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Basic maintenance every car owner should know

October 12, 2016
Know the basics of car repair to save money and stay safe.

Millions of Americans depend on a car to get them to work every day, run errands and generally move from place to place as they need. With automobiles playing such a crucial role in our lives, it's no wonder that they also can eat up a large part of our budgets, too. According to an annual study from AAA, the typical U.S. motorist spent almost $8,700 on their car in 2015. This includes predictable expenses like fuel, auto insurance and taxes, as well as the cost of a loan and depreciation. Maintenance-related expenses, including essential repairs and tire care, comprised about 10 percent of this yearly cost. But unlike the other categories, this is one where the owner may have more control than he or she thinks.

Your car may be one of your most valuable assets, but too few people know how to properly care for theirs. If you're a car owner, use these tips to keep it running smoothly and cut down on expenses.

Read the manual

Upon buying any new piece of equipment like a dishwasher or stereo, many assume they don't need to bother reading the manual. When it comes to a car, though, it would be unwise not to do so, as the owner's manual contains pertinent information on nearly every detail of your vehicle.

"Consult your owners manual to learn the details on maintenance for your car.”

For example, as Cars.com pointed out, a well-worn rule of thumb states that car owners should generally perform an oil change every 3,000 miles. But upon reading the owner's manual, you'll likely find the manufacturer recommends a completely different schedule. In fact, some car makers will recommend going up to 15,000 between oil changes.

This is just one piece of essential information that should be easily accessible in your car's manual. Take a day to read through it and make note of any regular service it needs.

Self-inspection

Most states require drivers to take their car in for a routine inspection every couple of years. But going this long without giving your ride a thorough once-over is asking for trouble. Take some time around once a month to perform a basic self-inspection of vital components of your car.

  • Check the tires:  Under- or over-inflated tires reduce fuel economy and increase the risk of flats and accidents. Tires that are old and worn out also can make driving dangerous. Use a basic air pressure gauge and ensure all tires are close to the recommended level according to what's printed on them. Bridgestone also noted that owners can conduct a basic assessment of tire wear using the “penny test.” Take a standard penny and place it between a groove on the tire's tread, with Lincoln's head facing you and pointed down. If the tread is shorter than Lincoln's hairline, it might be time to get new tires. Many tires also have a wear indicator printed on them.
  • Check your oil:  Motor oil can be quickly checked under the hood of a car using the included dipstick. As Consumer Reports explained, it's best to inspect oil while the car is cold and parked on a level surface. Consult your owner's manual for details on a routine oil check.
  • Check your fluids: Besides motor oil, there are a number of different fluids used for basic car functions, including engine coolant, power steering fluid, brake fluid and more. Most of these can be quickly checked under the hood—and usually come in a clear container with markings indicating the correct level. If any of these appears lower than it should be, you might have a leak somewhere.

Consult the pros

These simple checks only scratch the surface of the many essential systems at work in your car. For the finer details, it's important to bring your vehicle in for regular maintenance according to what the manufacturer suggests. For a car bought from a dealer, there is often a degree of routine service built into the price. Used car owners, however, might not have this option, especially if they didn't buy from a dealer. While there are plenty of maintenance tasks that can be done with a basic toolkit and instructions, automotive blog Jalopnik suggested some repairs that should almost never be done by anyone other than a professional, including:

  • Electrical work:  There are a plethora of high voltage components in every car. One wrong move with any of these can result in serious damage to the car, not to mention hazardous electric shocks.
  • Transmissions:  While many cars require special transmission fluid that is often easy to check and replace, most other repairs involving this vital drivetrain component are best left to the experts.
  • Air conditioning:  Many of us depend on a functional air conditioning system when driving in the summer months, but if it doesn't seem to be working properly, chances are you'll need to schedule a visit to the mechanic.