Friday, November 7, 2008

Buying a Car: Do Your Research - Know the Product

A new car is second only to a home as the most expensive purchase many consumers make. The average price for a car in America is approximately $24,500. That’s why it is so important to know how to make a smart deal.

Think about what car model or options you want and how much you are willing to spend. Shop around! You’ll be less likely to feel pressured into making a hasty or expensive decision that you might later regret. Can you afford it? Just as a home can be foreclosed on for default, a car can be repossessed if the payments are not made according to the terms of the contract.

Consider the following suggestions:

Do Your Research - Know the Product

  • Plan to negotiate on the price. Compare models and prices in ads and on-line car buying services.
  • New or used?
  • Check articles from Consumer’s Report to find out what cars are lemons.

Factors to Consider

  • What is the value of the car you want to buy?
  • Will the car have a good resale value?
  • Consider ordering your new car if you don’t see what you want on the dealer’s lot.

The Dollar Factor & Terms to Know
  • The invoice price is the manufactures initial charge to the dealer. This is usually higher than the dealers final cost because dealers receive rebates, allowances, discounts and incentive awards.
  • The base cost is the cost of the car without options, but includes standard equipment and factory warranty.
  • The monroney sticker price (MSRP) shows the base price, the manufacturer’s installed options with the manufacturer’s suggested retail price, the manufacturer’s transportation charge and the mileage.

  • The dealer sticker price is the MSRP plus the suggested retail price of dealer installed options.

  • You must also determine how much you can afford to spend. Your payment should not exceed 20% of your net income.

The Purchase & Financing

  • If you decide to finance your car, be aware that the financing obtained by the dealer may not always be the best you can get. Contact lenders directly and compare financing offers.
  • The purchase involves four separate transaction: Negotiating the cost, the cost of financing, your trade-in (a sale not part of the purchase), and the cost of insurance.
  • You control the sale: never allow a sales person to establish financing based on what you can afford to pay a month; negotiate based on the APR.
  • Several factors influence the APR – credit history, current finance rates, competition, and market conditions.
  • To qualify for special rates you may need to put down a larger down payment.
  • Before you sign the contract consider the terms of the financing and evaluate whether it’s affordable. READ the contract! I cannot emphasis this enough!

  • Liability is required by law; it covers damage to the other person’s vehicle from an accident.
  • Collision and comprehension, covers your car – the lender requires this protection as long as you are paying for your car.

The Law & You

  • Financing Pending: after 3 working days the deal is dead if financing you agreed to is not approved.
  • The 3 Day Cooling Off Rule does not apply to auto sales. The deal is sealed when you sign.

What You Should Know About a Co-Signer

A co-signer assumes equal responsibility for the contract, and the account history will be reflected on the co-signers credit report. Use caution if asked to co-sign for someone even a family member! Many co-signers are stuck paying for the car, so be sure you can afford to do so before agreeing to co-sign on someone’s vehicle.

Vehicle Repossession

In the same way a mortgage lender can foreclose on a home if the payment is in default, so can an auto lender take (repossess) the vehicle. The lender holds important rights over the vehicle until you make the very last payment on your loan obligation.

In many states, your creditor has legal authority to seize your car as soon as you default on your loan. Because state laws differ, read your contract to find out what constitutes a default. In some states, failure to make one payment or meet your other contractual responsibilities are considered defaults. If you make any changes with your lender it’s best to get it in writing.
Once your car has been repossessed, your creditor may decide to keep the car as compensation for your debt. Or sell it at public auction. In most cases you may be entitled to buy back the vehicle by paying the full amount you owe plus expenses connected with the repossession, such as storage. If the car is sold for less than the loan amount you will be responsible for paying the deficiency amount. Depending on your state’s law and other factors, if you are sued for a deficiency judgment, you should be notified of the date of the court hearing. This may be your only opportunity to present any legal defense. An attorney will be able to tell you if you have
any grounds to contest the deficiency judgment. Buying a car doesn’t have to be a hassle. Just remember to plan your purchase! Calculate the cost, the options, and don’t forget insurance! The choices are yours!

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

How to Buy a Used Car

It's sad but true. Today, the average new car will cost you more than $20,000. But the minute you drive that car off the dealer's lot, depreciation kicks in and your new car becomes a used car, suffering a substantial loss in value (sometimes as much as one-third of its original price in the first year alone).

But you (and your wallet) don't have to get caught in this catch-22. Smart car shoppers know they can save a bundle by buying a used car instead, and there has never been a better time than now.

Today's vehicles are generally more reliable than their predecessors. They last longer and require fewer repairs. That means that you can buy a used car--even one with significant mileage--and still expect years of reliable service.

The current popularity of leasing has also been a boon to used-car buyers. Since most leases run only 2 to 3 years, there is a steady stream of high quality, well-maintained, low-mileage vehicles entering the used-car market.

Of course, getting a good deal on a good used car does require some work. So sit back, buckle up, and let us show you how to find a second-hand cream puff (and how to avoid the lemons).

Determine What You Can Afford

Smart shopping begins long before you take a test drive. Start by setting a budget that you can live with. Few of us can afford to pay cash for a new car, but--depending on the car and your savings account--you may be able to buy a used car outright and avoid finance charges. Whatever the case, figure out exactly what you can afford based on your monthly income and expenses. Remember to factor in registration and license-plate fees, sales tax, and insurance.

Determine the Kind of Car You Need

Next, narrow your choices by determining the type and size of vehicle that best suits your lifestyle. Balance your needs, wants, and wishes. If you currently own a car, how well does its cargo and passenger space meet your needs? Do you haul groceries, people, pooches, or lumber? Is a sedan adequate, or do you really need a minivan, station wagon, sport-utility vehicle, or maybe even a pick-up? Any family or career changes on the horizon?

What about engine size? Does your current car have sufficient power, or do you want more acceleration and/or towing power? What kind of driving do you do--stop-and-go in the city, cruising on the highway, or four-wheeling off the beaten path?

How about weather conditions? Are you frequently facing snow-covered or icy roads? (If so, you'll want to avoid rear-wheel drive. Fortunately, most cars today are front-wheel drive, but four-wheel or all-wheel drive may be even better for your specific needs.)

What about options? These days, you have a lot to choose from: power windows, power door locks, anti-lock brakes, air bags, CD players, air conditioning, sunroofs, etc. Which options do you want or need, and which can you live without? (Remember, more options means more things that can break.)

And finally, how long do you think you will keep the vehicle? (The longer you intend to own the vehicle, the lower mileage it should have when you purchase it.)

Choose a Car

Once you've determined your budget and needs, it's time to identify specific cars that fit the bill. Consumer Reports Buying Guide and the annual auto edition of Consumer Reports (the magazine) recommend specific makes and models and advise against others based on their "frequency-of-repair" ratings. The Kiplinger Report annual automotive issue is another good source of information.

You'll also want to determine a fair price for the vehicle(s) you're considering. Check out the National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA) appraisal guides for current retail values, or visit their website at, which offers free pricing information. Other good sources include Kelly's Blue Book retail reports ( and Edmunds Used Car Prices & Ratings (

You should also check the classified section of your local newspaper for the vehicle's local market value. In some cases, it will vary considerably from the guides' values. (Most newspapers have websites where you can search classified ads for specific makes and models.)

In general, the older the car, the lower the price. In other words, a 1996 Honda Accord will have a lower retail value than a 1997 Honda Accord in similar condition. If you identify a car that you like but it's too expensive, keep checking older models of the same make until you arrive at a year that fits your budget. If the model year that you can afford is too old for your taste, you'll likely need to consider a different make or model.

And remember, insurance rates vary based on make, model, and year. Once you've identified a car you want, get an insurance quote to make sure the premiums are still within your budget.

Where to Buy Used Cars

Okay. You've identified a few cars that fit both your budget and your needs. Now it's time to go shopping. Basically, you can buy used cars from three types of sellers: new car dealerships, independent used car lots, or private individuals.

1. New car dealerships are your best bet if you want peace of mind and don't mind paying for it. New car dealerships that sell used vehicles often charge the highest prices, but they're more likely to offer a warranty and to stand behind the vehicle they're selling. Many dealerships offer "certified" used cars--vehicles that are inspected by the dealership's mechanics and repaired according to the manufacturer's standards before they are offered for sale. In many cases, these vehicles come with factory warranties. You'll pay a premium for a dealer-certified used car, but you may save a bundle in repair bills down the road. Be sure to carefully examine the warranty, though. In some cases, there are limitations or fees attached to transferring the warranty from one owner to another. Also, dealer-certified used cars tend to be late models (often former leases). If you're in the market for an older model, you may be out of luck.

2. Independent used car dealers may or may not offer warranties, and unlike new-car dealerships, they usually lack repair facilities. Newer to the scene are used-car superstores with huge inventories and often no-haggle pricing.

3. Private individuals usually offer the best deals on used cars because they aren't constrained by a profit margin, but if you buy from an individual, you're really on your own. Unless you have a written contract indicating otherwise, the sale is likely to be "as-is." On the plus side, you'll meet the car's owner face-to-face and get a sense of how well they've maintained the car, why they're selling it, etc.

If you plan on buying from an individual, be sure to first familiarize yourself with all the paperwork requirements of a private sale, namely the title transfer. Some states require that the seller's signature and mileage verification on the title be notarized. Call your local department of motor vehicles for the specifics. And be prepared to pay for the car with cash, a bank check, or a cashier's check. Individual sellers are reluctant to accept personal checks.

Evaluating the Car

Regardless of where you buy, always ask to see the maintenance and repair records for the vehicle you're considering. The value of a vehicle is not just in its make, model, and year, but in how well it's been maintained. Even the best cars aren't likely to hold up in the long run if the previous owner hasn't had regular oil changes and maintenance.

Ask the seller about the car's maintenance history, previous owners, and whether the car has ever been involved in a wreck. A conscientious individual seller will have a stack of receipts to document the car's maintenance history. Don't expect as much from a dealer. Also, check to see if the original owner's manual is still in the glove box. Drivers who take care of their cars keep the owner's manual.

You should also take the car for at least a 20-minute road test. Drive in as many different conditions as possible: on the highway, in town, up and down hills. If the vehicle has air conditioning, be sure to turn it on (it causes the engine to run 20% hotter and harder). Find a safe area to test the brakes with sudden stops.

If the seller refuses to allow a road test, don't buy the car--it's a simple as that. (Keep in mind that a dealer may ask to make a photocopy of your driver's license, and an individual seller may ask to come along for the ride. These are both reasonable requests on the seller's part.)

