For many people, the most important reason for buying a used car instead of a new one has to do with money. You also have to factor in a certain amount of cash for routine maintenance and repairs, whether it’s for fixing up a used car once you purchase it or for keeping your car on the road afterward.
That means to really minimize your used-vehicle ownership costs, you should consider handling some of the easier maintenance jobs yourself. This can help save money in two ways: First, keeping up with scheduled maintenance and minor problems now can go a long way toward avoiding more expensive issues later. But you’ll also gain immediate savings because you don’t have to pay for a mechanic’s labor, which can sometimes have a bigger impact on a repair bill than the price of parts. Additionally, you’ll get a feeling of satisfaction from knowing you’ve successfully tackled your maintenance-related task without professional help.
Changing Windshield Wipers
Now, we know that the idea of working on a car can seem intimidating to some, so we’ll start with one of the simplest tasks: replacing worn or damaged windshield wipers. This task returns immediate dividends, since maintaining good visibility is a key to safe driving.
In most cases, it’s only a matter of pulling the wiper blades away from your windshield, unsnapping the old assemblies from the wiper arms, and then snapping in the fresh set. Different automakers may have slightly different methods to actually connect the blades to the wiper arms, but most mainstream models can use most mainstream blades. If you’re the kind of person who believes in reading the directions first, you can find the specific information you need in the vehicle’s owner’s manual or get guidance from the instructions that come with the replacement wipers.
One thing you’ll want to do for all vehicles, though, is make sure to replace your wipers with blades of the same size. Do you have an SUV or hatchback with a third, rear wiper? Don’t forget to change that one as well.
Changing the Air Filter
An easy way to start getting comfortable under the hood is to replace your car’s air filter, which prevents dirt and debris from entering your car’s engine as it breathes in air for combustion. When the filter becomes too dirty, it also prevents enough oxygen from reaching the engine, and that can lead to reduced performance, lower levels of fuel efficiency and more emissions.
Here, the trickiest part of the process may be finding the air filter, although even that should be a breeze. Just look for a black plastic box in the engine compartment with latches on it, and if you can’t locate it right away, check the owner’s manual. Once the box is identified and opened, lift out the old filter and swap in the new one. As with changing wipers, no tools are necessary, and no special cleanup is required.
Changing the Spark Plugs
If you’re ready to try working on the engine, installing a new set of spark plugs makes for a great entry-level project. You will need a socket set for this, along with the right new plugs, a gapping tool, anti-seizing compound and – depending on how old your vehicle is – dielectric grease. The priciest item here is the socket set, which you can get for under $20, and you can purchase all the tools needed for a car with a four-cylinder engine for $30 to $40. You need one spark plug per cylinder and should always follow manufacturer recommendations for replacements.
A few other things before you begin: Never work on a hot engine at any time, of course, and always clean off any dirt or dried leaves that may have accumulated. Getting rid of that stuff is especially important when changing sparks plugs, as it could otherwise end up falling inside the engine and doing major damage.
Generally speaking, your first step is to disconnect the spark plugs from the source of electricity that gives them their spark. In older cars, this involves removing a rubber boot that goes over the head of each plug and its wire, which eventually leads to the vehicle’s battery. New vehicles have coils instead, and these are individually removed from the spark plugs by using your socket set to loosen their bolts. This gives you access to the plugs, and from there, it’s a matter of using a different socket to unscrew each of the plugs. Before putting in a new plug, you’ll want to check the gap between the electrodes at the top, making sure it’s correct per manufacturer recommendations, and then apply the anti-seizing compound to the each plug’s threads. Additionally, with older setups, you’ll want to use the dielectric grease inside the spark-plug boots for a better fit.
Rescrew the plugs and re-attach the wires or coils, and complete the entire process for each spark plug one at time to make sure the proper coil/boot returns to the proper plug. Also, take care not to over-tighten the spark plugs when you reinstall them. A tip to avoid this is to start by hand-tightening each plug using only the socket, then using the wrench handle to gently make another turn of about 1/16th of a revolution.
Changing the Oil
Then there’s the old favorite of DIY mechanics: the classic oil change. It’s surprisingly simple, yet you will require a variety of next-level resources and skills. For example, since most cars have their oil filters and drain pans beneath their engines, you’ll probably have to raise the front of the vehicle onto jack stands for access. You also have to follow local laws covering the disposal of used oil.
Still, the basic step-by-step procedure is easy enough. Bring the car’s engine up to its normal operating temperature, then let it cool to the point of just being warm. That will help the old, dirty oil flow out but prevent it from burning your skin if it splashes on to you. To minimize any potential mess, it’s a good idea to park your vehicle on a tarp of some sort before lifting it and letting the oil drain.
To drain the oil, unscrew the drain plug with a wrench. This also is the time to take off the oil-filler cap on the top of the engine, to further improve the oil flow. On that topic, the oil isn’t likely to drip straight down. Expect it to come out in a stream away from the drain hole, making proper pan placement critical.
While you’re down there, you should change your oil filter, too. In most cars the filter will be located right near the oil drain. You’ll need a special wrench to loosen the filter, after which you can use your hand. Be warned: More used oil will pour out here, so you may have to move the pan to catch it.
When that’s done, screw in the plug and replace the oil and filter according to the automaker’s guidelines. If you need more details, heres a full rundown on how to change a car’s oil.