When your car's check engine light flicks on, the first thing that pops into your head is probably "how much is this going to cost me?" But new data show that for newer cars about half the time the problem is often as simple as a loose gas cap.
That doesn't mean you should ignore the warning light, however. Common check engine repairs can range from a $15 gas cap replacement to a $1,100 catalytic converter replacement and everything else in between. The most common repair across makes, models and years is oxygen sensor replacement, whose average cost is around $250, according to the annual CarMD.com Vehicle Health Index, released Tuesday.
Repair costs around the country remained just about flat over 2015, with a 1.5% increase in parts costs offset by a modest 4% reduction in labor costs, CarMD.com Corp. says. (The firm gets its data from car computer readings — i.e., OBD2 codes — submitted by repair facilities; for the 2015 study, CarMD examined 1,019,904 repairs.)
Overall, the average repair cost in 2015 was $387.31 ($155.15 in labor, $232.16 in parts). That's 8% less than the 10-year high of $422 in 2006. One big takeaway from the data: If you have a new car and the check engine light goes on, check your gas cap.
"The most common reason the check engine light comes on in a brand-new model year 2016 vehicle is due to a minor loose gas cap problem, accounting for 46% of check engine incidents on new vehicles last year," the report said.
Another lesson: Mother Nature has a lot to say about car repair costs. "Vehicle owners in the Northeast saw the largest drop in average repair costs, which were down 6.5% from $418 in 2014 to $391 in 2015 due in part to the mild El Niño weather pattern," the report said.
That's the good news. The bad news is perhaps self-evident: The average cost to repair 2006 cars was $399, double the average repair cost of 2016 models (whose repairs were usually covered by warranty). Worse still, the second-most common repair involved those pricey catalytic converters. Rounding out the top five were replacements for the "ignition coil and spark plug" ($390), gas cap replacements and checks and thermostat replacements ($210). New to the top 10 most common repairs were evaporative emissions purge control or solenoid replacements, which both cost just less than $200.
"One of the best ways to minimize cost of ownership and help reduce unforeseen car repairs is to follow a regular maintenance program and take care of small problems as soon as you're aware of them, particularly as vehicles age," said David Rich, CarMD's technical director. A simple spark plug failure can snowball from a $50 part into a $400 repair, the firm said.
"Over the years, we have observed that climate and weather patterns has some impact on type and frequency of repairs," Brocoff said. During 2013, when the Polar Vortex hit, car repair costs were up 6% across the U.S. and 9% in the hard-hit Midwest and Northeast. Battery, transmission and thermostat repairs shot up. Also, spark plugs were the fourth-most common reason for check engine light issues.
"This past 2015 calendar year, during which the U.S. experienced an El Niño weather pattern, spark plugs were only the eighth-most common reason for check engine light issues," she said. "Battery replacements are not listed on the 10 most common repairs this year."
Take a look at the top 10 car repairs of 2015:
Replacing an oxygen sensor – $249
Replacing a catalytic converter – $1,153
Replacing ignition coil(s) and spark plug(s) – $390
Tightening or replacing a fuel cap – $15
Thermostat replacement – $210
Replacing ignition coil(s) – $236
Mass air flow sensor replacement – $382
Replacing spark plug wire(s) and spark plug(s) – $331
Replacing evaporative emissions (EVAP) purge control valve – $168
Replacing evaporate emissions (EVAP) purging solenoid – $184
For those who lose sleep over repair bills, owning a car may not be the best option. But if you're eyeing a lease, you still need to make sure your credit score is up in good shape, lest you get turned away. You can view your two free credit scores, updated monthly, on Credit.com.
More from Credit.com