Your car is one of your most valuable possessions. You use it almost every day. But if you're intimidated by any maintenance that goes beyond filling the tank and getting the car washed, you're asking for a future of unnecessary and costly repair bills. (If you're looking to buy a car, check out Car Shopping: New Or Used?)
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Don't take your car's reliability for granted. It's more likely to be there for you when you need it if you follow these inexpensive precautions. (Is your car ready for the grave? Learn more in Your Car: Fixer-Upper Or Scrap Metal?)
1. Know your car's maintenance schedule.
There isn't one maintenance schedule that all cars should follow. The make, model and year of your car, along with its mileage, affect what maintenance it needs and when. Edmunds.com has a free tool you can use to get a customized maintenance schedule for your car.
Regularly taking care of the little things can help you avoid big, expensive problems down the line. Knowing your maintenance schedule will also prevent you from performing unnecessary maintenance. For example, the oft-cited 3,000-mile mark may actually be too frequent for many people to get oil changes.
2. Find a trustworthy mechanic.
In her book, "Buying a Car for Dummies", Deanna Sclar recommends finding a good mechanic before you need one. Test the shop's services on a small job to get an idea of whether you can trust them with the inevitable large job.
Asking for recommendations from people who take good care of their cars is a great way to find a repair shop. If that's not an option, seek the advice of independent agencies like the American Automobile Association (AAA), Canadian Automobile Association (CAA) and National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (ASE). AAA and CAA approved facilities provide a 12-month/12,000 mile/20,000 km warranty and must meet high standards of service. Their websites provide lists of approved repair shops by region.
Participating AAA-approved facilities also offer inexpensive vehicle inspections that check all of your car's major components. The ASE, an independent, nonprofit group, offers voluntary certification to mechanics. All ASE-certified mechanics have passed at least one test, have at least two years of relevant work experience, and must be recertified every five years.
Approvals aside, a shop that's busy is often a good sign.
3. Check your fluid levels.
Even if you barely understand anything about how cars work, you can easily learn how to check and replenish your car's fluid levels yourself. Most of these items are readily accessible under the hood. According to "Auto Upkeep: Basic Car Care" by Michael E. Gray, these are the most common fluids car owners need to check:
- Engine oil
- Transmission fluid
- Brake fluid
- Clutch fluid (for manual transmissions)
- Windshield washer fluid
- Differential fluid
- Power steering fluid
- Battery electrolyte
These should be checked whenever you get your oil changed. Note that some of these fluids come in more than one formulation; make sure you know which formula your car requires before adding anything. Your mechanic will probably check and replenish your car's fluids for free or for a nominal fee when you get your oil changed, but it's still a good idea to know how to do it yourself so you can troubleshoot and prevent problems when you're at home or on the road.
4. Keep Your Tires Inflated
A sticker usually located on the inside of the driver's side car door will tell you how much air to keep in your tires. It may say "32 PSI," meaning your tires need 32 pounds of air per square inch. You can easily tell how much air is in your tires by using a tire gauge (this should cost less than $10). For a few quarters, you can add air to your tires at most gas stations. Check your tire pressure once a month when your tires are cold. Don't forget to check the spare!
An underinflated tire can cause a blowout, meaning that in a best-case scenario, you have to buy a new tire sooner than usual, and in a worst-case scenario, you can cause an accident resulting in thousands of dollars of damage to your vehicle and others. Properly inflated tires also save you money by improving your gas mileage. (Gas prices getting you down? Check out Getting A Grip On The Cost Of Gas.)
Looking at the tread wear pattern on your tires when you're inflating them can help you spot other problems with your car that should be addressed by a mechanic, like an alignment problem, unbalanced wheel or worn shock absorbers. And when the tread on your tires is down to less than 1/16 of an inch (which you can check by putting an upside-down penny in a groove and seeing if the top of Abe Lincoln's head is visible), it's time to get your tires replaced.
5. Invest in an OBD-II reader.
This handy electronic device is easy to operate and can pay for itself in just one or two uses. For less than $100, it will allow you to read the codes produced by your car's electronic on-board diagnostic system if your car's model year is 1996 or later. This means that when your check engine light goes on, you can find out what's wrong and how serious the problem is without having to take your car to the mechanic. Some engine light messages don't need to be repaired right away, giving you time to save up and shop around. And knowing what the light is on for can keep you from getting ripped off by an unscrupulous mechanic.
This isn't an exhaustive guide to maintaining your car, but learning how to take these simple precautions will help you save money by keeping your car running smoothly and avoiding unnecessary repairs. Perhaps they'll even give you the confidence to delve deeper into understanding how your car works. (For more about cars, including selling it when you want a new one, check out Top 10 Ways To Get Top Dollar For Your Car.)
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