The Bare Necessities

By Valerie Lemke

January 22, 2010 5 min read

More than 100 years ago, Henry Ford set out to build an inexpensive car. It was to be "large enough for the family but small enough for the individual to run and care for," he said.

Given the engineering marvels we drive today, caring for an automobile yourself -- from maintaining the brakes to changing a light bulb -- is nearly impossible unless you're a trained mechanic. The present economy compounds the problem. If you're really strapped, what are the things you absolutely must get done to keep your car running? What can you do yourself?

The first on your to-do list is to read the owners manual, according to Howard Pitkow, a Pennsylvania auto repair shop owner and member of the Automotive Service Association, which represents independent auto repair professionals nationwide.

The owners manual provides the information you need to know about your particular car and what you should do to save money and keep it in good running order, Pitkow says. However, he suggests caution in attempting such ubiquitous chores as adding and changing your own oil. It used to be simple. "Not so long ago, there were only a couple of oil choices," he says. "Now there are dozens, and you can do serious damage if you use the wrong one." Even changing a light bulb can be very, very difficult. "You're better off not taking things apart and maybe making things worse."

But if you're determined to add and change your own oil, check the owners manual for the specific oil your car uses, as well as the recommended schedule for changing it. You also can top off the antifreeze/coolant level yourself if you follow the manual's directions and use the products called for. And you can check your battery for dirt and corrosion and your radiator hoses for leaks and wear. You can clean and replace windshield wiper blades, too.

Pitkow is a proponent of checking tire pressure, as well. "A tire pressure gauge costs about $2, and using it regularly is important to keep your tires in good condition," he says. The owners manual teaches you how to change your own flat tire, too.

Periodically reviewing your auto insurance with the agency is another strategy that might save you hundreds of dollars. You could be paying more than necessary to cover your aging automobile, or the policy may include services, such as towing, that you also have with another company.

When money is tight, it also may make sense to drop collision insurance on an older vehicle.

Nevertheless, many people say that just when their cars' warranties run out, mechanical problems crop up. Be on the lookout for changes when driving, such as strange noises or vibrations you feel in the steering or suspension or when you brake or change gears. These parts keep your car running smoothly and safely. "If you have bad shocks and hit a pothole, for example, the car will go out of control," Pitkow says.

A leaking exhaust also can present a major hazard. It's not only noisy; the carbon monoxide fumes that may waft into your car can be deadly.

You can skirt repairs or lessen the cost of fixing them in the first place by religiously adhering to your manual's maintenance schedule, according to Pitkow. Even in hard times, you need to stretch the budget to cover these regular visits to a reputable mechanic.

Pitkow stresses the word "reputable." "When people are really strapped and desperate, they are tempted to go to what we call 'Backyard Bob shops.' But Bob doesn't have the training, tools or information needed to work on cars."

A reputable mechanic will charge a modest fee to diagnose your problem and tell you what's needed to fix it. "I always put what needs to be done in order of priority. Maybe some jobs can wait for a period of time. You should at least get things checked out and develop a game plan to get back on track," he says.

But when safety is an issue and you cannot pay for essential repairs, Pitkow's counsel is firm: Do not drive the car until it is fixed. "You are a danger to yourself and everyone around you."

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