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Simple Car Repairs You Can Do Yourself

Americans spend an average $849 a year on car maintenance and repairs. But taking on simple to intermediate tasks yourself can cut down on repair bills and maybe lengthen the life of your car. We’ll walk you through DIY car repair and maintenance projects that even a “non-car person” can tackle.

Common maintenance

The best way to avoid repairs is to perform preventive maintenance, according to Eric Cook, a professional mechanic in Kings Mills, Ohio, also known as EricTheCarGuy, a YouTuber with more than 1 million subscribers. Sometimes, maintenance and repair overlap as you need to replace things that wear down over time. Here are three common DIY maintenance tasks you could do that can help minimize your car repair costs

Oil changes

This is the least expensive way to best maintain your car. To change the oil yourself, drain the old engine oil into a pan and replace it with new engine oil you get from a store. Regarding how often to do this and which type of engine oil to use, check your owner’s manual. You could also check your engine oil about once a month to see if it could be topped off. 

When you do an oil change, remember to dispose of the old oil properly. In many places, it’s illegal to simply dump it as it can be poisonous to the environment. To dispose or recycle it, you can take it to a car service station, an auto business such as Advanced Auto Parts or a community oil recycling center. The website Earth911 lets you look up where you can recycle all types of things, based on your zip code. 

Topping fluids

It’s not just your engine oil that should be maintained. Other liquids in your car need to be kept in check. Antifreeze/coolant is an important fluid that’s easy to maintain and should be checked as often as your engine oil. Windshield washer fluid can be added as needed. For other fluids, such as brake fluid, steering column fluid and more, check your owner’s manual. You should be able to find these supplies at any auto store. 

Maintaining tire pressure

Keeping tire pressure at the right level helps you achieve the best fuel economy and helps your tires make less noise and last longer. The old-school method of checking tire pressure is to look and maybe give them a kick. If there was any give in the tire, that would mean it needed more air. A much better method, however, is to use a tire pressure gauge, which you could buy for less than $5. Many new cars will tell you via a dashboard light when tire pressure is low. 

To find out what the tire pressure should be, look in your owner’s manual. And if the tire pressure is low, you could fill it up by using an air pump. Many gas stations have one and charge $1 to provide airflow for about a minute and a half. 

Easy DIY car repair and maintenance

These car repair and maintenance tasks don’t require any special tools and all replacement parts could be found easily at common stores. 

Replacing an external lightbulb

Replacing a headlight, taillight or turn signal is usually cheap and easy. And remember, you may want your headlights to match. Most bulbs fit most cars but if you are unsure, check with the seller or do a quick internet search to see if that exact bulb fits your car model. To replace the bulb itself, you will probably need to pop the hood of your car and access the old bulb by removing it from behind the light’s housing. A brake light bulb may be accessible through the trunk. 
  • LED vs. halogen. An LED bulb is more expensive, brighter and has a much more blue tint than a traditional halogen bulb, which is less expensive, not as blindingly bright and has a yellow tint.

Restoring the light covers

If the covers over the lights are foggy in a way that doesn’t wash off with soap and water, use toothpaste and a rag or an old toothbrush to scrub off the oxidation. It may sound odd, but it has worked for a ton of people.  

Replacing the battery

The biggest problem you might have when replacing a battery is lifting it up and out of the car. It’s pretty heavy, but also pretty easy to replace. Look at your current car battery to see the size and voltage you need. Then you can look for a “refurbished” or “reconditioned” car battery of the same type either online or in a store. A refurbished battery is less expensive than a new battery and can last several years. When you install the new battery, triple check to make sure you match the battery’s positive and negative sides with the car’s positive and negative wires. 

Auto shops will often test your current battery to see if it could be saved, help you pick out the right battery for your car and do an install for free if you buy a battery there.

Cleaning and replacing air filters

You may have the experience of your oil change technician showing you a dirty air filter and offering to replace it on the spot for $30. But you could clean it yourself for free or replace it yourself for a third of the cost.

Both cabin air filters and engine air filters work to prevent road grime, dirt and bugs from getting where they’re not supposed to be. Because air filters guard air intake, they are usually easy to get to and most don’t require any special tools to replace, though a screwdriver may help to open the housing around the filter. 

To clean it, you could simply shake it out to the best of your ability. But don’t bang it against something or you may ruin the structure of the filter and it might not work. You could also potentially vacuum it with the vacuum hose (don’t run over it with the vacuum).

Even if you do clean it every once in a while, you should eventually replace it when it still looks dirty even after a cleaning. Auto air filters can cost less than $10 online. 

Windshield wipers

The important part of this is to know how long your wiper blades are so you get the right replacement. Be aware that your car’s windshield wipers may be two different sizes. There are several ways to check the size you need: look in the owner’s manual, do an online search (some companies offer a “blade size finder”) or go outside with a measuring tape. 

If you do the latter, only measure the replaceable wiper blade, the part that touches the windshield. You don’t need to measure the “arm,” which moves the wiper blade.

Moderate DIY car repair and maintenance

These moderate DIY car repair and maintenance tasks may require a bit more gumption. For most of them, you’ll be able to use common household tools. Replacement parts should be readily available at auto shops. 

Installing an external light fixture

If you need to replace the whole light fixture on your car because it’s cracked or old, you need to be much more model-specific than you would with a bulb. Potential sources for replacement include car part stores, online sellers and even “pick-and-pull” places like junk yards. 

When doing the replacement, pop the hood and detach the appropriate wires from the light fixture. You may need a pair of pliers to disconnect the wires or you may be able to simply detach the light bulb socket, wires and all, from the old part and screw it into the new part. 

