car warranties: buy one or just save your money?

“Extended warranties.” “Monthly service plans.” “Repair insurance.” Should you buy some sort of warranty plan to help cover eventual repair costs on your car?

These warranties may be offered by dealers when you buy a car, or they might be offered by independent companies like CarShield or Endurance.

Our customers at lowell’s frequently ask us whether such warranty plans are worth it.

With a few specific exceptions, we think warranty plans are a waste of your money. Here’s why:

Insurance companies are like casinos: The house always wins

Warranties are a form of insurance, and insurance companies are structured like casinos. Like a casino, they’re betting that they will never pay out what you pay in for the warranty. They rig the warranty ‘game’ in their favor to help protect their profit. Based on our experience dealing with a variety of insurance companies, here’s how they rig warranties:

  • Friction. At every turn, warranty companies throw hassle and delay into the process of collecting on your claim. Long customer service wait times. Obscure phone mail menus. Unresponsive representatives. Multi-step, multi-day approval processes. By prolonging and overcomplicating the process, they hope that customers will simply give up before they ever have to pay.
  • Coverage. Warranty companies often severely limit what repairs they will actually cover. For example, they might promise to cover ‘powertrain’ repairs for the engine and transmission. But then they bury loads of exclusions – emissions, exhaust, steering, suspension, electrical components, brakes, etc. – in the fine print. And then, they classify most of the things which regularly go wrong as falling into those excluded categories.
  • Quality. When they will cover a repair, warranty companies often challenge our shop’s part recommendations. When we give them a repair estimate, they will often only pay for cheaper, lower-grade parts. As a shop that prides itself on providing durable, quality repairs, this second-guessing degrades the premium service our customers have come to expect out of lowell’s.

By installing barriers, limiting what they will cover, and sacrificing quality, warranty companies maximize their profit. And they are extremely profitable. That’s how they can afford to run non-stop nationwide  television and radio ads featuring minor celebrities. At most dealers, warranty and financing activities generate more profit than they get from selling cars. (The dealer’s service department also generates more profit than it gets from selling cars. Cars account for the vast majority of overall dealer sales, but the profits on car sales are very slim.)

In their ads, the companies scare prospects with big-ticket repairs that rarely fail (like engines and transmissions). But they don’t tell you that they won’t cover the stuff that most often breaks down.

While our experience is with automotive repair warranties, we think that the same critiques apply to many home warranty plans, like large appliance warranties and HVAC system maintenance plans.

These companies are in the business of making sure you don’t get your money’s worth out of a warranty.

When does insurance make sense?

Insurance makes the most sense when you face a potentially catastrophic risk. We carry auto, health, life, and homeowner’s (or renter’s) insurance because we need to hedge against really awful (and costly) possibilities – a severe illness, a crash, a fire, or a death. (And often we carry that insurance because we are legally required to do so.)

Automotive repair warranties may make sense if there is no other safety net for your vehicle. If, for instance, driving your vehicle is central to your job, or if there is no feasible emergency option to get where you need to go, then you might reasonably consider a warranty.


Instead of purchasing an auto repair warranty, we’d recommend that you save that money in some sort of rainy day fund (where it might also accumulate some interest!). Then, you can maintain full control over those funds without a warranty company trying to restrict your access to your money.

when that brake noise probably isn’t a big problem

You slowly back out of your driveway, tap your brakes, and hear a loud grinding sound. Oh, no… Your mind starts racing. When can I get into the shop? I really don’t have time for this. They loudly grind again at the end of the street. This is embarrassing. By the time you leave your neighborhood, though, the grinding has disappeared. That was really weird. What on earth is wrong?

Later on, when you pull out of your parking space at work, the noise is back. Ugh!


Brake noises can certainly be irritating and embarrassing, but they don’t always mean that your brakes have stopped working correctly.

With your brakes, our primary concern is whether they are functioning properly: Are they safely stopping you and your vehicle? Even when they are working properly, there are a few reasons your brakes may still make noise.

The most common noise that we encounter at lowell’s is the harmless but loud phenomenon of flash rust.

