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Save Money With Do-it-Yourself Car Repairs

Written by Laura Martinez - 22 Comments

True story: My brother’s car broke down and we couldn’t get it to move. My husband, my brother, and I pushed it off the main road and called around to see what it could be done. We got the car towed to a local shop (our previous mechanic retired, so we just found someone nearby).

We learned the hard way

Shortly thereafter, we got a phone call from the shop. My brother needed to pay around $1,200 to replace his clutch. The amount surprised us, and we asked if it would be possible to get it running so he could get home. Unfortunately, it wasn’t.

We had the car towed back to my brother’s home thinking that it’d be awhile before he had enough saved up for the repairs. Shortly thereafter, I received a call from my mom to let me know that the car was running again. She had an acquaintance who does car repairs, and she asked them for help. The total cost? Less than $20!

Do you know what they found? The car had no oil in it! They also replaced a missing hose. My brother is very fortunate that he didn’t lose the car. He’s also fortunate that he didn’t spend $1,200 on an unnecessary repair. He has now learned how to check and change his own oil, and we all learned a valuable lesson: Learning some of the basics of car repair can save you a lot of money.

Do-it-yourself isn’t hard

Maintaining a vehicle costs money, but just blindly trusting a mechanic can cost you even more money. In fact, typical labor rates range from $50-$120/hour. Being able to handle some basic car repairs can increase the life of your vehicle and keeping money in your pocket (some of which should be set aside for huge repairs).

If you’ve never done this before, start small. Don’t risk ruining your engine or transmission just to save a few bucks. Here are some relatively easy things you can do to keep your car in good condition:

  • Check all fluids in your car (motor oil, washer fluid, and transmission fluid) and adjust their levels as needed
  • Check, clean, and perhaps replace the air filter your car. When air filters are clogged, your gas mileage deteriorates.
  • Check your tires to make sure the pressure is correct as determined by your owner’s manual. Keeping your tires at the proper inflation improves gas mileage and can extend the life of your tires.
  • Check and maintain your car battery. Keep it clean by removing any deposits on the posts. They usually last around 5 years before needing to be replaced.
  • Replace your windshield wiper blades if they are worn. Tell your local auto parts shop which car you need them for and they’ll find the match. You might also want to apply some Rain-X at the same time.

Look at your car’s manual and follow that maintenance schedule given, some repair shops recommend more frequent maintenance schedules to increase their revenue.

DIY doesn’t mean you can’t have help

If it makes you feel more comfortable, help someone else with their do-it-yourself maintenance. This will give you a chance to ask questions and take notes. And once you’re ready to do your own maintenance, be sure to keep records of what you did and when.

If you need some sites to learn how to perform some of these maintenance checks, here are some helpful links that I found and used for the article:

If you doubt your abilities or want a professional to handle it, then by all means, find a good mechanic that you can trust.

Published on March 4th, 2009
Modified on July 3rd, 2009 - 22 Comments
Filed under: Automotive, Frugality

About the author: helps families achieve financial freedom by sharing tips for reducing debt and building freelance income over at Couple Money.

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22 Responses to “Save Money With Do-it-Yourself Car Repairs”

  1. 1
    Ian Says:

    Very interesting. It seems to me almost criminal that mechanics can try to charge $1,200 for just an oil change.

  2. 2
    Nate @ Debt-free College Says:

    And the mechanics wanted to charge him $1,200 for an oil change! Did they know that that was the problem, or were they just confused?

    Thanks,
    Nate

  3. 3
    Kristen Says:

    Great article!

    These days, we don’t do a lot of our own repairs, as there is about 2 feet of snow on the ground. We have a great mechanic that we trust, but it is never a bad idea to educate yourself about how something so expansive such as a car works. For instance, if my car stopped running and a mechanic tried to tell me it was the clutch, I would have immediately run in the other direction. A clutch would never cause a car to stop running. It would mean that the transmission is having problems, and worse case scenario you couldn’t get it in gear. I couldn’t rebuild an engine, but I know enough to understand how different parts contribute to the running of a vehicle. I took the initiative years ago when I had a sinking feeling that a mechanic was trying to rip me off. I think basic maintenance and understanding should be taught along with drivers education.

    On a side note – no oil in an engine is a very bad thing. He was very lucky to have gotten away with just needing to change the oil and filter. If the engine had seized, it would have cost a lot more than $1,200. It would have needed a new engine, more like a couple thousand dollars. Regular maintenance, something as cheap as an oil change every 5,000 miles, will save a lot of money down the road.

  4. 4
    Courtney Says:

    Even taking it to the dealer is no defense.

