The blown head gasket is a real pain; some gaskets fail with old age, and others are provoked; either way, it means the vehicle can’t be used, or can it? I’ve been a mechanic for over twenty-five years, and I’ll share some insider head gasket tips and advice.
A vehicle’s head gasket is worth fixing so long as the vehicle was in good condition before the head gasket failure. To help calculate if it’s worth fixing, follow this 3 step process:
- Determine the resale value of your vehicle if repaired
- Get repair cost estimates
- Vehicle worth repairing if resale value greater than three times repair cost.
In this post, you’ll learn how to figure out if your head gasket is worth fixing, and you will also learn some of the hidden costs of head gasket repair; hang with me, and we’ll get this figured out.
1 Determine Your Vehicle’s Value
Having a head gasket fail is a real pain, and it’s one of those types of problems that can’t be ignored. I understand your predicament; you don’t want to waste money and effort on a vehicle if it isn’t worth fixing.
Sometimes it is better to say goodbye to an older car and start again. But before we can make that decision, we’ll need to gather some facts and consider them carefully.
Kelley’s blue book is a useful resource for pricing repairs, valuing vehicles, and finding local repair auto shops, all from your phone.
We’ll need answers to questions about the car’s general condition pre-gasket failure, questions like:
- Was the car reliable?
- What is the mileage?
- What is the bodywork like?
- Was the car economical?
- Did it have electrical faults?
- Are the tires in good condition?
- What about maintenance due?
Ok, some of these questions may be difficult for you to answer, but we’ll get through them together. Getting these answered will start to build a picture of the vehicle’s general condition and, therefore, how much money the vehicle will likely cost you in addition to the head gasket repair. Make sense?
Let’s now consider each of these questions in turn.
Was the car generally reliable?
If the car wasn’t reliable pre, replacing the gasket likely won’t change that. Those issues will remain and will need investigation and repair.
Some common irritating issues like ABS warning lights, airbag warning lights, traction control warning lights, and intermittent engine lights are often simple repairs but will still cost $100s to fix.
What is the mileage?
Cars with high mileage, anywhere from 180,000 plus miles, will start to require more maintenance, and the likelihood of some major engine repairs becomes more likely.
How about brakes, suspension, and steering?
These are all components that require attention. Even low-mileage cars develop braking issues from infrequent use. Consider if your car has shakes, rattles, knocks, or clicks while braking, driving on uneven surfaces, or turning. If so, you likely need some work; this type of work adds up to 100$ in repairs.
What about maintenance due?
Maintenance other than the oil and filter change is often forgotten about. Transmission oil changes, coolant changes, brake fluid change, power steering fluid changes, and engine critical items like timing belt replacements need maintenance, or they will lead to even greater expense.
Typically these items don’t cost a ton but do add up; maintenance items include:
- Transmission oil and filter – $100 to 250
- Coolant & thermostat changes – $120 to 200
- Brake fluid change – $100 to 250
- Power Steering fluid flush and change – $75 -to 150
- Timing belt and water pump replacement – $450 to 1200
- Serpentine belt – $50 to 120
What is the bodywork like?
You might say bodywork is a minor issue; scrapes, dings, and missing moldings will affect the value but won’t affect how it drives. However, if your vehicle suffers from corrosion, I’m talking bubbles of rust in the panels, then I’d say there’s a very good chance the chassis, underpinnings, and exhaust system are also affected by corrosion.
Chassis corrosion changes everything; this type of vehicle isn’t worth fixing. Corrosion is too expensive to repair and will only cost you money in the future. In addition, chassis corrosion is a safety issue.
Was the car economical?
Older cars aren’t known for their fuel economy and aren’t as environmentally conscious as newer models. If you do a ton of driving, this might be a great opportunity to own a more economical model.
Does it have electrical faults?
Faulty batteries can cause a ton of electrical issues; typical batteries last about three to four years and will cost about $150 to fit.
Other common electrical issues include faulty window regulators, central locking issues, and alarm faults. Electrical issues are always expensive to find fault and fix.
Are the tires in good condition?
Tires are a running cost for all cars. A new set of boots can cost upwards of $300, so take that into consideration when evaluating your car’s true value.
Checking your vehicle value
To find an approx. Value for your vehicle checks out the usual online used car portals.
I don’t look at dealer prices as those prices are often inflated; look at the private advisers only. There you’ll find a match for your make and model. I like to find the highest price, and then the lowest price, the price in the middle is about fair.
That’s the pre-head gasket failure resale value of your vehicle.
2 Get Repair Cost Estimates
Head gasket costs will vary by vehicle, the severity of the damage, and by type of shop you visit. Without a doubt, a local trusted mechanic will be a ton cheaper than a large main dealer shop.
Vehicle brand and engine size
Vehicle brand and engine size will obviously affect the price greatly. Higher-end vehicles and imports like Mercedes, Audi, VW, BMW, etc., will usually cost the most to repair.
Parts are imported, and North American mechanics are less willing to work on imports, so you are forced, in many cases, to work with main dealers.
Similarly, many premium imports are fitted with larger engines; repairing a six or eight-cylinder engine will cost much more than a four-cylinder motor.