After the road test, if you're still interested in the car, you should arrange to have it inspected by a professional mechanic. Regardless of who you're dealing with, NEVER buy a vehicle--no matter how much you like it, no matter how good a deal it appears to be--until you've had it inspected.

Ideally, you should line up a mechanic even before you begin shopping for a car. A complete mechanical inspection will cost you around $50 (roughly one hour's labor charge). This is a small investment compared to the price of a car. (Hint: if the mechanic finds minor problems, but you still want to buy the car, you can use the mechanic's findings as leverage to negotiate a lower selling price.) Always get a written inspection with estimates for any necessary repair work.

Be sure to tell the technician about any problems you've discovered during your discussions with the seller or during your test drive. In addition to the mechanical inspection, the technician should also try to determine if the vehicle has been involved in an accident. (Telltale signs include irregularities in the sheet metal or paint job, and signs of paint in places where it shouldn't be--on chrome, lights, wires, under doors, in wheel wells, etc.) The technician should also be able to identify rust damage, which may be hidden by quick-fix bodywork that will begin to deteriorate shortly after your money leaves your wallet. (If the vehicle is dirty, have it washed before it's inspected so that body damage will be more easily identified.)

For additional peace of mind, you may also consider running a "lemon check" on the car. (Smart sellers--especially dealerships--will provide you with a lemon check on the spot.) Using a car's VIN number, companies such as CarFax ( will check government records and generate a report on the car's history. Such reports can reveal problems such as odometer rollbacks and prior salvage titles (indicating that the car has been in a major accident). The reports also determine if the title is "clear" (i.e. that there are no outstanding liens against the vehicle).

When shopping for a used vehicle, remember: the key is preparation. The more homework you do, the less likely you are to wind up buying someone else's problem, and the more likely you are to find a second-hand gem with lots of useful life left--at a price you can afford.

How to Negotiate a Fair Personal Injury Settlement

(Note: This is the second in a 2-part series on how to negotiate with insurance companies following an auto accident. To learn about property-damage claims, see How to Negotiate a Fair Settlement when Your Car Has Been Totaled.)

Maybe you’re familiar with personal-injury settlements. Maybe one time you barely tapped another driver’s bumper and he got out of the car clutching his neck, moaning in histrionic agony. Maybe a few months later you saw him driving around in a new convertible with a fistful of dollars, thrashing his head to the beat of his Alpine CD player...

Neck and back injuries are funny things. Often, they don’t show up on scans and X-rays. That’s why people are able to fake such injuries and "work" claims, accumulating unnecessary medical bills in order to get bigger settlements.

Not only are such people crooks, but they drive up the cost of insurance premiums for everybody else, and they make it harder for people with real injuries to get fair settlements. Understandably, insurance companies are often skeptical of personal-injury claims. That’s why it’s important to understand how the claims process works before you find yourself banged up in a wreck.

The Circling Vultures

If you’re ever involved in an auto accident that wasn’t your fault, get ready: you’re about to become a very popular person. Rather than actually chasing ambulances, chiropractors and personal-injury lawyers stake out police-records departments looking for no-fault accident victims such as yourself. Shortly after your accident report is issued, the doctors and lawyers will likely begin sending you letters soliciting your business.

Of course, whether you should hire one of these lawyers or visit one of these doctors depends on the specifics of your accident and your injuries. Before you make any moves, consider the following.

How a Claim Works

An insurance claim for an auto accident will result in a property-damage settlement and--if injuries are involved--a personal-injury settlement. These two kinds of settlements are calculated separately. (This article deals only with personal-injury settlements.)

If you’re injured in an auto accident, a smart insurance company will try to get to you fast, before the lawyers and chiropractors do. Often, an adjuster will visit you within 48 hours of the accident and offer you a check on the spot.

This may seem like good, quick customer service, but don’t be fooled--it’s a cost-saving strategy for the insurance company. Often, injuries from car wrecks (particularly neck and back injuries) don’t manifest themselves immediately, and often they require long-term treatment. By moving in quickly, the insurance adjuster seeks to minimize his company’s liability for such hidden injuries. Once you accept the check, you have "settled" the claim and the insurance company is off the hook; you are no longer entitled to additional money.

The adjuster may offer a settlement that includes a schedule of payments for any subsequent treatment you require over the next six months. That’s good, but what if you end up needing treatment for more than 6 months? And what if the cost of the treatment exceeds the settlement? Unless you want to end up paying huge medical bills, don’t accept the check, tempting as it may be.

Take Your Time

The first rule for settling a personal-injury claim is to take your time. Unlike a property-damage claim, which you should settle as soon as possible, a personal-injury claim shouldn’t be settled until you’ve seen a doctor and fully understand the extent of your injuries. Even if you’ve gone to the doctor and you check out okay, it’s a good idea to wait at least two weeks before settling with the insurance company.

Document Your Injuries

The second rule for settling personal-injury claims is to document your injuries. Without proof that you’ve been injured, the insurance company isn’t going to give you a dime.

Injury documentation starts at the scene of the accident. When the police arrive, they will ask if you want them to call paramedics. The answer to this question is YES. After an accident, you are full of adrenaline and incapable of assessing your physical condition. You know from looking at your car that there’s a good chance you’re hurt, even if you don’t feel too bad at that moment.

If the paramedics offer to take you to the emergency room for a more thorough examination, the answer again is YES. In fact, you should request it. Don’t take a chance with your health.

You should also document any visits to your personal physician and any time you miss from work.

How the Settlement Is Calculated

Unlike property-damage claims (where adjusters rely on comparables and NADA figures to establish the value of your wrecked car), there is no set formula for calculating personal-injury claims. In general, personal-injury settlements tend to be higher than property-damage settlements, and the adjuster usually has more leeway, dollar-wise, in negotiating the settlement.

You can expect the settlement to cover: 1) your medical bills (including prescriptions); 2) lost wages (missed time for doctor’s appointments, recuperation, etc.); and 3) an additional sum to compensate you for your pain and inconvenience (this is where the adjuster’s leeway comes in).

Lawyers & Chiropractors

Chiropractors like no-fault accident victims because they know an insurance company will cover the bills. And insurance cheaters like chiropractors because multiple visits to the doctor help jack up the pain-and-suffering component of their settlement.

However, if your back isn’t really hurt, don’t be tempted to rack up bills with the chiropractor. Insurance fraud is a crime, and if you get caught, you may jeopardize whatever legitimate claim you have to a settlement.

Lawyers like no-fault accident victims for similar reasons, and since the lawyer’s payment is based on the amount of your settlement, he may encourage you to "work the claim" by taking sick days and making repeat visits to the doctor. Obviously, this is sleazy, and whatever settlement you get, the lawyer will take a big chunk.

For these reasons, you should think twice before calling a personal-injury lawyer. However, if you’ve tried negotiating with the insurance company and they’re giving you the short end of the stick, an attorney may end up being your best course of action, particularly if large sums are involved.

Tips for Negotiating with Adjusters

  • If the adjuster says, "We won’t pay for your lost work time; you’re already getting paid by your employer," tell him that doesn’t matter; you’re still losing a benefit, and you’re therefore entitled to compensation for lost wages from the insurance company.

  • Veteran adjusters are good at spotting crooked claimants seeking to rip off the insurance company. As a person with a legitimate injury, you want the adjuster to know you’re an honest Jane seeking nothing more than a fair shake. A good adjuster will recognize that you’ve saved him money by not hiring a lawyer and not accumulating excessive medical bills. For this reason, he can afford to be a little more generous in settling your claim--and you can afford to insist on a satisfactory sum.

(For more tips on negotiating with adjusters, see How to Negotiate a Fair Settlement when Your Car Has Been Totaled .)


Comparables - Cars for sale which are used to help establish the value of your wrecked car by means of comparison.

Insurance adjuster - Insurance company employee who negotiates and settles claims (i.e. the person who writes you the check).

Property-damage settlement - The money an insurance company pays to repair or replace your car, plus additional costs such as a rental car.

Personal-injury settlement - The money an insurance company pays to compensate you for injuries sustained in an accident, including medical bills, lost wages, etc.

Settlement - Sum of money paid to you by the insurance company, usually in the form of a check. Your acceptance of this check constitutes the "settling" of the claim and releases the insurance company from further liability.

Car Care Basics for Women

Welcome to Care Care Basics - your 101 class on caring for your car. Here you can read all about how a car works, including brief overviews of the engine and major systems, maintenance tips, and information on how to handle emergencies and get back on the road.

I. Knowledge is Power: Understanding How Your Car Works

How Your Engine Functions, in a Nutshell

Cars are powered by internal combustion engines. That is, engines rely on combustion (fire) internally (inside). The fire inside the engine ignites very carefully controlled explosions that take place inside the engine thousands of times per minute. Those explosions--in which chemical power (some fuel, namely gasoline) is transformed into mechanical power (wheels going around and around)--are what make cars go.

That's really the long and short of it. Gasoline is mixed with air and with a tiny spark (ah, the spark plug!) to create ignition (the fire) and the explosion. The force of the explosion "pushes" an object (a piston), just like the force of an explosion sends fireworks cascading into the night sky. The difference here is that the piston remains in a controlled setting and its power and energy are harnessed. Inside the engine, the piston pushes another object (the connecting rod) which is connected to the crankshaft. Because of their shapes and the way they are joined, the up-and-down motion of the piston causes the crankshaft to turn around and around. As a result, the wheels turn and your car is propelled forward (unless, of course, you happen to be in reverse).

Just as you function (or don't, as the case may be) depending on the effectiveness and efficiency of your body systems -- circulatory, respiratory, nervous, etc.--your car depends on a number of systems to control the power being generated in the engine.

The Basic Engine Systems

The Fuel System

Gasoline is likely the liquid you are most familiar with when it comes to your car, but it's only one of the essential liquids your car needs to make it go — and keep going. Gasoline allows the engine to ignite and create explosions. Without gasoline, your car would be little more than a piece of furniture on wheels.

Oddly enough, gasoline is a very difficult liquid to ignite. Gas vapors though, light up quickly and dangerously. So, in order for gasoline to work as a fuel, it has to be transformed into a vapor, which means it must be mixed with a lot of air in just the right proportions.

The fuel system stores gasoline in a big tank (the gas tank). A fuel pump draws the gasoline up from the tank, through the fuel line, and into either the carburetor or fuel-injection system. (Older cars have carburetors; newer cars have fuel-injections systems.) Here the gasoline is mixed with air and vaporized. Finally, this vapor is then sent to the engine's cylinders (where the explosions take place, and the pistons go up and down…).

