High gas costs have gotten plenty of press in recent years. But that's not the only expense of owning a car. AAA estimates that a vehicle's depreciation costs American car owners $3,571 per year, up less than 1 percent from 2012. That depreciation may not matter as much if you're planning to drive the car until the wheels fall off, but global market intelligence firm R.L. Polk & Co. found that most Americans hold onto new vehicles they purchase for almost six years and used vehicles for about four years.
Here's a look at six things you may be doing that could lower your car's value if you decide to resell or trade it.
1. Skipping regular maintenance. Think the dealer won't notice if you skip oil changes or other maintenance? Not so fast. A good technician can look at a car and tell if you haven't done maintenance, says Lauren Fix, host of Time Warner Cable's Car Coach segments and author of "Lauren Fix's Guide To Loving Your Car." "They have testers so they can test all the fluids like coolants, break fluid and engine oil," she says. "They can tell if the fluids are worn out." According to Fix, some leasing companies charge lessees for unperformed maintenance. Whether you lease or own, keep receipts for any auto work so that you can prove when and where it was performed.
Eric Lyman, vice president of editorial for auto analytics company ALG and a senior analyst at car information website TrueCar.com, suggests having your vehicle serviced at the dealership where you plan to trade it in. "There's a general thought among consumers that the dealership is going to be more expensive, but if the vehicle is under warranty, some auto makers are providing free maintenance," he says. This approach can also help show your loyalty to the dealer, which could pay off when it's time for a trade in.
[See: 10 Unexpected Costs of Driving.]
2. Driving up the mileage. High mileage may be unavoidable if you drive your car long distances for work, but keep this in mind if you're hoping to get top dollar for your car in the future. "You need to drive your car, but just be mindful of how many miles you put on it," Lyman says. In the past, the industry has typically offered lessees between 12,000 and 15,000 miles per year (which could also serve as a mileage benchmark for owners of that car brand), but some leases now offer as little as 10,000 miles per year. If you're driving significantly more than 10,000 to 15,000 miles per year - especially if the high mileage pushes the vehicle out of the manufacturer's warranty - that could lower the car's value.
Lyman says he's seen some drivers, particularly those on a low-mileage lease, rent a car when they travel, even if they aren't flying. "They rent a car with unlimited miles and drive that to preserve their car's mileage," he says. This also enables you to rent a car that fits your needs for the trip, whether that means fuel-efficiency, extra space for luggage or camping gear, or the ability to maneuver through narrow city streets.
3. Making non-standard modifications. Modifying your car may give you a sense of pride in ownership, but it won't necessarily appeal to the next owner. "If you've got a small SUV and you install speakers so large that it occupies the cargo space of the utility, chances are the next buyer is not going to place a premium on that and will likely require a discount," says Eric Ibara, director of residual value consulting for auto information website Kelley Blue Book.
Depending on your vehicle, modifying the engine may also impact the car's value. "If you have a sports car and you turbo-charge it so you get another 100 horse power, it may not hurt the value," Ibara says. "But if it's just an ordinary sedan like a Camry and you tamper with the engine, the dealer will likely know the car is out of warranty. Installing anything that will void the manufacturer's warranty is not a good idea." On the other hand, if your car lacks features that are expected in that model - for instance, a high-end luxury vehicle without built-in navigation - the resale value can also be impacted, he adds.
4. Painting the vehicle an unusual color. Painting your car an unusual color could deter potential buyers. "A great example is the Mary Kay cosmetics cars," Lyman says. "I can tell you I wouldn't buy it because it's pink. Stay with a pretty generic color like a silver or white because those tend to be the most popular colors." He adds that people tend to shy away from colors such as yellows and greens.
5. Leaving smells in the car. Cigarette or pet smells often linger and could give the impression you haven't taken the best care of the vehicle. "If you smoke in the car then that smell tends to remain in there so someone who gets into the car will be able to tell," Ibara says. Cigarette butts or stains are also telltale signs of smoking.
If you've used the backseat for transporting pets, try to neutralize the smell and remove any visible pet hair. "If you have pet hair that you just can't get out of those cracks and crevices," Ibara says, "obviously it will take down the price of the vehicle unless the buyer is also a pet owner and is planning to use the backseat as the passenger compartment for their pet."
6. Delaying a car wash. Wash your car regularly to maintain its appearance. "People don't wash their cars, but the truth is our coats take a beating with the summer and the winter," Fix says. "In the upper half of the country, winter brings salt and that will destroy the clear coat." In other areas, acid rain damages the exterior. Fix says she washes her car once a week and waxes it once a month. "If the car looks good that will absolutely improve its value," she says. "It's part of proving that the car is well-maintained."
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