Why is Replacing a Car Key So Expensive?

Remember the good old days, when if you lost your car key you could just go get a new one cut?

Seriously, for those of us old enough to remember, even losing the original and only key to your vehicle wasn’t a huge deal. You could just take the key code in the owner’s manual to the dealer – and sometimes even just the local hardware store or locksmith – and walk away with a key that worked.

Needless to say, with the modern advances in safety and anti-theft, it’s not that easy anymore. Additional conveniences including push-button start and keyless remote entry have made it even more important to have secure keys and key fobs. As a result, it’s no longer pocket change to replace a car key.

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The Process of Replacing a Lost Car Key

There are basically five different types of car keys out there. The first step in replacing your car key is figuring out which one you have.

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  • Mechanical Key: The old-school “insert and turn” keys, these aren’t too common in cars made in the last two decades. If you do have them, they generally are for the trunk or door locks only, and won’t work in the ignition.
  • Transponder Keys: These are the most common in circulation right now. They are a combination of the mechanical key, but with a transponder in the key head. The transponder links up with the vehicle and confirms the key is a valid one. This two-step process adds cost to replacing the key, as the transponder needs to be replaced and programmed as well.
  • Laser-Cut Transponder Keys: Just like with the above, but with a harder-to-duplicate laser-cut key. By etching the key on the side of a metal piece, instead of the traditional single- or double-edge sawtooth cuts of traditional keys, these can’t be duplicated by a guy with a grinder or file.
  • Remote and Key Combos: Increasingly more common, these combine a remote that locks or unlocks doors, contains a mechanical key, and includes a transponder to allow for features like push-button start. These are most often seen in a switchblade type configuration so you can tuck the key blade in when you want to keep it in your pocket.
  • Proximity Key Fobs: The most complex and costly – and, unfortunately, increasingly common – key isn’t a key at all. Instead, this “smart key” is a remote-like device that can unlock or lock the doors based on proximity to the vehicle, and can start the vehicle remotely. Of course, a fob that can do all this is a fob that is complicated and expensive to replace.

After that, it's a matter of finding the right person to take care of replacing the key. For the vast majority, this will mean taking it to the local dealer. Even those purely mechanical keys mentioned before will require dealer knowledge. The only way a locksmith or key cutter can duplicate an older mechanical key is if you have a spare key they can copy.

How Much Does It Cost to Replace a Car Key?

Those different keys come with different prices when you want to replace them.

Mechanical keys are relatively inexpensive, as it is simply cutting a new blank. They are likely to cost well under $50. Transponder keys, on the other hand, have to be programmed for the transponder units to link up, so this can cost quite a bit more. The machines to program the transponders are almost exclusively found at dealerships, and they’ll charge you for the labor – you’re looking at $150-$250 for this car key replacement. Laser-cut keys are more complex, and will add another $50 or so.

Remote and key combos depend on what the concern is. If somehow you’ve lost just the shank, you can get it and get it recut for $60-$80 or so. More likely, you’ve lost the entire key, as it’s pretty hard to take these apart. In that case, it will likely run between $200 and $400.

Proximity Key Fobs are unique to your vehicle, and can cost twice as much as a remote and key combo, or more depending on the brand of vehicle. Luckily, most basic vehicles run around $400-$600 – it’s the luxury brands that are at the top end of the range.

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Can I Program a Car Key Myself?

Well, kind of. If you are replacing a missing key and fob but have a second one, there are ways to reprogram a blank fob on your own and skip the dealer. However, if you’ve lost both keys, there’s no chance you’ll be able to do this at home. Even if you want to take on the reprogramming task yourself, you’ll still need the key cut for you at the dealership. So usually, the increased cost is worth the time savings just to have them take care of it.

Key Fob Repair

So here’s some good news – if your key fob is merely damaged or not working correctly, you don’t have to spring for a whole new programmed unit.

First off, check and make sure the battery is fine. You might simply need to get a new battery for your fob. These aren’t special batteries, or hard to find – whether you’ve got a Nissan Versa or a Mercedes S-Class, that fob is sporting the same two-dollar watch or hearing aid battery. You can find them in hardware stores, supermarkets, drug stores, or on Amazon.

If your fob is damaged, it still may not need the full reprogramming. It’s not the fob that does the work, it’s the transmitter inside. As long as that is still intact and functioning, it can be transplanted into an undamaged fob and continue to work just fine. Aftermarket fobs are available at numerous online retailers and brick-and-mortar car shops.

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In conclusion, make sure you don’t lose your keys! The high cost of car key replacement is not one you want to deal with too often, if at all.

Do you have questions about replacing your car key or need to replace one? Visit us today at Bobby Rahal Toyota in Mechanicsburg, PA and we’ll get you taken care of!

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