The Ignition System

For combustion to occur, you need three ingredients: a combustible material, air, and a spark. Once the gasoline vapor is in the cylinder, two of the puzzle pieces are in place. Now an electric spark must be delivered at exactly the right moment.

Your battery and alternator provide this electricity, sending it through the system to a distributor cap (in older cars)--which, you guessed it--distributes the electrical charge to the spark plugs (ta-da!) which shoot a small spark and ignite the vapor, creating the explosion that makes everything happen. (Newer cars rely on a computerized method of delivering the electric charge. Different style. Same result.)

Each cylinder has one spark plug, so a six-cylinder engine has six spark plugs and a four-cylinder engine has four. Engines are categorized by the number and configuration of these cylinders. A V-8, for example, has 8 cylinders (four on each side of the engine, angled to form a V). Similarly, an inline-6 has six cylinders, only they're all lined up in a row.

The more cylinders in your engine, the more power. Of course, there's a trade-off: more power also means you're using more gas and making more pollution.

As you can imagine, with all these explosions going on, those cylinders and the engine can get pretty heated up. Which brings us to the next vital system...

The Cooling System

When you get all steamed up, there are basically two things that can help you cool down: liquid (taking a cold bath, drinking a tall glass of iced tea) or air (loitering in front of a fan, sticking your head in the icebox, etc.). Same deal with your car.

In a water-cooled engine (which actually uses a mixture of water and other coolant chemicals), the coolant draws the heat from the cylinders. That is, the cylinder heat warms the coolant fluid which is then pumped away from the cylinders to the radiator, where it is cooled by a fan and then re-circulated.

An air-cooled system accomplishes the same task, but it does so by transferring the cylinder's heat to circulating air rather than to a liquid coolant.

The Lubrication System

The principle of friction is the same in all contexts: two objects rubbing together create heat… and wear. Your car has a bazillion moving parts that are constantly in contact with other moving parts. The lubrication system is the means by which this heat and wear are minimized, thus extending the life of your car.

The Exhaust System

Just as a giant bean burrito can produce a prodigious amount of gas in your stomach, your car's engine produces gases (not gasoline) that must be released. That's where the exhaust system comes in. The engine forces the gases through a manifold, which then sends the exhaust through pipes out into the air. The muffler reduces the amount of noise produced during this process; the emission control system reduces the extent to which these gases foul the environment.

The Transmission System

Your car's transmission takes the engine's power and transfers it through a series of gears to the drive shaft, or drive axle. When the drive shaft turns, it turns the wheels' axles and-- viola! --your car is set in motion.

A car's transmission operates on the same principle as that 10-speed Schwinn you used to ride to the pool on summer afternoons before you grew up and had to get a job. By using different gear ratios, the transmission adjusts for the most efficient transfer of your engine's power, depending upon your driving speed. (Unlike the Schwinn, though, you don't have to worry about your towel getting caught in the chain.)

There are two types of transmissions — automatic and manual. An automatic transmission automatically (clever, huh?) changes the gears and gear ratios, allowing your car to accelerate while you fiddle with your lipstick or your coffee or your cassettes. A manual transmission requires a little more work from you. The driver must press down on the clutch, disengaging the transmission so that a different gear can be manually entered with the stick shift as you accelerate.

The Electrical System

The electrical system in your car is actually two systems piggy-backed on top of one another. The basic electric system consists of a battery and a starter. When you turn your key in the ignition, you close a circuit (just like you do when you turn on a light switch). An electrical current travels from your car's battery to your car's starter, an electrical motor that triggers a series of actions, which result in the crankshaft turning and sending the pistons up and down. The spark plugs fire. The engine starts and the rest is history.

Once the engine has started, the battery and starter give way to the second part of the electrical system. The charging system takes advantage of the engine's power to recharge the battery and to provide the power necessary for all those things that you like about your car in addition to rolling forward — playing the radio, turning on the lights, cranking the air conditioner, etc.

The Steering and Suspension System

Imagine driving your sexy little convertible (or your rusty Chevy pickup) along a gorgeous mountain road. Feel the breeze in your hair, the tingling rush of air on your face. Don't you just love zipping around those hairpin turns? Now imagine that your car has no steering mechanism. Not as much fun, right? The steering system starts with the steering wheel, which is attached to front wheels (unless you have one of those all-wheel steering cars, which you probably don't). Thanks to ingenious ball-joint connections --which allow connected straight shafts to do something other than push or pull)--your turning the steering wheel results in the front wheels turning left or right.

Your kidneys owe special thanks to the suspension system, which is made up of various types of shock absorbers. As their name implies, they absorb most of the shock from bumps and holes in the road. Without the suspension system, you'd probably have a jarring headache every time you went for a drive, and you'd probably never make it those last 30 miles to the rest area.

The Brake System

You know what the brakes do. The question is, how does that little pedal manage to bring a very heavy object traveling at high speed to a full stop in such a short amount of time?

The answer is, fluids. Whenever fluids perform a mechanical function, we say it is a hydraulic system (that is, a system that uses fluids). When you press down on the brake pedal, small pistons in the master cylinder force brake fluid out into a series of small tubes called the brake line. This fluid exerts a pressure in the brakes (drum brakes or disc brakes) which then use friction to bring the rotation of the wheels to a halt. Simple.

Though you'd never know it while sitting in the air-conditioned comfort of your car, this friction makes your brake rotors get red hot every time you come to a stop from even a moderate speed. That's why it's a good idea to avoid slamming on your brakes unnecessarily. Most rotor damage occurs in wet conditions: you hit the brakes, they get red hot, and then water splashes onto them, causing them to warp.

The Five Fluids That Keep Your Car Running

Think of the lotions and liquids that you lavish on yourself to make your life bearable and beautiful, from wine to water, skin softener to lipstick, bath oil to perfume. Granted, some of these potions are superfluous--treats we give ourselves--but others are absolutely vital to our comfort and well being.

Your car is like you in this respect. The leather softener and Rain-X are swell extras, but there are five fluids (in addition to gasoline) that your car can't live without.


Oil is the lubricant that keeps your engine happy and moist (okay, moist isn't the right word for a cast-iron engine, but you know what we mean). Oil keeps your engine's moving parts friction-free. Checking and changing your engine oil is probably the single most important thing you can do for your car. (See "Checking the Oil Level" below for step-by-step instructions on what to do.)

Radiator Coolant

If you've already read "The Cooling System" above, then you know how important it is to keep your car's engine cool while all of those explosions are taking place in the cylinders. Radiator coolant is more than just water. It's water mixed with a chemical additive, either alcohol or glucose (but not glucose you'd want to eat). The additive raises the fluid's boiling point and lowers its freezing point, which is very important. As you undoubtedly recall from your fifth-grade science class, water boils at 232 degrees and freezes at 32 degrees. Well, your engine gets a lot hotter than 232 degrees when it's running, and it gets a lot colder than 32 degrees when it's sitting out on the street during the winter. Thanks to the magic of radiator coolant, your car's cooling system is able to keep your engine well within its comfort zone.

Transmission Fluid

If you've ever seen the terrifying assortment of gears inside a car's transmission, then you can imagine how much friction and wear is created there. Transmission fluid lubricates the constant changing and meshing of gears, allowing your car to ride smoothly whether you're driving uphill, downhill, or stop-and-go in the city.

Brake Fluid

Remember that your brakes work hydraulically. If that master cylinder isn't pumping out the brake fluid, your brakes won't work — and you won't stop.

Power Steering Fluid

Ever notice how even the biggest cars and SUVs can be maneuvered by the tiniest drivers? Once upon a time, steering a car or a truck was like riding roughshod over a team of wild horses. Now, thanks to the physics of hydraulics, any of us can steer a truck without breaking a nail. But to do so, power steering fluid must be present. Otherwise, making a simple turn would require a long history of afternoons in the gym.

II. Maintenance 101 (or How to Show Your Car that You Love It)

Your car may not be the primary relationship in your life, but like any other relationship, it demands time, effort, and attention. Sometimes you can be a little neglectful and still get away with it. But if you let your attention lapse for too long, you are liable to find yourself on the shoulder of a deserted highway some rainy night, wondering why your cell phone won't work. (Okay, that's a little melodramatic. Sorry. The point is, don't neglect your car and it won't leave you high and dry when you need it most.)

The Owner's Manual

The starting point in taking care of your car is your owner's manual. You remember your owner's manual, don't you? It's that book that you have never, ever even opened. The one in the plastic sleeve. That's right. In your glove box. The one that's always getting in the way.

As it turns out, you ignore your owner's manual at your peril. The manual contains a wealth of information about your car that will make your driving experience much more pleasant. In addition to vital information like how to set the buttons on your radio or how to adjust your clock and dashboard lights, your owner's manual can help you with Troubleshooting Hints — useful tips for anticipating and solving problems.

These hints can also save you a lot of time and embarrassment. Have you ever endured the disdainful smirk of a tow-truck operator when your car wouldn't start, only to learn that you had left the car in gear when you parked it the night before? Simply putting the car in either "Park" or "Neutral" would have allowed you to start the car, save the service fee, and avoid meeting the tow-truck guy.

In addition to the Troubleshooting Hints, your owner's manual contains another very important section — the Maintenance Schedule. Here, the maker of your car details exactly what maintenance tasks should be performed on your car and how often they should be done. Like pap smears, breast self-exams, and weekends at the spa, regular maintenance for your car is vital for its happiness and well being.

The Weekly Check-Up

Weekly maintenance of your car needn't take more than a few minutes. It's a small investment for such a substantial return. Basically, the weekly check-up involves checking the five basic fluids, the air in your tires, and your windshield-wiper fluid. (The windshield-wiper fluid is decidedly a Lesser Fluid--your car won't die without it. But do you really want to risk having bug guts obstructing your field of vision?)

If you've never checked your fluids, don't worry. We'll take you through it step-by-step (though you may want to have your owner's manual handy to help you locate the proper dipsticks).

Before you dive under the hood, though, you might want to start with trip to your local auto-parts store. Purchase a tire gauge and the following fluids so you'll be ready when you need them: oil, coolant, windshield-wiper fluid, power-steering fluid, brake fluid, and transmission fluid (if you have an automatic transmission). Check your trusty owner's manual for the specific types of fluid required by your car. It's also a good idea to buy some basic tools if you don't already have them. (For example, you'll need a flat-head screwdriver when you check your brake fluid.) And treat yourself to a $2 plastic funnel--it will make the whole experience easier and less messy.

Allow twenty or thirty minutes for your first weekly check-up. Once you get the hang of it, you'll be able to finish in ten minutes or so.

