The car maintenance conundrum: DIY or use a mechanic?
Maintaining your vehicle is essential to keep it running smoothly and extend its life. If you do the work yourself, you can save a large sum of money. However, simply doing the work yourself doesn’t guarantee that you’re doing it right. Here are some routine car maintenance tasks, advice about how to do them, and a quick cost and difficulty analysis to help you decide if you want to attempt them yourself. (Note, this doesn’t account for the cost of tools you’ll need.)
One of the easiest maintenance tasks to deal with is the oil change. It’s a straightforward process that can save you time and money. Yet sometimes DIY oil changes can be problematic.
It’s generally not the procedure itself where people sometimes miss the mark – it’s the intervals for changing oil. For those of us who have driven for a number of years, we may have subscribed to the “change your oil every 3,000 miles or three months, whichever comes first” mantra pushed by oil replacement centers. While those parameters were once commonplace, today’s cars have extended oil change schedules, ranging from 5,000 to 10,000 miles, and in certain instances much longer — thanks to synthetic oils, explains Edmunds.com.
The best guideline for oil change intervals can be found in your owner’s manual. That manual provides service recommendations for normal and heavy-duty driving. Select the latter only if your trips are chiefly composed of urban driving, driving in dusty conditions, or if you tow with your vehicle. Otherwise, use the standard schedule for the correct oil replacement interval, and other maintenance items.
Taking your car in for an oil change will cost you between $45 and $70, depending on whether you need synthetic or high-mileage oil, and on the area where you live.
If you’d rather try it yourself, here’s a great step-by-step tutorial.
Average cost: $25
Average time: 30 minutes
Difficulty level: 1 out of 5
Start with a set of quality tires — look for traction, handling and reliability — like those offered by Nexen. If you start with good tires, and rotate them according to schedule, you’ll have them for years. Rotating your tires is an essential maintenance step, especially for ensuring even tire wear. Tires that wear evenly provide improved grip and last longer.
One common rotation method is moving tires from the front axle to the rear axle and crisscrossing them. For example, the front left tire would be moved to the back right axle and vice versa. In addition, you can simply exchange the front left tire with the rear left tire and do likewise on the right side of the vehicle. (Note that these patterns may not apply to all types of tires and vehicles.)
Even if you rotate your own tires, you could still be neglecting to rotate your tires at the service interval recommended by the car manufacturer. Or, if you have a full-size spare, do you include that tire as part of the rotation? By including the full-size spare in a tire rotation, you extend tire life across five tires instead of four. Moreover, by including the spare, you’re more likely to have a usable extra tire on hand when needed.
While you’re at it, inspect your tires regularly for wear and tear. If the tread is wearing down, or if you notice bulges, cracks, chips, or uneven wear, there’s a good chance those tires need to be replaced. If replacing tires in pairs, the new tires should be placed on the rear axle.
Taking your car to a garage to have the tires rotated will cost you at least $25, and often much more (though it may be included as a free bonus with an oil change if you take your car in for that service). If you want to rotate tires yourself, it’s best to invest in a good floor jack (around $100) and a set of jack stands (about $30). Then, follow the directions here.
Average cost: $0
Average time: 30-60 minutes
Difficulty level: 3 out of 5
Modern cars are equipped with serpentine belts. A single serpentine belt does the job of multiple belts as it works with the engine to power the water pump and operate the air conditioner compressor, as well as control the alternator, air pump, and other critical components. If the belt fails, you aren’t traveling anywhere.
The serpentine belt winds its way across five or six pulleys, so unless you know your way around pretty well, you could install it the wrong way. If it’s installed incorrectly, the serpentine belt could cause the water pump to work backward, damaging it.
To avoid this, pay close attention to how the current belt is fitted before removing it. If it’s already broken, follow the placard typically found under the hood. A shop manual for your car can also offer instructions. When in doubt, call your mechanic.
A serpentine belt repair can cost between $60 and $200 if you take your car to a professional. If you feel confident to tackle this yourself, follow directions closely. AutoZone offers an excellent YouTube video on the subject.
Average cost: $10-75
Average time: 30-60 minutes
Difficulty level: 4 of 5
If you feel confident changing your own oil, you might want to try replacing the transmission fluid, brake fluid, and coolant. Handling these tasks yourself can save you plenty of money.
The problem here is if you’re not as attentive as you should be. You may have done an exemplary job removing fluids, but you’re distracted when it comes to replacing them.
It’s always a smart practice to follow a checklist when replacing fluids. These steps include verifying that the fluid levels are sufficient and checking plug connections. Accomplish these steps before driving.
Lifehacker provides easy-to-follow videos for checking car fluids – though changing them isn’t quite as easy. DMV.org shares tutorials to replace transmission fluid and brake fluid. The Family Handyman offers advice on changing coolant.
Average cost: $10 each
Average time: 30 minutes each
Difficulty level: 2 of 5
One of the easier maintenance tasks handled by home mechanics is brake work. Brake pads are simple to install, but you may be surprised to learn that pads are commonly installed backward. When installed correctly, the clips are designed to rub against the brake pad. If installed incorrectly, the pads will wear out faster and metal may soon grind against metal, leading to far costlier repairs.
If you do decide to take on brake work, remember to buy quality parts. Choosing cheap pads will cost you in the long run, forcing you to tend to your brakes much sooner than expected. Never buy parts based solely on price; always buy genuine, quality parts. With poorly crafted aftermarket parts comes a significant problem — the cheap parts can become a safety issue.
You might be doing your brake job incorrectly if you fail to lubricate the guide pins, miss cleaning the brake slides and hardware, fail to machine the rotors, or install the brake calipers upside-down. The results here can range from having to redo your brake job sooner than you thought, all the way to, “Look mom, no brakes!” If you aren’t completely confident in your abilities here, please leave the brake work in the hands of a qualified licensed mechanic.
You’ll pay between $130 and $500 if you take your car to a mechanic or dealership, and the amount you pay will be based on the make and model of your car.
Average cost: $300
Average time: 60 minutes
Difficulty level: 3 out of 5
Car maintenance done right
If you prefer to do a portion of your car’s maintenance yourself, yet worry that you might carry out a task incorrectly, you can always ask a friend to help, especially when tackling more challenging projects.
In any case, always refer to your owner’s manual, invest in a shop manual, and become friends with a mechanic. Your mechanic can handle those jobs you prefer to leave in more auto-savvy hands.
Matthew C. Keegan is a freelance writer. His specialties include automotive, business, college and career, and inspirational articles. Matt founded his automotive site, Auto Trends Magazine, in April 2008 and expanded it to reflect its current format and editorial policy beginning in Sept. 2011. Matt is a member of the Washington Automotive Press Association and is a contributor to various print and online media sources.
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