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Funny Money: You Don’t Need a Mechanic: Car Repairs Even You (Yes, You) Can do Yourself

Are you a mechanical moron like me? Even so, there are at least four easy car repairs you can do yourself to save a few hundred a year. Then again, there are a few auto maintenance jobs you might be tempted to tackle but you really shouldn’t try at home. Trust me.

Save money on car repairs you can do yourself.There are people who tinker with cars for fun, change their own oil with ease, and know what an air filter is. And then there are people like me, who consider it an achievement when they manage to get the hood open without setting off the alarm.

While it’s tempting for mechanical dunces to flee to an exploitative auto mechanic whenever the slightest problem with your jalopy arises, it’s not quite necessary.

Through my vast years of largely incompetent vehicle ownership, I’ve managed to unearth some car repairs to do yourself; fixes that even I am incapable of screwing up too badly, and thus can save money by taking care of it myself rather than farm out to a pro. And I’ve also discovered many, many more repairs that people like me should never attempt.

Which car repairs can you do yourself?

First, the good news. Here are some routine auto maintenance jobs you can do, fellow morons:

Change your wiper blades

I’m disappointed in this one because it doesn’t leave your hands slicked with grease. While it would be too much to ask you to follow the instructions on the replacement blades or your car manual, you can usually wing it and be fine.

Resist the urge to yank off anything of your car doesn’t want to be yanked, and spot a lever you can pull to release the blade and swap it out with a new one. Here’s a video that shows you how it’s done.

Bonus tip: Bat your eyelashes at an auto parts store clerk and he might come out and do it for you for free. Either that or call security.

Change a tire

While the easiest way to get a tire changed is to call someone and beg them to do it — be it your dad or AAA — you can avoid the wait by rolling up your sleeves and trying it yourself (DIY video again). All it takes is some elbow grease and the ability to locate your spare and tools, which are buried somewhere in the bowels of your vehicle as though they were the prize of an excruciating scavenger hunt.

Once you locate your jack and tire iron, you jack up your car at a spot that you can feel is reinforced, unscrew the lugnuts with your tire iron, then swap out your donut or spare as you triumphantly wipe the sweat off your brow. It’s almost worth getting a flat, just so you can humblebrag about that one time you changed your tire to anyone who will listen.

Install an air filter

I don’t actually do this myself, but David edited this thinking “wow, Phil really is a moron” and decided that the other 99.9 percent of the population can probably figure out how to change an air filter.

The hardest part is finding out where in your car the filter’s located (although it’s usually somewhere over the engine) and freeing the mechanical do-dads that keep the filter’s plastic case shut. Some are simple snaps, others have a nut or two to unscrew. Once you open the case, just pop the old filter out and new filter in. This is an easy savings as filters are cheap — $10 or so — but mechanics mark them up two or three times.

Install a battery

While anything that involves electricity is dicey, messing with your battery is relatively safe, since at least one of the batteries you will be messing with is dead. All you need to do is remove the two connectors by using a wrench to loosen the nuts, then hoist the fresh battery in its place and reattach the connectors.

If you’re too afraid to try, check out this walkthrough to give you some confidence. If you take the old battery to the place where you bought the new one, usually you’ll receive a discount off the purchase.

One final note: Every time I’ve changed a battery, I’ve dropped several screws and tools into the depths of my engine, never to be seen again. Oddly, none of my lost stuff has ever caused a problem with the engine, which leads me to believe that my engine ate them, making its tummy happy.

Repairs to avoid, unless you were born with a wrench in your hand

Brakes, belts and electronics

Anything that involves brakes, belts, electronics or — God forbid, the transmission — is bad news. If you don’t know what you’re doing and work sloppily, you can do serious damage to your vehicle that may end up costing more to repair than it would to just lug your car into a mechanic and get it done right the first time.

Oil changes

Oil changes are a grey area; although not overly complex, they are terribly messy. And if you’re a moron like me,  you might end up draining your transmission fluid or — worse — forgetting to put the oilpan plug back on so the new oil drains out and your engine seizes. A $30 savings just became a $3,000 nightmare.

Even friends of mine who know how to change their own oil don’t do it, because the process is so time and labor intensive that they’d rather search for a special and have an auto shop handle the issue.

If only it were just as simple to change other things, such as stripes, fate, career momentum or vehicular repair acumen. Unfortunately, the latter takes interest, effort and skill, while it’s just easier to forget about that and feed your car engine screws, nuts and bolts. You know, to make its tummy happy.

Do you do your own auto maintenance? Where do you draw the line? 

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About Phil Villarreal

Phil Villarreal writes Funny Money weekly for Money Under 30. He lives in Tucson and works for the Arizona Daily Star. He's also an author, blogger and Twitterer.

Comments

  1. I think the key to oil changes is to find a friend who knows what they are doing and have them help you. I’ve had a buddy help me change mine the past two times. I can get synthetic oil and filter for $30 that will last me 10,000 miles or roughly a year. It’s about $100 at most places around town for synthetic. Same friend also helped me change my brake pads. Mechanic quoted me $270, then $180. I picked them up for $30 at the store and 2 hours later had it done. I would agree that these repairs are a little more complex and that whoever is helping you needs to know what they are doing and be some one you trust.

  2. “Once you locate your jack and tire iron, you jack up your car at a spot that you can feel is reinforced” – You may want to change that part of your post. It’s a very bad idea to just pick a spot that *seems* is reinforced. My cousin did basically that while changing out a flat and damaged the frame of his car. Every car has specific places for you to place the jack and it’s in the owner’s manual.

    • By far the most dangerous aspect of an oil change for a first timer is jacking the car up. Have someone who knows what they’re doing guide you. Alternatively, you can use car ramps, but have a failsafe as I’ve seen car ramps fail.

  3. I disagree about it being difficult to damage a car with repair work – that’s what the mechanics want you to think so they can take your money. That said, it definitely helps to have someone more experienced watch you work during your first couple of jobs and point out any errors. That way once you come across something you haven’t done before you’re not as afraid.

    Once you know a little bit, pass along the knowledge.

  4. I would also add spark plugs to the list, they are extremely easy on every car I’ve seen. Also, you can buy 4 spark plugs for about a dollar a piece.

    On a side note, where did you get that terrible photo of the kid with the wrench? He’s holding a closed wrench just above a hose that does not require a wrench to remove!

    • I once changed spark plugs on a Mercedes with a V8 that featured a two plug per cylinder design. Yeah, wasn’t that fun.

  5. I prefer to go to an aspiring mechanic at any of the local schools for jobs that are not quite diy but not necessarily needing the touch of a full on expert (like the oil change) You often times can get the work done for a chunk less than what it would cost at a typical car repair franchise.

  6. I wholeheartedly disagree with the “don’t try this section.” Brakes are easy as sin. Electronics are mostly plug and play, and diagnosing them is usually easier when you use a fuse tester. Belts can be tricky but there are so many diagrams it is hard to see how you can go wrong. And oil changes can be done by my dog. I highly recommend anyone interested to check out the Scotty Kilmer channel on YouTube. He presents a great deal of knowledge in an easy to understand manner.

    If you have to touch any of the following, STOP and back away slowly and call a mechanic:
    -transmission
    -engine internals
    -axle

    The DIY mechanics best friend is an AutoZone or other local parts store that will let you use an OBD tool or hand tools for free. And most PepBoys have a book section with a library of manuals/repair guides for most cars. And if the don’t have your car they can order it. Remember almost every make and model of car has an online forum where people brag, curse, fix, and sell their cars don’t forget to check them out aswell.

    Hope this helps,
    -Hank