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Unemployment + long list of suggested repairs for '98 Forester

Hi, folks.

I have a few car repair & maintenance dilemmas at the moment, and was hoping that folks here could help me out.

Here?s my situation: I recently finished my graduate degree, and I am completely unemployed and job searching. I have some money squirreled away to live on while I job hunt, but it will last a lot longer if I am using it to buy beans & rice than if I have to spend it all on car repairs.

I am planning to drive from North Carolina up to Boston and back in July for a road trip, and also need to take a trip out to the NC mountains (Chapel Hill to Asheville, roughly) in the next month.

I drive a 1998 Subaru Forester. It?s an automatic transmission, with roughly 129,000 miles on it. I?ve had the car for about 4 1/2 years now. I recently took the car in for an oil change at a local tire shop/mechanic with a decent reputation. They convinced me to get the 120,000 mile service done (a little late, I know). When I picked the car up, they had a long list of suggested repairs/maintenance that totaled up to about $2500. I have also had two issues with the car that they didn?t mention.

Given my financial situation and impending road trip, I?d love to hear your thoughts on what my options are with all of the repairs/issues. I?ve listed them all out below. I need to keep this car functional for the time being, but don?t want to sink too much $ into it because it?s starting to get old. When I have full-time employment again, I may consider purchasing a new vehicle ? but I?m not sure that it will be feasible to get a new car after I start working again, either ? maybe after another year or so.

ISSUES I HAVE NOTICED (after taking it to the Mechanic):

1. In the past 3-4 weeks, the airbag warning light has started to come on ? sometimes it?s after I?ve been driving for 10 minutes, sometimes it?s as soon as the car gets turned on (i.e., the airbag light does not shut off). The weather here has been hot (94 today!) ? not sure if this influences that.

2. The air conditioning is completely kaput. If I were just driving around town, I wouldn?t worry too much about this ? but the thought of taking a 12 hour road trip up to the Northeast without a/c in July makes me worry that my brain will fry in my skull, or that I?ll die of heatstroke. I would like to get it fixed, but I am afraid of the price. There is a local Meineke that is advertising free a/c checks, but I haven?t taken it there yet.


The mechanic did not say that anything was in imminent danger of breaking, but that these are recommended maintenance items, or in the case of the struts, that they were starting to show some wear.

3. Replace timing belt, drive belts, water pump.

Labor @ $442.50

Parts @ $494.91

Subtotal: $937.41

4. Ignition Tune-Up: includes replacing spark plugs

Labor @ $221.25

Parts @ $213.21

Subtotal: $434.46

5. Premium Transmission Flush, and transmission conditioner to system and road test. Remove lower splash shields and covers to gain access to transmission cooler lines where necessary. Disconnect transmission cooler lines from radiator and attach to transmission flush machine. Perform transmission fluid flush, top off fluid level, and re-check transmission operation.

Labor @ $80.00

Parts @ $116.15

Subtotal: $196.15

6. Brake System Flush. Perform hydraulic brake system flush, clean brake master cylinder reservoir, bleed and flush all lines to all four wheels, refill system with brake fluid per manufacturers specifications. Test for proper pedal height and road test.

Labor @ $80.00

Parts @ $28.75

Subtotal: $108.75

7. Front differential full synthetic service

Labor @ $37.50

Parts @ $49.90

Subtotal: $87.40

8. Rear differential full synthetic service

Labor @ $37.50

Parts @ $59.85

Subtotal: $97.35

9. Replace struts (front) ? (NOTE: The Rear struts were replaced in 2006.)

Labor @ $177.00

Parts @ $342.12

Subtotal: $519.12

So ? that?s the full list. What is most important? Is it critical that I get any of these items serviced before heading out on a 1,500 mile road trip? The financial piece of this puts my stomach in knots just thinking about it?

  1. the hot weather has no effect on the light. But that one would bother me. If you should get in an accident that one could cost you your life, or you could spend the rest of it in a motorized wheelchair. Get that one fixed. Or, perhaps when you get a quote on repairing it the entire perspective will change. This one may be $$$$$

  2. forget the AC. Most of the last 40+ years I’ve driven vehicles without AC. My brain has not fried (go away, demons, can’t you see it busy!). Open the windows and bring a small cooler with your favorite nonalcoholic drinks on ice.

  3. the timing belt is a risk. You’ll be over 10,000 miles overdue when you get back, and if that pops you’re toast. Price shop this one.

  4. You can do the ignition tuneup yourself with a $20 Haynes manual and an inexpensive torque wrench. The total cost will probably be around $100…and others here will argue against the need for a torque wrench. Our opinions on its importance vary.

5-9) these can all wait. You’ll only be putting another few thousand miles on it during the trip.

You have another option: rent a car for the trip and get these items fixed later.

I would do the timimg belt and water pump and any external belts showing excessive wear. Go to a good independent shop, not the dealer. This should cost you much less than listed in item #3.

I would also have the transmission fluid DRAINED (not flushed) and the filter replaced. That should cst about $100. Go to a good (non chain) transmission shop.

You can skip the other items for a while, until you have some money.

