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What Exactly is the Check Engine Light

One only needs to open the hood on a late-model car to see it’s a complicated affair of electronics. The engine control module (ECM) uses these sensors and actuators to get the best performance and fuel economy out of every drop of gas. Software enables the ECM to adjust for most any driving scenario, low speed, high speed, hot days, cool days, even differing grades of fuel. Still, these electronics don’t last forever, parts can fail, and things just go wrong. The check engine light is the ECM’s only way to notify you that, just like in the movies, something has gone wrong. 

Sometimes the problem is obvious, and the check engine light illuminates about the same time as you feel the transmission shifting wrong or the feels like it has no power. Other times the problem isn’t so obvious, such as an evaporative emissions (EVAP) problem or wheel speed sensor (WSS) fault. Some problems may only manifest themselves in decreased fuel economy, which few drivers monitor regularly, or even years later as a clogged catalytic converter. Of course, in many States, you can’t pass emissions inspection with an illuminated CEL.

The real problem comes with trying to figure out why the CEL came on in the first place. Maybe you’ve considered getting a tune up or you’ve tightened your gas cap, but there’s no way to know why the check engine light came on unless you or someone you know has a scan tool and knows how to diagnose it. This brings up a valid question, then: “Who can diagnose my check engine light?” Auto parts stores may offer “free” CEL diagnosis, while your local auto repair shop might charge upwards of $100. Also, you could buy your own scan tool for $30 to $300, but would any of these options get you any closer to a repair? Should you pay for auto diagnostics?

As vague as the check engine light is, it doesn’t tell you what the problem is any more than the scan tool does when it reveals one or more of over 10,000 diagnostic trouble codes. Some DTCs are easier to interpret than others, but none of them give a direct answer, like “Replace the Finnigan Valve” or “Don’t Run the Engine When Refueling.” Therein lies the problem with free scanning and even DIY scanning. An “oxygen sensor code” doesn’t mean you should replace the oxygen sensor any more than an online post can diagnose your car from 3,000 miles away. Even statistical analysis can’t guarantee you’re getting the right part or repair for your check engine light problem.

Really, the best an auto parts store can do is “scan for codes,” but cannot take the time to properly diagnose it. After all, they’re auto parts stores, not auto repair shops. Even if you have your own scan tool, you might be limited to “scanning for codes,” unless you know your way around a wiring diagram and digital multimeter. Unless the damage is obvious, your best bet is a check engine light hero, your local auto diagnostics master auto repair technician.

It shouldn’t come as a shock that check engine light heroes are paid, because they’ve put in thousands of hours of their lives to learn everything there is to know about their cars and trucks, auto repair, and auto diagnostics. Many of them specialize in certain brands, which makes their expertise even more valuable when it comes to diagnosing what’s behind your check engine light. Finally, aside from training and experience, auto diagnostic professionals have access to far more powerful tools than the average DIYer or auto parts store, which they may have purchased themselves. Only professional auto diagnostics technicians have the training, experience, dedication, and tools to properly diagnose your check engine light. Anything less is just guessing, and guessing is a waste of time and money.

Become an Educated Car Shopper Before You Begin

Before you start car shopping, you have to make the most basic decision of all – whether to buy a brand-new car or a used car, and then make sure you know how to be smart when you go shopping.

Buying Used is Smart: New car prices are higher than ever, now averaging a whopping $37,000. That’s enough to scare quite a few people outright into buying a used car. The vast majority of new car purchases are financed, which is another reason why people who understand the effects of depreciation or more likely to opt for buying a used car. Because a new car immediately drops at least 10% of its value when you drive it off the lot, most people are immediate “upside down” or “underwater” on their car loan, meaning they owe more on the loan than the car is worth. And this doesn’t change for a number of years. Total depreciation during the first year of ownership is often at least 20%, and the car continues to lose that much value every year for several more years. When you buy a great used car, you get more bang for your buck because it was the previous owner who took the big hit on depreciation.

Work with a Reputable Dealership: Some people shy away from buying a used car because they fear being taken advantage of on the price of the car, its condition, or both. But that’s the point of becoming an educated car shopper – learning what you need to know about finding great used cars. One of the smartest decisions you can make is finding a used car dealership who takes the right approach – one that focuses on newer used cars with lower mileage and in great condition, that offers a warranty on every car, that has a money-back guarantee, and that has firm up-front competitive prices so you don’t have to worry about haggling. 

