Empathy and the Side of the Road

One of my closest friends is another lifelong lover of cars, although his passion relates more to engineering than to the basic nuts and bolts of cars.  Awhile back, we were driving down the freeway together and we passed someone on the side of the road with the hood up on their car.  I thought about stopping and mentioned it to my friend.  His response was, "They deserve it."  I thought that seemed more than just a little harsh.  Well, this sparked a debate as we continued on down the freeway.  His point of view was that cars give their owners plenty of warning when they're about to fail, and anyone who ignores these warnings deserves what they get.  I must admit when I'm driving in traffic at night I often glance over at the dashboards of other motorists cars, and more often than not they have a warning light on.  Someone in a lab coat designed those lights and warning systems to prevent people from ending up on the side of the road.  Now I don't want you to end up there, hence this blog and it's subsequent suggestions and ideas.  What I'd like to get across to people are a few basic vehicle warning signs that should never be ignored.
One of the biggest warnings you should never ignore is how hot your car is running.  Never, ever, under any circumstances drive your vehicle when it is overheating or about to overheat.  The engine inside most newer cars is made of aluminum.  Heat and aluminum do not get along very well.  If you overheat an aluminum engine the chances are you will warp the head and your head gasket will fail, or worse.  This can mean thousands of dollars in repairs.  If your vehicle begins to overheat, turn the heater inside your car on full blast and pull over as soon as you can.  The heater in your car pulls heat from the engine to warm the cabin, so it may buy you a few precious seconds.  If you notice your car is starting to run hot, get the problem investigated before you end up pulling off on the side of the road with steam billowing out from under your hood.  A $12 thermostat can cause huge problems and make a mess of your engine if you ignore when things get hot.
The check engine light in your car is a source of annoyance for a lot of people.  I have several friends who routinely drive their cars while the check engine light is on.  Now, the check engine light is quite often connected to the emissions system in your vehicle.  If the light goes on while you're driving, it could just mean your car is polluting more than it should.  This doesn't spell impending doom, although you still shouldn't ignore it.  Many automotive parts stores will check the computer in your car for free and tell you what the check engine light means.  They do this hoping you'll buy parts from them when you know what the problem is.  If you choose to ignore the problem after you know what is wrong that's a calculated gamble only you can make.  What you absolutely should not ignore, is when the check engine light begins to flash.  This is the car's way of getting your attention when there's a serious problem.  Ignore a flashing check engine light and you'll almost certainly end up with a giant paperweight on the side of the road.

In my opinion the biggest warning sign your car can present is low oil pressure.  This is usually displayed as a little red light with a picture of an oil can.  If this light comes on while you're driving it means the engine isn't producing enough pressure to properly lubricate it's internal parts.  This is the equivalent of having a heart attack.  Without engine oil, or oil pressure, the engine will definitely fail and leave you stranded.  When the light comes on you should do everything safely in your control to turn that engine off as quickly as possible.  This is where seconds matter as the engine can't survive without oil.  Whether it's leaked out, or burned off completely, an oil pressure warning light should never be ignored.  A good rule of thumb is to check your oil ever time you get gas, or ask the attendant to check it for you.  It's cheap insurance against a catastrophic failure.
Another thing you shouldn't ignore are strange sounds or smells.  At least once a week someone drives past me with a car that sounds like a squealing banshee.  I can't imagine how someone could drive a car like that and ignore the horrible noise being emitted from under the hood.  A $9 loose belt will squeal horribly and annoy you, but when it snaps or just falls off you could have big problems on the side of the road.  Also, if you start smelling something burning, or smell gasoline while you drive please have the problem investigated.  A long time ago I was working at a bank and one of the tellers asked me to look at her vehicle after work because she was smelling gas.  I opened the hood and saw that the o-rings around the fuel injectors had failed and raw gasoline was being pumped onto the exhaust manifold.  The exhaust maniford gets very hot while you're driving so basically she was driving a bomb.  I asked her how long she had smelled gas while driving and she said, "A few months." 
My focus here is not to make you feel bad for not maintaining your car.  I understand money can be tight and if something isn't broken then don't pump money into it.  The exceptions I've listed above do warrant your attention though to make sure you're safe and don't find yourself on a walking tour of our nation's many interstates.

About Your Buddy Craig

Recently a client asked me whether Craigslist was a viable option for purchasing a new car. My answer to her was yes and no. Now that may sound wishy washy, but it's true. Craigslist can prove to be totally perilious when it comes to buying a used car. It can also be a tremendous asset and save you thousands of dollars if you're careful and follow a few basic practices. Let's talk about them.

