Before You Buy A Car, Know The True Cost Of Ownership

Silicon Valley Blogger says that when buying a car, look beyond the sticker price. There’s a lot of costs involved and they’re only hidden if you don’t know what to look for.

Some of these factors include maintenance costs, repairs, depreciation, gas mileage, and insurance. What looks like a good deal at face value might mask high upkeep or low resale value. Sites like Edmund’s offer comprehensive “total cost of ownership” numbers, but these should just be used as starting points when conducting your research across a range of publications, reviews and data sets. — BEN POPKEN

Do You Really Know How Much It Costs To Own Your Car? [Silicon Valley Blogger]
(Photo: Brad77)


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  1. Alexander says:

    One of the best things you can do is to form a relationship with a good/reliable/honest mechanic. Dealerships costs are outrageous. Out of curiosity I asked when I needed a 40,000 factory tune-up and the VW dealership wanted $600. I asked other VW owners and they referred to mechanics that could do everything for $200. In the end, my family are all mechanics so I got everything done for parts only and a lunch. Also, this is not a blanket statement on all dealerships, but on a routine warranty issue they tell me that I needed new brakes. I asked them how urgent and they tell me they are DAYS aways from rotor damage. I take the car to my dad and sure enough, all the pads are still about 75% good and have at least a year in them. Even if you do go with a dealership, it does not hurt to get a couple more opinions.

  2. DeeJayQueue says:

    With so many new models of car coming out all the time, how can you possibly know what the cost of ownership will be? Every year there are new features, better technology, new and different things that can break. If you’re buying a new car, there’s almost no way to know what will break on it and what won’t, all you can go on is the reputation of the company and the terms of the warranty.

    Now, for used cars, that’s a whole other story… of course on a car that’s a couple years old everyone’s had a chance to shake the bugs out and form a history of common repairs, warranty issues, insurance costs, etc. However, it can be tough to get into a used car for people with bad credit. New cars offer high incentives and easy financing to attract buyers, and often you can get a deal whereas on a used car there is no cash back, you have to deal with tougher banks and it’s harder to get into a quality car from a reputable dealer with shoddy credit.

  3. zolielo says:

    I posted about this before but briefly:

    If you have an Infiniti, Acura, or Lexus the same part for your car bought from Nissan, Honda, or Toyota can be a cost savings. I would go with OEM parts but for additional savings try aftermarket (tuner parts are sometime cheaper), OE, or generic.

    Find a forum for your manufacture, car, and engine if applicable. The people on the forum will often have inside tips on where to by parts at a direct discount, provide the opportunity to enter into group buys on parts, and DIY low cost repairs.

    Buy a car that is common for that will add in economies of scale in production of parts and longevity in available parts for years to come. If you want a car that is not that common try to see if many of its parts care from the manufacturer’s part bin i.e. one engine that is in many models.

    Take a class in basic auto repair.

    Keep a log with what has been done, when it needs to be done again, et cetera. I prefer an excel sheet for I can generate graphs of daily cost, mpg, and whatnot.

  4. zolielo says:

    P.S. Often on forums one can get a fair idea of the cost of ownership of future autos. How much an Infiniti G37 will cost should be more but comparable to the cost of ownership of a G35. Without fail there is also someone on a good car forum that will know cost of ownership taking into account forum tipped part deals.

  5. zolielo says:

    I would not buy a new car unless it is a hooner (hopped up car, ref. jalopnik) for those quick cars are often beat on by teen or young orders. STI, EVO, 350Z, et cetera.

    A used car generally is the way to go. However, be careful of cars that were high end but have dropped in price significantly. For example the W12 VW Phaeton was a $100K car but over a few short years is now found for around $40 to $50K. The problem with cost of ownership is that many of the parts are unique or limited to other high end cars, which generally means there is no low cost venue for parts other than used (which is mostly a last ditch repair option).

    A car in which parts are common will surely lower cost of ownership…

  6. zolielo says:

    One more, to lower the cost of gas over time. Think about tuning your car for performance and thereby fuel economy. If you increase your car’s power to weight ratio with simple tuning add ons i.e. underdrive pulleys, cold air intake, headers, exhaust, and the like; but drive in the same manner there should be higher mpg.

    Tuning your car is serious work. Please consider what you are doing, before doing it. Forums will help in providing information on how to tune.