Checking the Oil Level

First of all, you'll need an old rag or two. Time to retire that T-shirt you wore at summer camp ten years ago. Also, as you check the fluids, be careful that the rag doesn't leave lint deposits on the dipsticks.

1. Make sure your car is parked on level ground with the engine off, gearshift in "park," and the parking brake applied.

2. Raise the hood. It's a good idea to do this when the engine is cool (for your general comfort, and to reduce the risk of burns.) If you must do your weekly maintenance after a day of driving, try waiting an hour or two for the engine to cool down. When you open the hood, make sure it locks safely in the open position, or that you prop it open with the bar located under the hood. (See your owner's manual for details on which hood apparatus is found on your car.)

3. Now locate the dipstick. You'll be able to recognize it because it is a thin rod with a curved handle sticking up on either side of the engine.

4. Carefully remove the dipstick and wipe it completely clean of oil.

5. Return the dipstick to the round metal sleeve you just pulled it out of. (Don't feel bad if this proves difficult--many a seasoned mechanic finds himself or herself unable to guide the rod into the sheath without using two hands.) Push down gently on the rod to be sure it is fully inserted.

6. Remove the dipstick again and inspect the thatched section at the flattened end of the rod. You should be able to see an amber-colored fluid on the end of the dipstick. That's oil. (If the color is reddish-brown, put the dipstick back. You've got the transmission fluid dipstick.) You will see the word FULL at the upper end of the flattened section and the word ADD near the bottom.

7. If the fluid comes up above the ADD line, your engine has enough oil in it. If the fluid is at or below the ADD mark, you will have to add up to a quart of oil to your engine.

8. To add oil, find the oil cap, which located on the top of your engine. On most newer cars, the word OIL will appear right on the cap. Remove the cap and position one of your trusty rags to catch any drips. (If you really want to be tidy, break out that plastic funnel.) Now all you have to do is pour the oil into the engine. However, it should be the same kind and grade of oil that you've already got in there. (If you don't know what kind of oil is in your car, check the paperwork from your most recent oil change, or check the little reminder sticker that the oil-change shop left on your windshield.)

9. Wait a little while for the oil to settle and then go back to step 4. Follow the steps until you have the perfect amount of oil in your car. Warning: Even if your car tends to leak oil, never over-compensate by filling the oil past the FULL line. Too much oil in the engine can create too much pressure, which can cause expensive damage.

Checking the Coolant Level

When it comes to checking the radiator level (where the coolant is located) you absolutely must make sure your car is cool. If you don't, you stand a very real chance of being scalded by spewing hot liquid. Not only is this messy, it is really, really dangerous.

The radiator is almost always located at the very front of the engine. Most newer cars also have an overflow tank attached to the radiator. The side of the overflow tank should be marked MIN (for minimum) and MAX (for maximum). If the fluid level is between these two lines, your job is done. If it is below the MIN line, follow these steps:

1. Slowly and carefully turn the radiator cap counterclockwise. Stop after about a quarter turn. This will allow any built-up pressure to be released. Count to three. Unscrew the cap the rest of the way.

2. Look inside. If the coolant is below the neck of the opening, add a mixture of coolant and water (_ water, _ coolant).

3. Open the cap to the coolant overflow tank and add coolant until the fluid level is somewhere between the MAX and the MIN lines.

4. Tighten the caps and wipe away any excess coolant that may have dripped onto the engine.

Checking the Windshield Washer Fluid

1. Find the windshield wiper fluid reservoir. It's usually a clear or white plastic jug that holds a pint to a quart of colored liquid (usually bluish).

2. Visually check the fluid level and, if there's room, top it off with windshield wiper fluid, which you can purchase at any auto-parts store and most gas stations. Don't simply use water. It can freeze up in the winter, and it doesn't do nearly so good a job as wiper fluid.

(Hint: when you fill the windshield wiper jug, put a little fluid on a rag or paper towel and wipe the blades themselves. They'll function better and last longer.)

Checking the Power Steering Fluid

Now you're getting the hang of this, right? Basically, you're just locating various reservoirs and checking fluid levels. Simple. The hardest part is finding the right reservoir. Once you've done that, you're home free.

Power steering fluid is located in a reservoir attached to the power steering pump. On most cars, the pump is powered by a fan belt located toward the front of the engine, so look there first. The reservoir sits atop the pump like a sentry on a stool. The cap usually has a dipstick attached on the underside.

Like all of the fluids we've discussed, and like the air in your tires, power steering fluid expands when it's hot. Some power-steering-fluid dipsticks have lines indicating FULL HOT and FULL COLD. This allows you to check the fluid accurately regardless of engine temperature. However, if your car doesn't make this provision, it is best to check the level when the car is cold.

If you find that you are low on power steering fluid, check your owner's manual for the proper replacement fluid. Go buy some and top off the reservoir, but once again, be careful not to overfill. Just bring the fluid level up to the FULL mark.

(Although you should check this fluid weekly, it shouldn't need to be topped off more than every couple of months. If you have to add fluid more often than that, you probably have a leak somewhere in the system.)

Checking the Brake Fluid

The master brake cylinder is usually located toward the back of the engine on the driver's side. On most cars, it is an oblong metal reservoir, usually clipped into place with a metal clip. (Some cars have plastic master cylinders that look like dual reservoirs with two lids.)

1. Clean off the top of the master cylinder before you open it. The last thing you want is dirt and grime mucking up your brake lines. You will need a flat-head screwdriver to pry away the metal clip so you can open the lid.

2. Visually check the fluid level.

3. If needed, add the correct amount of brake fluid. Again, your owner's manual will tell you exactly which DOT (Department of Transportation) grade of brake fluid to use.

Checking the Automatic Transmission Fluid

Unlike the other fluids, transmission fluid should be checked while it is warm. For this reason, you have to follow a slightly different routine. (Note: Checking manual transmission fluid is a lot more complicated and requires getting your car up on a hoist. If you drive a car with manual transmission, it's best to have a mechanic check the fluid.)

To check the automatic transmission fluid, find the dipstick handle toward the back of the engine. It may look similar to the oil dipstick so, if you've found the oil dipstick, the transmission fluid dipstick is the other one. Got it?

1. Put your car in either "neutral" or "park." Apply the parking brake (even if you don't usually use it.) Start the engine.

When the engine is warm (after a couple of minutes), pull out the dipstick.
Wipe the dipstick with a clean cloth.
Put the dipstick back in. Hold it there a second. Pull it back out.
Check the level.
If the fluid does not reach the FULL line:

Lay the dipstick on the clean rag and get a funnel that fits into the dipstick opening. Slowly pour in the appropriate transmission fluid (which is specified in your owner's manual.)
Re-check the fluid level.
One final check of your transmission fluid is the famous "touch test." Transmission fluid should be very smooth and clean, pinkish in color but nearly transparent. Touch the fluid on the dipstick. Does it feel gritty? Does it smell burnt or have a burnt color? If so, you should have a mechanic drain and replace the fluid.

Often, the symptoms that indicate serious transmission trouble are the very same symptoms of low transmission fluid. So check your fluid before some wise guy tries to sell you a new--and pricey--transmission.

Checking the Tire Pressure

Congratulations! You're finished under the hood. Take a deep breath. Use a rag to gently lift the hood in order to release the lock or to free the rod, and then close the hood until it latches securely.

Now it's time to check your tires. To do this, you will need a tire gauge (an inexpensive investment you already made during your trip to the auto-parts store).

Begin by visually inspecting your tires for cracks, signs of uneven wear, and embedded foreign objects. Now, go from tire to tire and follow these steps:

1. Unscrew the little black cap covering the air nipple. (If there is no little black cap, buy one. They keep small amounts of air from seeping out of your tire). Press the gauge tightly against the air nipple. Depending on what kind of gauge you own, a plastic rod will pop up or a dial will register the amount of pounds per square inch (PSI). The recommended PSI will be printed on the side of the tire.

2. If your tire is properly inflated, close the cap and move on.

3. If the tire needs air, drive to your local gas station. Most will have a free air hose (though some places may charge $25). And try to choose a nearby station, because if you drive more than five miles or so, your tires will get hot and you'll be unable to get an accurate pressure reading.

Apply the air hose to the tire nipple, allowing it to pump air into the tire. Check the pressure again. If you've added too much air, depress the pin inside the nipple to release some of the pressure.

4. Follow this procedure for all of your tires, including the spare (which may be hidden beneath a panel in your trunk). Remember, a flat spare is a worthless spare.

Quarterly (3,000 mile) Check-Ups

Quarterly check-ups are a bit more involved than weekly check-ups. After every 3 months or 3,000 miles, you should:

  • Change the oil and oil filter.
  • Check the battery and charging system.
  • Visually examine hoses and belts.
  • Change your windshield wiper blades.

There are some people who contend that changing your oil every 3,000 miles is unnecessary. They say you can wait and do it every 5,000 or 6,000 miles. These are the same people who're always amazed to hear you talk about getting 100,000 miles or more from your car. "Really? Our car just flat-out died at 75,000!" Yup.

Oil is the lifeblood of your car. Keep it clean and your car will love you. Let it get thick and goopy and you're stealing years from the life of your car. You decide how often to change your oil. But don't say we didn't warn you.

Changing the Oil and Oil Filter

Take your car to a mechanic, and an oil change will run you anywhere from $15 to $30. You can do the job yourself for a fraction of the cost, and it's a relatively simple procedure. Even if you eventually decide it's not worth the trouble to do it yourself, it's a good experience to have under your belt.

So, time for another trip to the auto-supply store! You're going to need a handful of tools to change your oil and oil filter:

  • Several quarts of motor oil and an oil filter. Be sure to get these items before you drain the old oil from your car, or you'll be very sad. Check your owner's manual to determine the quantity of oil and the recommended type of oil filter.
  • An oil-filter wrench. It ‘s true that some oil filters can be hand tightened and hand loosened, but it's still a good idea to have a wrench in case things get a bit too snug. Besides, it will keep you from getting your knuckles scraped.
  • An adjustable wrench. This tool will allow you to unscrew the oil plug so the old oil can drain out of the engine.
  • A bucket or tray to catch the oil. Make sure it's big enough to hold all of the oil, or you'll have a horrible mess on your hands. You can buy an oil tray at the store.
  • A funnel, which will allow you to easily and neatly pour oil into the engine. No muss. No fuss.
  • More rags. Oil is slimy, dirty stuff. You'll want to be able to wipe your hands off and wipe excess oil from the engine. (If you spill oil on the engine, it won't cause any damage, but it will produce a burning smell when the engine is hot.)
  • A work light. You know, those cute little lights that have a hook at the top and a bulb in a metal cage. These lights are handy when you're underneath the car.
  • An old towel to lie on while you're under the car.

