BEYOND CHANGING THE OIL
Cars are one of the largest purchases consumers make, alongside homes and college educations. But unlike real estate or a bachelor's degree, a car isn't an investment. Unless the purchase involves a collectible car in the hope of price appreciation, a vehicle is an expense -- and one that doesn't end with the purchase. It takes more than fuel to operate a car over the long run. Routine maintenance and repairs are necessary to keep a vehicle operating safely and efficiently and to preserve its resale value. With that in mind, here are some tips on how to keep your car in good operating order with minimal wallet drain.
CHANGE THE AIR FILTER YOURSELF
This is one of the easiest of all car-maintenance tasks. The owner's manual shows how and how often to do it (typically every 10,000 to 15,000 miles). Most air filter housings are easily accessible. A typical replacement filter costs $10 to $20 at a chain auto parts store, although more-exotic makes can command more than twice as much. Swapping in a new filter takes about five minutes, and a mechanic might charge $50 or more for the labor, so do it yourself. The same applies to replacing windshield wipers. Buy them at parts stores such as Pep Boys and O'Reilly, and the clerk will often install them for free on the spot.
When something like a muffler or water pump goes out, most car owners take the vehicle to a shop and pay whatever the mechanic says it will cost to replace. Before agreeing to that price, get on the phone. Ask other shops what they would charge for the same job on the specific make, model, and year of car. Most mechanics know exactly how much labor is involved and can quickly price the parts. They won't need to see the vehicle provide a quote. You may be surprised at the range of prices, which can vary by $100 or more. Even if there is a charge for the original diagnosis, taking the car somewhere else might be a better option. Or, the first shop might match the competitor's price to keep you from walking.
MAKE WINDSHIELD WASHER FLUID
The days of 99-cent-a-gallon windshield washer fluid are probably gone. But it's possible to make it at home for even less. The main ingredient is water, combined with inexpensive additives such as alcohol and ammonia. Find recipes for windshield washer fluid online.
ROTATE YOUR TIRES FOR FREE
Tires aren't cheap, but if you're spending $25 or more several times a year to have a mechanic rotate the tires to prolong tread life, do the math. Leaving the tires where they are and paying to replace them slightly more often might be a money-saving alternative. If the need to act responsibly toward the tires is a constant itch, know that many sellers will rotate tires bought there for free, for as long as you own the car. Also, many chain shops offer free brake inspections. Try asking them to rotate the tires while they're at it, since they're already taking off all four tires to inspect the brake parts. For safety's sake, keep the tires with the most remaining tread on the front wheels, which steer the car.
BUNDLE PARTS REPLACEMENTS TOGETHER
When replacing the head gasket on an engine, a mechanic typically replaces other items, such as a timing chain. This makes sense, considering how much labor is involved in taking apart and reassembling an engine. The same reasoning can be applied to simpler replacements, such as a starter or alternator. If a mechanic has to remove many parts to get at the one causing a problem, it may make sense to replace worn items such as belts and hoses, too. Talk over the possibilities with the mechanic and negotiate a fair price for the labor before the work is begun.
BUY USED PARTS
Many auto recyclers (aka junkyards) will remind you that all the parts in your car are used. This statement is meant to counter skepticism that installing a used part is foolish because it's likely to wear out soon, necessitating a repeat of the same repair. But there many parts that rarely wear out, making used parts almost as good as new, just a lot cheaper. Body trim and interior items such as radio knobs and rear-view mirrors are examples of parts that make sense to buy used. They often cost less than half the price of new. Rebuilt engines and transmissions can also be good buys and typically come with warranties. A good mechanic can steer you to reliable sources for these parts.
BORROW TOOLS FOR FREE
Some auto repair jobs aren't that difficult but require specialized tools. It makes no sense to purchase a tool costing $100 and do a repair yourself if a mechanic who already owns the tool can do it for $75. But when tools can be borrowed for free, the economics make more sense. At many parts shops, such as AutoZone and Advance Auto Parts, it's possible to do just that. Typically the store requires a deposit (chargeable to a credit card) in the amount of the tool's cost, which essentially means buying the tool with the option to return it for a refund within a specified period.
LEARN TO DIY A REPAIR FOR FREE OR CHEAP
There is lots of information about performing car repairs yourself. Chilton and Haynes publish detailed manuals customized to specific makes, models, and years. The guides are available online for a subscription fee, but many public libraries still stock bound Chilton and Haynes manuals that can be checked out. Some parts stores, such as AutoZone, offer free repair guides online.
BUY AND SAVE DISCOUNT CARDS AND COUPONS
Many schools and other nonprofits raise money by selling coupon books and cards, which typically include discounts from local merchants and service providers, including auto repair shops. Many consumers make the mistake of throwing the book or card away when the coupons expire or all those that interest them have been used. But some books and cards include discounts that never expire and can be used repeatedly. Just flash the card during checkout and save each time on every repair.
SUPPLY YOUR OWN PARTS
Many car owners are dismayed at the prices garages charge for parts. When it comes to domestic cars, for example, consumers can buy the same part at an auto parts store for 30 percent less than the price charged by a dealer's parts counter. Repair shops often charge customers the list price for a part that the shop has purchased for less. When having a repair done, ask the mechanic if you can shop around for a better deal on the part. Just be sure to search for exactly the right part for the vehicle's make, model, and year. Some shops may give the go-ahead but won't guarantee the repair, an outcome that can be avoided by asking for brands or sources the mechanic trusts.
DOWNSHIFT TO PROLONG THE BRAKES
Many motorists who drive vehicles with automatic transmissions never stray from park, drive, neutral, and reverse and may have no idea what "1" and "2" on the gearshift mean. Both are low gears that give the engine more power at low speeds -- to pull heavy loads up hills, for example. The other handy application of low gears is for "engine-braking" or slowing the vehicle without touching the brakes when the car is coasting down a steep hill. This saves wear on the brake pads, which a shop typically charges $150 to $200 (or more) to replace. Engine braking down steep hills can help pads last months or even years longer, depending on how much you drive on hills. Don't worry about the roar coming from the engine compartment when shifting into a low gear going down a steep hill. You're not doing any damage to the engine or transmission.
USE AIR TO SAVE GAS
Properly inflated tires can save $112 a year in gas, according to a study by the auto site Edmunds. The same study found that the savings could approach $800 a year when tires have been severely underinflated. Check tire pressure at least monthly. All it takes is a tire-pressure gauge and access to an air pump. To avoid "paying for air" (using coin-operated pumps at gas stations and car washes), consider purchasing an electric pump that plugs into the car's 12-volt power outlet. These small (and sometimes noisy) air compressors can be found online for less than $20. Many come with a built-in air-pressure gauge, and some turn off automatically when the tire reaches the desired pressure. To find out the correct pressure for your tires, check the label on the driver's doorjamb or in the glove box or owner's manual.