  7. ColinColin says:

    Test for ben. Please ignore.

  8. zolielo says:

    I have to proof read, sorry fellows.

  9. JohnMc says:

    Want to figure the TCO for a car? Here’s my checklist:

    – Purchase price.
    – mpg highway and city and a % split based on my driving pattern.
    – Total miles I usually average a year.
    – Expected cost of gas.
    – Insurance costs.
    – Expected depreciation rates.

    Work in all into a spreadsheet. You will be surprised sometimes. Buying used is a good move. Looking at the NADA guides cars can lose 10-20% of their value in their first 12mo of ownership. Let somebody else take the hit. Parts are the other item. And imports may not cost any more than domestic as the ‘In USA’ content for most domestic cars is in the 50-60% range now. What is more critical is fleet size. An old Chrysler K-car chassis will have cheaper parts that a VW Caborlet. Millions of the ‘K’ series were built so the OEM’s still make parts cheap 20years later.

    Fuel costs might not be as critial as some folks think even if the stuff would be going for $4/gal. Paying a premium for that Prius after you factor in the new $8k battery pack in year 3 of ownership just may not beat the TCO for a Ford Crown Victoria that only get 17mpg in the city. But you won’t trade that Crown Vic in too soon if you keep it up. Police departments across the country use that model for cruisers and routinely get 200-250k out of them. And the parts are cheaper than those for the Prius.

  10. dragonflight says:

    Would also like to mention that if you have an extended warranty, it CAN be honored at the mechanic of your choice, just have the mechanic call up and authorize the cost. I did this recently and got my shop to give me some aftermarket brand name shocks instead of Toyota OEM, and was still cheaper (not to mention they did it in 20minutes, and let me in the garage to see the process!)

  11. kalikidtx says:

    well i would seriously think about how long you want to own a car, if you are a long-hauler, meaning you keep your cars until the wheels fall off and so on, i would seriously look into a manufacturers extended warranty. this is a product that is negiotable (except in Florida), and when you compare that initial cost to the potential repair costs, usually always worth the money….if you are that type of buyer, if you lease or buy and trade every few years stay far away from this type of product….

  12. zolielo says:

    @JohnMc: How I formulate is have separate categories: Total Cost and the derivative Cost of Ownership [current cost minus initial price]. From there I figure: Daily cost of ownership, Average Cost of Ownership per mile, and Average Total Cost per mile.


    Also in general insurance should play into the consideration of which car to own. If I remember correctly an Evo is the highest none exotic four door to insure, for example.

  13. TechnoDestructo says:


    A lot of people criticize parts-binning, but Toyota acts like it’s their mission in life in Japan (less so in North America). It’s resulted in one of the best cars ever (the Miata)…Everything that doesn’t give the car it’s shape or isn’t dependent upon that shape ought to be shared or interchangable with other vehicles, IMO.

  14. AskCars says:

    not to spam but we break this out over five years for every model. When you research a car on just click “five year ownership costs”
    looks like this

    Not trying to spam but there are a lot of tools out there and not just one automotive research site ;)

  15. danio3834 says:

    JohnMc :


  16. kimsama says:

    Dude in the linked story got taken on the “powersteering fluid service” [sic]. That’s such a racket — power steering fluid can last for decades, unless your power steering pump goes bad and gets garbage in the power steering system.

    I guess the moral is, the cost of your car over its lifetime is inversely proportional to how much your know about which maintenance your car actually needs (and not what they want you to get so they can charge you an extra $100 here and there).

  17. MeOhMy says:

    That article is goofy.

    How does the ownership graph for 2007 vans tie in to his van with 90000 miles which is obviously a few years old if not 10 years old.

    What’s the difference between “unscheduled maintenance” and a “repair” ?

    Also, if your car is paid off, consider the cost of your car payment vs. the cost of repairs. I had a very low payment but even then, I’d need a couple of MAJOR repairs to outweigh the annual cost of my payments before the car was paid off.

    As for extended warranties, why not put the warranty cost into your own interest bearing account and draw from that for repairs?

  18. MattRaff says:

    Did anyone notice that the gentleman paid $125 for sparkplugs?

    How do you factor foolishness of the owner or crooked maintenance shops into the equation?

  19. drewheyman says:

    Extended Warranties are cash cows for the companies that sell them. Do not get an extended warranty if you are concerned about lowering the cost of ownership of your car.