I would also skip the trip to the mountains, unless you are having an interview for a high paying job there!!! When you’re broke, it’s first things first.

I agree w/TSMB. And the good news might be that #1 (the air bag light) might be a ‘check it out’ warning based on time. When airbags first came out, makers didn’t know how long they’d last, so they put it time-based warnings. I don’t know how your car can tell it’s been about 10 years, but (here’s hoping) maybe that’s it. Get it checked, regardless. That check may have to be done at a dealer. Just don’t use the dealer for the other stuff, unless he’s got a good price.

Gee, such a long post. I didn’t read all of it (I got tired). But I did see your comment about no A/C. We used to drive to South Carolina from DC in the summer without A/C. I doubt that the human race has changed that much since then. Just lower the windows and put up with the noise. It will tire you more than if the A/C worked, but you can handle it. Cut the histrionics. Just because you will be a bit more uncomfortable is no reason to suggest your untimely death.

Thanks for the advice – unfortunately, the trip to the mountains is non-negotiable. I have to pick up some furniture items for a family member who purchased them the last time they were traveling in the area – no other way to do it but drive up myself, or hire someone (which would cost more $). Renting a car for the road trip also seems like it would be more $ than I could spare.

What are the pros/cons of having transmission fluid drained as opposed to flushed?

It’s unwise to go on a trip after ANY maintenance has been done. You need to have placed a few thousands miles on the car, after maintenance, before considering a trip.
It could be cheaper, for fuel, etc., to fly and rent a vehicle once there.

I was expecting to read a story about a car that needs immeditate attention yours is not one. There is nothing on your list that comes even close to needing the slightest bit of immeditate attention. Your economic situation says to limit your use of your car.

It bothers me that after you explained your situation to your mechanic the worked up a list like this.

I know the diffs could sieze the timing belt could break you could lose control of your car because you got dizzy due to no AC and because your struts were bad you ran off the road and couldnt stop because you had water in your brake fluid then when you got your car out of the ditch it would not start because it needed a tune up but you finally got it started and the trans was shot because you didn’t get it flushed and you had major facial injuries because your air bags did not deploy.

Flushing, the way it’s done in hose chain shops, will likely damage the transmission; it only works well if you DRAIN the fluid and change the filter first. Most posters will agree with this and your owner’s manual will not breathe the word FLUSH when it talks about transmission maintenance.

You relaitives must be capable of picking up their own furniture, rather than have a broke & unemplyed family member do it; it seems you are being taken advantage of.

Odds are your vehicle legitimately needs all of these services performed. You could probably delay some of them with one major exception and that’s the timing belt. If it is not known when this was last done then it should be a “must”.

Try changing the spark plugs yourself. Irritating maybe, but doable for a DIYer. And cheap.

You may be out of luck on the A/C. The car is 12 years old and odds are that it suffers from some refrigerant leaks with the most common one being the compressor shaft seal. You could possibly have it recharged with some seal conditioner added and this may or may not get it by for a while. It’s a coin flip.

Thanks to both of you.

I am not very confident in my auto DIY skills, honestly – my expertise ends with changing a tire. So, I’m not sure that’s a realistic option for me.

Texases, do you think it would be useful for me to mention to the dealer what you’ve explained about early airbags? Or just let them look at it on their own? I am worried about being taken advantage of, and want to get this done for as fair a price as possible.

Here is my list in order. Actually a 3000 mile trip isn’t too much for a decently maintained car. I am basing my recommendations on the 2003 maintenance guide I have for our Legacy and what Subaru recommended at that time. There may be some differences back to 98, but owned a 99 Legacy and did about the same on these items.

  1. Replace timing belt, drive belts, water pump.
    Labor @ $442.50
    Parts @ $494.91
    Subtotal: $937.41 Should have been done at 105K miles; critical.

  2. Ignition Tune-Up: includes replacing spark plugs
    Labor @ $221.25
    Parts @ $213.21
    Subtotal: $434.46

If you had a tune up at 120K, then not needed. last time plugs & air filter were changed out? My mechanic in KC area charges half this price, so need to know more about $213 in parts first.

  1. Premium Transmission Flush, and transmission conditioner to system and road test. Remove lower splash shields and covers to gain access to transmission cooler lines where necessary. Disconnect transmission cooler lines from radiator and attach to transmission flush machine. Perform transmission fluid flush, top off fluid level, and re-check transmission operation.
    Labor @ $80.00
    Parts @ $116.15
    Subtotal: $196.15

No. Drain & fill at most. Subaru guidance is to leave the spin on filter alone unless you need to break open the transmission. This vehicle AT is easy to service: drain and refill with same exact amount of fluid. Repeat two or three times until you get the good cherry red. Cost: 12 qts Dex III or equiv @ $3 and an oil drain pan.

  1. Brake System Flush. Perform hydraulic brake system flush, clean brake master cylinder reservoir, bleed and flush all lines to all four wheels, refill system with brake fluid per manufacturers specifications. Test for proper pedal height and road test.
    Labor @ $80.00
    Parts @ $28.75
    Subtotal: $108.75

I would do this, particular if it has been neglected. Normally done every 30K.

