A Honda Civic’s Broken Heater Core Ended My Five-Year Flipping Profit Streak
You'd think a car like this would be easier to make money on than, say, a Fiat 500. But that was not my experience.
Flipping cars is mostly a numbers game, with a little dash of intuition and luck helping things along the way. About three months ago, I spent $800 on a denty but low-mile Honda Civic sedan with a cracked engine block, affectionately named “Miss Dent” by the car’s previous owner. I figured, “Hm, a low(ish) mile Honda, with some doodads, should have been an easy profit, no?” After all, I managed to make money on probably the worst Hyundai Tiburon in the tri-state area, and a much-unloved Fiat 500L. Making money with a Honda Civic should have been cake, but it wasn’t.
The Civic ended up being the first flip-car I’ve lost money on, breaking my five-plus year streak. Lady Luck wasn’t on my side, in fact, she kicked me directly in my left ass cheek, and I promptly fell into a puddle. Face first.
My initial short drive of the Civic revealed a mostly mechanically sound car, save for bald front tires, an overheating engine, and pitted and worn brake rotors. Dented and overheating, but it had good bones.
Likewise, the engine replacement went just fine, too.
So, what went wrong here?
First problem: The brakes needed more attention than I thought.
When I first got the car, I tried to limp it 20 miles to my mechanic’s shop while it leaked coolant nearly as fast as it could be added. Unsurprisingly, the Civic made only it 2.8 miles before the temperature gauge skyrocketed, forcing me to pull off into a Lewis Center, OH Meijer parking lot, and call a tow truck.
The car was towed to Tu of Nguyen Automotive, who performed the engine swap with little issue. My trusted mechanic Tu used to be a Honda technician, so a simple long block swap in and out took about half a day. As far as I knew, the Civic only needed brakes and tires, both of which were well within my scope to replace. I picked the car up, with plans to do a quickie brake job.
On the 15-mile drive home, I noticed the Civic’s stopping power was limited; more than just worn pads and rotors would have given. When coasting or cruising on the road, the Civic grumbled and whined and groaned, only getting louder when stopping. The pads and rotors were worn, but they shouldn’t act like this!
Cautiously, I drove home and pulled into the driveway. The front rotors looked mostly normal, with appropriate brake wear. The rear rotors were still completely rusty, no pad material had touched them for the entire drive home.
The Civic had been sitting for at least six months outside in the elements, according to its previous owner. So, when I initially viewed the car when it wasn’t running, both front and rear rotors were equally rusty, leading me to believe that it was simply cheap, non-coated rotors exposed to the elements, rusty from lack of use. Removing the rear calipers revealed twisted and frozen pistons that refused to retract. The rear calipers were frozen, and I needed to replace them.
Replacing the Civic’s rear calipers was fairly simple. Despite Miss Dent spending her entire life as a rust belt teen shuttle, all bolts came out with little effort. I installed the calipers, along with new rear pads and rotors, an easy front brake job, and a thorough brake system bleed. I backed the Civic out of the driveway and took the car for a short test drive to bed in the brakes.
At first, everything was fine, the Civic seemed to stop somewhat well, but still not great for a car that had all new functional brakes. Did I screw something up, or did the Civic just naturally have poorly performing brakes? To test that theory, I drove a little further, and a little faster, prepared to do a quick semi-emergency stop. The pedal went straight to the floor, and the red “BRAKE” light illuminated, signaling a significant braking system problem. I was right, things weren’t okay, I checked under the hood – the brake fluid reservoir was nearly empty. I checked underneath the car, no trailing brake fluid underneath. What the hell was going on here?
For the next two weeks, I attempted to troubleshoot the Civic’s brake problem. I could add fluid, but no matter what I did, the rear calipers would only half work, and within a short distance, I’d be nearly out of brake fluid. An examination revealed that I did screw something up; I didn’t correctly install the washers that hold the brake line to the rear calipers, allowing them to gush out brake fluid every time I stepped on the brake.
Still, after tightening and re-bleeding the system, the Civic’s brake pedal still was soft. Like, so uncomfortably soft, like that time I accidentally stepped on the congealed remains of a sewer rat back when I was a delivery driver for Jimmy Johns. I could tell that the rear brakes, yet again, weren’t doing much of anything.
Automotive braking systems aren’t that complicated. Essentially, when you press your brake pedal down, it squeezes a piston that moves fluid into two brake circuits (one for the front, one for the rear). All four calipers can open and close just fine, but the rear calipers weren’t getting enough fluid pressure to do it with much gusto. Also, despite hours of bleeding air out of the lines, I couldn’t remove anywhere near all of the air in the rear brake lines.
A bench bleed revealed that the master cylinder had broken. The piston had tweaked, and I couldn’t get the brake circuit for the rear wheels to fully retract. A new master cylinder ended all of my braking woes, but at the behest of hours of my time.
Onto the next problem.
Second Problem: She’s ugly.
Miss Dent got her name for a reason, with a crinkly front fender, dented rear door, and cracked rear taillight. Most of the dents were on replaceable body panels — a cheap front fender and rear door from the junkyard were easy to find and replace.
All things were easy, except that last little divot. The Civic’s rear quarter panel had a slight dent, cracked tail light lens, and a tad bit of rust from whatever the previous owner backed into.