  20. ArtlessDodger says:

    One problem with the “total cost of ownership” on this website is that for the price of a car, it automatically selects options for you in calculating the price of the car. For example, my car is a manual transmission, and they’ve calculated all features (price, gas mileage, etc) assuming an automatic transmission. To make this website feature more correct, you should be able to select your car’s options.

  21. mac-phisto says:

    some tips i’ve picked up along the way:
    1) don’t buy an audi.
    2) car models don’t change terribly from year to year, so you can often compare a new model to its predecessors in terms of maintenance issues, depreciation, & demand.
    3) don’t buy a first-run of a model – they tend to depreciate more & have more repair issues/recalls.
    4) make sure your mechanic can fix it – to this day, a lot of mechanics will not touch a v-tech. i know a few ppl who have had trouble getting repairs done to their w-8 vw golfs. same goes for the f-series turbo diesel ford trucks. generally, new drivetrain technology means you’re stuck going to the dealer for repairs for awhile. when you have a mechanic friend who does the work for you dirt cheap, this increases TCO considerably.

  22. TechnoDestructo says:


    While making sure you can get service is important (and making sure of the ease of service…transversely mounted V-engines tend to complicate things, for example)…

    1. A Honda isn’t often (possibly ever) going to need its valvetrain serviced.

    2. If a mechanic isn’t willing to deal with variable valve timing these days, he’d better be about to retire, because it’s showing up in everything.

    Oh, and there’s no such thing as a W8 Golf, not stock anyway. But the VR6s and W8 Passats are supposed to be a bitch to work on.

  23. mac-phisto says:

    @TechnoDestructo: maybe it is a passat. coulda sworn he had a golf. no matter – good catch!

  24. mac-phisto says:

    @TechnoDestructo: & i miss my 93 honda accord. 5-spd, 35-38 mpg, went to the junkyard with 289,000 hard-driven miles on it. stupid p/u truck stopped short. went everywhere on a/s toyos (never bought snows, never got stuck). only ever had 3 major repairs (timing belt @ 120,000, major suspension work @ ~180,000, all belts/hoses/gaskets @ 240,000). would’ve been 4, but i did the blower motor myself – what a pita that was. never even put a clutch in that car. :*-(

  25. @MattRaff: Did anyone notice that the gentleman paid $125 for sparkplugs?

    Most new vehicles now come with Platinum-tipped spark plugs that last 60k or 100k miles; at $6.00-$12.00 each (or more for performance-tuned engines), they add up quickly. Contrast with traditional spark plugs, which cost $3-$8.00 each and last 30k miles. It’s hard to find good plugs cheaply, even if you do your own maintenance….which brings me to my next point.

    You can save a lot of money doing your own maintenance, but this step requires education, the right tools, and initiative. Even so, some manufacturers place roadblocks in the way of modern shadetree mechanics; look for a good owner’s forum, search for previous owners’ experiences, share your ideas, and do research before you do any work.

  26. shdwsclan says:

    Wow, these prices are TERRIBLE.

    90,000 Mile Service $399.95?
    Its that how much it really costs to drain the transmission fuild and replace it with a $35 of fresh fluid ???

    Replaced timing belt, water pump and accessory drive belts $1006.56
    Is that really how much it costs to replace a $50 pump and belts that have a LIFETIME warranty?

    During service, found side engine mount cracked. Replaced side engine mount. $131.45
    This, is not really a DIY, so yeah….unless you have a crane to remove the engine, go to a mechanic…

    Recommended replacement of spark plugs. $125.70 ?
    Terrible, 6 platinum plugs at $2 each….$12..
    Man, 125.70….that must be the cost to replace the sparkplugs in a german WW1 sub….

    Replaced front brake pads and resurfaced front brake rotors. $249.95 ?
    Rotors and brakes…around $150….

    Performed powersteering fluid service. $89.95 ?
    89.95 to pour a $15 jug into the radiator……

    Hazardous waste $5.00?
    Murrays auto takes it for 0.00…..

    Parts discount of 10%. What’s this, goodwill?
    Yea really, you should see what the part really cost….near nothing…

  27. zolielo says:

    @TechnoDestructo: A Miata is a great car, bit small for me, but for the money they should be on many people’s short list.