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Do simple auto repairs, maintenance yourself to save money

| Thursday, March 7, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

A common theme when trying to save money is “do it yourself,” but many vehicle owners are hesitant to take that advice and attempt basic maintenance and repairs on their vehicles.

To a degree, those fears are legitimate, because vehicles are more complicated than they used to be. But many repairs and maintenance tasks are easy enough to complete, even for those without many tools or skills.

You could save significant money if you did.

And saving money is only one advantage; you could save time, too. Think about the hassle involved with scheduling an auto repair appointment, driving to the shop and dropping off the vehicle or waiting for the repair.

“It takes a chunk of your day to deliver the vehicle to someone else,” said Tracey Virtue, director of operations strategy for, an auto-repair instruction site owned by U.S. Auto Parts Network.

Some repairs could be done in a half-hour or less in your driveway whenever it's convenient for you.

“There's a lot you can do that's easy,” Virtue said. “And how-to guides are so much more available.”

That time and money saved might also help some car owners to stop ignoring maintenance or a repair, a habit that can lead to bigger expenses later. “It will domino,” said Pam Oakes, an ASE-certified technician in Fort Myers, Fla., and author of the book “Car Care for the Clueless.” “If you didn't repair a $10 coolant leak, it could turn into a $1,000 head-gasket job.”

Here are a few maintenance and repair jobs you might want to try yourself — even if you're not handy — along with a few resources.

• Replace engine air filter. The filter is easy to find under the hood and easy to replace, usually just requiring removal of a few screws from the filter box and swapping in a clean, $15 or $20 filter for an old, dirty one.

That cost compares with possibly $50 or more if you have a repair shop do it, Virtue said.

See your owner's manual for how frequently to change the air filter, typically every 15,000 miles.

• Wiper blades. Instructions for replacing blades are often on the package. “It's really easy and cheap to do it yourself,” Virtue said. You might save about $10 each time.

And keeping the blades clean will make them last longer, said Oakes, who suggests cleaning rubber blades with paper towels and a kitchen cleaner that has lemon in it.

• Light bulbs. Headlights, brake lights, taillights and turn signals all have bulbs that might occasionally need to be replaced. They are generally easy to access and require just turning a bulb with your hand to remove and replace it. The expensive, high-intensity headlight lamps, however, should be replaced by a professional, Oakes said.

• Fuses. If something electrical stops working on the interior of the car, such as the dome light or dashboard lights, there's a decent chance it's a blown fuse, which is easy to replace. In your car's fuse box is often a spare fuse, Virtue said. Replace fuses one at a time, by pulling one out and pushing in the spare fuse, to see if the problem is rectified.

Savings come from skipping the diagnostic fee at a repair shop, which might run $50 or $100, and your cost is nothing but 10 or 15 minutes of troubleshooting fuses, Virtue said. But Oakes' general advice is not to mess with anything related to electrical systems.

• Headlight cleaning. Older vehicles can develop a haze over the headlights, which can be a safety hazard because it can reduce the driver's ability to see and make the driver's car more difficult to be seen by others.

Do-it-yourself headlight restoration kits are relatively inexpensive and work well, Oakes said. That might cost about $15 or $20, compared with $50 or $75 at a shop.

• Top off fluids. Check levels for wiper fluid, engine coolant, brake fluid and antifreeze.

• Replace a battery. Even those with minimal tool skills should be able to remove an old battery and replace it with a new one, Virtue said. And you can clean the battery terminals, which often build up a white coating of acid.

Use baking soda and water to make a paste. Clean terminals with the paste and an old toothbrush. That should save $30 over having a shop do the cleaning, said Oakes, adding you shouldn't wear jewelry and should wear gloves while cleaning terminals.

• Changing oil. While this might seem like an obvious do-it-yourself task, many experts don't recommend it. The main argument against changing your own oil is you're not likely to save a lot of time and money because specialty oil-and-lube shops can offer cheap, quick oil changes. Virtue warned, however, that some shops will offer cheap oil changes to get you into the shop and then try to upsell you on an unrelated repair job.

• Parts and tools. It can pay to shop around for parts at retail stores and dealers, and, if you're not in a hurry, online. And don't invest in pricey tools you may not need. The simple repairs mentioned here require only common household tools you're likely to already have.

• Instruction. Online sites and forums offer how-to videos and written instructional guides. It could pay to buy the official repair manual for your vehicle, which will tell you what tools you need and provide instruction and troubleshooting.

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