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This $2,000 Subaru was a cheap fixer-upper

First, I want to make it clear that I am not cheap. I prefer the term frugal or, better yet, budget-minded.

I’ve owned a dozen automobiles since getting my driver’s licence more than two decades ago, yet only one of them was bought new. The rest rarely cost more than $2,000 apiece, although I also factor in a budget to get my fixer-uppers into proper running order.

My latest acquisition is a 2004 Subaru Impreza RS sedan, and, following tradition, it cost me just $2,000, bought from a friend who traded up to a newer model.

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The price was low because it had 218,000 km on the odometer, along with a dented left front fender, a cracked front bumper cover and a cracked windshield. The body and undercarriage were otherwise clean and rust-free.

The Internet has become a primary resource when making auto repairs at home, and it helps save money. But be forewarned: To get the big savings, you must have some mechanical inclination and be ready to get your hands dirty. Performing your own maintenance and repairs will save you thousands in labour costs.

After buying an inexpensive, well-experienced car, the first thing to do give it a thorough wash inside and out, and under the hood, making it much easier to work on. Fantastik is an inexpensive and effective engine degreaser; spray it on a cold engine (cover the alternator with a plastic bag), let it soak for five minutes and hose it off with high-pressure water for sparkling under-hood cleanliness.

Next, make a list of items that need immediate attention. In my case, this was the cracked windshield and an illuminated “check engine” light. These were priorities because the windshield was a safety concern and the check engine light could potentially lead to excessive fuel costs. And, beginning in January in Ontario, the latter would also lead to a failed Drive Clean test.

Shopping around for used parts will save lots of money, so include salvage yards when you’re looking for certain items, especially body parts. Quotes for a new windshield, installed, ran between $550 and $700. A good used item from a salvage yard cost $300, installation included.

Online classifieds, such as, are a great source of used parts, as long as you’ve got the patience to wait for them to come around. It took a couple of weeks of searching but I eventually found a used left-front fender in immaculate condition for $50. Had it been the proper colour, it would have been a direct bolt-on, but since it was white, I had it painted professionally for $150 to match my Impreza’s silver coat.

Harder to locate was the bumper cover. The Impreza isn’t as common a car as, say, a Chevy Cavalier, so used parts are scarce. A new item through various suppliers was priced at $200 to $300 and would need another $200 to paint.

An inexpensive alternative was to repair it myself. Automix 5895, from 3M, is a flexible epoxy formulated to repair plastic bumpers, and is easy to apply, sand and paint. Total cost was $72 for the epoxy and colour-match aerosol paint — and an afternoon of TLC.

One tool I recommend every home mechanic buy is a trouble-code reader, available for as low as $40 from auto parts stores. All cars sold in North America since 1996 are equipped with a standardized onboard diagnostics system (OBD II), with the diagnostic connector located under the dashboard on the driver’s side.

Plugging in a code reader will give you the diagnostic code or codes related to that troubling engine light. A description of the various trouble codes can be found in the code reader’s operating manual or online.

In my case, the code read P1150, deciphered in the manual as “O2 sensor circuit heater malfunction, bank 2, sensor 1.” An online search of “P1150 trouble code Subaru” revealed that it was the air/fuel sensor and even pinpointed its location just ahead of the catalytic converter.

A new aftermarket part, found on eBay, cost $130, about one-third the price of the OEM item. The code reader can also be used to erase the trouble code and turn off the engine light once the repair is performed.

With the problem areas taken care of, the next step was to perform regular and preventive maintenance. Because of my car’s high mileage, this was an extensive list that included replacing the coolant, brake fluid, engine oil, transmission and differential oil, as well as checking the air filter, sparkplugs and wires, alternator belt and brakes.

Spending some money to refresh all the fluids and tune-up items ($120) will prevent future headaches, especially when temperatures plummet to well below freezing. Smart shopping here will keep loonies from flying out of your wallet: I shop for oils and fluids at Canadian Tire when they’re on sale.

Of some initial concern before buying the Impreza was its noisy engine, particularly when cold. A web search revealed that, in 2004, Subaru had introduced shorter pistons in the 2.5-litre boxer engine to reduce friction. The drawback was that some engines were noisier than others, due to piston slap.

My online sleuthing also revealed that if the noise went away at operating temperatures, like mine did, there was nothing to worry about. Low oil consumption confirmed that the engine is fine, so I don’t worry.

One issue that plagued the car’s aftermarket sound system was poor FM radio reception. A Google search using the term “poor radio reception Impreza” produced several references to the problem, mostly posted on Subaru-specific forums. I discovered that Subarus with the radio antenna incorporated into the rear window also have an FM signal booster. It had not been reconnected after the first owner installed an aftermarket radio. Reconnecting the appropriate wire (also identified online) improved radio reception immediately.

Fixing up my fixer-upper cost a total of $984, and this includes new rear brake discs and pads. Even after the repair costs, I’m well within the car’s average resale value, which according to the Canadian Black Book is estimated at $6,000.

The car now looks and runs great but most important for me is the pride of ownership that comes with a job well done.

  • This $2,000 Subaru was a cheap fixer-upper
  • This $2,000 Subaru was a cheap fixer-upper
  • This $2,000 Subaru was a cheap fixer-upper
  • This $2,000 Subaru was a cheap fixer-upper

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