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 appropriate.”
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 season arrives.
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.
Battery replacement. 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 Brake Replacement.”
“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 been cheap.
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