Post Clunker Blues: New Study Shows Car Owners Have Work to Do

With the pyrotechnic end to Cash For Clunkers last night, we are all confronting the reality that whatever car is sitting in our garage is going to be there for a while. A new study released today gives little comfort. It shows that, while 90% of us think we do a great job maintaining our cars, only about a quarter actually make the grade. (See the DriverSide/Kelton survey.) At the same time, another recent study showed that, due to the recession, 82% of all US drivers now plan to keep their cars longer. These surveys show that we lack basic skills to care for our cars just as we are keeping them longer. So, what are we to do?

Gone are the days when dad kept binders of service records, washed his car on weekends, or took it out for a regular tire rotation. It is about as quaint and outdated an image as retirement at 60 or American car companies with growing market share. I can't think of many of my admittedly urban friends nosing through an owner's manual or calendaring automotive service.

In fact, most of us do not proactively manage our cars the way we might other assets like a stock portfolio or a home. Rather, we treat our cars like those 1980's sitcom guys who discover a baby in a basket on their stoop. However, instead of changing diapers, we are learning to change the oil. In fact, only 41% of car owners follow the manufacturer's service schedule (the most basic and important step in maintenance.) Among women, that number is even worse -- 37%! What gives? How have we lost our ability to care for our most important asset (after our home)? Is it that hard?

The truth is that cars are much more complicated, if more durable and reliable, than they used to be. Instead of popping the hood and seeing familiar areas of an engine, most people watch their mechanic attach a computer to an otherwise unrecognizable jumble of mechanical components. And, many of the leasers who were recently flipping cars, sans servicing, every couple years, are now confronting a new timeline which will require, yes, maintenance! The good news is that it is not impossible, or even that hard to keep your car on the road. It just takes a little determination.

Start with the basics. Service the car according to the manufacturer's suggested schedule. Read the owner's manual and look for the recommended intervals for oil changes, tire rotations and other elective service. Put approximate appointment dates in your calendar or use an online service to set car service reminders for yourself. Maintain the interior and exterior so that they do not degrade. Only 31% of people say they get their cars waxed and only 16% get a scratch or ding fixed in a timely fashion. Failure to protect the paint job will jeopardize it and will hurt your car's resale value. (You don't want it looking like something from the opening credits of the Beverly Hillbillies.) On that topic, keep the service records since a car with a complete service history is more valuable.

Make use of online tools as much as possible. Does your car's manufacturer have an owner's website? Sign yourself up for free recall alerts and service reminders at Do you like and trust your mechanic? If not, find another auto mechanic rated and reviewed in your town. If you really don't like yours, review him or her on Yelp so others are forewarned. Whoever you pick, you should consider talking proactively with them about your plans for your car. Tell them how long you hope to own it and ask what you need to do to keep it on the road.

Keep track of your car's value over time. Remember it is an investment. Treat it as such. I often tell people to frequent AutoTrader to see what similar cars are currently selling for. Understand what your residual value is on your car if you lease it and make sure you don't find yourself "underwater." While your car is always depreciating, the rate is somewhat up to you.

If you really had an old gas-guzzling clunker, you have probably unloaded it. If your car is newer, there is good news since it can last a really long time with proper servicing and maintenance. Just be sure you don't become a statistic. In this economy, nobody is going to be retiring at 60 but that doesn't mean we can't re-learn how to care for our cars.