DIY Auto Maintenance for the Frugal Car Owner
by Andrea Norris-McKnight
Perhaps you don’t have to pay someone else to keep your car running smoothly. See how many of these simple auto maintenance tasks you can learn to perform yourself and how much money it can likely save you.
Maintenance is a necessary part of car ownership, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find ways to save when it comes to protecting and extending the life of your vehicle.
Performing some of your own auto maintenance can often provide big savings for the average car owner. Not only will you save yourself the cost of labor, but many auto repair shops mark up the cost of parts, sometimes as much as 50%, over the price you’ll get at an auto parts store.
Just how much can DIY auto maintenance save me?
A quick visit to RepairPal.com can give you an estimate of most auto maintenance costs. Below, next to most of the tasks we’ll explore, you’ll find the average cost of labor (and typically your average savings if you perform the task yourself!) for each task per RepairPal.com.
Where can I find maintenance instructions specific to my vehicle?
This article will point you towards those maintenance tasks you might want to consider learning and doing yourself but you will need to do a little research to get exact instructions for these tasks.
Instructions are outside the scope of this article. But you can find detailed step-by-step instructions and videos for most vehicle makes and models on the internet. And auto parts store employees can be an extremely helpful resource since the auto parts business depends on auto DIYers.
Refer to your vehicle’s owner manual to determine when and how often a particular maintenance task should be performed.
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Do I need to go buy a bunch of tools?
You may not own the tools or yet have the skill to perform all of these tasks, but some of these tasks can be performed by almost any car owner with tools you likely already own. Others may require the purchase of a new tool or two, an investment that will more than pay for itself if you perform the maintenance regularly.
Editor’s note: While many car owners regularly perform these maintenance tasks on their own, you certainly do not want to risk damaging your car in any way that can result in a repair bill. Also, be careful not to invalidate any warranties. When performing any of these tasks, make sure the instructions you follow are from a reliable source and you closely and thoroughly follow all instructions and any related cautions. Take appropriate precautions to protect your safety, too.
Simple/Beginner DIY Auto Maintenance Tasks
Replacing the engine air filter
Depending on the make and model of your car, a clogged engine air filter can increase fuel consumption and gas bills. In extreme cases, it can contribute to engine damage, which can be a shame since replacing the air filter is one of the easiest tasks a car owner can do on their own. Your vehicle’s owner manual can tell you how often you should replace your air filter, but most recommend every 12,000 to 15,000 miles.
Average labor costs savings: $26 – $33.
Replacing the cabin air filter
For those who drive cars with a cabin air filter, your owner manual likely recommends that you replace it about once per year, depending on your driving habits. And while a clogged cabin air filter won’t damage your engine, it can damage the blower of your A/C unit. Also, an inefficient A/C system can contribute to lower gas mileage (and more frequent gas purchases).
If you have a Phillips screwdriver, you can most likely change your car’s cabin air filter yourself. Your owner manual may have instructions for changing the filter. If not, the manufacturer’s box containing your replacement cabin air filter will often include instructions.
Average labor costs savings: $33 – $41.
Replacing windshield wiper blades
Windshield wiper blade replacement is another one of those tasks the majority of car owners should be able to perform and you will certainly save by purchasing replacement blades from a discount auto parts store rather than a dealership or repair shop. The task is so simple, you’ll likely spend more time in line buying your replacement blades than you will changing them out so paying someone to do this for you can be a big waste of money. Some auto parts stores will even do the replacement for you!
Average labor costs savings: $24 – $31.
Checking/maintaining proper tire pressure
Whether your car has a “tire pressure low” warning light or not, keeping an eye on tire pressure is simple. Invest in an inexpensive tire pressure gauge ($5 – $10), and then about once per month, check your tires’ pressure and top off the air as necessary per the specs in your owner manual. Some cars also list tire PSI (pounds per square inch) numbers on a sticker just inside the driver’s side of the car.
Proper air pressure will extend the life of your tires, contribute to better gas mileage and help keep you safer on the road. Many gas stations provide free air pumps. Just be careful not to overinflate your tires as this can cause the same problems as under-inflated tires.
Average labor costs savings: $22 – $30.
Replacing headlights/brake lights
Depending on your car, you may or may not be able to change headlights and brake light bulbs yourself. You typically only need a Phillips screwdriver for this task, but the toughest part can be reaching the bulb and disconnecting it without scraping the skin off of your hand. But it is well worth trying it yourself before paying someone else to do it for you.
Average labor costs savings: $42 – $54.
It is a good idea for any car owner to keep an eye on engine fluids, including transmission fluid, brake fluid, power steering fluid, windshield wiper fluid, coolant, and oil.
If you already take your car in for regular maintenance, such as oil changes, checking your engine’s fluids yourself won’t necessarily save you much money. Many mechanics and service centers offer free top-off service for these fluids with other paid services.
But what if this article encourages you to start changing your own oil? Knowing how to recognize when fluid is low or needs replacing/flushing, and then adding fluid yourself or getting your car in for service can save you a bundle by preventing possible engine damage.
And speaking of changing your engine’s oil…
DIY Auto Maintenance Tasks for Handier Car Owners
Ask anyone who’s received a botched oil change at a quick lube place that resulted in a damaged or blown engine and they’ll tell you they wished they had learned to change their own oil.
Yes, changing your oil is a dirty job but it can be well worth it if you get your oil changed 3 to 4 times per year. While the instructions for most cars are pretty straightforward, this is one of those tasks you’ll want to make sure you get right so you aren’t the one causing the engine damage.
Average labor costs savings: $41 – $52.
Changing the coolant involves draining the coolant at the bottom of the radiator and then topping off the radiator with fresh coolant. This is not the same as a coolant flush, which is a more involved task that most car owners will want to leave to a professional.
Most cars will require that you use an air-powered refill tool to do this job, an investment that will run you about $85 to $95, but save you about $100 each time you change the coolant yourself. Instructions for this task are pretty straightforward as long as your cooling system is not contaminated with rust or oil.
Average labor costs savings: $102 – $129.
Rotating your tires will help extend the life of your tires. Your vehicle’s owner manual should tell you the “rotation pattern” recommended for your car.
For most cars, you’ll just need a jack stand, a jack, a tire iron, and a little muscle to rotate the tires yourself.
Average labor costs savings: $35 – $45.
Are you ready to pop the hood?
As you can see, performing just some of your own auto maintenance can save you hundreds of dollars per year. Use this list to get started with DIY auto maintenance, and if you master these tasks, you’ll find plenty of more advanced maintenance tasks online, such as replacing brake pads, the fuel filter, and spark plugs, than can save you even more.
Reviewed October 2022
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