  1. Front & rear differential full synthetic service

Maintenance schedule says not needed for normal service; I would get it serviced, but don’t necessarily need synthetic; any GL-5 80W meets the requirement. Low priority.

  1. Replace struts (front) ? (NOTE: The Rear struts were replaced in 2006.)
    Labor @ $177.00
    Parts @ $342.12
    Subtotal: $519.12

Probably needed, but doubt if 5K more miles makes a difference, unless you have known issues. What do the front tires look like? I would rank it #3 after timing belt and tune up.

At 129K miles the timing belt should have been changed once already, do you know if it was ever changed? If not, then the timing belt job is needed, but the quote seems high. If it was replaced at 60 or 70K miles perhaps you can live dangerously through the summer. The other item is the struts, is the car “bouncing” when you push down on the front end? Are the struts leaking? If the car is handling ok and the struts still seem firm with little bouncing they can last a while longer.

Forget the AC, open the window and enjoy the fresh air. Man lived in cars with AC for years and still got where they needed to go. The brakes and differentials would likely benefit from new fluids but all the prices quoted are very high. Draining a refilling a differential should not entail $37.50 in labor. Pull the plug, drain. Put the plug back in and pull the fill plug and put in new fluid. No rocket science here.

There is a risk to deferring service, but sometimes the bucks aren’t there. The timing belt is concern #1.

My '98 Volvo had a sticker that said to change all the airbags after 10 years. Does anybody really do that with a 10 year old car? Perhaps that is what your airbag warning light is about. Wear your seat belts, don’t speed, and when you see a nut case on the road give them plenty of space.

Personally, I’d definitely get the timing belt/water pump done. If that belt breaks or jumps, you will be looking at a very expensive engine rebuild. The tune-up should be able to be done for less. You could do it yourself, or if the wires are in good shape, just do the plugs. I hate living without A/C in a car. This repair cost will depend on what it needs. If it just needs recharged, that could be less than $100. If it needs leaky lines replaced or a new compressor, it could be more than $600. The differentials can wait, but what’s with the “parts” cost? A gasket shouldn’t cost $60! Even synthetic gear oil isn’t that expensive, and there’s no harm using non-synthetic here either. I’d avoid the ‘premium transmission flush’ and just get it drained and refilled, and the filter replaced if needed.

Timing belt, drive belts and water pump that is it on your budget. Get a 2nd estimate $900 is way way too high. $500 is possible and it is not rocket science or difficult on this car.

The rest I honestly would wait till you get a job and see if you want to “maintain” or move on to something else.

The one absolute must–if you expect to keep driving this car–is the replacement of the timing belt.
It is grossly overdue for that vital maintenance procedure since it is supposed to be done by 105,000 miles or 8 years, whichever comes first. By a measure of elapsed time, it is overdue by at least 3 years, and by a measure of odometer mileage it is also overdue.

Since a timing belt gives no warning of its impending demise, and since this vehicle has an interference engine, when it snaps it will cause engine damage amounting to ~$1,500 over and above the cost of the timing belt, tensioners, water pump, and drive belts. Thus, if you do not have this procedure done a.s.a.p., you might as well skip all other maintenance since the engine will have a very limited life span as a result of not changing the timing belt.

Why is your A/C kaput? It’s not uncommon for a car this old to run out of refrigerant, then the compressor simply stops engaging to save itself. Did you have your A/C diagnosed yet? I tend to disagree with the others saying forget A/C.

Why not forget cell phones, computers, GPS’s, etc? It’s the 21st century and cars have A/C for a reason.

I agree with the O/P on the a/c concern esp. considering the “heat wave” that’s been going on lately.

Do the timing belt at a good independent mechanic, and have them evaluate the a/c. If it just needs recharging, plan on spending another $100 or so on it. The rest of this stuff can ride, especially considering freeway miles are the least stressful on your car.

Agree with Items #1 air bag time warning, and item #3 Timing belt [1500 mile trip risky if Not done] costs more than can afford so seek Indie good mechanic, at a lesser cost.
By the way, for A/c is very easy, you can get from AutoZone a DIY $28 buck A/C recharge kit with compressor lubricant, sealant and guage, and this worked on mine [1997 2.5L DOHC Outback 129K miles] at 13 year years old like a champ!
Spark plugs replacement may be harder than average cars but cheap, not expensive, and effective but not necessary, also items# 5-6-7-8-9 not nrcessary

Gee I hope he made it. Maybe the posts should be color coded or something for the month and year.

The only thing necessary is the timing belt, pump and plugs. Check hoses etc. The rest is absurd for an unemployed person. I think 1974 was the first car with air conditioning so that would have been about 25 years driving all over the country with no air. When it gets about 100, a wet towel in the lap or around the neck helps a lot.

Who resurrected this old thread?

FlyfisherOutback, this question was asked almost two months ago. I doubt leftcoasttransplant is still reading. Besides, you don’t even know if a recharge is what his air conditioning system needed. If it needs a new compressor, $28 for a recharge kit would be a complete waste of money.