Flash rust occurs when tiny rust particles form on your brake rotors. The rust particles form in small pits or grooves in your rotor. The first few times you use your brakes, they make a terrible racket as the brake pads rub against the rust. After a while, the friction from your braking rubs the rust particles away. With your pads once again meeting clean metal, the terrible racket stops.

Why does flash rust happen?

Your brake rotors are metal discs which are largely exposed to the elements. Wet road conditions or high humidity can help trigger flash rust. The rust has more chance to grow when the car sits overnight or over a weekend. In the winter, road salts also contribute to faster rusting.

How can you tell when you have flash rust? Here are some things to look for:

  • The brake noises occur a few times and then fade away.
  • The noise itself can be squealing, grinding, or groaning. It can be wake-up-the-neighbors loud or fairly quiet.
  • You usually hear the noises after the car has been sitting for a few hours (first thing in the morning, after a weekend, or after work, for example)
  • You tend to hear it more when it has been raining or snowing a lot. (Especially when the roads are slushy.)

If most of these symptoms match what is happening with you car, you likely have a flash rust issue. Your brakes are probably functioning properly despite the noise. If your noise is just intolerable, sometimes it can help to have us resurface your rotors. Resurfacing leaves fewer pits and grooves for the rust to form in and cling to.

If the noises you are hearing don’t go away or if you notice that your braking has gotten worse, that may be a sign of something wrong, and you should probably have your brakes checked over. Just call the shop, and we can schedule you for a brake inspection.

extreme weather and your battery

Most car batteries last for approximately 3 to 5 years under normal conditions. As the temperature drops or rises, however, you may experience extra strains on your battery.

Extreme Cold

The near-zero temperatures this week can take quite a toll on your vehicle’s battery.

Not only is your engine harder to turn over when it is extremely cold, but these temperatures can mean that your lead-acid battery is only operating with about half of its normal power output.

A weaker cold-weather battery, coupled with a stubborn cold-weather engine, can make it a lot harder to get your car started. So a battery that starts a car fairly well at normal temperatures suddenly stops operating as the temperature plummets.

At lowell’s, we see a lot of no-start or slow-to-start issues when cold weather strikes. If you notice that your car is struggling to get started, it may be a signal that you need to replace your battery.

Extreme Heat

Your battery actually gets a lot stronger in extremely warm weather, but that extra energy comes at a price: The accelerated chemistry inside your battery in hot weather can shorten your battery’s life.

The evaporation of the fluids (acids) inside of your battery under extreme heat can corrode many parts of your starting and charging system. If you see a lot of bluish-white gunk on or around your battery, that’s a sign of excessive evaporation.

What you can do

As your battery ages, it is a good idea to have it checked a few times a year to ensure that it is putting out the appropriate level of power. Have the battery terminals cleaned and battery cable ends replaced if you see excessive corrosion around the battery.

If you typically drive a lot of quick trips, consider mixing in a few longer drives. Very short trips often don’t recharge the large amount of energy used to start your vehicle. Over time, this quick-trip deficit can place ever-greater strains on your battery, and can shorten its life considerably.

Also, consider unplugging accessory cables (like phone chargers) when the vehicle is not in use. Faulty or low-quality chargers can drain your battery when not in use.

cars and lights and codes

Suddenly finding a dash warning light can create a lot of anxiety while driving. What does that light mean? Can I still drive? And how much is this going to cost me?

We know that those lights can be scary, and we’re ready to help you figure out what your particular warning light means.

maintenance required

The good news is that the light which comes on most frequently – the ‘maintenance required’ or ‘MAINT REQD’ light – is relatively mild.

The maintenance required light simply indicates that you are overdue for an oil change. On most Toyota or Lexus vehicles, it comes on automatically 5,000 miles after your last oil change.

