10 Easy Auto Projects Guaranteed to Save You Money

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

I’m a total DIY kind of guy, a gene I got from my grandfather, who was notorious for being frugal. So when it’s time for some routine maintenance on my Acura, I would much rather research how to do it myself instead of paying an exorbitant sum to have someone I don’t know perform the same task. There is an endless stream of useful information available via YouTube, Speed TV, and company websites, and one of the greatest feelings in the world is stepping back from a finished project and saying, “There, it’s done.”

I’m not saying that I’m a certified master mechanic, and I certainly know when to step back and leave it to the professionals. But when it comes time to tackle the basics, I dive headfirst into the fray with wild abandon. Oil changes, wiper installs, radiator flushes, tire rotation, brake installation, and spark plug replacement all have their place on my list of projects I don’t mind tackling on any given Sunday. So when my editor said I should draft a list of 10 DIY projects that could save our readers a little extra cash, I grabbed my toolbag and trusty camera, and got to work.

To keep things simple, I have arranged this list in order from easiest to hardest and have kept it as cut and dry as possible. Be sure to trust the owner’s manual, as it will give details on where key components are located, as well as fluid capacities for when it is time to top off a reservoir or two. I have also included some links to a few helpful videos and online DIY advice that are great reference points for anyone wanting further information on these projects.

Of course, I always recommend wearing gloves when working on a car, as it keeps one’s hands grease-free and protects from direct contact with hot surfaces, abrasive compounds, and slippery lubricants. Eye protection is a must on most projects, and a good set of junk clothes will help keep those khakis clean. Having access to a lift is always a plus, so for the more “advanced” projects, I highly recommend hitting up a shop like Driven Fab (which built my RDX’s custom downpipe) for some quality DIY time.

If a lift isn’t available, then it’s best to buy a jack that exceeds the weight of the car being worked on, and have a set of jack stands that are rated to hold more than just the weight of the car being serviced. With all of that info out of the way, let’s get down to business!

1. Fluid check and topoff

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Perhaps the simplest and most vital aspect of the service steps is making sure that all of a car’s fluids are up to snuff. Fluids enable the proper cooling, lubrication, pressure, and cleansing of a car’s components, and without them, a vehicle will quickly be dead in the water.

When inspecting a vehicle’s fluids it’s always important to cover the core brake fluid, power steering fluid (if not electronically controlled), radiator fluid, oil level, and transmission fluid (if accessible) before moving on to another area of the car. All fluid reservoirs have a minimum/max line, and sometimes they need a little cleaning before an accurate measurement can be read.

  • Naturally, it’s always safest to go with the fluid offered by the dealer, but after years of use, I have had zero issue with brands like Peak, which makes coolant designed to work safely within my Acura’s cooling system.
  • It is also good to know that brake fluid has a series of varying DOT grades, so when in doubt, know that Motul makes a fantastic fluid designed for DOT 5.1, 3, and 4.
  • Engine oil weight should match what the dealer recommends, and while brand loyalty is up to the consumer, upgrading to a higher-grade filter and a magnetic drain bolt equipped with a fresh crush washer is a must in my book.
  • Transmission fluid is the one liquid I buy at the dealer, and I cannot stress the importance of checking and changing it as the service manual recommends.
  • Windshield washer fluid should also get topped off, and in the winter I always blend De-Icer with my fluid to help clear ice from my view faster.

2. Check hoses and belts

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

After making sure my fluids are all topped off, I like to look over my hoses and belts, as the failure of one of these key components is sure to set anyone back a pretty penny if it happens while they’re rolling down the interstate.

  • Be sure to make certain that the vehicle is off and that the engine is cool before tackling this task.
  • Radiator hoses should be firmly squeezed by hand and inspected for cracks or leaks, particularly around areas where they have clamps.
  • Hoses need to be firm but not overly stiff, and should pop back into their original form after releasing then.
  • Belt inspection often requires a flashlight and a firm squeeze as well, and always be sure to look for cracks, uneven wear, fraying, or missing “teeth.”
  • The belt should be taut, with just a pinch of give to handle any excessive engine vibration or sudden acceleration.

3. Tire inspection

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

One of the most important (and often overlooked) aspects of car maintenance is tire inspection. Without it, the likelihood of getting into a serious accident increases dramatically, and many drivers overlook the fact that the only thing keeping us in control is our tires.

