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8 DIY Car Maintenance Tips You Can Handle – Checklist

By David Bakke

car mechanic projectsIn trying to live a more frugal life, I’m getting better at handling projects that I used to pay professionals to do. In addition to home improvement projects, I’ve learned that I can save plenty by taking on some auto repairs and maintenance jobs myself.

Trust me, I’m not an auto expert. I’m not even very mechanically inclined. But I’ve found the kinds of repairs that just about anyone can handle quickly and easily, with minimal expenses.

I’ve decided to hold on to my car rather than sell it, so by taking care of these repairs, I’ve saved quite a bit of dough over the past several years.

1. Air Filter

  • Tools You Need: None
  • Time to Complete: 10 minutes
  • Estimated Cost: $10

change car air filter

You need a new air filter for your car every 12 months or 12,000 miles, whichever comes first. You can pay a mechanic and give up your car for a day, or you can replace your air filter at home in about ten minutes.

  1. First, find your filter under the hood of your car. It’s in a black rectangular box with metal clips on the side. Check your owner’s manual if you don’t see it as soon as you pop the hood.
  2. Open up the casing, and check out how the air filter fits inside it. Make a note of which way the filter faces.
  3. Remove the old air filter, and insert the new one exactly how the old one sat.
  4. Remember to close the metal clips when you’re done.

That’s it. For extra savings in the long run, you can extend the life of your new air filter by hitting it with some compressed air to clear out any debris.

2. Windshield Wipers

  • Tools You Need: None
  • Time to Complete: 15 minutes
  • Estimated Cost: $10 to $20

change windshield wipers

I laugh when I visit my local auto parts store and see that they’re having a sale on wiper blades, offering free installation. The free installation only applies if I buy the most expensive blades in the store, so I started changing them on my own. You’ll need new wiper blades after about six months or a year of use. You probably tend to go a little longer before asking your mechanic to change them, but you shouldn’t deal with the danger of streaking while you put off an inconvenient trip to the auto shop.

Wiper blade setup differs quite a bit from car to car, so you may have to follow a few different steps according to your owner’s manual. Basically, the process is similar to changing your air filter:

  1. Lift the blades, as if you were washing your windshield by hand, and remove the old blades.
  2. Pay attention to how the old blades connect to the metal arms.
  3. On most models, you’ll see a tab on the underside of the wiper. Push the tab to remove the old blade.
  4. Attach the new blades, being careful not to bend the wiper arms or scratch your windshield. Line everything up and make sure the new ones are secure and tight.

If you get distracted or just can’t remember exactly how the new blades should fit on the wiper arm, don’t worry. The packaging for the new blades should have a general set of instructions and a helpful diagram.

3. Spark Plugs

  • Tools You Need: Ratchet or socket wrench, 12″ socket extension, spark plug socket
  • Time to Complete: 20 to 30 minutes
  • Estimated Cost: $10 to $15

spark plugs mechanic

Most spark plugs need replacing after about 30,000 miles, but check your owner’s manual to see if your vehicle is any different. While changing spark plugs might sound like intense work, it’s a pretty simple process. You just need to set aside some time and exercise patience. Don’t rush, because you need to install the replacements in a specific order.

  1. You should be able to locate your spark plugs fairly easily, because they’re attached to thick rubbery wires.
  2. You’ll find either four, six, or eight plugs, depending on how many cylinders your car has.
  3. Remove the wire to the first spark plug only. Do not remove all of the wires at once. Your spark plugs are installed in a certain order, which you need to maintain.
  4. Use your spark plug socket and extension on your ratchet to remove the first spark plug.
  5. Install the new spark plug, screwing it in by hand at first and then tightening it with a wrench for a snug fit. Do not over-tighten.
  6. Re-attach the spark plug wire.

Repeat these steps for each spark plug, one at a time. If you buy the right plugs, you won’t have to worry about “gapping” the plugs, because they’ll come pre-gapped.