Replacing fuses

Fuses can be exceptionally cheap online; a kit of 50 can cost around $2. It’s knowing which one to replace that’s the trick. And, like all tricks, there’s a secret to it: an OBD scanner, also known as a code reader. An OBD scanner is a diagnostic tool you plug into your car, which can tell you why there’s a warning light on your dashboard by proving a specific code. And looking up the code may tell you what exactly needs to be replaced.

To get an OBD scan, you can go to an auto parts store and ask them to scan your car for you, free. If you want to get your own OBD scanner, the price can vary dramatically, based on how advanced you want the tool to be. A DIY type may only need a $20 one, whereas a professional mechanic may have one that cost $1,000. 

Patching and rotating tires 

Many places will patch a tire for free if it’s damaged, so getting the materials and tools to do so yourself may not be worth the investment. However, rotating your own tires won’t cost you anything but some of your time. You should be able to do it with the tools that came with the car to be used in case of a flat tire.

Replacing belts

Some belts are easy to change and others require special tools. Belts themselves usually run around $20. To know which type you need and how to put it on, do an internet and/or YouTube search by searching the year/make/model of your car and “serpentine belt” or “drive belt.” If you can’t change it yourself, you could buy the belt and then ask an independent mechanic to put it on for you. 

Difficult DIY car repair and maintenance

These difficult DIY car repair and maintenance tasks need specific parts and require more mechanical knowledge. But you could still do them without having a mechanic’s training.

Installing a window regulator

If your car window won’t roll up or down, the window regulator is probably broken. (Jeep in particular is infamous for its window regulators failing.) The part can cost less than $40 online but a dealership mechanic shop might charge $500. Make sure that the window regulator replacement you find is not only for your specific car, but for the specific window in your car as front versus back doors and passenger versus driver side doors can be shaped differently. 

To get into the car door to replace the part, you’ll need to take off the door panel. The best way to find how to do this is to search for a video showing it. As far as tools, you’ll probably need a wrench to undo and redo the rivets holding the window regulator. 

Replacing fuel filter and hoses

Fuel filters can cost between $20 and $100, depending on your vehicle. Prices for hoses can vary depending on the vehicle and the type of hose. But to give you an idea, a steel brake hose kit for GM vehicles can cost just under $50. Replacing either will probably require the use of a wrench. And it’s a great idea to have a pan underneath the vehicle to catch whatever liquid falls out. 

Beginner tools you may want

For most DIY car repairs, you’ll only need simple tools that you would have in a regular household tool kit and/or the tool kit that came with the car. “Just a basic set of hand tools will do for most DIY jobs,” said Cook, who gives how-to advice on his YouTube channel. The one tool he recommends you do get is a better car jack. “Not the one that comes with your vehicle, if one comes with it in the first place.” Many new cars are missing a jack and a spare because manufacturers want to cut costs and increase fuel economy that a heavy spare tire and metal jack would eat up. 

Here are some inexpensive tools that might not be in the common household tool kit but could allow you to do a wide range of things on your car or make them much easier to do.

 Car jack. If you plan to do car work that will require lifting it off the ground a few times, such as rotating your tires or changing your brake pads, consider getting a hydraulic car jack, which can be very strong and not require a lot of twists or pumps from you to raise the car. Prices can range between $30 and $180 online, depending on how heavy your car is. 

Warning: You never want to climb under the car while it’s held up by only a car jack — it can be extremely unsafe. If you or a passerby accidentally knocks the car jack, the car can drop on top of you. If you want to get under your car, look at car ramps. 

  • Car ramps. If you want to do car work that requires getting under your car and staying there for a while, car ramps are useful. Car ramps are a safe way to get the vehicle off the ground a few inches and give you a lot of room to work. They could help you more easily get to belts and hoses, drain fluids and check the undercarriage. Prices are as low as $65 online. 
  • Drain pan. If you plan to change filters or drain fluids, having a drain pan, also known as a catch pan, under the car is a smart idea. It is a smart idea, too, not to use a kitchen bowl to catch engine fluids as they can be poisonous. You can find a drain pan for under $9 online and in stores. 

Potential places to shop for new and used tools include any place you’d look for car parts and online sites, such as eBay and Amazon.

How to find car tools, advice

“Sometimes you can find a lot of auto repair information by just doing a Google search. The caveat to that is to proceed with caution,” Cook said. For instructions and/or parts for your specific car, here are places to go.

Auto parts store

Most provide some help free of charge, including figuring out what part(s) you need — they want you to buy the part from them. Chain auto parts stores have a huge database of what parts go with which specific car. And if you do buy the part, an employee will usually help you remove the old part and install the new one. 

However, there are limitations. The people who work at auto parts stores, while usually knowledgeable, are not likely to be certified mechanics. Also, you usually have to get your car to the store (a dead battery could make this tricky), the store has to be open and ideally, the employees should not be busy with tons of other customers. 

 Online search

The internet can be a wonderful tool. You could do a general internet search or search on a retailer’s website, such as Amazon, Walmart, AutoZone and O’Reilly. Type in the year, make and model of your car, along with the general type of part you need or the problem it is having. For example, “2014 Nissan Sentra headlight.” 

Online video

Watching someone do a repair is one of the best ways to learn how to do it yourself. There are a ton of instructional car repair videos done by professional mechanics on YouTube, such as EricTheCarGuy, Scotty Kilmer and Chris Fix.

Owner’s manual

When all else fails, open the owner’s manual book that came with your car. Scan through the table of contents and go to the right section that addresses the car problem you’re having. 

General advice and a word of caution

If you have major repair work that needs to be done, or the work could be potentially dangerous, we recommend having a professional mechanic work on the car. Saving some money doing DIY car repair is not worth potentially putting your life or other lives in danger. 

 

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