And while oil changes are your most important regular service, a maintenance required light isn’t usually something which you need to address right now.  Simply schedule your next oil change at your earliest convenience. When we change your oil, we’ll reset your maintenance required light, and you should be ready for the road.

more serious lights

While the ‘maintenance required’ light may not be that serious, other dash warning lights should be addressed as soon as possible. Depending on your vehicle, these may include your ‘check engine’, ‘ABS’, ‘VSC’, and / or ‘TRAC’ lights. If any one or combination of these lights comes on for your vehicle, get your vehicle checked out right away.

Unfortunately, these aren’t lights which can be diagnosed over the phone.  The underlying problem might cause permanent damage to your vehicle, or it might not be serious at all.

The safest policy is to have us check out your vehicle’s computer to determine the condition that is triggering the light to come on.

checking codes

Using a laptop computer and Toyota’s TechStream software, we will check your vehicle computer for any recorded or pending conditions which could trigger your warning light. The vehicle computer will often store special codes which point us toward the vehicle subsystem which is reporting a problem.

These codes are relatively easy to obtain: we can pull the codes here at lowell’s, or there are a variety of aftermarket devices which can also get them. (If you ever use one of these devices, make sure to preserve all of the details; many devices will clear out the traces of trouble codes and make them difficult to properly diagnose.)

By themselves, these codes don’t tell us very much. They are akin to telling your doctor about a pain in your throat. The pain gives a doctor an idea of where to look next, and what kinds of tests (pulse, blood pressure, body temperature, throat cultures, etc.) might be needed to determine the specific problem behind the symptom. In this example, further testing might reveal that a strep infection is behind the throat pain.

In a similar fashion, the codes stored by your vehicle’s computer provide symptoms which require further testing in order to pinpoint your car’s specific malady. For example, a P0304 code can tell us there is a misfire on cylinder #4, but it doesn’t tell us the specific source of that misfire (further testing might show that the ignition coil for that cylinder is bad).

Our technicians will test the various subsystem components which could trigger a particular code, and we’ll identify the specific problem.

getting back with you

Once we’ve determined the problem, we’ll get with you to discuss its severity and the cost of fixing it. Sometimes, we’ll tell you that the problem doesn’t really affect the proper functioning of your car, and you can continue to drive with the warning light. (Note, however, that driving with a constant warning light can cover up any new trouble codes which occur.)

In any case, whenever you have a warning light, be sure to have us check it out, so that you can know whether the problem is severe or not. We’ll be glad to give you that peace of mind!

the single most important thing you can do for your car

When I first started driving, my dad asked me the same question over and over about my car.

“When’s the last time you changed the oil in that thing?”

‘That thing’ was my first car, an avocado-green 1971 Oldsmobile Cutlass. My dad wanted me to change its oil and oil filter every couple of thousand miles. I have to admit that I wasn’t the most diligent oil-changer, which was why Dad stayed on me about changing it.

As a typical teenager, I dismissed the question as an annoying intrusion on my newfound car-centric ‘freedom’. But even into adulthood, I was never all that concerned about how often I changed my oil.

It really wasn’t until I bought lowell’s that I understood the true importance of Dad’s question.

A regular oil and filter change is the single most important thing you can do to help keep your car’s engine running longer.

Why your oil matters

Fresh oil keeps internal engine parts clean and lubricated, which prolongs the life of your engine.

Oil breaks down with exposure to the high temperatures of your engine. As it breaks down, your oil stops absorbing dust, moisture, and other contaminants. That means the oil won’t lubricate as well, causing engine parts to wear out faster.

What can go wrong

Because old oil stops lubricating as well, your engine parts rub together. This increased friction causes the parts to wear out faster and makes your engine hotter – which causes your oil to degrade even faster, triggering a downward spiral of deteriorating oil, heat, and engine wear.

Eventually, the oil can break down into sludge – a sticky, tar-like substance which clogs narrow passageways inside your engine – and oil can’t get where it is needed inside your clogged engine.

The increased heat and friction in your engine can also cause your engine to seize and need to be replaced.

What we do

We drain the old oil from your engine and replace it and the oil filter. We use only genuine Toyota oil filters with a double-stage filtering element and an anti-drainback valve.

We also perform a free Courtesy Check – a visual inspection of your belts, fluids, hoses, lights, tire pressures, and tire wear – with each service, which allows us to identify small problems before they become big problems.