4. Oil and Oil Filter

  • Tools You Need: Ratchet, oil filter wrench, oil pan, funnel
  • Time to Complete: 30 to 45 minutes
  • Estimated Cost: $20

change oil car

Experts say you should change your oil every 3,000 miles, but with better products and cars operating more efficiently, I think you can get away with changing it every 5,000 miles. Whichever benchmark you decide to use, you can save time and money by handling the change yourself. Before you start, keep in mind these precautions:

  1. Never change your oil when your engine is hot. Park, wait for it to cool, and then get started. Driving around the block to heat the car and loosen the oil can result in a more effective drain, which is good news, but you must let the engine cool before going to work.
  2. You’ll have to jack up your car, so make sure you’re comfortable safely handling a jack.

Now that you’ve covered safety first, it’s time to get a little dirty.

  1. Get under your car and locate the vehicle’s oil pan. It shouldn’t be hard to find.
  2. Unscrew the drain plug and drain all of the old oil into your oil pan.
  3. Once all of the oil is drained, replace the drain plug.
  4. Go back to your engine and remove the old oil filter with your oil filter wrench. (Be careful, because the oil filter contains some old oil as well).
  5. Lubricate the rubber gasket on the new oil filter with some new motor oil.
  6. Fill the new oil filter about two-thirds of the way with new oil.
  7. Screw in the new oil filter. Hand-tighten it only.
  8. Fill the engine with new oil, using your funnel.
  9. With a dip-stick, double check your oil level to be sure you’ve added enough.
  10. Discard the old oil filter and recycle the old oil (most gas stations will take it).

Changing your oil is the dirtiest job on the list, but it might be the most rewarding too. Though you can find plenty of quick-service stations nearby, when you think about going possibly four times a year, the expense and time commitment adds up.

5. Battery Maintenance

  • Tools You Need: Wrenches, corrosion-removal fluid, wire brush, rags
  • Time to Complete: 20 minutes
  • Estimated Cost: $5

car battery test

The key to keeping your car running smoothly and efficiently is a good battery connection. Just a few specks of crunchy white residue on the posts can keep your car from starting. A simple visual check of the condition of your battery will tell you when you need to perform this process.

  1. Remove your battery terminals, which should be a fairly straightforward process. Make sure you always remove the negative cable first. If they’re stuck, use a flathead screwdriver to pry them loose.
  2. Clean the posts. Some say Coca-Cola will work, and it does, but I suggest using a more professional product from your local auto parts store. Keep in mind that most of these solutions are nothing more than baking soda and water, so if you’re feeling extremely frugal, feel free to create your own cleaner. Generously apply the fluid to the posts, and clean vigorously with your wire brush.
  3. Rinse the cleaning fluid with a little water.
  4. Dry the posts with rags.
  5. Replace battery terminals.

A dead battery can be one of the most frustrating car problems, because it’s usually so simple to avoid the trouble. Especially if you’ve had the same battery for a few years, pop your hood every few months and take a look at the battery to see if it needs a simple cleaning.

6. Radiator Flush

  • Tools You Need: Phillips-head screwdriver or wrench, rags, radiator flush solution, coolant, funnel, used coolant receptacle
  • Time to Complete: 30 minutes
  • Estimated Cost: $25

car radiator flush

Your car’s radiator and cooling system need to be clean to work efficiently and effectively. With normal wear and tear, your car’s radiator builds up deposits that can disrupt the cooling system. A radiator flush is a quick and inexpensive way to keep your system in shape. Consult your owner’s manual to find out if you need to flush the radiator yearly or every two years.

