Even in this age of computerized automotive systems and engines hidden from view beneath plastic covers, there are simple upkeep tasks that you can do that will save time and money. And this means you — ordinary, old, non-mechanical you.
This list of projects requires few tools and no experience. If you've hung a picture or pounded a nail, you can tackle any one of them. "Taking care of the small things now can add up to a big difference in your wallet later on," says Charlie Podner, category merchandising manager for AutoZone, a large auto parts retailer.
It's difficult to attach cost savings to some items on our list. Others have a wide range of costs, depending on whether you drive a luxury car or a beater. The Edmunds.com data department estimated the time it would take a mechanic to complete each task and calculated the labor cost for Southern California. But doing these jobs yourself will have rewards above and beyond saving a buck or two, and we've noted such benefits, too. You might just like the hands-on experience enough that you'll move on to other DIY projects.
1. Check Your Tire Pressure and Inflate Your Tires
Money saved: A tire-pressure check and inflation is usually combined with other routine services, but the estimate for the shop cost of this alone is $22-$30. The biggest savings, however, is the increased fuel economy that comes with properly inflated tires: $112 a year in gas, according to an Edmunds.com study of its employees. According to the same study, the savings could be as high as $800 for drivers with severely underinflated tires. If the nearly 250 million registered passenger vehicles in the United States were only 7 percent underinflated and owners brought their tires up to the specified level, the overall savings would be about $23 billion per year, according to a 2005 Department of Transportation study.
Time required: 15 minutes, once a month
Parts required: None
Tools required: Tire pressure gauge, air pump (usually free at a gas station)
Why DIY: Keeping your tires properly inflated is important for three reasons, according to Matt Edmonds, vice president of Tire Rack, an online tire retailer. As Edmonds tells us, properly inflated tires improve safety (your car handles better during emergency braking and cornering), prolong tire life (tires wear more evenly) and reduce fuel costs. "You never notice an underinflated tire until you have to slam on the brakes or swerve around something on the highway," Edmonds says. "That's when the underinflated tire can really affect performance."
2. Rotate Your Tires
Money saved: A tire rotation in Los Angeles ranges from $43-$60. For a person driving 12,000 miles a year, that's two tire rotations. Doing it yourself could save $120 annually.
Time required: One hour
Parts required: None
Tools required: Jack stand, tire iron and your car's jack
Why DIY: Front tires often wear faster than rear tires because braking and cornering is more demanding on them, according to Tire Rack's Edmonds. By rotating your tires, you help ensure that two tires won't need replacement prematurely. The Tire Rack Web site offers common rotation patterns, but Edmonds recommends sticking to the pattern in your car's owner's manual. Furthermore, when you perform the rotation yourself, you can closely inspect the tires for defects and premature wear. You might spot a nail that's stuck in a tire and is slowly deflating it, Edmonds says.
How to do it: This article gives complete instructions for the way to rotate your tires.
3. Change Your Air Filter
Money saved: Mechanics charge $19-$60 just for the labor involved in changing an air filter.
Time required: Five minutes
Parts required: New air filter
Tools required: Screwdriver
Why DIY: Sales guys at quick-lube places love to upsell customers on air filters because the filters take very little time to replace and bring a nice profit. Changing one yourself only takes 5 minutes, keeps dirt out of your engine and improves fuel economy, according to AutoZone. In areas with lots of dust, change the air filter more frequently, the retailer recommends. If you learn where the filter is and how to change it, it's an easy way to extend the life of your engine.
How to do it: This story explains how to change your air filter.
4. Replace Bulbs and Fuses
Money saved: Mechanics charge from $17-$132 to replace bulbs and fuses, depending on the make and model of vehicle.
Time required: 30 minutes
Parts required: Replacement bulbs and fuses (usually sold in a box of assorted sizes)
Tools required: Screwdriver
Why DIY: Headlights and taillights are essential safety items. It doesn't cost much for a mechanic to change a bulb or a fuse, but do you really want to schlep to a garage, wait around and maybe pay the 50 percent markup dealers charge for parts? That's the average, according to this service advisor in "Confessions from the Dealership Service Department." Instead, pick up the bulb or automotive fuses at an auto parts store and crack open your owner's manual.
How to do it: The hardest part of changing a headlight or taillight is reaching the bulb. Review the instructions and scope out the access first. If it looks as if threading your hand in there will remove too much of your skin, let a pro change the bulb. The fuse compartment, on the other hand, is easy to reach. Finding the right fuse requires reading the electrical chart in the owner's manual. Here is more about how to change a fuse.
5. Change Your Own Oil
Money saved: Quick-lube shops and dealership service departments in the Los Angeles area charge $39-$60 for an oil change.
Time required: One hour
Parts required: Engine oil, oil filter. Sometimes it's a good idea to replace the washer for the drain plug, too.
Tools required: Jack, oil pan for catching the old oil, socket wrench, oil-filter wrench, recycling bottles, mechanic's rubber gloves and plenty of rags.
Why DIY: Changing your own oil will save money and help you to avoid one of the upsells that quick-lube salespeople or the service advisors tend to push during the oil-change process. While an oil change is more advanced than other items on this list, it is well within the ability of anyone with a little mechanical knowledge. After you master this task, you might feel like a real mechanic and you may find yourself bragging about it to your friends.
How to do it: There are two ways to approach this task: the conventional under-the-car method and the newer, neater, top-down approach. Dan Edmunds, our director of vehicle testing, made this video tutorial while he was changing the oil in a test car.
There's Help at Hand
When you're setting out to do any of these fix-it jobs, check with your local auto parts store for DIY support services they might offer. AutoZone, for example, advertises that it will help you find the right part, loan you tools, recycle your old oil and will print out instructions for getting the job done. Our how-to articles are also there to guide you.
To find a dealership that knows how to treat shoppers right, please visit Edmunds.com's Dealer Ratings and Reviews.