In Terms of Car Maintenance, Consumer Reports Spells out Whether to Do It Yourself or Not

In terms of car maintenance, there are many reasons to “do it yourself,” such as the shortage of car parts or skyrocketing new car prices. But the learning curve is incredibly steep. And while some jobs are straightforward, others are best left to the pros. Consumer Reports highlights when you can do it yourself, and when to consult a mechanic.

windshield wiper fluid on display at a gas station
windshield wiper cleaning fluid | Michael S.Williamson/The Washington Post via Getty Images

The easiest car maintenance jobs you can perform yourself

Let’s start with the air filters, possibly the simplest bits of automotive maintenance. There are two filters in the car, the engine air filter and the cabin air filter. One filters the air going into the engine, the other filters the air going into the cabin. Fairly obvious.

But what’d cost you $60 at an auto shop would cost you $5 to $15 to do yourself. It’s as easy as sliding in a CD (in fact, the cabin air filter is like inserting a VHS tape, if you remember what those are). And for the engine air filter, just open the hood, unclip a few brackets, clean off the old filter, and insert the new one.

Wiper blades and wiper fluids are also incredibly easy. Wipers can be removed and reinstalled in mere minutes, and when you purchase them from your nearest parts store, employees there can assist you. It’s also simple to fill the wiper fluid reservoir, though you want to be careful.

The chemicals used in wiper fluid can be damaging to your car’s paint. If you spill, it can corrode the coating that protects it from the elements and will fade over time. It’s important to invest in a funnel, you’ll need one for other jobs as well, but if you do spill don’t panic. Along with that funnel, purchase some microfiber cloths, and immediately wipe the substance off (pour some water on the spot if you have it).

Those are the easiest jobs that require little to no tools or investment. But what about fairly simple jobs you need some tools for?

These jobs are straightforward, but require time and tools

Man Working Underneath Car On Do It Yourself Project
Man Working Underneath Car | Vano Shlampov/AFP via Getty Images

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Part of the reason people take their cars into a shop is that it saves time. It certainly doesn’t save money, but having someone else do the job while you work and manage your own life is convenient. However, if you have some dough, and want to work on your own car, these are good jobs to start with.

At the top of the beginner do it yourself car maintenance list, you have oil changes. They sound intimidating, but if a scrawny creative writer like me can do it without breaking the car (or a bone) then you can too. However, you’ll need some tools, and they’re not exactly cheap. The jack and jack stand in particular could run a total of $250 to $300, but if you’re going to work underneath your car, do not go cheap.

Another is tire rotations. This is different than having your tires replaced when they wear out, as it requires you to move the rim of your car and change its position. Depending on the powertrain of your car (FWD, RWD, or AWD), you could be moving front tires to the rear or rear tires to the front. Consult your owner’s manual and/or the internet to know exactly how to rotate your tires.

Those are the two best beginner jobs, but anything beyond that requires complicated fluid draining, the disassembly of vital components, and many many manhours.

With these maintenance projects, don’t do it yourself

A blue car up on a lift in a garage.
A car up on a lift in a garage | Andrew Woodley/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

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Sure, it’s possible to learn how to perform this maintenance, but they’re complicated. Regardless, we’ll start from the easiest jobs (in theory), and work our way up.

For starters, changing the brake pads, brake discs can be fairly simple. It’s a matter of unscrewing bolts and lubricating parts. Flushing your brake fluid, however, is the trickiest, requiring you to bleed the system without letting any air in. Failure to bleed them properly and you’ll wind up in a shop anyways.

Next, there’s replacing the sparkplugs, which can either be easy as pie or an absolute nightmare. You’ll have to take apart a good junk of the engine. And if it’s in an awkward position, getting to the bolts can be nearly impossible. Serpentine belt replacements also require partial engine disassembly, and then proper engine reassembly. Failure to achieve that last bit, and you may destroy the engine.

The timing belt (which is a different part) is also best left to the pros. It’s located inside the engine and should be replaced every 100,000 miles to prevent internal engine damage. And as that part is replaced, others should be as well. Idler pulleys, belt tensioners, and water pumps all need to be swapped, which requires the engine to be completely taken apart. If you don’t think you can handle that, take the car into a shop.

Lastly, any safety equipment or onboard technologies (infotainment, touchscreens, etc.) should be inspected by a dealership. Not just any independent shop. They won’t have the tools or resources necessary to fix that particular equipment, and chances are, nor will you.

There’s a lot that goes into car maintenance. And as good as it feels to do it yourself, there are some jobs best left to the professionals.

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