What we do with the old stuff

We’ve contracted with a recycling service to pick up your old oil and oil filters. Once the dirt and other contaminants are removed, most of your old oil can be re-refined into high-grade motor oil.

When we recommend it

Our oil change recommendations depend on the type of engine your car has.

For engines using conventional motor oil (5W-20 or 5W-30 grade oil), we recommend changing your oil every 3,500 miles or every 6 months, whichever comes first. This applies to almost all 2009 and earlier Toyotas, and many vehicles made between 2010 and 2013.

For engines using full synthetic motor oil (0W-20 grade), we recommend changing your oil every 5,000 miles or every 6 months, whichever comes first. This applies to almost all 2014 and later Toyotas, and many vehicles made between 2010 and 2013.

So… When’s the last time you changed the oil in that thing?

Repair or replace?

“Is it worth it?”

This question comes up pretty frequently in the shop, and we understand why!

Are you saving or losing money keeping your tried and true vehicle as opposed to starting over with a new car? It’s not difficult to decide when you break down exactly what factors are going into your decision.

With a little evaluation of your finances and a little math, you can make a sound decision.

How much are you (really) spending on maintenance?

Initially, you have to figure out  how much you’re spending on repairs from month to month. Even a couple-hundred-dollar repair bill every few months is significantly less than a new monthly car payment. Assuming that your insurance and fuel costs won’t change much, your old car’s maintenance probably costs less than purchasing a new car. 91-Toyota-Camry-DX-1024x517

If you’re still making payments on your current car, you’ll also lose the money you’ve already put into both paying off the car and what you’ve put into any previous repairs. (This can be especially tricky when you purchase a used car, as it may come with some future repairs!)

Unless you feel as though you’re “always bringing it to the shop” and your maintenance costs are exorbitant, you probably won’t save money by trading your old car in for another.


How much are you spending on repairs?

Because maintenance is a cost that comes with every vehicle, the real issue is whether or not the repairs are worth it. This all-important decision comes down to a couple questions you should know the answers to before deciding.

Does the repair cost more than half the market worth of the car?

If not, you should go ahead with the repair. Even with a car that is worth $5000, a $1,500 dollar repair would be worth doing in terms of the longevity of your vehicle. (Websites like Edmunds True Market Value Calculator and Kelley Blue Book are useful in this calculation!)

In going ahead with repairs, you can benefit in 2 ways: Not only are you getting your problem fixed, you can also add to the eventual trade-in value of your car.

How much “life” can your car get from going ahead with the repair?

Now imagine your car is worth $2,200, and you’re faced with the same $1,500 repair. Think of the cost in comparison to potential costs from purchasing a new car instead.

If this $1,500 repair would keep your car road-worthy for a few more years, then compare to how much it would cost for a down payment, new insurance, and the equivalent amount of time in monthly payments for a new vehicle.

The repair usually comes out on top, especially when you have an honest and knowledgeable mechanic you can trust to tell you whether or not it’s going to be worth it. (Like the technicians and service staff we have here at Lowell’s!)

Is the repair less than a few months’ car payment on a new vehicle? 

If the repair in question costs less than one month of payments, and your vehicle on the other hand is paid off, your decision is pretty well made.

If the cost is less than a few months of payments, and your car would be able to go for more than a few months without additional repairs or maintenance costs, then it makes sense to go ahead with the repairs, in this case, too.

Is it in your budget?

If it is hard to pay for a costly repair, how hard will it be to fit a car payment into your current monthly expenses?

In this post, we’ve tried to outline some of the key factors to consider when deciding to repair or replace your vehicle.

At Lowell’s, we’re biased – We usually think repairing your vehicle makes more sense than
replacing it.

But your situation is unique, and may include other considerations.

As always, feel free to talk your decision through with Lowell’s. We’ll give you our honest assessment of your vehicle while helping you make your decision.

Service Schedule Cheat Sheet

With so many things to keep up with on your vehicle, we know it can be hard to stay current on the maintenance for your vehicle.

