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April 29, 2011

News & Features

Spare yourself: Buying an extra key can save you big bucks down the road

The Associated Press

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(Thinkstock)

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Ford Fusion Key


As the little computer inside your car key becomes more sophisticated, buying a spare is a good way to save money in case your key goes missing.

Newer cars won't start unless they read a signal from the key, making it difficult for thieves to hot-wire and steal your ride. But those keys can be expensive.

Normally you get two sets of keys with a new car. Older vehicles, mostly before the mid- to late 1990s, came with simple metal keys that you could duplicate at the local hardware store for a few bucks.

After that, automakers began making the keys bigger and installing computer chips. Keys had a separate fob, that dangling plastic device, to unlock doors or the trunk.

Oops ... you did it again
  • If you're prone to locking your keys in your car:
  • DO get a conventional metal key without a chip and have a locksmith or hardware store cut it to match your key. It won't start the car, but it will open the doors, and you can get in without having to call a locksmith or tow truck.
  • DON'T leave your key in your pocket and run it through the washing machine. In most cases, that will fry the circuitry and you'll have to spend $50 or more on a replacement. Since more automakers are integrating the fob into the head of the key, that makes it even more important to keep your fob out of the water. It can cost $110 or more for a fob and key that are combined, and that doesn't include another $50 or so for programming.

Now, more automakers are starting to combine the fob and the key, putting the unlock buttons on the head of the key. And as the keys get more complex to stay ahead of crooks, they are becoming more expensive to lose.

Think it can't happen to you? Dealers and locksmiths say people frequently lose one or even two of their keys. It can cost more than $1,000 to replace both on some models. So it's a good idea to get a third as soon as you buy a new car.

Chip keys vary by make, model and year. Many automakers (mainly General Motors, Ford and Chrysler) have a feature in which the car will automatically program an extra key if you have at least one, or sometimes two, of the original keys.

It costs about $25 to buy an extra key from a dealer, locksmith or some local hardware stores. You then program the key to match the signal to the car's computer. Dealers know how to do this, and some locksmiths also have figured it out on many models.

On later-model Fords, for instance, if you put in each of your keys and turn the car to the "on" position for a few seconds (you don't need to start it), then put in the new key and do the same thing, the car will program the key automatically, says Greg Brandt, owner of Brandt Locksmiths in Kansas City.

Which cars program keys themselves and how many keys you need to do that varies. It's wise to check with your dealer or a locksmith before spending any money.

Says Jan Freudenberg, parts manager at Shults Ford in Wexford, Pa.: "If you don't have three keys, you're leaving yourself open for some expense if you lose a key."

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