Don’t neglect car maintenance
Whether you have a shiny new vehicle or a tired clunker, car maintenance is your responsibility. Following the rules about oil changes and regularly scheduled appointments with your favorite mechanic takes care of both your car and your wallet. Neglecting to spend $20 on a simple car repair or maintenance project and ignoring your manufacturer’s recommendations for an oil change could end up costing you thousands. The best source of information on your responsibilities can be found right in your glove compartment.
“No one wants to read the owners manual, but it will save you a ton of time, trouble and money down the road,” says Angie Hicks, founder of Angie’s List, a website for service-company listings.
Read on to find out which car maintenance moves are worth taking on and which car maintenance mistakes are the costliest.
Pay attention to your ‘check engine’ light
CarMD Corp. has compiled a database of diagnostic trouble codes, car repairs and costs from a network of thousands of certified mechanics who say ignoring a “check engine” light is an expensive mistake.
“Ten percent of all drivers have a check engine light on at any time, and even worse, 50 percent of those drivers ignore the light for more than three months,” says Kristin Brocoff, spokeswoman for CarMD.com in Irvine, Calif. “People are fearful of the cost of finding out what’s wrong, but it could be minor. Not checking it can impact your fuel economy and have a snowball effect that can cause other problems or even a safety risk.”
The No. 1 reason for a check-engine light is a malfunctioning oxygen sensor, which Brocoff says costs $250 to fix. If you ignore it, your gas mileage will decline by 40 percent.
Brocoff says a damaged spark plug is one of the top five reasons for a check-engine light. You can replace it yourself for $10, but your costs can go above $1,000 if you ignore it and need a new catalytic converter.
Change your oil regularly
Auto service professionals surveyed by Angie’s List say the most common mistake drivers make is to extend oil-change intervals beyond what’s recommended.
Andrea Woroch, a consumer expert with Kinoli Inc., which manages multiple money-saving websites in Windsor, Colo., agrees. “If you don’t keep up with the manufacturer’s recommended oil changes, you can damage your engine,” she says. “Replacing your engine could cost thousands of dollars.”
Woroch also warns that your car warranty can be invalidated if you don’t keep up with your car manufacturer’s recommended routine maintenance.
Brocoff says an oil change can cost as little as $10. According to CarsDirect.com, a basic oil change typically costs $20 to $25 but will vary according to your location and the type of oil you use. You can often find coupons and discounts to bring the price down.
“However, if it’s not done right, you could damage the camshaft actuator,” Brocoff says. “If you ignore that damage, you could end up with complete engine failure.”
Fixing the camshaft actuator could cost $215 to $350, or more, according to the CarMD index and Brocoff.
Angie’s List experts say an engine replacement could range up to $10,000, depending on the type of motor vehicle.
Check your tire pressure
Brocoff says all drivers should learn how to manually check their tire pressure.
“Too little or too much pressure is a safety hazard that can cause a blowout, which in turn can cause a major accident,” Brocoff says.
If you have a blowout, you’ll have to replace one or more tires at a cost of $142 to $177 for each tire installed, according to Consumer Reports.
Woroch points out that if your tire pressure is off, you may burn more fuel unnecessarily.
“You definitely need to read your owners manual to know when to check your tire pressure and to change your oil,” Woroch says. “If you’re forgetful, set calendar alerts on your smartphone to remind yourself to take care of it.”
Replace other fluids in your car
In addition to keeping your oil changed, check and occasionally replace other fluids.
“Your owners manual will tell you the proper intervals for checking your coolant and brake, transmission and other fluids,” Brocoff says. “Changing your transmission fluid costs about $160 including parts and labor, but if you don’t do it, transmission repairs are among the top five most expensive repairs.”
According to one car-information website, changing your transmission fluid costs $150 to $200, depending on your location.
Angie’s List experts say a transmission replacement can cost from $1,500 to $4,000. Indeed, one car-information website says the average cost of a transmission replacement is $1,900, but costs vary widely according to the type of car. For instance, a transmission replacement on a luxury car can go as high as $6,000.
Woroch says changing fluids in your car costs just a few dollars, especially if you look for coupons for local deals on oil, coolant, brake fluid and transmission fluid changes, as well as other services.
Rotate your tires
Angie’s List auto service pros say not rotating your tires on time will dramatically decrease the life of your tire treads.
“If you don’t rotate your tires and your tire treads are worn down, you could get stuck with a flat tire or worse, cause an accident,” consumer expert Woroch says. “You can’t put a price on the risk of injury in a car accident, but even without an accident, think of the extra cost of perhaps needing a tow truck, missing a flight or missing an important meeting for your job.”
Not only should tires be rotated, Woroch says, but all drivers should keep a spare tire in their car and learn how to change it themselves for safety.
Don’t drive after your car overheats
You can’t really put a price on how dangerous it is to drive your car after it overheats. “If your car is overheating and you keep driving, you could end up with a broken hose or head gasket, and your car might need to be towed,” Brocoff says.
She says the worst-case scenario would be if you’re on a driving vacation or business trip and your car must be towed into a small town.
“You could be stuck for days waiting for the right part to arrive,” Brocoff says. “Imagine the cost, not only in stress, but for lodging and food and other expenses while you wait for your car to be fixed.”
Changing fuel and air filters
CarMD’s Brocoff says replacing a dirty air filter can cost as little as $20, but if you neglect to replace it, this can cause an oxygen-sensor failure that will cost as much as $250 to repair. Ignoring that needed repair will reduce your gas mileage, which will cost you even more money.
Eventually, the car could misfire, and you’ll end up spending $1,000 or more to replace your catalytic converter.
“You can buy filters and other parts online,” Woroch says. “Be sure to read the reviews to evaluate whether you or a mechanically inclined friend can handle the repair on your own.”
Avoid using inferior replacement parts
Woroch says you can save money by buying parts online, particularly items such as air filters and windshield wipers. However, she warns that this works best for basic items that regularly need replacement or repair, including side mirrors and floor mats, rather than more complex auto parts.
Brocoff says there’s a reason to take care to avoid replacing more complex parts with inferior parts and to ensure you have the right part when replacing it on your own.
“Cars have become so high-tech these days, and there are a lot of rules about how certain things like air bags and catalytic converters need to be handled,” Brocoff says. “You need to make sure your mechanic is using the right parts and installing everything correctly because it could cost you far more in a later repair bill or your safety if a bad part or the wrong part has been used in your car.”