8 Ways to Save Money on Car Maintenance and Repairs
Car ownership is expensive, especially with maintenance and repairs, but a little knowledge can go a long way toward saving money without sacrificing vehicle safety and performance. In honor of National Car Care Month, here are some ways car owners can curb costs, whether it's getting an automaker to pay for repairs, knowing which services are actually needed, or replacing repair shop visits with a little driveway DIY.
The vehicle owner's manual is your best friend. Any repair or service recommendation from a dealer or mechanic should be cross-checked with the manufacturer's instructions for vehicle care, which are more trustworthy than a repair facility looking to turn a profit. The service schedule in the manual is a guide to getting optimum performance and many years of use out of a vehicle without dropping dough on unnecessary services. The manual also contains warranty provisions. Knowing how the warranty works, what it covers, and how not to void coverage can save big bucks later on.
Running into car problems when out of warranty doesn't necessarily mean you're out of luck. Contact the manufacturer directly and ask about "goodwill assistance" for owners with expired warranties. Carmakers offer this to foster brand loyalty and customer satisfaction, encourage repeat business, and forestall complaints on social media. There's rarely a set policy for who gets goodwill assistance; it's decided case by case, based on factors including how long ago the warranty expired and whether the vehicle has been serviced regularly at an authorized dealership. Chances are best for the original owner of a new vehicle, or a certified pre-owned car. In any case, it can't hurt to ask.
Car owners who come into a repair shop for an oil change or other routine service are often encouraged to pay for fluid flushes -- for brake fluid, transmission fluid, power steering fluid, coolant, engine oil, and so on. However, car experts suggest that the main function of these flushes is to flush out owners' wallets. While some fluids do need to be drained and replaced on rare occasions (consult the manual), flushes aren't part of the routine maintenance recommended by manufacturers. The automotive site AutoFoundry warns that a power flush, when fluid is forced through the system to clear out debris, can actually damage the transmission and cause leaks.
Problem with a car? Look online for "technical service bulletins" indicating that the problem is affecting other vehicles of the same model. Automakers address these issues with warranty extensions, product improvements, or recommended changes and pay for the necessary fix. So-called TSBs are especially common in a car's first model year, as real-world driving conditions expose problems. Unlike safety recalls, TSBs and other service campaigns do not have to be reported to consumers. Search for them through the manufacturer's website, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Edmunds, or the Center for Auto Safety. When buying a used vehicle, notify the manufacturer of the change in ownership. That puts you on the contact list for a recall or warranty extension.
Authorized dealers have the most up-to-date and accurate information, because they are in direct contact with the manufacturer -- they can even troubleshoot with the engineers. They typically charge a diagnostic fee of about $100 an hour, but the task shouldn't take that long. Cheaper independent repair facilities don't have the same access, so their knowledge of a car is more likely to come from hearsay or online research. (Beware shops that waive the diagnostic fee if you agree to hire them for any resulting repairs. They have added incentive to discover an expensive problem.) It's worth paying for an accurate assessment, rather than risk shelling out for parts or repairs that may not fix the issue. Once the problem has been determined, go ahead and shop around for the best price on the repair.
It's worth paying highly trained specialists for skilled repairs and expert-level maintenance, but some car repairs are surprisingly easy to do at home. Check YouTube and elsewhere online for tutorials on how to replace a headlight or taillight bulb, change wiper blades, add air to tires, check fluid levels, and replace the cabin and engine air filters. The parts are generally inexpensive.
Start by making sure any tires you buy are less than a year old. (Popular Mechanics shows how the last four digits on a tire's sidewall indicate the week and year it was made.) Replacing tires is expensive, so save money by making them last as long as possible while still staying safe. The most important factor is keeping tires at the appropriate pressure. Don't make the common mistake of going by the number on the side of the tire. That's the maximum allowable pressure. The recommended tire pressure is usually lower and displayed somewhere on the vehicle -- the owner's manual will indicate where. Check pressure on each tire at least once a month, and when tires get low, use FreeAirPump.com to find a gas station where you can fill up for free. Rotating tires regularly is also crucial. Many tire retailers, including Walmart, Sears, Costco, and Sam's Club, offer free rotation for tires bought there.
Regular oil changes are essential no matter how tight the maintenance budget, but dealers and repair shops often recommend changing the oil more frequently than necessary. The rule of an oil change every 3,000 miles doesn't apply to many newer vehicles. Synthetic oils, while more expensive, also extend the interval considerably. Consult the vehicle owner's manual for the manufacturer's recommendation and tear that oil change mileage sticker off the windshield.