1. If you can, bring a mechanic along with you. If you're not car saavy, you'll want an expert to look at the car with non -biased eyes. You may have already fallen in love with the color, or options the car has, and may already be subconsiously talking yourself into buying it. If you don't have a friend who has an eye for these things, you can hire a mobile mechanic in your area to join you on the test drive. These mobile mechanics typically charge around $120 for their door to door service. It sounds like a lot if you don't end up buying a car, but take this into consideration. Another friend I have recently used this option and was advised of a $2000 failing turbo on a car he was seriously considering buying. That $120 was money well spent. Some mobile mechanics will even offer a small warranty if you buy the vehicle they sign off on. That's even more insurance when navigating the used car market.

2. Make sure the car has a clean title and is legal. Craigslist is very easy and free for people to post on. This is great because deals are out there, but so are cars people shouldn't buy. If the seller says the title is anything other than clean and in hand, then walk away. There are simply too many cars out there with clean titles to even consider buying a bad one. There is different verbiage for a bad title such as: Branded, marked, theft recovery, flood, totalled and salvaged. If the seller can't show you the clean title when you go to buy the car, that's a major red flag.

3. Know what you're looking at. Before you go to look at a car on Craigslist you should research the blue book value of the vehicle so you know whether the person has priced the car right. I've seen ads where people have asked 150% of blue book because they love their car, and so you should pay accordingly so you can love it too. If you know what the car is worth and how many of them are out there for sale, you'll be in a better position to barter and let the seller know you may walk away.

4. Be mindful of the visuals. Is the car squeaky clean? Has the engine just been pressure washed? If you can't spot a speck of dirt, it may be because someone has spent a great deal of time trying to hide something, like a potential oil leak. Also, was the engine warm when you arrived to look at the car? A warmed up engine can mask major problems. I love to arrive and find a cold engine and a somewhat dirty car. That means the seller uses the car, and isn't trying to visually hide something from you.

5. Be safe. This is the most important tip when shopping on Craigslist whether your a buyer or seller. Never let the other party come to your home or place of business. If something goes wrong with the deal, they may come back to find you. Meet the person at a neutral location in a well lit area, preferably during the daytime. Always write or bring a bill of sale to finalize the deal and try to share as little personal information as possible.

If you follow these tips, you're much more likely to find a great car and be happy with the deal you got yourself.

Is your car cranky this Winter?

A good friend asked me the other day why her car took such a long time to start in the morning. As the Mercury drops lower and lower it takes a punishing toll on our cars. Here are a few answers to questions you might have as you sit in the driveway in gloves hoping it catches:

Now it may be normal for your car to take a little while to start in the morning after sitting out all night in the cold. On average, it should take between 3-5 seconds to before the engine starts. This feels like a long time as your hear your starter cranking but it's normal. If your car takes longer than 5 seconds to start in the cold we may need to address a few things. One thing I routinely see people doing that works against them is pressing on the gas pedal when trying to start the car. All cars built now are fuel injected and certainly computer controlled so when you press the gas pedal you're actually confusing the car's computer which can make it take longer to start. Just don't do it.

So you're not pressing on the gas but she's still cranky? Well, how old is your battery? This is the most critical part of your car during the cold Winter months. It has to maintain power in sometimes very cold conditions and then instantly push that power into the car to start. If your battery is more than a few years old or you don't know how old it is this could be your slow start problem. You can get it checked for free at most auto parts stores and replacements run between $40-90 depending on your car. It's also extremely important that the battery connections are tight and clean of corrosion. A loose batter connection will play havoc with your car. I've seen strange things happen like heaters turn on by themselves or engines that just stall out because the battery connections are loose.

Another thing to think about here is fuel. The engine for your car is most likely in the front, under the hood. Well, the gas tank is in the back under the trunk. When you start your car the fuel pump has to again start bringing fuel the entire length of the car to get it to the engine. Modern fuel systems have check-valves to prevent gas from trickling all the way back into the tank when sitting overnight, but over time these can fail in my experience. If your car takes a long time to start you could have a bad fuel-check valve or even a fuel pump that is starting to fail. A huge contributing factor to killing your fuel pump is running your gas tank down all the way. Gasoline acts as a cooling agent as it goes through the pump. If you run it dry, the pump can overheat quickly and fail. Also, over time crud and sediment collects in the bottom of the gas tank. Run it low and you're literally sucking that through your fuel pump.

The final element working against you here is moisture. If moisture of any kind has found its way into your car's electrical system you'll have issues starting. I know where I live in Oregon, cold dark morning almost always come with a layer of moisture or just all out rain. Sometimes items like your distributor cap can crack slightly over time, which allows moisture inside. This will cause a hard or no-start condition because you can't get the electrical spark requires to start the engine.

