Save Money With These DIY Car Maintenance Tips

By Alex Perdikis

Let’s face it, cars aren’t cheap. They’re not cheap to buy, they’re not cheap to run and they’re not cheap to maintain. What if you could save money, though? You can save if you take care of routine maintenance yourself.

Follow these money-saving DIY car maintenance tips to keep your vehicle in top condition and more of that hard-earned money in your wallet.

A Little TLC, Please

Taking care of your car saves money, yes, but there are so many other benefits. Making sure your car is in top driving condition also improves safety, enhances performance and reliability, and keeps the air you breathe cleaner on top of saving you from costly repairs.

The U.S. Department of Labor Statistics estimates that the average annual cost to operate a vehicle after purchase is approximately $4,200. Failure to take care of routine maintenance can cost many thousands of dollars more and sometimes more than the car itself is worth.

Expensive repairs can often be avoided if you keep your car in top condition from the start.

Where’s The Owner’s Manual?

That’s right that little book you haven’t looked at since you bought your car is a treasure trove of maintenance information. You’ll find everything you need to know about your car’s needs, including the type of oil to use and when to change it, recommended tire pressure and the little things, such as which replacement signal and headlight bulbs to purchase.

If you bought a used vehicle and didn’t get a manual, search online for a downloadable version. If all else fails, contact the manufacturer and purchase a manual. Your car’s maintenance is too important to guess.

Now that you have the manufacturer’s recommendations, follow them.

“Automakers recommend timetables and specific products for a reason. Failure to follow those recommendations or skimping to get by often results in expensive consequences.” — Alex Perdikis

Get to Work

Some of what follows involves taking stock of your vehicle’s condition and some is more hands-on. Here’s what you need to do:

  1. Inspect your car. Not only is a visual inspection great for discovering problems, but it also familiarizes you with the vehicle’s different parts and functions. If something looks different now than it did before, you’ll see it and address the issue, if necessary.
  2. Get to know your warning lights. Newer cars use a series of computerized warning and sensor systems to sound the alarm about problems. You need to learn what they mean. Again, your owner’s manual is a valuable resource, but here are some of the most common light indicators and what they mean:
  • Engine light: OK, you have a problem. But what is it? You’re not going to know unless you have a way to read the onboard diagnostic (OBD) codes. To do that, you’ll either need an OBD scanner tool or take it to a mechanic to read it for you. Scanner tools are affordable and if you really want to get into DIY maintenance, purchase one.
  • Service engine: Often this light signifies it’s time to change the oil or perform some other maintenance task. Check the manual for precise meaning.
  • Electrical fault: Oh-oh, something’s wrong here. If the light stays on, you could have an alternator issue or some other problem. See a mechanic.
  • ABS warning light: If this light comes on, do not mess around. Get to the repair shop. Finding and fixing an anti-lock brake system problem is not a job for amateurs. The safety of you and your family is at risk.
  • Oil warning: Stop the car as soon as it’s safe if this light comes on. Keep driving and you’re likely to do irreparable damage to your car’s motor. Again, this is a job for professionals.
  • Coolant warning: Your car is overheating. Pull over and open the hood. Don’t attempt to remove the radiator cap when the engine is still hot unless you want to end up in the hospital. Wait until the engine cools.
  1. It’s tire time. Tire pressure has an impact on the way your car drives and rides as well as its fuel efficiency. Check your owner’s manual for the proper tire pressure. Available for purchase tire pressure gadgets include those that simply check pressure or more expensive systems that monitor and send you a notification if one or more tires needs air. Check tire pressure weekly and maintain as required.

Check your treads. If you’ve purchased tires in recent years, you’ll most likely have integrated tread wear bars that indicate whether or not your treads are still deep enough for driving.

A quick and dirty way to check tread depth is the penny test. Stand Lincoln on his head within a groove. If you can see Lincoln’s head in its entirety, it’s time to buy new tires.

Also have your tires rotated and aligned professionally. Check your owner’s manual for how often you need to do this or, use the rule of thumb advice of every 5,000 miles.

  1. Check the fluids. Change the oil as recommended by the manufacturer. Check your coolant and brake fluid levels and replace as needed.
  2. Pay attention to your air filter. Yes, you should use your owner’s manual as a guide here, but when it comes to your car’s air filter, diligence is the better option. A clogged air filter substantially reduces gas mileage, reduces its power and, in the worst case, it causes engine misfires.

The way you drive and the roads you travel directly impact how much debris is caught in your air filter. If you drive dirt roads or in stop-and-go traffic every day, you’ll have to replace your air filter more often. Give yours a visual check and change it even if it’s not time according to the manual.

Alex Perdikis, Koons of Silver Spring general manager and owner, lives in Chevy Chase with his wife and daughters.