  • When looking over a set of tires, be sure to check tread depth (I always use a quarter for measuring) and always test several different tread grooves around the tire. If part of old Georgie’s head is consistently covered by tread, the tire has more than 4/32″ of tread depth remaining, which is good.
  • Also be sure to look for any punctures, cracks, dry rotting, or bulges in the tire itself. For this step I usually run my hand carefully over the tire, feeling for anything out of the ordinary. If I find a screw lodged in the tire and my tire pressure is lower than expected, it probably means it is time to hop online and order up a fresh set of rubber rollers.
  • Once everything checks out, I look at my tire pressure and make adjustments as needed. Remember, cold weather causes tires to lose air, and you should never fill a tire to the “Max PSI” that is on the tire’s sidewall, as it will cause quite a rough ride.
  • I also suggest using the inflation levels recommended in the car manual and then upping the tire pressure in five-pound increments until a comfortable, yet confident ride is obtained. If a car manual cannot be found, don’t worry — most vehicles have this info on the driver’s side door-jam.

4. Replace wiper blades

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

For some reason, this is another area of a car that tends to be neglected a lot; it is just as crucial as having proper tread on one’s tires. Let’s face it, old wipers in a rainstorm are just as dangerous as having bald tires, since seeing where you are going is one of the most crucial points in safe driving.

Ditch those worn-out blades (they need to be replaced every six months or so anyway) and look at upgrading to a fully conforming blade like the Rain-X Latitude. I’ve found that this pricier product is well worth the money because it lasts longer, works better, and does not run the risk of scratching the windscreen if it rips.

The best way to see if a blade is past its prime is by blasting the windshield with washer fluid and seeing if there is any streaking, missed spots, or chattering noise, and don’t forget to check the rear wiper blade as well. In my case, I found the rear wiper had a slight rip at its base, so I tossed it in the trash and slapped on a new one for less than $10.

5. Inspect/clean battery terminals

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

This is where people often become hesitant and choose not to fiddle with their car anymore for fear of electrocution. Yes, it is a big-ass battery, but no, it isn’t Charlie Bronson “Death Wish” dangerous. It is safe to touch: Just be careful not to contact both posts with a single piece of metal at the same time and everything will be fine. Remember, this is an important part of the car that costs lots of money to replace, so make sure it gets attended to at least once a year.

  • First. disconnect the negative terminal and make sure it will not come into contact with the post. Repeat this process with the positive side of the battery.
  • When cleaning, be sure to look for any signs of corrosion on the terminals and be sure to give the posts and clamps a thorough once-over with a stiff wire brush.
  • After brushing both the battery clamps and battery posts, reattach the clamps onto the terminals and make sure the terminal clamps are nice and tight.
  • Finish things up by checking to make sure that the battery is snug in its box and that its tie-down is tight.

6. Inspect/replace air filter

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

In a previous article I did on the importance of car air filters, I talked about how easy it is to replace one on a vehicle. An air filter is one of the only lines of defense a car’s engine has from the elements, and a clogged filter will cause an engine to work harder than it needs to, which could lead to the failure of internal components due to the added strain.

The changing of an air filter can be done in a matter of minutes, and it will help fuel consumption and power while extending the longevity of the car’s engine. Most air filters can be purchased at any local auto parts store, and for anyone who is equipping their car with a reusable air filter, like my K&N unit seen here, simply vacuuming it out once a year is all that is needed.

Unlike the K&N unit seen above, stock air filters are usually encased in a plastic box that needs to be opened for proper inspection. Simply unhinge the lid of the box (some boxes are held closed with latches, while others use screws), pull the filter out for inspection, vacuum out any debris within the box, drop a new filter in place, reattach lid snugly, and you’re done! 

7. Inspect/replace cabin air filter

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

When changing the engine’s air filter, take a quick peek at the cabin air filter to see if it also needs replacing. This is one of those inexpensive pieces of the puzzle that isn’t super crucial but is designed to aid in interior comfort. While the engine’s air filter acts as a buffer from the outside world, the cabin air filter protects a car’s occupants from many of the same elements by filtering the air that comes streaming through the air vents.

And while it may appear similar to most engine air filters, an electrostatically charged cabin filter like the reusable one found here is designed to screen out smaller particles like pollen, dust, mold, and fungus. Often found buried behind the glovebox, this simple component can help keep allergies at bay for most passengers if tended to annually. Just be sure to consult the owner’s manual first, as some cars have more than one filter.

  • In the case of my RDX, I first unhinged my glove box so it hung completely open and so that I could access the slot holding my cabin air filter.
  • The old filter slid out easily, revealing a filter that was embedded with dirt, pollen, leaves, animal fur, and one very dead-looking grasshopper.
  • After disposing of my old filter I slid the new unit into place, taking care to make sure that the air flow arrow pointed in the appropriate direction, much like one would do with a furnace filter.
  • Then I reattached my glove box and moved on to the next area of my car needing attention.

