Getting grease stains on your shirt by going underneath a car and
changing the oil can be a DIY badge of honor. It can also be a reminder that
you don’t know your way around a car and that $35 isn’t much to pay a
professional to do the job.
Whatever do-it-yourself talents you have around a car, there are
some basic auto maintenance things that the average person can do, even if
they’re not mechanically inclined. Just don’t make the mistake of getting in
over your head and making a problem worse.
As a mechanic shop owner in Phoenix, Ariz., Bogi Lateiner
has seen too many customers try to do something that they thought would be
simple, only to make it worse. Take the oil change, which a generation grew up
knowing how to do on their cars. You may have seen your dad under the car to
change the oil when you were a kid, but those days are likely over.
Lateiner tells of a customer at a previous shop she worked at who
thought he was draining his engine oil, but instead drained the transmission
fluid. It was his first time trying to change the oil, and he added too much
oil into the engine. He then drove the car, destroying the transmission because
it was out of fluid, and harming the engine because it had too much oil. He
caused $5,000 in damage to his car instead of paying $35 for someone else to
change the oil.
“If you’re not mechanically minded, I don’t recommend changing
anything other than the basics,” Lateiner says.
Here are some of those DIY basics, followed by a few options for
mechanically minded DIYers:
Do a monthly check.
Check the tire pressure, fluid levels, top off the coolant and listen to how
your car runs when it’s running well so you’ll know when something might be
wrong, Lateiner says. The owner’s manual is the best tool for knowing how much
and where to add fluids, for example. Fluids to check include coolant, brake
fluid and windshield washer fluid.
“Get familiar with what things look like in your car so you can
know if something’s wrong the next time you inspect it,” she says.
And don’t get too “topping off” crazy when filling fluids. For
example, if a vehicle’s brake pads and rotors haven’t been changed for awhile
and the brake fluid appears low, it doesn’t mean it should be topped off, says
Chuck Hawks, who owns a driving school.
“As the pads wear, the fluid will appear at a lower level in the
reservoir and this is perfectly normal,” Hawks says. “Of course, if it is below
the minimum level and a pad inspection indicates that the pads still have ample
life, then topping the fluid to somewhere between maximum and minimum is
With all fluids, be sure to top the fluid with an exact match to
what’s already in the system, he says, washer fluid notwithstanding.
Change the air filter.
You may need to check the owner’s manual for where it is, but once you find it,
it should be easy to change once or twice a year as needed, Lateiner says.
Wiper blades. Most
people can also replace these themselves, she says. Do it before the rainy
Spark plugs. Like oil
changes, changing spark plugs used to be part of every car owner’s DIY arsenal.
They don’t need to be replaced as often as they used to many years ago, ranging
from 30,000 to 100,000 miles, depending on the vehicle. Again, be sure you know
what you’re doing and read the car manual.
Oil change. While an
oil change isn’t something Lateiner recommends for the average person, it can
be done if you know what you’re doing. But even DIYers may not want to do it
because it’s such a hassle, she says. “I don’t encourage people to do it
themselves,” she says.
If your car has trouble starting, particularly when it’s cold outside, then you
may need a new battery. Most batteries last about five years before a
replacement is needed, and changing one is easier than an oil replacement, says
Stan Markuze, founder of PartMyRide, a used car parts seller.
To first find a new battery, go to a local warehouse store such
as Costco or to an auto parts dealer, and an attendant should be able to tell
you exactly what kind of battery you need for your car, Markuze says. Replacing
it usually requires loosening three bolts — two on the battery terminals and
one on the battery tray. Take your old battery to the store where you bought
the new one so it can be properly disposed of.
Batteries for luxury vehicles, however, should be replaced by a
mechanic, Lateiner says. Luxury cars often require computer programming when a
battery is replaced, so a professional should do the work, she says.
Brakes. Changing the
brakes and rotors is a relatively simple job for a handy car owner, Markuze
says. Make sure you have the necessary tools — floor jack, jack stands, socket
wrench set, allen wrench set. And have the parts — brake pads, rotors,
lubricant to place between pads and calipers. Search on YouTube for a video on
how to change your car’s brakes, Markuze recommends, such as “Toyota Camry
“Changing the brakes involves lifting your car up on jack stands,
removing the wheels, unbolting the calipers, and removing the old pads and
rotors,” he says. Then put the new pads into the calipers using the caliper
lubricant, install the new rotors, re-install the calipers, mount the wheels,
and lower the car.
“The process might sound challenging, but it’s very intuitive and
an online video tutorial can take you a long way,” Markuze says.
Whatever maintenance you're doing on your car, don’t be the guy —
and in Lateiner’s experience it’s mostly guys doing these things wrong — who
thinks he can change a power steering pump or drains the transmission fluid
instead of the oil and ends up paying thousands for something that should have