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February 24, 2012

News & Features

Dare to repair: Tips for newbies on DIY car fixes

St. Petersburg Times

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(Thinkstock)

Back when I was single and had lots of money to throw around, I took my Mustang to the shop for repairs and routine maintenance. Times have changed. The pony is now a decade old and I have a family, which means less money to spend on the car. So I decided to see if I could do the minor repairs and maintenance myself.

I'm not mechanically inclined. I grew up around people who worked on cars for a living, but the last thing I ever wanted to do was pop the hood and tinker for myself.

While I still go to the dealer for major repairs, here I am, willing to roll up my sleeves (so they don't get caught in a fan belt) and do my own work if it will save a couple of hundred dollars.

I've changed brake pads, front brake rotors, a coil, plugs and plug wires, an air conditioning relay and a blower fan rheostat. I probably spent $550 on parts and saved $1,000 along the way.

If I can do this stuff, chances are good you can, too. Here are some helpful hints.

Don't get in over your head

Check that light first: When the "check engine" or "service engine soon" light comes on, you can take the car to an auto parts store to have the error codes checked and cleared. Of course, the store does it as a way to get you to buy parts, but it saves a diagnostic fee from a dealer. This only works for the "check engine" codes. If your ABS light comes on, you'll likely have to go to the dealer or to an independent shop to get it checked.

Parts people are your friends: Sometimes they can show you diagrams of part placement, or warn you if it's a job better left to the pros. Some parts require reprogramming or exclusive tools. Even the dealers' parts people are helpful. After all, they'd rather sell you parts, even if they don't get the repair job, than lose the business altogether.

Do it by the book: Most auto parts stores sell repair manuals for as little as $20. In some cases, you may be able to get the original shop manual from the manufacturer, though the prices are a bit higher. You can also check your local library for manuals.

Do your homework: You've sourced the error codes, learned what the offending parts are, figured out prices, and read the manual and online forums to learn more about how to do the job. If you're still not confident you can perform the repair, even if it makes sense to your wallet, take your vehicle to a professional. The last thing you want to do is break something that isn't already broken, or make an existing problem worse.

Be safe

A jack is only a jack: If you're working under the car, make sure it's supported with jack stands — not by a jack alone. And use wheel chocks to keep the car from rolling.

Hazards everywhere: Watch for electrical, heat and constriction hazards. Don't allow liquids or metal objects to bridge the terminals on — and short out — the battery, lest it explode in your face. Don't try to change the oil on a car that was just turned off, nor open the radiator cap; wait until it's cool. Engine temperatures reach about 200 degrees. Don't allow loose clothing near a running fan or drive belt. If you change a fan belt, be extra careful to keep your fingers out from between the belt and pulleys, or you could lose your digits.

Watch the battery: Some electronic work requires the battery to be disconnected. There's a procedure for disconnecting the battery safely; check your owner's manual for the proper way.

Prepare yourself

Dress for the job: Wear clothes you're not afraid to get dirty or to stain permanently. This isn't exactly the cleanest environment.

Ensure you have the right tools for the job: It's not just screwdrivers, ratchet wrenches and sockets. Some parts stores sell or rent the specialized tools for your vehicle, but if not, chances are you'll have to go to the shop. Better to do it right than to cut corners and pay for it later.

Find a good location: Work under your car is best done on a flat, paved or concrete surface with plenty of room so you can roll a jack underneath, so jack stands won't sink into the ground, and so you can get out from under the car faster. And if you spill gas, oil, antifreeze, brake fluid or other chemicals, it's not absorbed directly into the groundwater. At least if you use your driveway, you can clean it (with either a cleaning agent or Coca-Cola) and dilute it by rinsing with a garden hose. Try to have a pan under any fluids, though.

Don't break your engine the easy way: If you decide to clean/degrease your engine, wait until the engine is cold. Cold water on a hot engine? The metal "ping" you hear will be the sound of heads cracking, and that's good for a repair bill in the thousands.

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