Thursday, December 14

Do-It-Yourself Car Maintenance

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Car maintenance: Can you or should you do it yourself?

Some types of maintenance you absolutely should do yourself. An example would be tire inflation. Check the tire pressure regularly, and add air to any tire that is low. Low pressure in one or more tires reduces gas mileage and makes the tire wear out a little faster. Simple things like checking oil and coolant levels should also be performed by the owner.

Oil changes and lubrication are a bit more complex and should probably be done by professionals. These services are quick and cheap. You might save 5 or 6 dollars by changing your oil yourself but you will spend an hour or so doing it, you will get dirty, and you will have to deal with the old oil and filter. It is a simple task and you can certainly do it yourself, but it is hardly worth it.

When it comes to things considered minor repair, it just depends. If you need a timing belt, and you have the tools and the know-how to install a new one, by all means do it. It can save you 200 to 400 dollars (depending on your car model and who does the work for you; auto dealerships have certified, trained professionals but they are by far the most expensive places to have work done). Likewise with brakes. If, for example, you need to repair disc brakes, and you are knowledgeable and experienced in diagnosing problems with disc brakes and installing pads and calipers and having rotors turned or replacing them, then you can save a chunk of money by doing it yourself.

Beware of tackling a project that is above your knowledge and skill level. There was a sign on the wall of the Triumph motorcycle shop in Austin, TX in the early 1970’s that read:

               Labor is $8 an hour

               If you watch–$9 an hour

               If you help–$10 an hour

In other words, if you need a professional to do a job, hire one and let him do it. If you try to do it and botch it and then need to hire somebody, it will probably cost you more than if you had let it alone and hired a pro to begin with.

I was in Sears a couple of years ago, waiting to have a set of new Michelins mounted on my car. A guy was at the service desk arguing about the the price they had estimated for brake repair on his late-model SUV. He insisted his wife had called and was given a price over the phone that was substantially less than the price they were giving him.  The agent patiently explained that they never give a price quote over the phone for something as variable as a brake job, because they cannot know the specific parts and labor required until they examine the vehicle. He told him the estimate he had just given him was for specific parts and procedures, which he listed in detail, and that if more was needed it would cost more. The guy said the parts he had purchased and installed himself were much lower-priced than the ones Sears wanted to use. The agent stopped him and asked, “Did you try to do this job yourself?” The man said he had, and obviously had not done it right. The service agent started to laugh, and told him that if they had to track down and correct the damage he had done in addition to the regular work, it would definitely cost more than the estimate, maybe a lot more. The point here is that if you have the knowledge and the tools to work on your car yourself, by all means do it and save some money. If you do not know what you are doing, it could be a very expensive education.

Windshield wiper blades, fuses, light bulbs, and any fluids that need to be topped off are all things you should take care of yourself. If your transmission is making a funny noise, have it checked out by a professional. If white smoke comes out of your tailpipe and your engine overheats, you probably need a head gasket, and that is not a job for a handyman. By all means save some money by checking what you can and doing what you can do yourself.


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