Armed with a few YouTube tutorials, a color-matched spray can (with clearcoat) from Amazon, and far more confidence than motivation, I gave it the old college try.
My roommate and I started by beating out the divot from the other side with a mallet, to approximate where the Civic’s old body lines used to be. It wasn’t going to be perfect, but this was supposed to be a cheap car. I figured its lack of cosmetic perfection could be overlooked if the rest of the car was in good shape.
After we eyeballed the lines, we cleaned, sanded, prepped, and primed the rusty spot.
Spraying was easy, the Amazon paint kit was remarkably well matched for a cheapie $25 paint can, purchased sight unseen, probably mixed in some random lab in god knows what factory. Reassembly of the rear end went mostly fine, but I think we were slightly overzealous when we beat out the old dent. The bumper fitment wasn’t great.
The paint itself was merely OK, at least for two first-timers who hadn’t done bodywork before. It wasn’t A quality, and most anyone could tell “oh, that shit’s been repainted,”
Still, the Civic drove good, and had low miles for its year – a truly savvy buyer will overlook the car’s cosmetic flaws! I thought I was in the clear, until….
Third Problem: The whole cooling system failed.
The Air Conditioning in the Civic smelled bad; and I mean more complicated than “oh, ew your previous owner was a pig!” The Civic’s air smelled sweet, like coolant. In fact, if I drove the car for more than 15 minutes, I’d get dizzy.
It couldn’t be the heater core, right? This car wasn’t that old, and yet again – not many miles. My roommate did notice a radiator crack, and the check engine light was on for a bunk coolant temp sensor.
Sure enough, the coolant temp sensor and radiator were both cracked and leaking. We theorized that the cracked radiator was leaking onto the engine block, allowing a gentle breeze of ethylene glycol to waft into the cabin.
Like the brake calipers, rear door, and front fender, replacement of the radiator was easy. But that didn’t fix the problem, in fact, the coolant smell only intensified. Blowing cold air on max was accompanied by a heinous and mysterious mist of coolant.
Dammit, the heater core had blown. Why? Why did the heater core and radiator blow up? My roommate theorized that the car’s previous owner drove while overheating, for a very long time. That hot coolant cracked everything it touched, the radiator, the heater core, and possibly even the engine block.
Heater cores are not easy fixes. They’re mini-radiators, responsible for your vehicle’s cabin heat… and they’re buried deep in the dashboard. Some are more accessible than others, but the 2006 to 2011 Civic was not one of those cars. It was a dashboard-out job. On any remotely modern vehicle, removing the dashboard is not something you’ll want to do.
I knew if I tried it myself, it would take weeks, and there was a high chance I’d screw it up. So, back to Nguyen automotive, it went. About a week later, and $600 poorer (he cut me a deal), my Civic was back, no longer spewing carcinogens at a driver who wanted some summer air conditioning comfort.
It was finally time to sell the Civic. It didn’t go well. Cheap Civic buyers turned out to be the worst combination of persnickety and broke, uninformed yet opinionated. I was honest; the Civic was not perfect cosmetically, but mechanically, it was a dream. The car didn’t clunk over any bumps, it stopped great, the steering wheel didn’t vibrate, everything worked. And yet, all I got was lowball after lowball, after lowball. Partially, because of the cosmetic issues, but mostly I think just regular ol Honda buyers are naturally cheap motherfuckers.
I had enough. I didn’t care what I made anymore, I just wanted my money back. I was tired of looking at that blue sedan, I was tired of the “is this a timing belt?” or “did you change the gasket?” type questions, only for them to offer me their second-grade tooth fairy money and a half-eaten peanut butter sandwich. After fighting with a guy via text, I accepted his offer for $3,800 to get the blue Civic out of my house. To be honest, he got a great deal – most other Civics for this price had more miles and were even uglier.. I know they’re not as good as mine, but life sometimes isn’t fair.
- Purchase Price: $800
- Tax/Title/Registration: $78.50
- Tow: $155
- Engine: ~$600
- Front tires: $136
- Brakes: $104.90
- Labor (engine replacement): $650
- Labor (Heater Core): $500
- Taillight: $54.37
- Front Fender: $85
- Door: $65
- Radiator, Coolant Temp sensor (and shipping): $78.30
- Tire Mount/Balance: $55.92
- Alignment: $89
- Heater Core: $55.40
- Master Cylinder: 80.19
- Rear Calipers (x2), Cabin air filter, wipers: $146.03
- Touch up paint: $25.02
- Battery (used): ~ $30
- Sandpaper/Prep, bumper bracket: ~$10
- Exhaust Repair: $120
It could have gone worse, I could have lost my ass. Really, the broken heater core and ruined radiator did me in. If they hadn’t have broken, I would have made a small profit.
Now, I can’t help but wonder, do I want to do this anymore? This car was frustrating to sell, annoying that it kept breaking in ways I feel it shouldn’t have, and it wasn’t even particularly interesting to tool around town in. I did all of that work, put in all that time, and still lost money.
My past wins have been pretty great, so I guess you’ve got to take the sweet with the bitter sometimes. Only I could somehow make money on a Fiat but lose on a Honda.