Severity of damage
The damage the vehicle has sustained is a large contributor to the final repair bill. When a head gasket blows, it can cause a lot of damage.
A failing head gasket can, for example, manifest initially as a car that simply uses a lot of coolant. If ignored, as is often the case, the coolant enters the oil system and combustion chamber, damaging other components like turbochargers, O2 sensors, and Cats, all expensive components to repair. (More on this later)
As said, shops often vary their price by how busy they are. Looking at it from the shop owner’s point of view, replacing a head gasket won’t happen in one day; it will take several days.
There’s the vehicle strip down, outsourcing cylinder head testing, parts ordering, and rebuilding. The repair could take a week to complete on and off the clock. That’s a vehicle occupying valuable workshop space unproductively.
In my experience, shop owners generally prefer smaller jobs, one to two hours; they can get a higher return from lots of smaller jobs. Sure, when the shop isn’t busy, they’d love to take in a head gasket job.
Getting an estimate
Often a car owners club is a great place to ask about a trusted local mechanic with experience with your vehicle brand. Specialized tools or procedures are sometimes needed when replacing a head gasket; brand knowledge is valuable.
A good shop will be able to give you a ballpark figure for your vehicle head gasket replacement. However, they won’t be able to guarantee that price, and the reason is simple. On strip down or testing, other issues may be found that will cost extra in materials and labor. Check kbb.com local auto repair shop finder.
Get at least two estimates for head gasket replacement. The cheapest price is often the dearest; best to cross-reference the price with the shop’s reputation before selecting a shop.
3 Making The Calculation
This is the easy part; with estimates in hand and having a fair price calculated for your make and model, it’s simple math. If three times the repair costs exceed your car’s resale value, it is likely time to say goodbye.
If, on the other hand, the calculation suggests the head gasket is worth replacing, great, but wow, now we need to consider those questions we answered earlier, like maintenance due and tire condition, etc. These all play into this calculation also.
Add the ballpark cost of these maintenance running repairs to the head gasket repair estimate bill. If three times the total repair costs equal more than the resale value of your car, it is time to shop for new wheels.
But what to do with a nonrunning car? It still has some value; many dealers will still take a nonrunner as a part exchange. Your car has many great parts, some universal type parts like tires and batteries, and a local breakers yard will quote you over the phone and arrange to pick it up.
What Are The Hidden Costs Of A Head Gasket Job?
Getting an estimate over the phone isn’t like a strip-down estimate. I’m a mechanic, and I know sometimes things don’t go to plan; in fact, they rarely go to plan.
In reality, a contingency should be built into your estimate, i.e., inflate it for unforeseen items or issues.
When things don’t go to plan, you could end up where you started. A strip-down could reveal additional damage that you hoped it wouldn’t. Head gaskets can fail in seven ways, each with risks for other components.
Some hidden costs that could arise issues include:
- Warped cylinder head
- Cracked cylinder head
- Blown turbocharger
- Damaged exhaust oxygen sensors (O2)
- Damaged Catalyst
- Damaged camshaft
When a shop strips down an engine to replace the head gasket, it is common practice to send the head out to a specialist company for testing. Testing entails pressure testing the coolant passages for cracks and also checking that the head is true.
Cylinder heads can crack and warp when severely heated. A slight warping may be machined out, but severe warping or cracking of the passageways spells the end for the head and blows the repair estimate.
The best route forward is a used but good cylinder head, which must be tested before being used. A good used parts supplier will at least guarantee it’s good or offer you a refund on the cost of the head but not the testing.
Finally, as a mechanic, I’m not a big fan of magic potions that guarantee results, but it may be worth a try when your back is against the wall. Several products on the market are designed to repair head gaskets by simply adding a bottle of chemicals to the coolant system.
As you can imagine, this is sacrilegious to a mechanic; I see the only correct repair is replacing the gasket. Saying that, if it gets you out of a tight spot, it is worth trying, and it won’t cause any further damage to the engine. One of the better products is called Bar’s Leaks and you can check it out here on Amazon.com.
Check out the Mechanics tools page for a list of my favorite tools.
While fixing a blown head gasket can be expensive, it is generally worth it if the car is in good condition otherwise and has sentimental or financial value to the owner. Preventing head gasket failure through proper maintenance and avoiding overheating the engine can save money in the long run.
- A blown head gasket can cause serious engine problems and be costly to repair.
- Symptoms include white smoke from exhaust, overheating, and coolant loss.
- Diagnose with compression or coolant pressure test.
- Repair cost ranges from $1,000 to $3,000+ depending on make, model, and location.
- Decide based on car’s age, condition, value, and sentimental attachment.
- Prevent failure through proper maintenance and avoiding overheating.
- Generally worth fixing if car is in good condition and has value.
About the Author
John Cunningham is a Red Seal Qualified automotive technician with over twenty-five years of experience in the field. When he’s not writing about car repair, you’ll find him in his happy place – restoring classic cars.
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John Cunningham is an Automotive Technician and writer on Rustyautos.com. He’s been a mechanic for over twenty-five years and has worked for GM, Volvo, Volkswagen, Land Rover, and Jaguar dealerships.
John uses his know-how and experience to write fluff-free articles that help fellow gearheads with all aspects of vehicle ownership, including maintenance, repair, and troubleshooting.