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Why losing your car keys doesn't have to be a massive headache

There's no escaping the fact that modern keys are expensive bits of tech.

You know that awful, sinking feeling when you do the pocket check and your keys aren’t there?

That feeling of dread is multiplied, minutes later, when you really can’t find them and start Googling how much it costs to completely replace a set of keys.

Or maybe you’ve dropped them and heard the sound of plastic shattering. Either way, before rushing to contact your dealer, you really should consider whether there might be a more affordable key fob replacement alternative.

If you’ve lost your key

At best, an old-school plug'n’turn metal key blade from 2003 or earlier will cost you around $250 to replace, whereas a proximity-key fob with anti-theft transponder chips can cost anywhere from $267 to $800 from the dealer, on the condition that you have the spare handy.

To use Volkswagen as an example, a replacement proximity key for an MY18 Golf costs $400.

If you’ve lost your last set, costs can be as high as $5000 to get a new set encoded to your vehicle by the dealer.

Why does it cost so much? Unlike older manual-operation keys, modern keys with sophisticated wireless functions are far more complicated, and the amount of tech needed on the inside multiplies the price.

But the cost of the key is only one part of the equation. If you’ve lost your keys entirely, a large part of the cost will be in having the car towed to a dealer, and the down-time you’ll experience as the engineers have to contest with a backlog to sort out your problem.

Is there a cheaper or more convenient alternative?

Automotive locksmiths can often replace the keys on the spot, and occasionally can be even cheaper.

As Steve Howard from Lightning Locksmiths tells us, the costs and complexity vary greatly from car to car, with key replacement requiring a unique process down to the variant and options.

For example, a late-model Holden Commodore proxy key replacement is “relatively easy” and “can be done on the spot”, whereas, a late-model Toyota is “significantly more difficult” as “the entire immobiliser computer needs to be taken out” for the encoding process, and then replaced again.

To use our Golf proximity key as an example, Steve quotes us $650, but notes that much of the cost is in purchasing the genuine part from the manufacturer. “You’ll save on things like having your car towed to a dealer, plus in most cases an automotive locksmith can do the job on the spot, and come to you on a 24-hour basis.”

“People need to understand that the costs are high for modern keys” he explains. “The best thing you can tell people is to always have a spare handy; cloning a key is always cheaper.”

Naturally, as the prestige of the manufacturer and complexity of the key go up (with items like proximity unlocking, remote start and now even on-board screens) so do prices. Expect a new key for a brand like BMW to edge over $650.

You might notice there are some third-party keys for your vehicle available online, however Steve advises against such a solution.  “Customers do come with non-genuine keys bought on eBay and expect them to work, thinking they can save a few dollars by just having us encode it, but there’s a good chance they won’t work, so they’ll end up frustrated with having to buy another key anyway.”

If you’ve broken your key

Fortunately, merely breaking your key can be very cheap and easy. With a few caveats.

The good thing about car keys is that the case is generally the cheapest component. Even if you’ve snapped the blade off a turn-key, this is a cheap fix.

Most locksmiths will be able to replace the case cheaply and put it together properly. Whether you can get a genuine case replacement depends on how recent your key is, but don’t be afraid to shop around a bit. Prices and quality can vary.

You might not be able to find a genuine replacement for older keys that have since been discontinued, but some aftermarket alternatives of older keys even solve some common build-quality issues of the originals (like dodgy button materials).

You can save some dollars by replacing the case, key blade and exterior components with a blank fob bought online. These can be as cheap as $10, but watch out for quality issues.

When taking apart your damaged key fob, it is vital that you do not lose any components. Generally, there will be a small black immobiliser box inside. Without this, your vehicle will not start.

Take the key blade with the original and have it cut by a locksmith (not an expensive step), also take this chance to replace the battery in the key, paying attention to whether it is facing the right way up in its bracket.

When replacing the parts, ensure everything goes back in its original place. That immobiliser chip must go in its exact position. There are many guides available online if you cannot picture how your key goes back together.

Some copies to not snap together as well as originals, so a nail file might be needed to smooth surfaces inside the key, and out. If any screws were included, make sure to use them to avoid having it fall apart again.

If you’re not confident with these steps, broken key fobs can usually be replaced quickly and easily for under $70 at most locksmiths. Just plug ‘car key replacement near me’ into Google and it will tell you your closest option.

Have you found a cheap way of replacing your key before? Share your experience in the comments below.