Ten things you can do right now to improve your gas mileage

The price of gas these days is definitely a problem for a lot of people. As we transition to new and different technologies we still are left with decades of dependency on gasoline. Here are 10 easy things you can do right now to improve your gas mileage no matter what you drive:

10. Empty your trunk and clean out your backseat
Chances are you're carrying around items in your car that you don't need. It's amazing how quickly it adds up and all the sudden you're hauling around the equivalent of 2 extra people all the time. You're going to pay for that at the pump.

9. Don't waste money on premium fuel
If your car doesn't require premium fuel, you'll have zero benefit by paying the extra money for it. The only time you would need to put premium in your car is if your engine made a pinging sound like marbles in a jar. This is pre-ignition and means you need the higher octane fuel.

8. Drive your car
A lot of people will jump in their car and drive for less than 10 minutes to get to work or run errands. If you never have your engine running for more than 10 minutes at a time you're paying the price in fuel mileage. Modern cars needs to be hot to be working at maximum efficiency. Overtime carbon buildup can hamper gas mileage even more if the engine never gets hot enough to run the way it's suppose to.

7. Use defrost with caution
Every time you run your defroster you're using your air conditioning, if your car is so equipped. The air conditioning compressor dehumidifies the air and defrosts the car faster. This is great if needed but if it's not rainy out don't have the heater dial set to defrost or its the same as running the air conditioning in the summertime.

6. Keep it tuned up
This is easier than you think. The parts involved for a basic tune up are usually under $50. You can usually find specials or shops that will do tune ups with coupons sometimes down to $70. Just changing your spark plugs and spark plug wires can have an amazing effect on gas mileage. If you can't remember the last time they were changed, invest the small amount of money. If you drive your car a decent amount you'll pay yourself back in only a handful of fill ups.

5. Avoid the drive thru
If you're going to be sitting in the drive-thru for more than 2 minutes, park and go inside. Modern engines are more efficient so turning them off for the time it takes to buy food will make a noticeable overall difference in your gas mileage. Even the most efficient engine is wasting fuel at idle.

4. Skip the warm up
Now I'm definitely not saying you should jump in and go from a dead cold, but you don't need to let your car run for a long time. The best thing is to start driving it, albeit don't race the engine hard. The car will warm up faster if it is driven which will mean it's getting the best mileage as soon as possible.

3. Don't buy cheap gas
Even though the cost is less up front, lower price gas may have quality issues. Now the law requires gas be held to certain standards but from my experience lower priced gas seems to burn faster requiring more fill ups. On the average, you're not really saving much and these places are usually popular requiring you to sometimes wait in line, idling for long periods of time. Go with a good quality gas and over the long term your mileage will be better and steadier.

2. Check your tire pressure
The tires will have a max psi rating stamped on the sidewall. This is the rating for the tire, not the car attached to it. If you open your driver side front door there will be a sticker on the door jamb. It will have a rating in psi for both the front and rear of your car. That's where you should set the pressure. A lot of people will tell you that it's better to go all the way up the max rating on the tire. The more inflated the tire is, the less of it touches the road which means less drag. This does mean better mileage however the compromise is the handling of your car. Less tire contact with the road can be dangerous, especially in wet weather.

1. Coast. Coast. Coast
Make a game of it. You don't have to own a fancy hybrid or have an onboard computer to achieve better mileage. When you come up to a light and you can see it's red make a game out of trying to not touch the brake pedal. It can be tricky but you'll save every time you play.

Loss/Leader cars and why you want one

In 1998 I purchased a Nissan Altima for $5,190 off sticker price without haggling one bit because it was a Loss/Leader car. If you're in the market for a brand new car then you should know about the system that dealerships use to market and sell their inventory. Here's the scenario: Your dealership sales manager steps out and looks at his lot of 50 brand new cars of the same model. The colors and trim levels are different but they're the same car. This is a metaphorical scenario here but essentially the sale manager points at 3-5 cars that are identical except for color. These will be the loss/leader cars. The dealership will run an advertisement in your local newspaper promoting this car. If you check they're typically at the beginning of the weekend or the begining of the week depending on where you live. This is where that all important fine print comes in. The price for the ad is usually dramatically lower than the cost of the actual car. The price will be listed in huge colorful print with the fine print reading "3 at this price" with the actual stock numbers listed in the ad. There is no haggling. That's not the price for that make and model. It's the price for those 3 specific cars. There's a subtle but huge difference. The factory and the dealership are willing to sell these 3-5 cars at an actual loss because the ad that generates interest will result in selling 20-25 cars at higher prices. The savvy shopper who knows what they want can pounce on this scenario. You have to be quick though. In my case I was buying a 1998 Nissan Altima GXE with power everything. The sticker on this car was $18678. The ad that was run in my local paper was for 5 Altimas for $13488. I got to the dealership 30 minutes after it opened and I only had 3 left to choose from. You might not get the hottest colors and you definitely won't have alternative choices but if you've decided on the car you want you can save a lot of money by just knowing how this works. If you miss a loss/leader sale chances are there will be another one the next week. I knew about the Altima loss/leader because I had missed it the week before and lucked out when the same ad ran the following Monday.

