April 28, 2011

All-Star Panel: Married Couples Answer Your Questions

Thanks to our All-Star Married Panel for their answers to this month's question! I have been thoroughly interested in the discussion and am grateful for the helpful advice. Find the other answers to this month's question here. And please email questions for our panel anytime to hsimkins@gw.edu!

QUESTION from a reader:

Cars have always been an overwhelming subject for me and have remained firmly rooted in a mysterious and masculine domain, but I feel the need to conquer this subject and become more self-sufficient where it concerns locomotive transportation.

I was talking to a lady today while getting my oil changed and she recommended foreign cars because you can do small regular maintenance yourself, due to the simplicity of design. She recommended Nissan, Toyota, and Honda. I also like Subaru.

So here's the advice I'm seeking: how to get rid of a car you still owe on when you want to downgrade not upgrade, how to shop for a used car and recommendations on the least expensive and easiest car to repair/do maintenance on.

ANSWERS from our panel:

Joel and Marie are two of our favorite people. They have an incredible little family and recently moved to Oregon.

We have been asking similar questions about cars. We would love to fix our own vehicles. Joel has a good basic understanding of basic upkeep and how to talk to a mechanic, but when the work needs to be done we do not know what to do with the computerized, fancy functions of contemporary cars. Here is what we're trying:

-Buying cars that last a long time with few problems. We have a 2001 Toyota Corolla that has over 150,000 miles on it. Several years ago I heard that this was the most affordable car to give good gas mileage and last a long time with little maintenance, so I bought on. We have had no real problems with it -- knock on plastic and metal.

-We decided that rather than have a minivan we would get a Volkswagon bus. I owned one when I was single for a short time and learned that it really isn't as complicated as most vehicles, though you do have to do your research. We are planning to purchase one we found locally for $800. Over time we hope to fix it up and get it running on alternative fuel. We think this will be interesting, education, and a good vehicle for making memories.

-We want to build and live in more self-sustained, walkable communities.

Good luck!

Rob and Hannah are a super fun couple living in Washington DC.

This is a tough question--we hope that whatever advice we have can help.

Achieving a car-free lifestyle: This is a great idea that we have discussed a lot over the last few months. Living in a city with so many great public transportation options as well as other inexpensive services, such as Pea Pod for groceries, Zip Car for short rentals, and the capital Bike share program, it simply isn't true to think that one needs a car to live well in an urban environment. That said, we strongly recommend experimenting with periodic "car fasts" prior to making a car-free commitment. Try to go 3-5 weeks without driving to force yourself to see just how difficult your normal routine would be without your car. Then think about all of the new inconveniences you would experience without your vehicle and compare them to the monthly cost of maintaining your car--is it worth it? In our case, it probably would make sense for us to get rid of our car, although we are holding onto it for when we start having kids.

Downgrading: We are strong proponents of downgrading cars whenever possible or necessary. Owning a simpler/cheaper/smaller car is all about living within one's means. For example, there is no need at all for someone to own a truck if you don't regularly haul things. This is a great idea and we wish you luck! Also, think about the AWD feature you love--how often do you experience heavy snow on the road? Often enough to justify the added expense of financing a more pricey model?

Do-it-yourself Maintenance: In our opinion, all cars these days are complicated--especially compact cars with crowded parts under the hood. As more and more features are automated/computer based, it seems to me that there are fewer and fewer repairs/procedures that can be done by the owner alone. These are limited, in our experience, to changing oil and fluids, rotating wheels, replacing brake pads (surprisingly easy), and other simple parts/filters. Aside from that, it is best to either talk to a mechanic or to call a car savvy friend for advice before getting work done. It took us a long time to realize it is OK to bring your car to more than one mechanic for a diagnostic test and price quote before finally settling on a solution and having work done. We realize that this can be very tedious, but it can also lead to hundreds of dollars in savings for otherwise expensive and potentially unnecessary repairs.

Car Brands: We would recommend talking to more than one mechanic about specific car models before making a purchase. Subarus, for example, are excellent cars, but they can be very expensive to repair because they have expensive and unique parts, especially compared to Honda, Toyota, Hyundai, etc.

Good luck with your car decisions!

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