Now follow these step-by-step instructions:

1. Start your car and let the engine run for two minutes. This will soften and thin out the gunky old oil so that it flows smoothly from your car. (Don't let the engine run too long, though. The last thing you want to do is work on a hot engine, or have hot oil drip onto you!)

2. Position your old towel under the front end of the car, then crawl under with your work light. You should see what looks like a small, metal tub upside down against the bottom of your engine. This is the oil pan. At the bottom of the oil pan, there will be a large nut or plug. This is your oil drain plug. Touch it. If it's hot to the touch, you've allowed the engine to run too long. Let it cool off a bit more.

3. Slide the bucket or tray under the car so that it is directly beneath the drain plug.

4. Using the adjustable wrench, loosen the plug until it is almost ready to come out. (You'll know it's just about ready when oil starts seeping out the sides.) Now, using a dirty towel or rag, finish loosening the plug and remove it. Pull your hand away quickly so the dirty oil doesn't start flowing down your arm.

5. Come out from under the car and unscrew the cap from the oil filler hole at the top of the engine. (This is the same cap where you add oil during your weekly check-ups. See "Checking the Oil Level" for more details.) Removing the cap will allow the oil to drain more quickly from the bottom of the engine. (It's the same principle that's at work when you put two holes in the top of a Hi-C can instead of just one.)

6. Unscrew the oil filter. It looks like a can attached to the side of your engine, and it's usually white or orange, depending on the brand. The filter is probably still filled with oil, so handle it carefully.

7. Empty the oil from the filter into the bucket or tub under the car. When you've poured out all of the oil, wrap the old filter in newspaper and put it in a plastic bag. It should go to the recycling place where you will take your old oil (usually a nearby service station).

8. Open a new bottle or can of oil. Put a little of the fresh oil onto your fingertip and lubricate the gasket (the rubber ring) around the new oil filter. Now screw the new filter into place. Don't over-tighten! If you're concerned that you can't tighten it enough by hand, use the oil-filter wrench, but only go about a quarter turn after it feels snug.

9. Time to go back under the car. How's everything look under there? The old oil should have finished draining by now. Use your rag to wipe the drain hole and then replace the oil drain plug. Use your adjustable wrench to tighten it. A little more than just snug, but again, not too tight.

10. Once the new filter is installed and you've replaced the drain plug, it's safe to pour the new oil into the engine. Use the funnel, even if you have a steady hand. Trust me. Pour in all but about one quart of the recommended amount of new oil. Then close the cap and run the engine for about a minute. While the engine is running, look for leaks under the car and around the filter.

11. Turn off the engine and wait five minutes or so for the oil to settle. Check the level with the dipstick (see, "Checking the Oil Level"). Add the remaining oil if you need it. If not, remove the bucket or tub from under the car. Drive around the block. Re-check the oil level. Now transfer the old oil into a portable container and deliver it, along with the oil filter, to a service station that accepts oil for recycling. (Keep in mind that motor oil is carcinogenic; you don't want it sitting around the house. And keep it away from your pets and relatives.)

Semi-annual (6-Month) Check-ups

Just because something needs to be checked only twice a year is no reason to neglect it. Mark the date on your calendar. Treat it like a semi-anniversary with your car.

Every six months, you should:

  • Rotate your tires. You'll want a mechanic to handle this. Your car will need to be up on a lift, and throwing around tires, well, it's just plain exhausting!
  • Adjust the brakes. Ditto the mechanic on this.
  • Change the air filter. This a job you can handle yourself, so next time the oil-change guy tries to sell you an air filter, Just Say No.

Replacing the Air Filter

As you may recall, in order to produce the explosions that power your car, the engine must mix air with gasoline. The air filter cleans this air as it is sucked into your car, ensuring that your engine isn't mixing lint and dust and insects with the gasoline.

Check your owner's manual to determine the location and type of air filter used by your car. Most air filters occupy a housing secured by wing nuts and/or clips. Think of it as an airtight sandwich, with the air filter snuggled securely between the upper and lower pieces of the housing. Some air filters are shaped like a giant doughnut. Others are shaped more like a brick. Whatever the shape, the process for replacing the filter is pretty much the same.

1. Turn off your engine.

2. Locate the air-filter housing and unclip the clips and remove the wing nut(s).

3. Lift off the top of the housing.

4. Remove the old air filter by simply lifting it up.

5. Wipe excess dirt from the inside of the metal housing.

6. Put in the new filter.

7. Tighten the wing nut(s) and re-clip the clips.

Annual Check-ups

Ah, another important anniversary for you and your car! Each year, you should have a mechanic:

  • Adjust ignition timing.
  • Replace drive belts.
  • Lubricate your car's chassis.

(If you're ready to tackle any of these jobs yourself, you shouldn't just be reading this website, you should be writing for us.)

III. Emergencies

Despite your best efforts, despite regular maintenance and tender loving care, you and your car are destined to experience some trying moments. Usually, they come at the worst possible time — when you're racing to meet a friend's plane; when you're on your way to an extremely important business meeting; when it's snowing; when you're wearing white.

Emergencies are, by definition, situations that force us to do things we might not otherwise feel prepared to do. The trick, then, is to be prepared, thus turning emergencies into mere annoyances.

You Locked Your Keys in Your Car

Okay, okay. We know newer cars have that little buzzer that goes off when you leave your key in the ignition. And some really thoughtful cars have a device that won't let you lock the doors if the car is shut off and the key is still in the ignition. But what if you don't have a car like this, or what if you left the key ON THE SEAT?

There once was a time when a bent coat hanger could save you from being locked out of your car, but thanks to internal locks, combination locks, and alarm systems, those days are over.

News flash! Right now, today, we beseech you to take your car key to the hardware store and have a copy made. Take that second key and stuff it into one of those deep pockets or crevices in your wallet. Then forget about it . . .

. . . Until you find yourself locked out, at which point you can bat away the cruel hand of fate. But if you didn't get that key copied, you're going to have to call a locksmith, and it's going to be a big waste of time and money. Or you could call the police, who are sometimes kind enough to jimmy open a door. Either way, it's plain embarrassing.

You Have a Flat Tire

Oh, the sinking feeling. Oh, the horror of coming out to your car and realizing that it isn't sitting quite level. Worse, the terror of a blowout while you're zooming along the highway.

But for you, prepared HerAuto motorist, there is a silver lining to the gray cloud of flat-tiredom--you can pat yourself on the back for keeping your spare tire properly inflated during your weekly check-ups. (If your spare is flat, please see "Checking Tire Pressure'.)

Assuming your spare is in good shape, you've got two options:

1. Call a tow truck (or call your auto club and have them send a tow).

2. Change the tire yourself. (This becomes a much more appealing option when the tow company tells you they won't be able to help you for 3 or 4 hours.)

If you've never changed a tire before, don't sweat it (emotionally and psychologically, that is), it's not that hard. But be prepared to sweat a little (physically), and be prepared to get grimy.

In addition to the tire-changing tools that should be located with your spare, you'll probably want to keep an old pair of gloves and maybe even an old apron or towel in your trunk. There's no way around it — changing a tire is dirty work.

1. Make sure your car is on a level, stable surface. A muddy or hilly roadside is not the place to change a tire.

2. Make sure your car isn't going anywhere! Put your car in "park" and apply the emergency brake. Stick a rock or big piece of wood behind one of the non-flat tires. If you are on a roadside, put your flashers on! Make yourself visible to oncoming traffic.

3. Open your trunk and take out the spare tire along with the jack and the lug wrench. The lug wrench will help you pry off the hubcap, and it will also function as the lever for the jack. Your owner's manual includes details specific to the type of jack in your car.

4. While the flat tire is still flat on the ground, pry off the hubcap (the fancy Frisbee-like thing on your wheel). Under the hubcap, you'll see the lug nuts that hold the tire to the wheel. Loosen (but do not remove) the lug nuts by turning them counter-clockwise. This might take some elbow grease. Lug nuts are supposed to be good and tight. You might have to step on the lug wrench to help loosen the nuts.

5. With the lug nuts loosened, jack the car high enough to allow you to take the flat off and put the spare on. (Check owner's manual to find out exactly where to place the jack for the safest and most effective lifting of the car.) You will be amazed at how easy it is for you to lift a whole car with the jack. Enjoy the feeling of strength and power. It's one of the few upsides of changing a tire. BE CAREFUL! Don't get under the car while you are jacking it up. Imagine what would happen if the jack collapsed and your car fell down.

6. Once your car is up in the air, remove the loosened lug nuts. Place them on the hubcap so they don't wander off. Now slide the tire gently away from the car. Place the flat tire on its side under the edge of the car between the jack and the wheel well, making sure there is plenty of room to put on the spare. The flat will help further stabilize the car.

7. Mount the spare. Fasten the lug nuts on the bolts and tighten them by hand, going from one to the other in a "star" pattern (rather than just proceeding clockwise around the wheel). As you do this, gently press the wheel flat, making sure it's firmly in place. Do not tighten the nuts with the lug wrench yet--a car on a jack is too unsteady for that.

8. Lower the car using the jack. Now finish securing the lug nuts with the lug wrench, using your body weight to get them good and tight.

9. Don't forget to remove the blocks from your tires. Now you'll want to drive to a service station and get the flat tire fixed as soon as you can. After all, if the fates are frowning on you, you could end up with another flat — with a flat tire in your trunk!

Jump-Starting Your Car

Okay, you KNOW your car isn't going to start if you're in a horror movie and Jason or Michael or Freddie is coming your way with a meat hook. But chances are, there will also be other less expected times when your car won't start, and depending on your schedule that day, you may still feel like you're in a horror movie.

Start by checking the troubleshooting tips in your owner's manual. Once you've ruled out the usual suspects (you're out of gas, the car isn't in park or neutral, etc.) you'll probably want to get a jump-start.

For a jump-start, you'll need two ingredients: another car and jumper cables. Have a friend or neighbor pull their car up in front of yours so that the two cars are facing one another. Then open the hoods on both cars and follow these steps:

1. Both cars should be in "park" or "neutral" with the ignition off.

2. Connect the cables to both cars in the following sequence:

First, attach one of the red clips to the positive terminal (the one with "+" or "POS" on it) of your battery.

Second, attach the other red clip to the positive terminal of your friend's battery.

Third, attach the black clip to the negative terminal (the one with "—" or "NEG" on it) of your friend's battery.

Finally, attach the other black clip to an unpainted surface on your car that isn't near the carburetor

3. Try to start your car. If it doesn't start, double-check that the cables are securely attached. Then have your friend start his or her car. They should let it run for a couple of minutes.

