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Leaking Head Gasket Repair Worth it?

Hi all,
I have a 2003 Honda Civic with 140k miles. It has a leaking head gasket which is causing the engine to overheat when driving slower without airflow to cool the engine. The local Honda shop has said it will be $1250 to fix, and might be an extra $300 if they have to send part of it away to be milled.

I would love to drive the car to 200k+ miles but if this is the first of many pricey fixes I want to cut my losses. Any thoughts/ experience with maintenance on similar models and mileage?

What part of the country is the work being done at? $1600 is not bad for a headgasket in a major metro area like DC or NYC.

The milling would be necessary if you continued to drive the car when all the coolant had boiled away and the heat warped the engine block… severely.

I would check reviews for the shop to see if anyone had done similar work. If it’s not something they do often, they may not be as practiced at doing it. You’ll know if the car makes noises because they forget some screws or a pulley.

In Boulder, Colorado.

I haven’t had the engine get to the redline heat and it hasn’t been going on very long so it sounds like I could be safe on that extra cost for milling.

Thanks for your ideas!

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All the Civics I’ve owned were bought either with a blown head gasket or a broken timing belt which require removal of the head.

First you want to determine if any coolant got into the crankcase. Pull out the oil dip stick and check the condition of the oil. If it has a chocolate milk appearance, coolant got into the oil and there’s high probability engine bearings were damaged so it wouldn’t be worth replacing the head gasket.

If no coolant got into the oil, then it’s worth replacing the head gasket.

Expect to have the head milled. Every head I’ve removed from a Civic needed to be milled, even when the engine wasn’t overheated.


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I’m sure you have a reliable, and honest mechanic. But I am a skeptic. If they tell you the head needs milling, ask them to show you.

Keep in mind, I’ve never asked myself. So I’m not sure if that is something they would do. the last time I had a head gasket done, I was in my 20s and not a quarter knowledgeable on auto repair as I am today. My 1986 volvo with 250K miles on it cost me $2500 for the head gasket repair down in Augusta, GA in 1993.

If I had a head gasket repair today and they told me the head needed to be milled, I would bring a metal straight edge and ask them to show me the warping.

Here’s a good youtube video to show you what they are looking for.

Over time, you’ll learn to stop and search out a repair on youtube. I find I’m able to do at least 50 percent of repairs to my car just by searching. Some fixes are so easy you wonder why they charge hundreds of dollars! But there are a lot of repairs I don’t care to do if they are too messy, complicated, time consuming, or require me to buy special tools.

Good luck!

I’m afraid that guy doesn’t know what he’s doing/talking about.

That’s not a precision straight edge that he’s using.


Thanks for the advice guys, I’m not too worried about them scamming me on the machining.

The part about coolant leak making oil looking like chocolate milk is good advice, thanks.

Any thoughts on how likely I will run into expensive problems soon after this? This is my main concern.

The car is in good condition other wise, the only issue is the front right strut has been leaking for the past 6+ years, every time I go in they say it will need to be fixed “next time”.

Max blue book value is $2800

This is a common repair for your vintage Civic. The price is in the ball park, @Tester mentions the timing belt, you want to get that replaced also. The Civic engine is very robust otherwise. You fix the head and belt and you will get many many more miles out of it.

Maybe you need to pause for a moment and consider the head gasket may not be faulty at all. If a head gasket is getting the blame for overheating then the engine should also overheat at speed; not just at idle and low RPM.

I’m also in agreement with Tester about the guy in that video.

Assuming the engine hasn’t already severely overheated at some point, I’d go ahead with the head gasket fix. Replacing a head gasket is a very common thing for a mechanic to do, so there’s little risk of a poor job. Especially on a common car like yours. This assumes you’re using a well recommended professional shop of course. The prices you mention seem quite reasonable. As mentioned above, plan on the need to have the head skimmed to flatten the surface. That’s almost always a wise thing to do. And if either the water pump or the timing belt is nearing the end of its expected life, now’s a good time for that too. You’ll likely end up with a very reliable ride for years, 200 k should be no problem. .

The only other considerations I’d give is structural rust and the state of the transmission, especially if an automatic.

Checking for signs of oil in the coolant and coolant in the oil makes sense. One other idea you might consider, make sure you really need a head gasket. Maybe get a second opinion on the diagnosis. Overheating is usually caused by problems other than head gaskets. Are you certain the radiator fan is spinning when it is overheating, and at the speed it should? Is the cooling system holding pressure? Is the coolant in the radiator full? Has all the air been bled out of the coolant? Have you tried replacing the radiator cap? The thermostat?

Is there white smoke? It is also an indication of blown headgasket or warped head.

That looked like an ordinary $5 or $10 steel ruler from Home Depot :smirk_cat:

And he literally got preechy towards the end, talking about religion and stuff like that :fearful:

I don’t really agree with replacing one head gasket only on a 6 or 8 cylinder engine. If one gasket has failed my assumption the other may not be far behind.

Around here the auto machine shop charges about 35 bucks to surface a cylinder head. Compare that to the cost of spray adhesive, roll of sandpaper, rounding up a sheet of tempered glass, and the elbow grease to sand it down.

On a high miles engine I always recommend a valve job and replacement of the valve seals at most or valve seals and inspection for valve leakage at a minimum.


I see the guy working in front of a carport at a modest looking apartment complex, clearly located on a pretty busy street . . . he might very well live in one of the units

I’m guessing he either doesn’t have the money, or he’s trying to save money and get out of there, and move on to a better situation