    I have a 2002 Toyota Prius, and I’m running it ’til it drops since it’s paid off. So, since it’s kind of an odd car, I try to take it to the dealer for it’s every-so-many-1,000-mile checkups. I hate the dealer’s service dept where I live (that’s a whole ‘nother story) and so my husband took it to the dealer where he works.

    They charged us $3,000 ($1,800 of which, corporate Toyota refunded us) to fix the non-working heat, replace a central control computer (which wouldn’t fix the known starting in cold weather issue, so why bother?), fix the power steering [which was broken in an accident (not a Toyota issue)], and do the 124,000 mile maintenance.

    We complained about the electrical control computer, since they’d just replaced it the summer before (when I lost the last original key, again a whole ‘nother story), and Toyota refunded us the money.

    My husband, a man of few complaints, drove the car until January without heat. When we needed to swap cars, I realized that there was no heat, and no way I was driving around with my infant daughter in 15F weather. I took it to Goodyear, and they filled up the radiator. Wah-lah! Heat!

    I’m still sputtering.

  5. 5
    Ross Says:

    An official repair manual can also be very valuable. Sometimes you can even find the same manual the dealership uses on ebay.

    After getting the manual on my car, I replaced the spark plugs myself. The dealership wanted to charge $450 for the service, but I bought the parts for $35 and did it myself in under an hour.

  6. 6
    Mary Says:

    If you are a woman, be extra careful with any dealings you have with mechanics. I went to a quick-lube place to get my oil changed and first they brought out my slightly dirty air filter and told me is was too dirty, and was “killing” my gas mileage. They would change it for the low price of $20. I told them no thanks, I can change my own. Then another guy brings me a rag with tranny fluid on it and says I have shavings in my differential. I tell him I’ll have my mechanic check it out. Last, they bring out a piece of paper and show me my tranny fluid next to new fluid and tell me I an in dire need of having it changed. It was a little darker pink than the new, but not dirty. My vehicle has 190,000 miles on it-it will not look brand new! I finally told them to stop fishing for extra repairs because I wasn’t going to buy them there even if I did need them. I have never returned.

  7. 7
    Craig Says:

    The minor things like checking pressure, changing fluids, changing tire I can do but something more complex like an oil change I would take in. I thought most charge relatively cheap for them because they are so routine, like $30.

  8. 8
    Prashant Srinivasan Says:

    Being able to do simple car repairs WILL save you a truck-load of money. There’s no doubt in my mind that a lot of the regular maintenance work is overpriced and people pay through their nose for something they can figure out. Plumbing is like that too.

    I remember when I got my first car (a 96 Honda Civic) that it had brake issues and a leaky radiator which I only discovered on the way to L.A. from Phoenix. I got it repaired in L.A. and after being over $600 poorer, I swore to learn as much as possible about it.

    Two years later, my passenger window stopped working and got stuck. Cost to repair at the shop? $400. I came back home, got instructions online on how to open up the door panels, found the problem, fixed some wiring, realigned window on track, lubed, and voila! FIXED, within 2 hours, and under $10 for parts and spray.

    A few months later, clutch pedal went spongy. Shop wanted to change clutch and replace all fluid. $800 (labor and refurbished parts). I said no way, since car was still drivable and clutch seemed OK before.

    Needing to drive the car soon for work, I drained all fluid from clutch reservoir, replaced with fresh brake fluid from Autozone for $12, drove around. Repeated a few more times and each time the “sponginess” decreased, and by the fourth time, was back to normal. Did a proper fluid change later in the month and everything was fine and dandy.

    All that I’ve learnt from my experiences are never take the shop’s word if it seems too expensive, get another opinion, and keep learning about how the sub-systems in your automobile work.

    And if you can, find a trusty mechanic friend!!!!!

  9. 9
    tammy Says:

    Last summer, my Betsy Jeep (1998 Cherokee) overheated close to home. I drove to the house and boyfriend noticed a water hose was busted. I drove to our local auto store and bought a hose and antifreeze. The total repair was around $20. It totally pays to call around, get a second opinion, or (happiest of all) know someone who can do simple auto repair.

  10. 10
    Laura Says:

    Thanks for the feedback! It was one of those learning experiences.

    @Ian and Nate:We just needed to get the car up and running so we could take it to a mechanic shop at my brother’s town.

    The car does need to get the clutch repaired soon, but not having oil in the car was a huge problem. The few extra weeks we had the car up has given my brother time to find some money to get it repaired. The estimate was much cheaper than $1,200.

    @Kristen: You’re so right that even having a general knowledge of your car can be an asset. My brother has been lectured on how fortunate he was to still have the car running.

    @Courtney: That is amazing! I’m glad you have heat in your car again. I’m sorry you sill had a hassle to get it though.