4. Now try to start your car again. Wow! How'd that happen? Basically, you used your friend's battery to start your car.

5. Keep your car running! Disconnect the cables. Thank your friend profusely. Drive your car for fifteen or twenty minutes to re-charge your battery. If it discharges again, then there's something wrong with the battery and/or electrical system that requires a mechanic's attention.

IV. Tools & Supplies

Preparation involves knowing what to do in an emergency, but it also involves having the right tools to do it. A well-prepared motorist should have a basic tool kit in the trunk at all times. A full set of tools gives you the most protection, but you can pick and choose from the following, depending what kind of emergencies you're prepared to handle yourself:

  • Screwdrivers, both standard and Philips head;
  • Combination wrenches;
  • Offset wrenches;
  • Socket wrenches;
  • Adjustable wrenches;
  • Hammers;
  • Pliers;
  • Torque wrenches…
  • Tire changing tools, jack, lug wrench, etc;
  • Tire gauge;
  • Screwdrivers.

In addition to tools, you should carry a well-stocked first-aid kit. Your car takes you far afield of your home and work. Band-Aids, aspirin, tampons, tissues, toilet paper--these are conveniences that take up minimal space but can make your life much easier.

Tires: Everything You Wanted to Know (But Were Afraid to Ask)

Do your tires sag a bit, as if they could benefit from a gym membership? Do your tires bring to mind Montel Williams, Captain Picard, or Yul Brynner? Do you own a tire pressure gauge? (And if so, do you know where it is?)

If you’re like me, you take your tires for granted. You’re not sure what condition they’re in, whether you need new ones, or even how to shop for tires. And if you’re like me, this uncertainty makes you a little nervous, because we all know that bad tires can lead to bad accidents.

What Is a Tire, Anyway?

Oh my--a tire is so many things. Historically, it’s a descendant of the wheel, mankind’s first step toward industrial progress. Philosophically, it is a circle, a symbol of eternity, of that which never ends, of freedom. Scientifically, a tire is the device that acts against the inertia of your car, moving it, stopping it, and fighting centrifugal force at every turn.

But most importantly, a tire is what keeps you from being plastered to the roadway like an unfortunate opossum.

To learn more about tires, I visited a local tire store and beleaguered my anonymous source–we’ll call him Deep Tread (what else?)–with questions. He kindly showed me a slice from a real tire. It looked something like the letter U.

Body: The body of a tire (also tastefully called "the carcass") is made of synthetic or natural rubber. It includes chemicals to reinforce the rubber, keep it from degrading, and help it adhere to the road.

Bead: See those little flaps at the top of the U? Those represent the tire’s beads, the steel-cable-reinforced inner edges of the tire that seal against the tire’s rim.

Cords: Running through the body of a tire from bead to bead are strong polyester cords that help smooth your ride. Most car tires today are radial tires, which means that the polyester cords run straight across the tire from bead to bead. This particular formation decreases rolling resistance and increases tread life and gas mileage.

Sidewalls: The sides of the U represent the sidewalls. All sorts of information about the tire is molded into the outside sidewall, and several cosmetic options are available (including whitewalls, solid white letters, outline white letters, etc.).

Treads: At the bottom of the U is an extra pad of rubber forming the treads, the part of the tire that makes contact with the road. The channels between the treads, which siphon away water and allow air circulation, are called sipes.

Steel belts: Between the treads and the polyester cording you will find one or two steel belts (hence the term "steel-belted radials") that protect against punctures and keep the tread area firm, increasing your gas mileage.

Tire Maintenance

Before I started on this article, I’d gone out and bought a spankin’ new set of tires. The tires that came with my car (the original equipment, or "OE" in auto lingo) had exceeded their life expectancy by so many miles that I considered them among the living dead.

I worried that my tires had worn to fragile membranes that would rupture on the highway. I feared I would spiral out of control, gore chunks from nearby cars, perform a sloppy double tuck over the highway median, and (if I was lucky) barely escape the massive explosion that would launch me and my hunky male protagonist through the air only to land–singed, breathless, and wildly attracted to each other–on the gravel shoulder. Lucky indeed.

I went to the tire shop, told them the make, model, and year of my car, and said I wanted tires that would last for 80,000 miles. Their computer told them what size tires to use, and they chose the particular tires from their stock (based, I believe, on whether they had a matching set of four). The price they quoted seemed reasonable, and a few hours later, I was feeling much better with my new tires.

I may have bought myself peace of mind, but did I buy good tires? Did I even need new tires?

Here is what I should have done before I replaced my tires (and what I should have been doing once a month). These maintenance steps will keep your tires safe and happy, which in turn keeps you safe and happy. You’ll get more miles out of your tires, and you may even improve your gas mileage.

Check Your Tread Depth

Got a penny? (If not, check between your sofa cushions.) Stick Mr. Lincoln headfirst into the channels between your tire treads. If you can see all of his head, your treads are too shallow (they should be at least 1/16" deep) and you need new tires. Some tires are made to show flat bands across the treads when it’s time to replace the tire. Chances are, Mr. Lincoln’s head will be partially hidden by the treads, indicating your tires are safe. But while you’re down there, remove any embedded pebbles or other debris; these can work their way into your tire, causing a leak. If you see no treads at all and you’re not the owner of an Indy race car, walk–don’t drive–to the tire store.

Check Your Air Pressure

My anonymous source, Deep Tread, confided that most of his customers arrive at the shop with under-inflated tires. As it turns out, under-inflation is the leading cause of tire failure, not punctures.

You know all those pieces of tire you see on the highway? They’re known as road alligators. Most people think road gators are the detached treads from retreaded tires (see the links below), but most road gators are actually from new tires that were under-inflated.

If your tire treads are more worn on the outside edges than in the middle, under-inflation is probably the culprit. On the other hand, over-inflation decreases a tire’s traction and causes excessive wear in the middle of the tread. Proper inflation maximizes traction, minimizes tread wear, increases gas mileage, and keeps you safe.

If you have a tire-pressure gauge and you know where it is, good for you. You’re doing better than I am. (Don’t have a pressure gauge? You can buy one for cheap from the Tire Industry Safety Council.)

Now check your air pressure. (See Car Care Basics for instructions.)

Is your air pressure correct?

Sorry, that was a trick question! You have no way of knowing what the correct pressure is for your tires until you look in one of 3 places:

1. Your trusty but neglected owner’s manual (which may refer you to #2 below);

2. The tire placard, a sticker located somewhere on your car (probably on a doorpost, on the edge of a door, or behind the gas panel);

3. The tire itself. (Molded right into the sidewall of your tires is the maximum pressure to which the tires can be inflated. Never exceed that amount.)

Now do you know whether your air pressure is correct? Not necessarily. Measuring tire pressure can be tricky. Because air expands when it warms, a tire with the same amount of air in it will have a higher psi (pounds per square inch) measurement in the summer than in the winter.

The same thing happens when you drive: the tire heats up, and air pressure increases 2-6 psi as a result. Remember that you should always measure the pressure when your tire is cold–after the car has been parked for at least three hours. If you need to drive to a service station to check your air pressure, drive no more than one mile.

If you’ve read your owner’s manual or tire placard and measured your air pressure, you now know whether your tires need more air. Service stations usually have an air compressor you can use for free to fill your tires. If the machine has a pressure gauge, don’t trust it–exposure or abuse (even psychos with crowbars need properly inflated tires) can make it inaccurate. Double-check with your own pressure gauge.

A tire can lose 1-2 pounds of pressure every month in cold weather, more in warm weather. Check all your tires (ideally) once a week or (at least) once a month–and that means your spare, too. After all, what good is your spare if it is as flat as the tire you’re replacing? If you have a compact temporary spare, refer to your owner’s manual for its proper inflation pressure.

Rotation, Balancing, and Alignment

Rotation means moving your wheels from one axle to another and from one side of your car to another. Have your tires rotated regularly, at least every 6,000 miles. (Check your tire warranty to see how often you must rotate your tires to keep the warranty valid.) Rotation will make your tires wear more evenly and last longer. Deep Tread recommends that you have your tires rotated every other oil change. (You are changing your oil every 3,000 miles, right?)

Balancing your wheels fixes uneven weight distribution around your tire. After your tire specialist places the tire on the rim, he uses a machine to determine the heaviest point on each side of the tire. He will then place a weight opposite these points. Balancing keeps your car from shuddering at high speeds.

Your wheels should be aligned any time you buy new tires. According to Deep Tread, improper alignment can cause your car to pull to one side and can create uneven wear on your tires.

How to Buy New Tires

Before you plunk down your hard-earned nickels, make sure you understand what you’re buying.

Read Your Tire

If you’re in the market for new tires, start with the fine print. The Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) not only set the safety requirements for tire manufacture, but also stipulate that the manufacturer must mold all sorts of useful information right onto the tire itself. (Click here for a good visual guide from Goodyear.) Your tire will tell you how it’s constructed, how big it is, and what load it can carry, just for starters. All of this information will also appear on a sticker placed on the treads of the tire.

Among the most useful information on the sidewall of a tire is the Uniform Tire Quality Grading System (UTQG) rating for treadwear, traction, and temperature resistance. On your tire, the rating looks like this: "TREADWEAR 400 TRACTION A TEMPERATURE B," or simply "400 A B." The UTQG was established by the federal government to help buyers compare tires. (Since the tire manufacturers grade their own tires, keep in mind that the UTQG rating may be more useful when comparing tires from the same manufacturer.)


The treadwear grade is not based on the actual mileage you will get out of your tire, but on the life expectancy of your tire relative to that of a tire graded 100. A tire graded 200 will last twice as long as a 100 tire. My tire is graded 560, so it will last 5.6 times longer than a tire graded 100 by this manufacturer.


The traction grading is very important. What else is your tire for but to provide traction? As you may have heard, your brakes don’t stop your car–the tires do. The best traction grade is AA, followed by A, B, and C. Tires graded C meet the minimum FMVSS standards.

Temperature Resistance

Simply put, temperature resistance is your tire’s ability to resist heat buildup and to dissipate heat. If your tires get too hot, the rubber can start to break down. Extremely high temperatures can even cause your tire to blow. If you ever plan to drive for more than an hour at highway speeds, it’s best to get tires with a higher temperature grade. The highest is A, followed by B, then C. As with traction, a tire graded C meets the minimum FMVSS standards. My tires are graded B, which is less than I would have chosen had I done my research, since I often drive at highway speeds for prolonged periods.

Types of Tires

Now that you understand how tires are rated, you’ll need to choose the type of tire that best suits your car and your driving habits.

