Your car is much like any other member of your family; it’s a source of pride, an integral part of your day-to-day life, which needs to be insured, and something that you should always be able to depend upon. But your car is also something else; it’s a huge, ongoing investment. This is especially true if, like most people who depend on a single car, you’re not driving something that just rolled off the showroom floor.
You might expect, if you have prior experience with auto maintenance, that you’re about to plod through the literary equivalent of Oliver’s gruel – a treatise on how to change the oil and spark plugs in your minivan. And we promise you won’t be disappointed. But the point here isn’t just to show you how to perform basic vehicle maintenance; the goal here is to help you develop a comprehensive cost-saving strategy that will keep you and your car on the road for years to come.
In modern times, Spending Money Sometimes Means Saving
It’s all too easy to follow Granddad’s logic and assume that everything you’re not doing yourself represents money wasted; but in this case, you have to question the logic of anyone who hasn’t repaired a car built since the Reagan administration. So, sorry Granddad… saving money on machines in post-industrial America bears little resemblance to the practices of your day. These vehicles need very cheap car insurance with no deposit to save costs and efficient maintenance as well. Efficiently maintaining a modern automobile requires equal parts of knowing how to twist wrenches, when to twist them and when not too, and how much to pay for what you don’t do yourself.
Today’s Auto Repair Industry Is a Task of Computerized Diagnostics and “plug and play” Component Modules
Long ago, when Hobbits roamed and dragons flew, a good mechanic was no less than an artist with a wrench. Properly tuning and maintaining a car was as much a matter of feel and intuition as using info from a technical manual. It took an artist with an intuitive understanding of machines to set the dwell on a distributor when those factory specs didn’t work anymore, or to find that Goldilocks zone with a carburetor’s mixture screws on an engine not designed to last 100,000 miles in the first place. But by and large, that just isn’t the case anymore. It’s hard to say exactly when this shift happened; it could have been when engines started showing up without carburetors or distributors, or when someone – probably a German – started calling mechanics “technicians.”
Or, you could pin it down to the day that technicians started buying $2,000 toolboxes when $50 footlockers would have worked just as well. The auto repair industry has become, to a great degree, a matter of computerized diagnosis and “plug and play” component modules. Modern technology and procedural standardization make it easier and cheaper for mechanics to perform many repairs, which narrows or eliminates the profit margin in doing some of those repairs yourself.
Is It Worth the Money and Time You Will Save Trying to Fix the Car Yourself?
Try to remember back a couple of decades, when you had to pay a professional diagnostician a day’s wages to determine that you had a bad ignition coil. No more. With today’s computerized diagnostics and systematized repair procedures, the kid at the auto parts store can tell you the same thing 30 seconds after plugging in a code scanner. This is an entirely logical evolution since it was just this sort of assembly-line mentality that made cars cheap enough for the common man to buy in the first place.
Here you’ll find a number of ratings to help you decide which jobs you want to take on, and which you should farm out.
Time: This is how long a first-timer can expect a given procedure to take. This isn’t the official hourly estimate for mechanics, since mechanics have the experience, hydraulic lifts, specialized tools, and all sorts of other things to help to speed the proceedings.
Difficulty: Probably the most important scale for neophytes. For the difficulty scale, “1” represents “I got a $40 toolkit for my birthday two years ago, and have yet to open it,” and “10” is “I’ve replaced the rod bearings in a Toyota Camry and it actually ran afterward.” Like the rating for time and cost-effectiveness, this is an average for most cars.
Cost-Effectiveness: Cost-effectiveness comes from a formula that derives from the cost of parts, hours in book time, and $50 per hour labor cost. “Book hours” are the averaged mechanic’s labor time, or how many hours they’re going to charge for a given procedure. If a mechanic charges $50 per hour and procedure rates three book hours, you’ll pay $150 in labor. Note that the cost-effectiveness rating does not reflect an actual dollar figure. So, procedures that require very little investment in parts, and more investment in labor will rate higher than procedures that require expensive parts and comparatively little labor.
Cost of a Mistake: Fixing a car is like playing football: equal parts avoiding mistakes and recovering from the unexpected when it happens. This rating will help you to determine whether or not you want to assume the risk of a given procedure. Risks may be monetary; they can include voiding of warranties or may have to do with danger to life and limb.
Special Tools: Additional tools you’ll need for the procedure beyond the standard tools listed in the next section.
Tools You’ll Need
Automotive Tool Kit – $40 to $50: You can find these starter tool kits at any major hardware or auto parts store. You’ll want to look for a kit with a “piece count” of between 150 and 200. Your tool kit should include, at a minimum: a 3/8-inch and 1/4-inch ratchet, a full set of metric and standard sockets, two extensions, Phillips and flat-head screwdrivers or a driver handle and bit set, needle-nosed pliers, Allen wrenches in metric and standard, an adjustable wrench and a collection of standard and metric open/box-end wrenches. If your kit doesn’t come with a good assortment of wrenches, you can pick up a comprehensive set for another $25 to $30.
Do the homework on your particular car before buying any parts and hiring any service. Cut cost on getting $20 down car insurance. If you’re like many people, it’s occurred to you that you can help to cut down a bit on this outflow of cash by doing some of your own auto maintenance.