broken-down SUV
(Noel Hendrickson/Getty Images)

Say what you want about Americans’ love affair with the automobile, but a difficult breakup with a car, SUV or truck can lead to something nearly as bad as a broken heart—and that’s a broken bank account. As a result, trying to decide when to sell your current vehicle should be based on logic, not love. 

Establishing a long-term relationship with the vehicle you have can be surprisingly simple. The key, however, is to be proactive. For example, Joseph Henmueller, president and COO of the Automotive Maintenance and Repair Association, says, “Properly maintained, a vehicle can last 250,000 to 300,000 miles. But that doesn’t mean keeping up with repairs. It means doing preventative maintenance to help avoid the need for repairs in the first place.” 

That being said, even the most careful owners may have to deal with mechanical issues on occasion, and what’s important is to move quickly to address them. Ken Berman, a service advisor with Ralph Thayer Volkswagen in Livonia, Michigan, explains, “If drivers start hearing abnormal noises—clicking, grinding or knocking—or see excessive smoke from the exhaust or have a rough-running engine, these are all signs of a mechanical problem that shouldn’t be ignored.” 

Henmueller also has a frank opinion for owners about one problem in particular. “If they’ve left the vehicle to the point where it’s had to be serviced for overheating, it’s usually a mark that they’ve let the rest of the vehicle go as well,” and that they shouldn’t expect the same kind of high-mileage ownership experience. 

The numbers tell a similar story about how long vehicles can last before they need to be sold. According to a recent survey from IHS Automotive, drivers now are holding onto their newly purchased vehicles for an average of 77.8 months, with that mark jumping more than 25 months since 2006. In the same survey, data further shows the average age of a vehicle on the road today will be 11.6 years in 2016 (and will continue to rise slightly through at least 2018). 

With vehicles clearly quite durable—provided owners take care of them—the logical approach here for most people would be to balance the expected preventative maintenance costs for a current car, SUV or truck against the monthly payments needed for a new one. 

Yet as Berman says, “The majority of new-vehicle customers are those who are bored with their current rides and want something new, not drivers whose cars have let them down.” 

For those owners, who are more interested in getting the most money from a sale, there are other factors to keep in mind, including depreciation. Nearly every vehicle begins losing value as soon as it’s purchased, but sellers should know that most of that depreciation comes during the first three years of vehicle ownership. By the time a vehicle is five years old, well more than half of its value is usually lost. 

A case in point is the 2015 Honda Accord. Kelley Blue Book recently honored the Accord LX sedan as having the lowest five-year ownership costs in its class, and yet even that includes expected depreciation of more than 55 percent. 

Now, there are some ways to set off those losses. Brian Moody, editor of AutoTrader.com, says that people tend to shop for vehicles more when the weather is nice, so that selling in the spring or summer can be a good strategy. Owners also should be aware that different seasons can influence the sales of different vehicles. 

Moody adds, “On Autotrader, we see peaks in shopper interest in convertibles in the ‘shoulder season’ to convertible weather—from January to March and from September to October. So you want to sell a convertible when shoppers can picture themselves behind the wheel, top down enjoying their new car. As far as SUVs, we do see peaks in interest during the fall months (September and October) as people start to prepare for the upcoming winter weather.” 

Owners also shouldn't forget about the value of any remaining manufacturer warranty coverage, whether it’s for a vehicle bought new or through a certified pre-owned dealership. Although not all such coverage will transfer to a new owner, Moody additionally mentions, “A car is worth more when it has an attractive new or CPO warranty still in place.” 

Henmueller provides a final connection between safety and getting rid of a vehicle, as he firmly believes in the benefits of electronic stability control. This technology, designed to help drivers stay in control of their vehicles in certain low-traction driving scenarios, was made mandatory on all model-year 2012 and newer light-duty vehicles sold in this country as of Sept. 1, 2011. Henmueller says, “If your current car doesn’t have it, that’s another sign it’s time to sell. It actually saves many more lives each year than a backup camera.” 

To quantify that, consider: A NHTSA study for the period from 2008-2010, before the ESC ruling, showed the technology saved 634, 705 and 863 lives, respectively, during those three years. The recent NHTSA rule requiring mandatory backup cameras in new vehicles—a mandate that will go into effect by May 2018—lists an average of 210 backover fatalities each year.