All-Season Tires

Your basic tire is the all-season tire, designed to handle a certain amount of rain, mud, and snow. If you have an all-season tire, your sidewall will carry the designation M+S for "mud and snow." Your basic tire is also interchangeable–the same tire can go in any position on your car.

Performance Tires

High-performance cars, especially those with rear-wheel drive, may come with performance tires instead of all-season tires. Performance tires are made of a softer rubber designed to stick snugly to the road, and therefore don’t last as long as all-season tires. Their treads also don’t handle snow very well.

Snow Tires and Tire Chains

Deep Tread informs me that snow tires, all but abandoned in favor of the all-season tire, are making a comeback with owners of high-performance cars. Snow tires can handle winter better than performance tires, so some car owners are storing their performance tires in the winter. If you’re thinking about getting studded snow tires or chains for your regular tires, check to see if your community allows their use, and when.

Directional Tires

Some brands of tires are directional, meaning that the tread pattern must face the same direction on all four tires. Tires designed to handle a lot of water on the road are often directional, with the direction of rotation indicated on the tire’s sidewall. As many Corvette owners know, tires can also come in pairs: a left tire and a right tire. If you own or buy this kind of tire, remember to point them out to the service technician when you have them rotated.

Get the Biggest Bang for Your Buck

Okay, perhaps "bang" isn’t the best word to use when discussing tires, but you know what I mean. When you buy tires, know what you’re paying for. Wheel balancing and alignment should be included, and many dealers offer lifetime tire-rotation service.

Your invoice may also include a tire disposal fee, as mine did. Ask your dealer what will happen to your old tires. Deep Tread informed me that his old tires are recycled, which gave me a warm glow. Then I asked how they were recycled. I was disappointed to hear that in my area, the primary recycling options seem to be shredding the tires for use on landfill roadbeds and burning the tires for fuel. (That must be where my warm glow came from.)

If recycling tires is important to you, call around and try to find a dealer who sends tires to be retreaded. If you’re really into recycling, you may even consider buying retreads yourself, rather than new tires.

Rubber manufacturers are also researching ways to reclaim the raw materials from tires for other uses. Make sure your tires aren’t going to be dumped in a big pile with 10,000 other used tires–such tire dumps are fire hazards and prime mosquito breeding grounds. (Mosquitoes lay their eggs in water that has collected in the tires.)

Tire Dos and Don’ts

Do be aware that the use of aerosol tire inflators and sealants–handy as they may be when you have a flat–can void your tire warranty.

Do make sure to tell your tire repair person if you used an aerosol inflator or sealant. The gases forced into your tire are flammable, and a metal-on-metal spark could cause a movie-worthy explosion. Plus, in the words of my tire-store sources, spray inflators also make the inside of a tire "goopy and icky."

Don’t judge your tire pressure by how your tire looks. Hint: squinting one eye and kicking the tire won’t help. Radial tires are notorious for looking low on pressure when they’re not.

Do, if you are changing your own flat tire (or directing the poor schlep who is), put your compact temporary spare on your rear axle if you have front-wheel drive and on your front axle if you have rear-wheel drive. Your best tires should be on the drive axle.

Don’t, if you are stuck in mud, ice, or snow, spin your tires madly in an effort to escape. This can cause severe heat buildup and can make your tire explode like beans in a microwave.

Do, if you are stuck in mud, ice, or snow, rock your vehicle gently back and forth by shifting from drive or second gear to reverse. It may not get you unstuck, but your tires won’t explode. If you can’t get out, call a tow truck.

Don't drive with less than the recommended air pressure in your tires during the winter. Many people allow their tire pressure to dip 5 psi below recommendations under the misconception that doing so will improve traction on ice and snow. It won't, and you may damage your tires.

Do check your winter tire pressure: as the weather gets colder, the air pressure in your tire will naturally drop as the air cools and compresses. Add the necessary amount of air to keep your tires inflated properly.

Tire Terminology

bead: the cable reinforced edge of a tire that forms the seal with the rim.

bias-ply: a tire with cording running diagonally across the tire from bead to bead.

carcass: the rubber body of a tire.

cording: polyester cord that reinforces the rubber body of the tire.

FMVSS: Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards.

psi: pounds per square inch, a measurement of air pressure.

radial: a tire with polyester cording running straight across the width of the tire from bead to bead.

retread: a used tire that has had the original tread buffed off and replaced with a new tread.

rim: the metal "center" of the wheel that holds the tire.

sipe: the channels or grooves between the raised treads.

steel belt: a strong woven steel mesh that makes the tread area stronger and firmer.

tread: the part of the tire that makes contact with the ground.

UTQG: Uniform Tire Quality Grading System.

wheel: the rubber tire and the metal rim together.

Get on the Stick

When I learned how to drive a stick shift, I became a woman. Or rather, I stopped thinking of myself as girlish and started thinking of myself as womanly. Those of you who drive a stick know exactly what I mean.

For starters, you know how good it feels to debunk the old myth that women don't drive stick, that standard transmissions are the province of hairy-chested men in red sports cars. Truth be told, it's a silly myth anyway. The split over automatic and manual transmissions isn't so much a male/female thing as it is an American thing.

This year, only 10% of U.S. cars will be manufactured with standard transmissions. By contrast, most cars sold Europe today have standard transmissions. (Chalk it up to Europe's astronomical gas prices--standards are more fuel-efficient than automatics).

Of course, once upon a time, standard transmissions reigned in the U.S. as well. In 1950, virtually all automobiles were manually controlled. Automatic transmissions were a product of technology during World War II, but it wasn't until 1955 that automatic transmissions became an option. (Oddly enough, in sales jargon, automatic transmissions are still considered an "option," even though 90% of buyers choose automatics.)

Debunking gender myths is fine and good, but standard transmissions offer something even more important: Control. My introduction to the joys of stick came when my husband and I were shopping for our first new car. Sure, we'd had other cars, but this was different. No hand-me-downs like our red 1975 Chevy Impala, a gas-guzzling behemoth bigger than Yemen, or our 1974 Olds '98, a Percy Milquetoast of a car nicknamed "the Goose" for the ear-splitting honk it emitted whenever we turned a corner.

Worst of all was our Trojan horse — a pale yellow Plymouth Horizon Spider Miser, named for its anorexic fuel appetite and a spider decal that covered the entire hood. (How's that for an option?) In a completely misguided gesture of generosity, my in-laws had made the $1000 down payment on this mutant without consulting us first, leaving us with $250 monthly payments we couldn't even afford.

I hated that car and it hated me back. The door locks would freeze in the slightest chill, forcing me to climb through the hatchback in my office parking lot. And once it tried to ruin my reputation, if not my career, by coughing up a pair of panties in the front passenger seat, a la Pet Sematary, when I was assigned to drive a political dignitary to an appointment. (They weren't even nice panties.)

We were overdue for a change of image. This was during the mid-1980s recession, height of the Japanese import invasion, and my ever-practical husband thought a Honda Accord was the way to go. In a serendipitous twist of fate, we ended up going to see a used Honda at a Saab dealership.

While my husband talked loans and interest rates with a rather languid, suspiciously blonde salesman, I saw it. Love at first sight. A 1985 black Saab 900 Turbo SPG with a sleek, curvy hard-body and saddle-brown leather seats. It was, in a word, me. Or rather, the me I wanted to be, the me I decided to be right then and there.

In a single prescient moment, I did a most unladylike thing. I interrupted.

"That's the one," I said. "I want that car."

The salesman turned and really looked at me for the first time.

"It's a beautiful car," he said, with an ever-so-slight smile, "but it has a standard transmission. Can you drive a stick?"

His voice was measured, a tone usually reserved for people wearing braces on their heads. It was my cue for a girlish giggle or a lapse into self-deprecation. Instead I peeled my gaze from the Black Swede and slowly focused on the salesman as if I were dimly aware of his presence and mildly surprised he could speak. It was a trick I knew from working in politics, where people make careers out of dissing each other in subtle and untraceable ways.

"No," I said flatly. "But for that car, I will learn."

Of course, this was easier said than done. Like changing a typewriter ribbon, driving a stick is one of those skills that's fallen victim to the technological age--among men and women. But my motivation was literally a driving force: I had to learn how to operate a stick shift in order to drive the Saab to work.

The task of teaching me fell to my husband. Unfortunately, he gets motion sickness just watching a tot dance the Hokey Pokey. But he stuck with me as I lurched and surged my beautiful car through unfamiliar neighborhoods, killing the engine, popping the clutch, grinding the gears, and breaking into a flop-sweat whenever anyone pulled up behind me at a stop sign. All the while, my husband's head whipped around like John Travolta's on the mechanical bull in Urban Cowboy. At one point, he got so nauseous, he jumped out of the car and lay on a stranger's front lawn in an attempt to anchor himself in a world spinning wildly out of control.

For my part, I'd never known what a full-body workout driving a car could be--finding the balance between the clutch and the brake and the accelerator (three pedals, but only two feet), not to mention the simultaneous upper body demands of handling the steering wheel and the stick. Saabs tend to have sticky shifts, something I learned to enjoy later--the feel of muscling the car into gear--but early on, I felt like a groping adolescent manhandling the car to get to third base, er, gear.

Even today, standard transmissions are standard on most Saab models. Now Saab is a division of GM, having been spun off from its Swedish parent, a manufacturer of aircraft. In a nod to its aviation beginnings, the ignition is on the floor by the gearshift, making that twist of the key feel like you're powering up heavy machinery. Saabs park in reverse, start in neutral, and have five gears. The first is a mere howdy-do. Turbo kicks in with second, picks up power with third, finds its level with fourth, and hits cruising altitude with fifth.

Once I got the hang of it, I was hooked. I learned to listen and feel the vibrations of the engine, sensing its readiness for a higher or lower gear. While I drove, I thought about the obvious metaphors--how important it is to sense the changes in the undercurrents of your life and shift accordingly--up to avoid collision, down on rough terrain. As I gained confidence with the stick, I mused on subjects like Chinese foot-binding, wondering if that barbaric practice was really much different than the silly way women--myself included--sometimes hobble themselves with can't and shouldn't. And I thought about my grandmother, a twentieth-century anachronism who died in 1991. She was 90 years old, and she never learned how to drive, leaving herself completely dependent on others--a picture of self-effacing girlishness to the bitter end.

I know you're waiting for the Freudian references, and you won't get them from me. Okay, maybe one. Freud asked, "What do women really want?" I think women want control over their own destinies. We want to know that in the B-movie of life, if Swamp Thing is chasing us and we have to save a school bus full of orphans, we won't faint, or worse, sit there saying "But I can't drive a stick!" Girls want someone to save them. But a woman--a real woman, the kind that waits for no Steven Seagal--would grind the clutch, pop the bus into reverse, flatten Swamp Thing, and move it on up to cruising speed, aiming for open road, resting her right hand lightly on the smooth knob of the stick.

