How Long do You Keep a Car? Americans are Driving Them into the Ground

NEW YORK (MainStreet) — Your car's odometer showing 50,000 miles? It's barely broken in. 100,000 miles? Put the pedal to the medal; she's in her prime. Americans are keeping their vehicles longer than ever before. As of 2012, the average age of cars, vans, trucks and SUVs clocked in at just over 11 years. How's your '03 Camry holding up?

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Analysis of data by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) says that while we're continuing to own the same number of vehicles, we're holding on to them longer. The share of newer vehicles on the road -- those manufactured within the last five years -- has dropped by nearly 33% from 2007 to 2012, while vehicles 11 years and older grew by 25% during the same period.

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For households that reported getting rid of a vehicle during 2012, the average age of the vehicle sold was 15 years, the average age of a vehicle donated or given away was 14 years old, and the average vehicle traded in was nine years old – perhaps one reason why "push, pull or drag" car dealer commercials are so popular.

Roughly one-third of all vehicles in the survey were paid for in part by a trade-in, allowing a typical credit of 32% toward the net purchase price of the new vehicle.

Perhaps no surprise: households headed by individuals under the age of 25 and over the age of 65 had the highest average vehicle age (just over 11 years old).

Higher income households tended to own more vehicles: 2.4 vehicles for the highest income quintile, compared with 1.4 vehicles for the lowest quintile.

But holding on to a car until the headliner sags does have its drawbacks: higher maintenance. The average annual maintenance cost per vehicle climbed from $514 in 2011 to $537 in 2012, according to the BLS. Add another $151 in shop bills if your car is 6 to 15 years old.

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However, it's no contest. Driving that Y2K car into the ground is much cheaper than buying new. The BLS reports that of households that purchased new vehicles in 2012, the net purchase price after discount, trade-in, or rebate equaled 34% of the family's annual income before taxes, and just 16% for used vehicles.

And get this: the longer you own the vehicle, the lower your average maintenance and repair costs. Those bills dropped 16% as the average age of the vehicle rose to 16 to 20 years and then fell by another 5% as the vehicle's age went beyond 20 years, before rising slightly as the age of the vehicle reached 26 years or older. But hey, by that time your car is a classic. Put it in a parade -- then sell it on eBay.

--Written by Hal M. Bundrick for MainStreet

Also See: 5 Reasons Not to Buy a Used Car Today

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