  1. Make sure your car is completely cool before you begin.
  2. Check your owner’s manual to find the radiator’s drain plug. Put your used coolant receptacle in place, unscrew the drain plug, and let the old coolant drain completely.
  3. Replace the drain plug and remove the radiator cap.
  4. Use the funnel to add the radiator flush cleaning solution and then fill the rest of the radiator with water.
  5. Replace the radiator cap.
  6. Start the car, and let it run until it gets to its normal operating temperature.
  7. Turn on your heater to its hottest position, and let the car run for 10 minutes.
  8. Turn the car off and wait for the engine to cool completely.
  9. Drain the contents of the radiator.
  10. Refill the radiator with fresh coolant.
  11. Be sure to dispose of the old coolant safely, by bringing it to an auto parts store, gas station, or mechanic. Old coolant is fatal, but its sweet taste can be enticing to pets.

Working with coolant is a step toward more advanced DIY auto projects. Temperature can be a dangerous issue when you’re working on your car, so make sure you give your engine plenty of time to cool before you start and before you drain the radiator. Don’t rush this job, and always err on the side of caution.

7. Brake Pads

  • Tools You Need: Lug wrench, C-clamp, open-end or adjustable wrench, hammer
  • Time to Complete: 30 minutes to an hour
  • Estimated Cost: $40 and up (depending on your car)

replacing brake pads

You’ll need to replace most brake pads around every 20,000 miles, but as always, check your owner’s manual for specifics about your model. If you consistently do a lot of “stop-and-go” driving, you’ll need to replace them more frequently. Brake pads are DIY-eligible, but safety is your top priority. Be careful, get everything ready before you start, and if you’re uncomfortable at all, pay a professional to do it for you.

  1. Jack up your car and rest it securely on jack stands.
  2. Break the lugs on your tires before you do anything else.
  3. Remove the wheel.
  4. Remove the brake caliper so that the brake pads slide out through the top. The brake caliper should be at the 12 o’clock position, just above the lug bolts. On the back of the caliper you’ll find a bolt on both sides. Remove the bolts and set them aside. Hold the caliper from the top and pull upwards. Give it a few taps if you need to, making sure not to disturb the brake line (a black hose). Don’t let the caliper hang from the brake line; find somewhere to set it securely. With the caliper out of the way, the old brake pads should slide right out.
  5. Replace old pads with the new pads, securing them with the same retaining clips that held the old pads in place. If you have an older car, you might need to utilize your hammer here a little bit. Proceed gently!
  6. Compress the brake piston. Get out your C-clamp and put the end with the screw on it against the piston with the other end on the back of the caliper assembly.
  7. Tighten the clamp until the piston has moved far enough to where you can place the caliper assembly over the new pads.
  8. Re-install the brake caliper (the opposite process of what you did when you removed it), and then simply put your wheel back on.

With this project, you’re stepping up to what I consider “DIY 2.0.” If you’re still mastering how to change your oil, you might want to build your confidence level a little before taking on this project.

8. Fuel Filter Replacement

  • Tools You Need: New fuel filter, new fuel line washers, open end wrenches, rags, eye protection
  • Time to Complete: 30 minutes
  • Estimated Cost: $20

car fuel filter

For $20, a new fuel filter can protect your engine from very costly damages, so follow the rule of thumb and replace it annually. But keep in mind that like changing brake pads, this is an advanced DIY project. Make sure you’re not in over your head before starting this one. I did it once, and did it correctly, but I definitely paid attention to every detail during the process. Dealing with fuel and fuel filters can be dangerous work if you’re not prepared. If you’re not a DIY mechanic, let a pro do this annual job for you.

  1. Most importantly, start by relieving fuel system pressure. If you don’t, the results can be explosive, to say the least. Locate the fuel pump fuse on the fuse box. If you don’t have a fuel pump fuse, find the relay that operates the fuel pump. Start your car, and with the engine running, pull the fuse or relay out. When the engine dies, you’ll know that you pulled the right one.
  2. Disconnect the fuel lines from the fuel filter. Find two open-end wrenches that are the correct size for your fuel filter fittings (usually you’ll need two different sizes).
  3. When the wrenches are in place, put a rag over the fitting to protect yourself in case there is still some pressure in the lines.
  4. Hold the wrench that fits on the actual filter, and turn the other wrench counter-clockwise until that bolt comes out.
  5. Slide the fuel line off the bolt and set the bolt aside.
  6. Repeat the process for the other side of the fuel filter.
  7. Remove the old fuel filter. Most filters are held in place by a clamp that you can release by using a flathead screwdriver. Be careful here, as the old fuel filter could still have some gas in it!
  8. Change the fuel filter washers, which are located on the bolts that connect the fuel lines to the fuel filter. Make sure to match the new ones up correctly.
  9. Install the new fuel filter, which is the opposite of the process you performed to remove the old fuel filter.
  10. Return the fuel pump fuse or relay before you try to start the car.

