Owning a Vehicle: 6 Costs You Might Not Have Considered

By: Katie Wornek, UHEAA

 

Owning a vehicle gives you more freedom to travel where you want on your own schedule. That’s one reason why Americans purchased more than 6.3 million cars in 2017. But, driving a personal vehicle comes at a cost for both the environment and your wallet. It’s important to understand the environmental and financial costs of owning a vehicle, then weigh those costs against your values and personal budget.

 

Most current or prospective vehicle owners can identify their basic monthly costs: a lease or auto loan payment, insurance, and fuel. But here are six vehicle ownership costs that might not be at the forefront of your mind:


1. Inspections and registration

All states require vehicle owners to license and register their vehicle (usually every year) in order to operate it. This comes with a fee that varies from state-to-state and vehicle-to-vehicle. Additionally, many states require you to pay for certain inspections before they will consider registering your vehicle. Emissions testing is one of the most common types of inspections – the map below shows which states require emissions testing:

2. Oil changes

All non-electric vehicles need oil, which has to be changed periodically. Different vehicles require oil changes at different intervals – usually anywhere from every 3,000 to 10,000 miles. It’s best to check in your owner’s manual or ask your dealer or mechanic about your vehicle’s specific oil change needs so you can budget accordingly.

 

3. Tires

Part of being a safe driver is knowing the condition of your tires. Wear and damage can lead to flat tires or blowouts, which endangers you and other drivers. New tires usually start with around 10/32 of an inch or more of tread that wears down as you drive. Tire manufacturers recommend rotating your tires periodically (which you may have to pay for) and replacing your tires when the tread has reached 2/32 of an inch (although you may want to replace them earlier if you drive on wet, icy, or otherwise treacherous roads). Your driving habits will make a difference in this cost – the more you drive, the more often you’ll need to purchase new tires.

 

4. Parking

From hourly rates to long-term passes, paying to park can add up quickly. Here are some common places you may encounter parking fees:

 

  • College or university campuses
  • Apartment complexes
  • Street stalls, parking lots, and parking garages – especially within large cities

 

5. Cleaning

Maintaining your vehicle’s external and internal appearance can improve your driving experience and increase future resale value. Washing your vehicle regularly removes abrasive or corrosive residues (such as mud, hard water, and road salt) that can damage your car’s paint or other exterior surfaces. Keeping your car’s interior surfaces and upholstery in good condition can also help retain your vehicle’s value. Although each individual trip to the car wash might seem inexpensive, the annual cost of keeping a clean car adds up.

 

6. Diagnostics and repairs

Planning for preventative service (like oil changes) is simple – it’s easy to map out when service is needed and what it will cost. Planning for repairs is much harder, because vehicle problems often appear unexpectedly and the price to fix them can vary greatly. It’s good to have an emergency fund established so that you are prepared for these unexpected costs. There are two circumstances where you might encounter the need for repairs:

 

General malfunctions

No vehicle lasts forever – every vehicle will encounter a mechanical, electrical, or software failure at some point. There are a number of ways to detect a problem with your vehicle. You might hear, see, or smell something out of the ordinary or you may notice an indicator light activate on your dashboard (your vehicle’s owner’s manual can help you interpret these lights). You may need to pay a fee to have a mechanic diagnose the problem, and you will likely have to pay for both parts and labor in order to get the issue resolved. Manufacturer warranties can sometimes help with repair costs, but be sure to read the terms and conditions of any warranty to understand what it will and will not cover.

 

Traffic accidents

If you are involved in a traffic accident, you may have to seek service at a mechanic and/or auto body shop. Insurance may be able to help offset the costs of repairs. If you were at fault in the accident, you will probably have to pay a deductible for your repairs in order to make an insurance claim. Your insurance company may also think it’s riskier to insure you after an accident, so your monthly insurance premiums may increase. If you were not at fault in the accident, the other driver’s insurance should cover the costs of repairs and your premiums will probably stay the same. Keep in mind that vehicle accidents can be complicated to resolve, and you may need to pay for traffic fines, medical treatment, or legal representation.


Understanding all of the costs of vehicle ownership can help you determine if having a vehicle is a luxury or a necessity. To calculate the full cost of ownership for your specific vehicle, check out Edmunds’ True Cost to Own™ tool.