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 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?