To help you plan regular service items, here’s the Lowell’s guide to Toyota maintenance:

Oil Change
Oil changes are the single most important service to extend the life of your car. Lowell’s recommends oil changes every 3,500 miles* or every 6 months, whichever comes first.

Cabin and Engine Air Filters
We recommend replacing cabin and engine air filters every 15,000 miles. (If you’re driving in especially dirty or dusty environments, you might consider more frequent replacements.) Check out our guide to cabin air filters here.

Brake Inspections
We recommend brake inspections every 15,000 miles. If your vehicle is equipped with drum brakes, we’ll also clean and adjust your brakes.

Flushes (Brake System, Transmission, Coolant, Power Steering)
Fluid maintenance is another important way to extend the life of your vehicle. We recommend fluid flushes every 30,000 miles. What’s a flush? Great question, and we have your answers here.


Valve Clearance Inspection and Adjustment
We recommend valve clearance inspections every 60,000 miles. Learn more here.

Timing Belt
We recommend timing belt changes every 90,000 miles. (If your vehicle is equipped with a timing chain, it should not normally need replacement.)

We recommend getting a tune-up for your vehicle every 30,000, 60,000, or 120,000 miles, depending on the kind of spark plugs your vehicle left the factory with. Check out our guide to tune-ups here.

Call the shop if you ever have any questions about your vehicle or recommended service. We’re always happy to help you prioritize the services your vehicle needs.


*Note: We know that many Toyota owner’s manuals now recommend an oil change interval up to 5,000 miles. We still recommend oil changes every 3,500 miles.

The 5,000 mile interval may be safe for very new vehicles, but we don’t recommend it for vehicles that are more than a few years old.

If your engine has been leaking or burning oil, the extra 1,500 miles can result in permanent engine damage because your engine lacks enough oil to lubricate properly. Plus, your oil can still get dirty and contaminated, and can start to break down before the 5,000 mile point (which again could result in engine damage). 

That’s why our recommendation is different from Toyota’s. 

What’s a Tune-Up?


Old (left) and new spark plugs

One of the most frequently used – but least understood – terms used in our industry is “tune-up”.

A few decades ago, vehicles required frequent mechanical tuning to keep them operating optimally. Over time, “tune-up” became a common way of saying “make my car run better”.

In today’s electronically-controlled vehicles, however, a tune-up is very different. Many of the mechanical adjustments we made in older cars are now made by your vehicle’s onboard computer.

So when we talk about a tune-up at Lowell’s, we mean changing your vehicle’s spark plugs and, when appropriate, your fuel filter and engine air filter.

A spark plug converts an incoming electrical charge into a spark which ignites the mixture of air and fuel that  powers your car’s engine. The spark jumps between two electrodes at the end of the plug, creating the controlled explosion that drives an internal combustion engine.


Close-up view of old and new spark plugs

Spark plugs can wear out. Each spark burns off tiny bits of metal on the electrodes, and after hundreds of millions of sparks, the spark plug doesn’t fire as efficiently. Spark plugs can also become coated with residue (‘fouled’) if your fuel doesn’t burn cleanly.

Fouled or worn-out spark plugs can reduce your fuel mileage or cause your engine to run roughly. When the gap between the electrodes becomes too large, your ignition coils strain to generate sufficient current, and coil damage can result. (Note how the center electrode for the old plug on the left has tapered into a cone-like shape, requiring significantly more current to spark.)

The electrodes for Toyota plugs (made by Denso) are plated with different highly conductive metals: nickel, platinum, or iridium. The type of metal used determines how long the spark plug lasts: Nickel-plated spark plugs typically last for 30,000 miles; Platinum for 60,000; and Iridium for 120,000 miles.

When we do a tune-up at Lowell’s, we remove and inspect your old spark plugs to see whether there are any issues other than normal wear. We replace them with new spark plugs, adjusting the gap between electrodes when necessary. If needed, we’ll also replace the fuel filter and engine air filter.

Feel free to call the shop with any questions, and – if it is time for a tune-up or other service for your vehicle – to make an appointment for service.

