Basic car maintenance is overpriced. There is a big difference between complicated repairs and routine service, and there is big money to be saved by doing the work for certain jobs yourself. Parts are readily available at neighborhood retailers, and the special tools required are minimal, with the single largest investment likely to be a torque wrench.
Essentials for tackling car maintenance at home include a clear set of instructions specific to the make and model year of your car, as well as important safety equipment such as protective glasses. The simplest do-it-yourself repairs are listed below, ranked from easiest to the most involved.
Air Filter replacement
A flat-head screwdriver is usually the only tool you need to pop open the clips fastening the air filter housing under your hood. You simply pull out the used filter, replace it and then reassemble the filter housing. A new air filter can result in better fuel economy for your car and may even show improved acceleration if your current filter is long overdue for replacement.
Rotating your tires every 5,000 miles or so will get you the maximum lifetime out of a set of four tires by evening out the tread-wear. You’ll need an automotive jack, and a tire iron. Typically, most cars provide the needed tools in a kit located someplace near the spare tire storage area.
Oil and Oil Filter Change
The cost for 5 or so quarts of fresh oil and a new oil filter is minimal. Doing the job yourself is the best insurance against having poorly trained service employees damage your car (unintentional damage can easily happen when they forget to fasten the oil pan drain bolt or fit an incorrect filter onto your and send you on your way down the road). The biggest challenge is raising the car high enough to access the drain bolt, and a set of jack stands or ramps are helpful for that. Begin by draining the old oil and spinning a new filter on, and finish up by tightening everything up and refilling with the correct amount of fresh oil.
Coolant system flush
It is straightforward to drain your radiator and overflow tank using the drain plug located near the bottom of the tank. You then flush the system by running distilled water through the system for a few minutes. Re-draining the rinse water and replacement with a 1:1 mix of antifreeze and distilled water completes the job. The final step is to bleed air out of the system once everything is near operating temperature.
Spark plug/ ignition wire replacement
This is a high-margin job for your dealership. With just a socket wrench and the appropriate extension, you can change your spark plugs and ignition wires and get much smoother acceleration and idle as a result. Many spark plugs are sold with the needed gap right out of the box, but a cheap tool can be handy for checking that the new plugs are within the manufacturer’s specified tolerances. At $2 per spark plug compared to hundreds charged by the dealer, doing this job yourself has a huge potential for savings.
Brake pad and rotor replacement
This job may sound like a tall order, but in reality it’s only a little more involved than changing a flat tire. An extra bolt or two needs to be removed to allow the brake pads to be changed, and when the caliper bolts are off and the calipers opened, there’s clearance to remove and replace questionable rotors as well. Although it’s the most time consuming of the jobs listed here, the potential for savings is also very high.
If you consider the money saved when you choose to do simple car maintenance yourself, the up-front costs of a model-specific repair manual and a decent set of socket wrenches could easily be recovered after the first job you handle yourself.