Create a Budget: One of the most important things you can do before beginning to shop for your next is to really take a good look at your financial situation and decide what you can realistically afford. Few things are worse than buying a fantastic car and soon afterwards realizing you can’t afford it. To get this right, you need to account not only for the monthly car payment if you finance your purchase, but also insurance, service/repairs, and fuel. 

Avoid Common Mistakes. Whether it’s you first time or your fifth time buying a used car, a lot of people make one or more common mistakes that could easily be avoided. One of the biggest mistakes already mentioned is not knowing what you can really afford. Another is not having any idea what kind of car you want and/or need. Other people haven’t done any homework ahead of time to know if the price on any given car they’re looking at is a good one – you have to spend some time looking at your local market to see what similar cars are actually selling for in order to know this (and this would be in addition to checking out price guides like Kelley Blue Book and Edmunds TMV). Other common mistakes are not test-driving a car to see if it’s really the right choice, failing to check a vehicle history report, and not having a trusted mechanic do a thorough inspection of a car before buying it. Finally, a surprising number of people know very little about the financing process to know whether or not the financing contract they sign off on is a good one or not. A car purchase is a big deal, and is often second only to buying a house for many people, so you want to get it right.

For Sale by Owner? You can try to find the used car of your dreams for sale by its owner, but there are some drawbacks to going that route. First, you’re dealing with a complete stranger and you have no idea if they’re being honest with you, whereas a good used car dealership has a reputation with the customers it has served, and you can easily check into that reputation online. And if you do purchase a car from a private seller and decide you’re not happy with it, you have very few ways to do anything about it beyond suing the seller in small claims court, which is huge headache.

Buying Used Cars Online? These days you can, of course, buy your car online. But that also comes with its own set of issues and challenges. It’s almost always better when you can look the seller in the eye and see what kind of person they are. And you should always test-drive a car you’re thinking of buying. Shopping for a brand-new car online is fine because they’re all the same coming out of the factory except for color and trim level. Every single used car, however, is different depending on how its previous owner drove it and cared for it (or not). Feel free to do your “window shopping” for your next car online to get an idea of prices and what’s available, but when it comes down to making an actual purchase, you definitely want to see the car in person and test-drive it before signing on the proverbial dotted line.

First Time Car Buyers Tips!

Buying a car for the first time can be a stressful and overwhelming experience. Here is some advice if it's your first time in the market! 

  • High Pressure Selling, Not Meeting Your Needs. Beware the salesperson who just wants to make the sale rather than taking the time to get to know your needs and preferences. A genuine salesperson will listen to what you have to say and explain the process each step of the way. Remember, there's no rush! You have the right to set the pace that is comfortable for you! As soon as the salesperson starts to feel pushy, just walk out the door.
  • Stressful Negotiations and Haggling. One thing that can put any car buyer on edge before they visit a dealership is the thought of trying to negotiate or haggle over prices. Some salespeople take advantage of most people’s aversion to negotiating and get buyers to pay way more than they should have. An easy way to avoid this one entirely is to shop at a dealership that uses firm, up-front pricing where you never have to haggle or negotiate.
  • Emphasizing Monthly Payment Over Purchase Price. Another red flag first-time car buyers should watch out for is when salespeople only talk in terms of what kind of monthly payment would work for you. When they focus your attention on that instead of the price of the vehicle, you can bet that they’re going to stick you with a financing deal spread out over many years to give you that monthly payment you want even though you’ll wind up paying way more for the vehicle than you should over the length of the loan. Keep the price of the vehicle in mind first, then if you need financing your focus can be on getting good terms that will work for you.
  • Misdirection and Misinformation. If you’re looking at a car and notice something about it, such as a potential problem or sign that the car might have been in an accident, how does the salesperson respond? If they brush it off with something like, “Oh, we’ll take care of that for you,” don’t just take their word for it. You need the real details about this car and any potential problems it might have. First-time car buyers should do their homework and know how to evaluate any car they’re looking at. And also take it to a trusted mechanic for a thorough inspection before buying it.
  • End-of-Deal FeesIt’s always disappointing when first-time car buyers find a vehicle they like at a decent price, but when they sit down to do the paperwork, they find out there are hundreds of dollars in processing fees, title and registration fees, licensing fees, and who knows what else. These are ways that dealerships mask what the true final cost of the vehicle is going to be until the very end of the process when you’re ready to close the deal and get the car. Yes, dealerships do have a lot of overhead expenses they need to cover, but some charge a lot more in these quasi-hidden fees than others, so don’t be afraid to walk away if you don’t like what you’re seeing.