“Many Americans rely on their cars for their livelihood, and losing access to them could be financially devastating.”

Margaret McCormick’s 2001 Toyota Celica has been sitting in the parking lot of her condo complex for the past four months.  She can’t afford to fix the flat tire and broken transmission.


“To fix it, I need $1,000, but I just don’t have it,” says McCormick, of New Castle, Del., who has been out of work for two years.

McCormick is among a growing number of Americans struggling to keep their cars on the road, as job losses and gas at just under $4 a gallon take huge bites out of their wallets, a new AAA survey shows.

“Many Americans rely on their cars for their livelihood, and losing access to them could be financially devastating,” says Jim Lardear, director of public and government affairs for AAA Mid-Atlantic.

The AAA survey found:

More than half of American drivers — 54% — said they don’t want the financial burden of a new car, so they’re keeping their older ones running.

One in four drivers said they have neglected repairs and maintenance on their vehicles in the past year because of the slow economy, increasing the likelihood that they’ll face a major, costly repair.

Yet 28% of drivers could not afford a $2,000 repair bill, while 18% could not pay a $1,000 tab.

“People who used to be religious 3,000-mile oil changers are now 5,000-mile oil changers,” says Phillip Weir, owner of Greenhill Auto Service in Wilmington, Del. “Those who were 5,000-mile changes are now 7-, 8- or 9,000-mile changers.”

Jiffy Lube, the nation’s largest quick-lube chain, has been moving away from the theory that oil should be changed every 3,000 miles. It has begun using customer driving habits and the recommendations from their car’s owner’s manual to determine need.

Jim Wilkinson, owner of Jim’s Auto Service in Lake City, Fla., says many customers fix only what’s necessary and put off routine maintenance.

“They bring in a car for an oil change, and we find three things that it needs, and the customer says, ‘What do I have to fix and what can I let go for a while?'” Wilkinson says.

That can cost more money in the long run, mechanics say.

Ty Hearne, owner of Dun Rite Auto Clinic in Newport, Del., says one customer delayed replacing the timing belt on his 2005 Kia Spectra, which would have cost a few hundred dollars. The belt broke, causing major engine damage, and now the customer can’t afford the few thousand dollars for the repairs.

“Lack of money just cost him more money,” Hearne said.

The economy also has changed how customers decide when the cost of repairs outweighs the cost of a new car.

“Back in the day, you’d see cars that need a thousand dollars worth of work, and the owner says, ‘Oh, that car isn’t worth fixing; I’ll get a new one,’ ” Hearne said. “I don’t hear that too much these days.”

When it’s time to pay a repair bill, mechanics say, they can see their customers’ pain.

“You see a lot of, ‘Let’s try this credit card,'” said Chuck Halpern, owner of Columbia Auto Repair in St. Louis, who saw one customer spread a $450 repair bill over four cards.

Photo credit: enigma

Via USA Today