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Five Car Maintenance Tasks You Can Do Yourself to Save Money
By Richard Reina
It’s no secret that the cost of owning a vehicle can come at a steep price. According to the American Automobile Association, in 2017 the total cost of owning and operating a new car averaged about $8,469 a year, with maintenance and repairs costing drivers almost $1,200 annually. Our vehicles are important investments that should be maintained, but there are ways to save both valuable time and money doing some that work on your own.
While the jobs mentioned below are all easy to moderate in terms of difficulty, be sure to take extra precautions, watch demonstration videos beforehand, and consider working with a friend or family member for added support.
Changing your battery
The average car battery lasts about four to six years, but this lifespan depends on a variety of factors, including where you live (cold climates can be harsh on your vehicle), how often you start the car, and whether you typically are going on short or long drives.
When it comes to your battery, preventative maintenance is key. If you wait until it dies to replace it, you might be left stranded and forced to pay whatever price is given to you for parts, labor, and the service call. Drivers have the option of paying a nominal fee to have their battery tested once a year, but it’s just as easy (and cheaper) to be proactive and do the job yourself every four to five years.
When you’re ready to tackle this task, consider purchasing your new battery at a local discount store such as a Costco or Sam’s Club to save some extra cash. Once you have your replacement battery, grab a wrench kit and be sure to remove the black negative cable first when taking out the old battery, and replace the negative cable last once you’ve installed the new battery. Be careful when switching cables as a mistake could lead to a short circuit. Clean cable terminals with baking soda and water, and coat them with petroleum jelly (more savings).
- Average dealer price: $200
- DIY price: $80
- Total savings: $120
Mastering an oil change
For many years, the standard response to when to change your oil was every 3,000 miles, depending on who you asked. Some mechanics and dealerships may still advise an oil change this frequently, but changing the oil that often isn’t necessary as today’s oil is higher quality than it was even a decade ago. Many modern cars only need oil changes every 5,000 to 10,000 miles, but this of course depends on your vehicle. Consult your owner’s manual to find your vehicle manufacturer’s recommendations, and pay attention to any maintenance alerts on your dashboard.
Changing your car’s oil is quick and simple, but when doing this at home you must ensure the car is raised and stable before you get under it. Never get under a car supported only by a jack; use jack stands. Performing this maintenance task yourself not only saves money but ensures that you’re using the correct viscosity (thickness) oil. Again, check the owner’s manual for that information.
If your car is cold, run it for a few minutes to warm the oil, and if it is hot from recently being driven be sure to wait at least 30 minutes to avoid potentially getting burned. Be sure to have all of the items you need in one place, including appropriate wrenches, a drain pan, and a new filter. First, remove the drain plug and drain the old oil; reinstall the plug (a new washer is best); remove the old filter; install the new filter after coating its gasket with fresh oil; add the new oil and check the dipstick to ensure the level is correct.
- Average dealer price: $60
- DIY price: $25
- Total savings: $35
Swapping out your headlight/tail light bulbs
While this may seem like an obvious suggestion, one of the best things a car owner can do is regularly check that all outside bulbs are working. You’ll know when your headlights are out, but you most likely won’t know about the other bulbs unless you walk around your car while it’s running. To check your brake lights, you’ll need two people: one to step on the brake and the other behind the car checking the bulb.
The average repair shop today charges $100/hour, so a 15-minute bulb replacement will cost you about $25 in labor. However, changing your own bulbs is very easy. Before you go to the store, make sure to pull out the old bulb and bring it with you to ensure that you’re getting the correct bulb size. For headlight bulbs, never touch bulb glass with your bare hands. The grease from your fingers can cause the bulb to burn out early.
- Average dealer cost: $35 per bulb
- DIY cost: $5 per bulb
- Total savings: $30 per bulb
Checking and changing brake pads
It’s recommended to check your brake pad thickness every 10,000 miles, but be sure to look out for excess wear and tear that will depend on external factors such as frequent use and driving style. Preventative maintenance is important as your pads should never drop below 2mm to 3mm in thickness. If they wear further (“metal to metal”) you could damage your rotors and double your repair costs.
DIY brake pad maintenance isn’t difficult, but does require care. You need a wheel lug wrench, some basic wrenches, pliers, a jack, and a set of jack stands. Start by raising your car up as you did with the oil change and remove the wheel.
Next, unbolt the caliper (do NOT disconnect the brake line), and swing it out of the way. This gives you access to the pads. Remove the old ones and install the new pads (best practice: use special brake paste on the pad edges and caliper pins). Before reinstalling the caliper, push the piston back with a C-clamp. Reinstall the caliper, then the tire. Before driving, start the car and pump the brake pedal to restore pressure.
While you can save a significant amount of money changing your brake pads yourself, brakes are a big safety item, so approach this job with caution and make sure you’re especially vigilant each step of the way. (E.g., don’t put the pads on backwards – it happens!)
- Average dealer price: $250 per axle
- DIY cost: $40 per axle
- Total savings: $210
Basic tune-up: Change air filter
The traditional timeline of one tune-up per year isn’t necessary with today’s vehicles. Modern materials and advanced electronics have made the old-school tune-up a thing of the past.
First, always consult your manufacturer’s recommendations for replacement intervals. Some repair shops unnecessarily suggest more frequent service, which should be a red flag. If you do choose to get a ‘full tune-up’ at the shop, be sure to ask what exactly they’re doing to your vehicle.
Instead of focusing on a yearly tune-up, base this schedule on mileage and your manufacturer’s suggestions. For example, modern spark plugs should last about 100,000 miles on average.
A tune-up today consists of changing your oil, fuel filter, air filter, and spark plugs. To address just one of these items, replacing your air filter is probably the easiest maintenance job on your car. Why pay a big markup for someone else to do it? It’s recommended to replace your filter every 15,000 to 30,000 miles. Ignoring that can cause your fuel economy to suffer (more money down the drain), and can even lead to expensive engine repair.
A shop may charge up to $100 in labor and $50 in parts for an air filter job. In most cases, you simply open the hood, remove the top of the air filter housing (held in place with screws or clips), replace the filter, and reinstall the housing. All you’ll need is a screwdriver and a new filter, and you’re good to go.
- Average dealer cost: $150
- DIY cost: $25
- Total savings: $125
Of course, when thinking of approaching a DIY job, comfort is key. If you’ve never looked under the hood of a car before, don’t push yourself to do a job that might be more complex than just pulling out a new bulb and replacing it. As you gain confidence you can try more involved jobs, but be sure to always focus on your own safety first.
Richard Reina is the product training director at CARiD.com and has been an auto enthusiast since the age of two, when his dad taught him the difference between a Chevy and a Ford. Since then, it’s been cars all the time. He enjoys restoring and driving old cars, with a special love for anything Italian – he currently owns a 1967 Alfa Romeo.
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