This project is another “DIY 2.0″ task. Dealing with the fuel system is serious business, so if you’re unfamiliar with any of these terms and don’t know where to start, just visit your mechanic for this regular service.

Final Word

An oil change can cost $40, and having your spark plugs changed professionally will run you about $60. The list goes on and on. You can easily slash these eight auto expenses by taking the repairs on yourself – saving perhaps thousands of dollars over the life of your vehicle.

But remember, one of the biggest steps to any DIY project is knowing when not to do it yourself. If you need a partner, seek out a neighbor who also wants to save money and learn more about cars, or take the opportunity to teach your kids some auto basics. Just be sure that you know your experience level, and don’t try a DIY project that’s too big to handle. Don’t risk injury or take apart pieces that you can’t put back together.

Otherwise, you can learn a new skill, teach others, and save yourself a few bucks all at the same time.

Do you have any other auto repairs that you complete on your own? Let us know your tips and favorite tasks in comments below.

(photo credit: Shutterstock)

David Bakke
David started his own personal finance blog, YourFinances101, in June of 2009 and published his first book on ways to save more and spend less called "Don't Be A Mule..." Since then he has been a regular contributor for Money Crashers. He lives just outside Atlanta, GA and most all of his free time is taken up by his amazing three year old son, Nicholas.

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  • Wade

    You really shouldn’t use compressed air on an air filter as it can tear the paper rendering the filter useless, or worse, dangerous to the engine if it goes unnoticed.
    Just a thought.

  • http://www.mypersonalfinancejourney.com/ Jacob @ My Personal Finance Journey

    Very good thing to think about here! And what’s more, it appears that almost all of these tasks are the things that get done at the normal “every-3000-mile” tune up and oil change. I think that for me personally, I probably could do these things, but really just have no inclination towards car things. Because of this, I am happy to pay someone the money for the convenience.

  • http://www.debt-tips.com KDB

    All good suggestions, but for me the instant oil change place is well worth the cost, otherwise I’d be spending hours figuring out how to do each one (although 1, 2, and 5 I can handle).

  • Salman Khan

    I am not an auto mechanic………but I am an avid car enthusiast and do everything listed here and more on my own.

    However, I would only recommend the first five tip to be performed by novices. The writer fails to mention the importance of bleeding the system coolant after a flush….which depending on the model of car you have can be a series of complex steps. Additionally……a brake job is serious business. The writer of this article fails to mention that some calipers are not simply pushed in. A specialized tool must be used on some cars to turn the piston in a clockwise rotation.

    Every bit of money saved helps……..but I wouldn’t save money on car repair especially if your or your family’s life depends on it.

  • http://www.fluitek.com Fluitek

    Nice insights and tips on car maintenance. With that guide, I don’t have to contact any mechanic. Thanks for this! :)

  • BretStamm

    If you own a car taking care of it is must and it’s much better to do it on your own. So you can save huge bucks on mechanic bills. You don’t have to be a professional for fixing your car’s little problems. You just need a curious heart to learn all the DIY tips. Here are some tips Iautobodyparts website which I’ve learned so far and it’s helping me a lot so try it out!

  • Justin@mechanic thomastown

    Great tips to clean and prepare our car for the coming summers.I will surely follow these car care tips to keep my vehicle in top shape

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