Noises and your car

Finding and fixing vehicle noises are one of the most difficult tasks for our technicians.


ASE Master Technician Keith Shelburne listening for engine sounds. Yes, we sometimes use stethiscopes to find noises.

Sometimes, we can’t make the noise occur in the shop or on a test drive. Other times, we might hear a noise, but it isn’t the same one that our customer heard. Often, the customer who brings the vehicle into the shop to fix the noise isn’t the car’s primary driver, and hasn’t really heard the sound and can’t adequately describe it.

So we’ve put together this simple guide to help you describe the noises your car makes. Following the tips we share below will save you time and money, and help us diagnose the issue faster.

1) Describe the kind of noise.

Because your car makes so many sounds, describing the particular kind of noise it is making will usually help us locate the issue faster.

Would you call it a rattle or a squeal? A thump or a hiss? A clank, a ping, a buzz, a scrape, a click, or a pop? Or something else entirely?

Using specific terms like these to describe sounds will help us zero in on the noise and what might be causing it.

2) Notice when and how the noise occurs.

If you can tell us when the noise happens, that will also help us re-create it here in the shop. And if we can hear it in the shop, our chances of finding and fixing the problem go way up.

Here are a few examples of helpful details around noises:

  • It usually happens once, and then doesn’t happen again for a while.
  • It happens over and over.
  • It happens when starting the car; just after starting the car; when the car is cold; first thing in the morning.
  • It happens when the car has warmed up; when it is hot outside.
  • It happens when turning; turning left; turning right; turning sharply; going around curves.
  • It happens when going over bumps or potholes.
  • It happens when using the brakes.
  • It happens when sitting at the light.
  • It happens when cruising down the highway.
  • The noise gets faster or slower (or louder or softer) as the car moves faster or slower.
  • The noise is accompanied by a physical sensation – a vibration or bump that you can feel in the steering wheel or in your seat, for example.

In addition to helping us replicate the noise, these details can give us important clues about what parts of the car might be causing the noise.

3) Make the noise for us.

It sounds kind of funny, but it really helps if you can mimic the exact sound your car is making. It might seem embarrassing to make an “EE-er-EE-er” sound for us in the lobby, but we truly appreciate how much it helps us find the right sound faster. (Besides, people make sounds for us all the time. We’re used to it!)


The more that you can tell us about the noises your car makes – what kind of noise, when it occurs, and what it sounds like – the faster that our team here at Lowell’s will be able to help. And we’re here to help!

What’s a Valve Clearance Inspection?

Every 60,000 miles or so, we advise to you have us perform a “valve clearance inspection” (also known as a “valve adjustment”). You’ll often see us recommend a valve adjustment in the recommendations at the bottom of your Lowell’s invoice.

But what, exactly, is a valve clearance inspection, and why is it important? (We’re glad you asked!)

Related Posts: What’s a flush? and What’s a cabin air filter?

Your engine’s intake and exhaust valves let air in and out of your engine as it burns fuel. The right mixture of air and fuel can keep your engine running smoothly and ensure that you are getting the best fuel economy from your vehicle.

Wear and stress can cause your valves to slowly get out of adjustment, hurting your fuel mileage and causing your engine to run inefficiently.

Left unaddressed, improperly-adjusted valves can cause your engine run roughly, burn your valves, or even damage your pistons. This kind of damage can be very expensive to repair, because it forces us to disassemble your engine in order to get to the damaged components.

So how does a valve clearance inspection work?

At Lowell’s, we’ll remove your valve covers to measure the clearances of each valve (up to 32 depending on your type of engine).

If we find valves which aren’t within specification, we can often adjust the clearances while we have the valve covers off. Some newer vehicles, however, require much more extensive work to adjust valve clearances. (If that is the case with your vehicle, we’ll call you for approval before we proceed with the adjustment. Just ask us if you have any questions about which type of engine your vehicle has.)

After inspecting your valve clearances, we put your valve covers back on. Because valve cover gaskets are also a major source of engine oil leaks, we’ll also replace your valve cover gaskets during this service.