type are all conjecture and opinion. There is no right answer we can give you. You need to decide for you what is right. You could ask this kind of question on the chat. Sep 11 '14 at 21:53
  • Amazing amount of background info, but your asking opinions.
    – HasH_BrowN
    Sep 12 '14 at 8:39
  • 1
    I agree with the other two comments - it's too opinion-based to be answerable. Personally the heavy rust on your existing car would put me off - fixing rust with filler is only ever going to be a short-term bodge, so it'll probably need more attention next year...
    – Nick C
    Sep 12 '14 at 9:08
  • @Paulster2 I understand. Is there a way I could amend it to try to get some general wisdom regarding when it mathematically makes more sense to buy a newer used car vs. repairing one's old used car? I'd think this question is both novel to the site (other related questions seem to be about buying a brand new car instead of repairing one's old one) and really financially valuable guidance. I am happy to try to amend it to serve those purposes if you think that is reasonable.
    – Chelonian
    Sep 12 '14 at 17:23
  • Personally to me, the easy answer to this is, "When the average cost of repairs per month becomes more than what the payment on a new car would be." If there is no want of payment, then you need to look at whether saving the money up from repairs is worth the cost of a new (to you) car. If going the route of planning on a different car, put the absolute minimum into the old car to keep it road worthy and save the rest for the newer one. I agree with @NickC about the rust thing. Sep 12 '14 at 19:33

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