Scrapping my car versus repairing it: I'd like input!

My husband and I were sitting at the dining room table Sunday, just after breakfast and heard a slow crack, followed by a crash. We had the windows open so it was impossible to miss.
We race outside and see that Larry the Landlord's whomping willow had finally decided to fall over. The tree, dead a decade or more by now with a huge hole in the side, really does (did) look just like the whomping willow in the Harry Potter movies. The tenant, Derrek, begged Larry the Landlord to cut it down before the tree fell on one of his kids.

The whomping willow took out ten feet of our chain-link fence and landed on our car. Our property, Larry the Landlord's tree.
He should have cut down that tree ten years ago. It's been waiting to fall over since he pollarded it multiple times, finally killing it.

The fence estimate was $900 but we can do the work ourselves for much, much less.

The problem is the car.
It's a 2011 Ford Focus sedan with 86,000 miles on it. It's our only car and we can't afford another. Indie writers, you know, with an indie writer income to match. Larry the Landlord is digging in his heels about making good. The Ford Focus has been a good little car, we maintain it carefully, and we've never had any problems with it. I expected to reach 200,000 miles before replacing it, kicking and screaming.

USAA claims that the car, according to the body shop estimate, is totaled because of its age. That is, the repairs to make it perfect will run about $4000. Yet I can't buy a replacement car of similar value for $4000!

When did it become better to replace a car rather than repair it? The frame isn't twisted. All the damage is confined to the rear passenger side. The gas tank opening is unaffected, as is the trunk operations, and the lights. It drives fine. The rear passenger side tail-light is cracked, there are some dents, and the side panel detached itself, but my husband pushed it back into place. The bumper is fine too. We are told it won't pass inspection because of the tail-light cracks and I can't just cover up the missing section with clear tape. Pennsylvania can be picky.

$4000! $4000 to repair and USAA wants me to scrap the car and buy another as if I'm made of money. This is just crazy. Unlike the fence, we can't fix it ourselves as we aren't shade-tree mechanics and our local shade-tree guy moved away. I don't care if the replacement part is the same color as the rest of the car. Cars are transportation, not an important part of my self-image.

$4000 to do basic repairs. Oh, and I'll have to get a salvage title for the car, too, since USAA says we have to because the damage is more than the worth of the car.

This is all crazy, deeply frustrating, and eating up huge amounts of my time.


Teresa from Hershey

David Trammel's picture

Its a sad fact of life that insurers low ball you on damages. The book might say your car is only worth a few hundred dollars but try to find a replacement for that. You don't mention how much the insurer is offering to pay for the car.

I bought my current second car, a 1999 Ford Ranger small pickup truck for $3000 a few years back. Its got a few minor dents but has been a reliable workhorse for me. I'd see what you could find around your area. I would also get back to your insurer and hound them to give you at least a few weeks of a rental since that is your only transportation.

And yes, the cost of repairing a car is outrageous. Luckily my current landlord is also a auto mechanic (and old family friend).

(BTW, got the copy of your book. Teresa and it looks amazing! A green wizard handbook indeed. I'm looking forward to having the time to read it fully soon and will definitely write up a review here. Thank you.)

Blueberry's picture

A picture of the damage would be nice, before making a suggestion.

SLClaire's picture

Would you consider the possibility of using a small claims court to present a case to have Larry pay for the car repair? From what you've said, Larry had been seriously negligent in not having the tree removed, and this seems like the sort of thing small claims court was designed to deal with.

If it were me this happened to, I'd first check into the settlement limits that small claims courts can handle and how much the filing charge is. I wouldn't get a lawyer, but I would get as much documentation as I could get, like pictures of the tree over the years, the tenant's statement regarding his pleas and Larry's lack of action if the tenant's willing, my insurer's statement, and whatever else seems relevant. Then I'd decide if I thought it likely I'd win the claim.