How to Negotiate a Fair Settlement when Your Car Has Been Totaled

Grit your teeth and picture this: You're driving to work one morning, minding your own business, when suddenly a large truck runs a red light and smashes into your car, spinning you off the road and into a pole. When the world finally comes to a stop, you are happy to discover that you're still alive. You are happy you were wearing your seatbelt. You are happy that you didn't pee in your pants.

You aren't so happy, though, when you climb out and survey the damage. Your car--that trusty Honda Accord--is a goner. The front end looks like an elephant sat on it.

As if you weren't feeling cheery enough, the insurance adjuster calls a few days later and tells you that your car is a "total loss." This is the news you were dreading...

Welcome to the School of Hard Knocks

When your car is totaled in an accident, it's usually a lose-lose situation. Not only will the insurance company try to give you as little money as possible, but you'll also have to spend time (and often additional money) shopping for a replacement car.

However, you don't have to let a wrecked car wreck your life. With a little homework and smart negotiation, you can ensure that you get a fair settlement.

How a Claim Works

An insurance claim for an auto accident will result in a property-damage settlement and--if injuries are involved--a personal-injury settlement. These two kinds of settlements are calculated separately. This article deals only with property-damage settlements. (For advice on settling personal injury claims, visit How to Negotiate a Fair Personal Injury Settlement.)

After the accident, the insurance adjuster will examine the damage to you car and decide whether it can be repaired or whether it's headed for the junkyard. If it can be repaired, you'll go through a process of obtaining estimates from repair shops. If it's a total loss, the adjuster will offer you a settlement (a sum of money) for your car.

Notwithstanding all those touchy-feely insurance commercials, you and your adjuster will be at crossed purposes. You want him to write a big check; he wants to write a little one--it's as simple as that. (One of the ways insurance companies make money is by maximizing the premiums they collect and minimizing the settlements they pay out.)

What Is a "Total Loss"?

Here's how it works: When the cost of repairing a wrecked car exceeds 70% of its value, insurance companies will generally "total" the car rather than pay to have it fixed. In other words, they will buy the car from you and then sell it for scrap. If you own an older car (i.e. one with a relatively low book value), chances are that your car will be totaled in any significant accident.

Who Determines What the Car Is Worth?

The insurance adjuster will determine a value for your car. However, used-car values aren't carved in stone, and neither is the adjuster's figure. That's where your homework and smart negotiation will come into play.

If, in the end, you're unable to arrive at a mutually agreeable figure, you can always sue the insurance company, but that's expensive and time-consuming for both parties, and neither you nor the adjuster really wants to go to court.

How Is the Car's Value Determined?

In deciding how much to pay you for your car, the insurance company considers only the vehicle's current market value in your geographical region. They do not take into account the car's value to you--your emotional attachment to it, the peace of mind you enjoyed from knowing the car's history, or the time and effort you put into regular repair and maintenance. (Yep--more hard knocks.)

The insurance adjuster will begin by consulting a used-car price guide. The three top price guides are published by the National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA) (, Kelley Blue Book (, and Edmunds Used Car Prices & Rating ( Most insurance companies prefer NADA.

The adjuster may also assemble a list of comparables--cars like yours that are currently being offered for sale in your area. The advertised prices for these comparables will be used to establish a value for your car by means of (you guessed it) comparison.

Do Your Homework

Before you meet with the adjuster, you should do your own research on your car's market value and have in mind a settlement amount that's acceptable to you. You'll basically be using the same approach as the adjuster.

Start with the price-guides (NADA, Kelley Blue Book, and Edmunds). All three offer free value quotes on their websites. Be sure to print out the values so you'll have documentation to show the adjuster. (Note: The price guides will provide you with both trade-in values and retail values. The settlement will be based on a retail value, which is the same thing as a "market value.")

Chances are, your research will turn up a range of values. Take the car in our example--a Honda Accord EX 2-Door Coupe with 100,000 miles, in excellent condition (before the wreck, that is.)

On September 19, a price-guide search produced the following average market values:

  • Edmunds Used Car Prices & Rating: $6,675
  • Kelley Blue Book: $6,075
  • NADA: $6,250 ($7,325 high retail value)

As you can see, the values differ by as much as $600 (or $1,250, if you take into account NADA's high retail figure).

Chances are, the insurance adjuster will offer you a settlement near the low end of the range. Your job is to convince him to settle near the high end of the range.

Make a list of any factors that would increase the value of your car beyond "average" retail, such as low mileage, aftermarket upgrades and add-ons (such as a new stereo system), and non-standard options. (The price guides will specify which options are standard for your make, model, and year.)

Next, compile your own list of comparables. Start with your local newspaper's classified ads. Many newspapers have websites that will allow you to search the classified ads of many papers in your region or state. You may also consult local car-trader magazines, which can be purchased at most gas stations and convenience stores.

When possible, find cars exactly like yours--same make, model, and year, with comparable mileage and condition. You're looking for the most expensive ones you can find. Once you've identified a handful of such cars, clip or print the ads so you can show them to the adjuster.

You probably won't be able to find cars identical to your own, but come as close as you can. The more accurate the comparables, the stronger your negotiating position.

Car values often vary by region, and you want an insurance settlement that will allow you to replace your car without your having to travel hundreds of miles to find one at the right price.

Ideally, your comparables will exceed the price-guide values. When you negotiate with the adjuster, your argument will go something like this: "I know the NADA guide says my Honda is worth $6,250, but as you can see from my comparables, I can't replace the car here in Bloomington for any less than $7,000."

Go back to the newspaper website and check your comparables periodically to see if any of them have sold. Documenting such sales makes your case stronger. The adjuster may look at one of your comparables and say, "That's not a realistic comp. That guy may be asking $8,000 for his 1991 Accord, but he'll never get that much." And then you can smile and say, "Oh, but he did."

Finally, call your local Department of Motor Vehicles and ask what costs are associated with the purchase of a car. Typical costs include:

  • A title transfer fee.

  • A license-plate transfer fee.

  • An emissions test fee (if they're required in your state).

  • Sales tax.

You'll want the insurance settlement to cover these fees and taxes in addition to the value of your car.

Rental Cars

The insurance company is also obliged to supply you with a rental car until you can buy a replacement car. The first time you speak with the adjuster, ask which rental company they use, and how to arrange payment. In general, you can expect the insurance company to provide a car for a period beginning on the day of the accident and lasting 7-10 days after you receive the settlement, which should give you enough time to buy another car. Usually, you're entitled to a rental car comparable in size to your own.

After you've settled the claim and returned the rental car, it's a good idea to check back with the adjuster to make sure he's taken care of the billing. If he forget, the rental-car company will try to stick you with the bill.

A Word about Adjusters

Before you negotiate with an adjuster, it's helpful to have an understanding of his job. Like most of us, adjusters have bosses, and those bosses want the adjuster to settle claims as quickly and cheaply as possible. An adjuster who goes around handing out high settlements will soon find himself in the unemployment line.

In the long run, the adjuster's goal is to minimize the amount of money he pays out to claimants. However, the average adjuster, faced with a constant stream of claims, will end up over-paying on some claims and under-paying on others.

It stands to reason, then, that an adjuster is more likely to over-pay on a small claim than on a large claim. In other words, if you're negotiating on a $2,000 car instead of a $20,000 car, the adjuster may be more flexible.

Also, most adjusters are authorized to write a check up to a certain amount with no questions asked from their supervisor. This amount depends upon the adjuster. More experienced adjusters will generally be allowed to write bigger checks without having to consult their supervisors for approval.

It's also worth noting that adjusters have more leeway in personal-injury settlements than in property-damage settlements. On a $5,000 car, for instance, the adjuster may have only $500 wiggle-room to negotiate. If you're shooting for a figure well above market value, you'll probably be out of luck.

Tips for Negotiating with Adjusters

At some point--either in person or over the phone--the adjuster will offer you a settlement amount for your car. By now, you've done your homework and arrived at a settlement figure you're willing to accept. If the adjuster's figure is less, the negotiation process begins. Follow these tips to insure that you get a fair settlement.

  • First of all, be calm and polite at all times. Insurance adjusters deal with angry people all day long. If you're rude to the adjuster, he can play hardball with you and not feel bad about it. Let the adjuster see you for what you are--a nice, honest person who's just trying to get a fair shake.

  • Let the adjuster make the first offer. You don't want to say, "I'll take $6,000 and not a penny less!" because for all you know, the adjuster was prepared to pay $6,500.

  • If the adjuster offers you a low settlement, politely ask him how he arrived at his figure. If he used one of the price guides, have your (higher) figures from the other price guides handy.

  • If the adjuster compiled a list of comparables, ask to see them. Look for weaknesses in his list. Did your car have any options (such automatic transmission or air conditioning) that are missing from his comparables? Are his comparables drawn from a distant region? The argument you're trying to make is that your (higher) comparables are in fact more accurate and applicable than his are.

  • When an adjuster does over-pay on a claim (that is, when he ends up paying more than his initial offer), he needs to have some documentation to justify the settlement. By providing him with this documentation yourself (your price-guide research and comparables), you make his job easier, and you demonstrate to him that you are well prepared and well informed (i.e. not some dupe that he'll be able to under-pay).

  • If your adjuster makes a low offer and he's unwilling to budge, ask to speak with his supervisor. This, however, should be a last resort--once you go over the adjuster's head, you'll be on his black list.

  • AFTER the adjuster has made an offer you find satisfactory, tell him thanks, you'll accept the settlement IF he'll also kick in money to cover sales tax, title transfer, plate transfer, and (if it's required in your state) an emissions test. At this point, he'll be eager to settle the claim and probably give you the additional money (which should be included in the settlement anyway, and he knows it). Also, if you've paid for a rental car out-of-pocket, be sure that's included in the settlement, too.


Comparables - Cars for sale which are used to help establish the value of your (totaled) car by means of comparison.

Insurance adjuster - Insurance company employee who negotiates and settles claims (i.e. the person who writes you the check).

Property-damage settlement - The money an insurance company pays to repair or replace your car, plus additional costs such as a rental car.

Personal-injury settlement - The money an insurance company pays to compensate you for injuries sustained in an accident, including medical bills, lost wages, etc.

Settlement - Sum of money paid to you by the insurance company, usually in the form of a check. Your acceptance of this check constitutes the "settling" of the claim.