If you’re just now waking your car up from its COVID hibernation, some automotive TLC is probably in order. If something is really wrong, by all means, bring it in to have a professional give it a look. But if your car is calling out for some basic freshening up — an oil change, a new filter, some fresh wiper blades — there’s probably no need to call in reinforcements.
Before you pay a mechanic or a dealership to handle basic maintenance, consider that you might be able to pocket the cash and learn how to fix whatever needs fixing by yourself. In most cases, the time it takes to fire up YouTube and watch a few tutorials is less time than you’d spend driving to the service station and back. As an added bonus, you’ll learn a little something about your car and feel the joy that can only come with getting things done on your own.
Last updated: May 19, 2021
Change Your Own Oil
For many budding DIYers, the first successful at-home oil change is black, greasy proof that they’ve made it to the big leagues. After all, it’s a job that’s done while staring up from underneath 3,000 pounds of angry metal. In reality, according to Car and Driver, it’s not that hard. There are only six steps and one of them is simply pouring in fresh oil at the end.
Regular oil changes are the cornerstone of all auto maintenance, and if you learn to do it yourself, you’ll soon find that the DIY approach can be more convenient than taking your car to a service station. It’s certainly a lot cheaper. According to Kelley Blue Book (KBB), the average oil change costs $35-$75. Although, if your car takes synthetic, it can climb into triple figures.
Change Your Own Coolant
Driving on spent coolant is how failed radiators, blown water pumps and dead heater cores get their start. Coolant doesn’t last forever, but most people who have an hour or so on their hands can get the old stuff out and get fresh green liquid back in all by themselves.
You have to air bleed the engine pockets with modern cars, so it’s not as easy as it used to be. But, according to Family Handyman, it’s still a doable task for most. The air-powered refill tool you’ll need costs about $83, but RepairPal’s calculations say you’ll spend $96-$122 to have it done in the shop. The cost of the tool pays for itself on the very first DIY coolant change.
Replace Worn Spark Plugs
Spark plugs themselves generally cost between $15-$100, depending on your engine. However, labor costs can quickly soar to over $100. When your spark plugs wear, your engine performs poorly, gas mileage dwindles, acceleration fizzles and you’ll eventually get a visit from the check engine light.
In most cases, changing spark plugs is a fairly easy task that takes only about an hour to complete. When you DIY, you’ll pay only for the cost of the spark plugs themselves and pocket the cost of labor, according to Family Handyman.
Restore Dull Headlights
Dull, yellowing, cloudy headlights are ugly. They’re also cop magnets and, at their worst, dangerous. According to AAA, headlight restoration costs anywhere from $20 to $190 depending on whether you do it yourself or pay a professional to do it for you. That’s a big gap, indeed — but even that $20 lowball price might be too high. Amazon offers dozens of products and kits for DIY headlight restoration — all highly rated best-sellers — for between $10-$20.
Clean Your Battery Terminals
The sulfuric acid inside your car battery releases hydrogen gas, causing corrosion around your battery terminals. The terminals allow electricity from inside the battery to connect to the rest of the car. With too much corrosive buildup, your electrical system might start acting oddly or lead to your car simply not starting.
With the investment of a skinny metal wire brush and a mixture of baking soda and water, you can free your battery from the calcification that’s clogging its terminals and get juice flowing to your electrical system. The pros will charge you somewhere between $26-$33 for the same treatment, according to RepairPal.
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Repair Broken Rear Windshield Defrosters
Cargo, pets or children often cause a break in the electrical connections within that little network of black lines that clears up foggy rear windshields on cold days. If you don’t have time to bring your car into the shop, a mobile repair service like YourMechanic will fix your rear windshield defogger for about $125. Or, you could spend $15 for a DIY repair kit on Amazon.
Replace Your Own Air Filter
Clogged air filters take the crisp, cool blast out of your A/C on hot summer days. In the winter when you’re desperate for heat, the vents will deliver only a sad, lukewarm dribble. Air filters generally need annual replacement. Between the filter itself and the cost of labor, RepairPal estimates you’ll pay an average of $56-$63 to get the job done by a pro.
Unlike changing your coolant or your oil — which are too involved or intimidating for some — anyone can change an air filter. In fact, it’s a great confidence builder for newbie auto DIYers who are just starting to learn. It’s right there under the hood in a rectangular plastic box, and there’s not much more to it than swapping out the old one for a new one.
Touch Up Paint Scratches
According to Consumer Insurance Report, a small surface scratch can be fixed professionally for as little as $150, but more significant scratches can cost thousands to fix in a shop. The alternative is to buy a highly rated DIY touch-up kit on Amazon for less than $20. You just select your car’s year, make and model, and you’ll have an exact color match arrive at your doorstep in a couple of days.
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Change Your Wiper Blades
Worn, chipped, brittle and weathered wiper blades can no longer accomplish their main function — removing water from the windshield when it rains. Going from streaky, squeaky and choppy wipers to a brand new set of factory-fresh blades is an improvement you’ll notice right away. Your mechanic will be glad to swap out your old blades for $75-$82, according to RepairPal. Or, you can install them yourself for no more than the cost of new blades by consulting your manual and package instructions right there in the parking lot of your local auto parts store.
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Wash Your Own Car
A car wash will run you anywhere from $10 to all the way up, up and up, depending on how many add-ons you let them sell you (clay bar and paste wax, anyone?). However, you could do it yourself on a sunny afternoon with a bucket, a sponge and a hose. No other DIY project makes your car look better more quickly, and none will leave you feeling better about your ride. More importantly, frequent washing prevents dirt and grime from gnawing through the protective coating blended into your paint. Even the tiniest of nicks can let rust gain a foothold on the vulnerable metal underneath. From there, it won’t rest until it eats your entire car.
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