8. Refinish headlights

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Headlight restoration is another often overlooked key point in improving overall safety. When auto manufacturers decided to do away with glass headlights in the 1990s, no one thought twice about what could happen to those lightweight polycarbonate lenses down the line. Flash forward a decade or two and hazed headlights are everywhere; they are a real danger to visibility, as the build-up of UV damage, oxidation, smog, dirt, and road grime causes the lens to cloud over.

But before spending hundreds of dollars on a new set of lamps, go get some mild polishing compound like Meguiar’s Ultimate Compound and a microfiber cloth to get those headlights looking new once more. While refinishing a set of headlights is not a difficult task by any means, it does take a little bit of time, and for anyone wanting to see this technique in action, I highly recommend this video.

  • First, rinse the headlights with fresh water to remove any excess dirt. Then tape off the areas around the lights if a polishing wheel is going to be used.
  • Apply a fine layer of rubbing compound to the desired area, and get to rubbing.
  • It is going to look worse at first, but with a bit of elbow grease and some patience, the lenses will begin to clear up after a few minutes.
  • After wiping down the lamp with a fresh microfiber towel, look closely for any missed spots (there are always going to be at least one or two), and then move on to the other headlamp.
  • Once both lenses are looking acceptable, take some wax and give them a thorough polishing. This will help protect the plastic lens from foreign contaminants and makes cleaning an easy task next time around.
  • Automotive lens wrap is another option for anyone wanting to add an extra layer of protection. Some wraps are adhesive-based and will squeegee on without issue using just water and a soft rubber spatula, while others require a heat gun to adhere properly.

9. Inspect bushings and balljoints

Source: Micah Wright
Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Many shops will charge a sizable sum to have all the bushings looked over on a car, and while replacing a bushing is certainly no easy task for some, the inspection of a car’s joints and bushings can give car owners an idea as to what might need to be looked at next time they are in the shop.

  •  Start by getting the vehicle off the ground. When using a jack at home, be sure to purchase some jack stands that can hold more than just the weight of your car for added insurance.
  • Once the vehicle is safely up in the air, it is best to look for any part of the car’s suspension that might pivot, spin, compress, or sway.
  • Most bushings are black in color, and with the help of a flashlight, be sure to look for any dry rot, cracks, splits, or missing components.
  • A firm wiggle or tug on certain components will help determine if it is structurally sound, as the metal beneath the rubber boot may be secretly compromised.
  • A full inspection shouldn’t take longer than 15 to 20 minutes tops, and taking photos of questionable components is a great way to guarantee that a mechanic will know exactly what areas to look at first when you bring the car into the shop.

10. Drain/refill rear differential fluid

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

The final money-saving tip is a big one, as it allows anyone with rear- or all-wheel-drive the ability to service their rear differential (rear diff) for a fraction of what a dealer or mechanic would want for the same job. Just be sure to always buy fluid from the dealer to ensure gear longevity, get a refill pump with a hose attachment from an auto store, and make sure that the proper refill procedures are followed. Here’s a great video emphasizing how easy this process can be.

  • For my RDX, I started by putting it evenly on a lift and then slightly loosening the fill bolt with a 3/8 extension. Always do this first to guarantee that you can refill the damn thing, because there’s no worse feeling than knowing that your rear differential is completely empty and that you now have no way of refilling it.
  • Next, crack open the lower drain bolt with the same 3/8 extension and let all the fluid drain out. If your fluid is a bright cherry red color like mine was, congratulations, you have a very healthy rear diff. If the fluid is brown or black in color, you should immediately touch it with a bare hand, and know that the uncomfortable feel of metal shavings is a very bad sign.
  • Now wipe off any excess build-up on the drain and refill plugs, reseal the lower drain hole, and funnel fresh fluid into the upper “fill hole” until it meets the suggested factory refill level.
  • I also strongly encourage installing fresh crush washers on both bolts, wiping the bolts with a clean rag (since they are often magnetized in order to collect metal shavings), and always slap some anti-seize onto the bolt threads before reinstalling them for added insurance down the line.

Disclaimer: Autos Cheat Sheet does not employ a licensed mechanic on staff. Please note that the information contained in this article has not been verified by a licensed mechanic, and procedures may vary by vehicle. The Cheat Sheet is not liable for damages occurring as a result of vehicular failure, and this article is not intended to be construed as instruction from a licensed mechanic or dealer. Always consult a mechanic if you are unsure of how to proceed.