    @Ross, that’s a great tip. Thanks for sharing! T’s amazing how much dealerships can charge for service. I called around to get an estimate to replace my timing belt. The dealership nearby wanted $1800, not counting the water pump! I asked how a pump would be, but they said they couldn’t say. They know how much it is to order a pump, they just needed an excuse to mark up the prices.

    @Mary: Fantastic job!

    @Craig: You bring up a good point.Taking care of your car yourself is a personal decision and you should be feel comfortable with that decision.

    @Prashant :I’m impressed with your DIY skills!

  11. 11
    Shorty Says:

    I purchased my service manual in PDF form from E-Bay for like $20.

    Another handy tool is buying a cheap engine code reader, which will show what’s wrong if the Service Engine Soon or Check Engine light illuminates, plus it will reset the light. My car’s light came on last year, and it turns out that one of the catalytic converters was slightly below its threshold. A shop wanted like $3000 to replace both cats and oxygen sensors. I just reset the light four times, and it hasn’t come back since. It’s a secondary car, long since paid off. As long as it passes emissions and inspections, I’m happy.

  12. 12
    Laura Says:

    @Shorty: Where did you find the cheap engine code reader?

  13. 13
    DDFD at DivorcedDadFrugalDad Says:

    The place down in town that I used to use for oil changes (I am doing them now), used to quote $600 and $700 for every job I heard while I waited for my change to be done. It was as if they had a set price for everything. It’s a joke!

    My buddy just paid $700 for a rear brake job, new pads and rotors. I told him the parts at Autozone would have been $100 for both rotors and $30 for the pads for a total of $130 and would have taken us just under an hour to do the job– he wasn’t happy.

    Many jobs are easier than you think . . .

  14. 14
    Stephen Says:

    Great advice.

    However, I think it’s extremely important that you wrench within your limitations. If you get adventurous and make a mistake, things could quickly get out of hand and become a more expensive repair than if you sent it to the mechanic in the first place.
    Shade-tree wrenching is great, but be prepared to take your time, and make sure you’ve got the right tools, along with the specific information for your car before you start.

  15. 15
    Laura Says:

    @ DDFD: That’s insane. I know some repairs are expensive, so I hope what you heard wasn’t scamming. Thanks for sharing your experience.

    @Stephen: I agree. I know what I’m comfortable doing and even with my limited talents I’m saving quite a bit with my little DIY work.

    @All: It’s important to find a mechanic that you trust. Ask around and see which names keep coming up as reliable and reasonable. A good mechanic is an asset.

  16. 16
    West Says:

    I hope that your trying to find out where your oil leak is? Sounds like it’s not really a $20 fix……..

  17. 17
    Shorty Says:

    Laura: I got an Actron OBDII scanner from Amazon.com for about $60. You can find cheaper ones from Harbor Freight or even E-Bay.

    Considering that having a dealer run this very diagnostic will often cost $100, it pays for itself quickly.

    Note that many chain auto parts stores will also read your code and reset the light for free. I’m a gadget type of guy, so I decided to purchase.

    With a code scanner plus the many brand and model specific forums online, DIY is pretty easy if you’re willing to spend some time and maybe get your hands a bit greasy. I googled my car model and code and got very specific information on the problem.

  18. 18
    Laura Says:

    @West: We just needed to get the car up and running and getting the oil in the car and attaching a hose got that done. My bother hadn’t gotten an oil change and wasn’t keeping track of his oil level. Now he’ll keep an eye out on that.

    @Shorty: Thanks for the advice. We may buy one next month after we take care of some minor cosmetic repair (replacing my left side mirror).

  19. 19
    Atkins Says:

    Very generally, earlier model cars are easier to diagnose and work on than later ones. The change is gradual, of course, so there is no sharp line between absolutely easy and absolutely hard. So, if you are inclined to do it yourself, you might consider going back a few years. Also, look for a popular model, because there will be more knowledge about them, and more junkyard parts available. Front-engine-rear-drive cars have less mechanism in the engine compartment, meaning that it should be somewhat less crowded. Finally, safety features were added gradually along with the complexity, so the older you go the fewer things like air bags, antilock braking, etc you will find.

  20. 20
    bentley Says:

    (Here by way of Festival of Frugality).

    If you need a manual for your car, check your public library. Many of them carry lots of manuals, old and new. Some of them also subscribe to Chilton Online. Your taxes are already paying for it; might as well use it.

  21. 21
    Anthony Says:

    Always stay on top of basic maintenance to help avoid costly repairs. Having a basic knowledge will help when discussing repairs with sales reps. And as always it is a great feeling saving some money and doing it yourself.

  22. 22
    Eben Pagan Accelerate Bonus Says:

    Very rapidly this website will be famous among all blogging and site-building viewers, due to it’s fastidious articles

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