If I decided it was worth filing, I'd first send Larry a formal letter indicating that I would file a small claims court case against him if he doesn't pay for repairing the car within the following month. That might be enough to convince him to pay up. If it wasn't, I'd take him to court, bearing in mind that a successful case doesn't always mean I'd get paid. I'd need to check into how small claims courts enforce judgements and keep that in mind as I decided if filing made sense.

About 22 years ago, I rear-ended a box truck at low speed, causing about $2500 worth of damage to the front end of the 1985 car we then owned but none to the truck. Our insurer totaled the car, but all that meant was that they paid us what they thought the value of the car was minus the deductible (very little, because we had a large deductible). We weren't required to get a salvage title, and we stayed with our insurer. The only change was that the insurer no longer allowed us to carry coverage on the body of the car, since it had been totaled. We then got the car repaired and continued to drive it another several years. I don't know why your insurer is requiring salvage title. It might be worth looking at the small print of your policy and talking with your agent to find out if the insurer can make that claim.

Hi all,

USAA will pay us just shy of $4000 to repair the car to make it 'like new' at Faulkner Collisions in Harrisburg. They claim that's all it's worth.

The damage is minimal. The rear passenger side taillight is cracked and broken across the clear part. We patched it with clear tape. The red part of the taillight was undamaged. The rear passenger side panel popped off. At least one of the attaching mechanisms was broken, but Bill was able to pop it back in place.
There are two small dents, each about the size of a softball in the rear passenger side panel. Supposedly these dents will allow rust inside the car, compromising it still further. The bumper is untouched and everything, including the trunk and the taillights, works exactly as it did before the whomping willow fell on the car.

WRT salvage titles and special inspections for cars with salvage titles: every state is different and Pennsylvania is no exception. Apparently some of what USAA is doing is because the state has its rules.

We have thought about small claims court, but there's the cost and the aggravation. Larry the Landlord is one of those people who takes joy in being difficult. We like our neighbors very much and don't want to see Larry find a reason to evict them. There is the risk that if Derek testifies on our behalf, he might do just that. The duplex next door has had a revolving cast of tenants, some of whom have been pretty bad. Derek and his family are nice people who want to stay.

We did fix the fence, using our redneck repair skills and parts from Lowes: $50 and two hours of time versus the $900 the fence company estimated.

Thanks again to everyone.

Teresa from Hershey

David Trammel's picture

Sounds like you got lucky and the damage is minor.

My family friend who owns a auto repair place will have his employees do a worthiness inspection for a small fee. They go over the vehicle and see if they can find anything that is wrong with it, or identify things that may go wrong in the future. Its a great service if you want to buy a car but are unsure of its condition. Have them identify what repairs have to be done so it passes inspection and which ones you can blow off might save you some money.

You don't say if a salvage title invalidates your car tags. Can you still drive it? How long until you have to have it inspected to renew your tags? In Missouri older cars can get 2 year plates. I've got a bug in one of my headlight wiring which means my headlight is out. Surprised I haven't been pulled over for it.

I've had a car or two that looked like crap but were good reliable vehicles. If you don't mind the looks perhaps you can use some of the $4000 and get it repaired to the point of drivablity and pocket the difference.

We just got back from Maguire Ford (where I bought the car and where I get all my routine maintenance done along with inspections).
Their collision and body people looked over the damage and gave me an estimate for $380. This is 10% of what Faulkner Collision wanted. They're also only fixing the damage instead of trying to return my 2011 vehicle to a pristine state like USAA seems to want.
I'm going with them. They can also schedule me so the repair doesn't take two weeks where I have to deal with rental cars.

A salvage title in PA is weird and I'm still not sure of the details. I may be able to cancel my claim with USAA, pay Maguire, and everything remains as it was. Or I may be forced to take USAA's payout, pay Maguire, buy my salvage title ($200), and pocket the difference.
In PA, a salvage title car has to have a very special, very thorough inspection to prove the frame isn't bent. The inspector takes pictures to file. After that, everything goes back to normal.
I think.
It's all been aggravating and this without any real damage or injury or hospitalization!

It's like it's complexity for its own sake.

Teresa from Hershey