Why you should care about your timing belt

You're at your mechanic and he or she comes to you with a laundry list of items they say are "critical" to the life of the car. You maybe came in for an oil change or something relatively simple. Some of these items are going to be upsells.....items that certainly would benefit your car but aren't necessarily needed right now. One item that does not fall into this category is your timing belt, or cam belt. Yep, if you've got a car with 4 wheels there's probably an 80% chance your car uses a timing belt, and it's not the one you think it is. When and if you've ever opened your hood you might have seen a belt in the front or side of the engine. That's not your timing belt. Your timing belt is not viewable because its typically under lots and lots of plastic dust and oil shields. That's why servicing it can be expensive. Lots of pieces have to come off to get to the belt so it can be an involved process. Your competent mechanic can have it knocked out in 4-6 hours without a problem.

So, why should you care you ask? Well, your timing belt controls how the valves in your engine operate in relation to how the rest of the engine is moving internally. Sometimes as pieces move inside the engine they can briefly take up the same space as they cycle in and out or up and down. If your timing belt were to break these very metal pieces could ram into each other which, trust me, you do not want happening. You have no warning when this happens. The belt will literally snap and you will probably hear the sound of metal on metal. Even if you don't hear anything the engine will stop running and it will not re-start. If this happens expect to pay between $1,100-2,500 to replace valves that got bent or pistons that broke when they rammed together. To put it into perspective, it would generally be easier and cheaper to replace the entire engine rather than fix this, depending on how much a replacement engine ran you.

Now that you're freaked out about all this let me give you a few pieces of helpful information. The engine in the scenario I described above is called an "Interference engine." Not all engines are interference engines. It depends greatly on what type of car you have. If your car does not have an interference engine if/when the timing belt ever breaks the engine simply turns off and theoretically no actual damage is done. If you're curious you can certainly email me and I'll research your make and model to find out which type you have. Also, above I said you've got about an 80% chance of having a timing belt. Well, the other 20% could come in the form of a timing chain or actual gears turning gears. These systems are heavier and often take up more space. You'll find timing chains in a lot of trucks and some SUVs. The plus of a chain is before they break they typically start making a lot of noise and sound like a clattering chain. They can also last a very long time making a lot of noise before they actually break. The noise comes from the chain stretching out over time making more contact than it should. This is your warning sign that it's time to replace it.

So how much can you expect to pay for this timing belt you can't see that you didn't know you had? Well that's going to vary a great deal again on what type of car you drive. Email me and I can research some typical costs for your type of car. Large engines that use timing belts seem to cost a little more in my experience. The belt itself only costs between $25-90 but the labor involved is what you're paying for. Also, here's another item to be prepared for. Your timing belt has to be tight. There's a piece in your engine called the tensioner that....you guessed it, holds tension on the belt. Well, this little guy has been putting pressure on the belt ever since the engine was put together the very 1st time. They wear out. You've got about a 60% of having to change the tensioner when you change the timing belt. They range in price from around $40-150 depending on your car. It's worth it. If you cut corners here and just replace the belt the tensioner could fail causing the very damage you're paying to prevent. So for a very rough estimate here you can expect around $300-700. Yikes!!! That's a lot of money.....believe me, I know. I've owned 29 cars and most of them came with no history. Well I worry about this kind of thing so I've had timing belts changed or changed them myself in more instances than I'd care to mention.

The upside to this whole thing is you don't have to worry about this very often. Most cars call for the timing belt to be replaced every 60,000 miles. The good news, and why I have the all important disclaimer at the bottom, is the belts are usually good to 90,000 miles. Now that does not mean you can push it and feel confident. I would follow your recommended manufacturer's specs for your car. Just know that's it's not an item to ignore. Yes, I know all about turning up the radio to make the bad noise go away. You won't hear this one and it'll leave you stranded and cash strapped for sure.