My Kind of DIY: Easy Car Repairs

You Can Do It! Easy Car Repairs

 

I used to play sports and hike mountains and lived in a developing nation as a Peace Corps volunteer, so I’m no stranger to getting my hands a little dirty. But when it comes time to take out the garbage or drill a hole in something, I’m more than happy to pass the buck to my husband. Don’t get me wrong: I harbor no secret desire to be Martha Stewart. Pinterest can make me stabby if I see too many perfect birthday cakes for one-year-olds. But I will admit to DIY-ing my wedding invitations: At one point, I tied 125 ribbons into bows and even fixed the ones my mother-in-law tied because they weren’t perfect enough. Well, that perfectionist Peace Corps Volunteer has now discovered the satisfaction of doing easy car repairs. It can be dirty, and a little scary, but it honestly is a thrill to fix something yourself, or at least be able to diagnose the problem. So, if you’ve ever felt out of your league after opening up the hood of your car, please know that some easy car repairs are a lot easier than you may think.

Decade(s!) ago, my dad taught me to change the oil on my very first car. He scooted under the car, put a wrench on the drain plug, and twisted. And wrenched. And torqued. But he could not get the drain plug loose. So, he gave me $30 to get the oil changed at Jiffy Lube.

The next time I had the opportunity to fix my car, I balked. Our mechanic quoted me $125 to fix the smashed taillight assembly on our Corolla, but suggested that I just buy the assembly and install it myself. (The guy was obviously not hurting for business.) I decided to give it a try only after he assured me that he could fix any damage I caused by screwing up. Replacing the taillight assembly was easier than putting together an IKEA table. You just unplug the light, pop it out, pop in the new one, and plug that in. Ta-Da! Cheaper than an IKEA table, too.

After that, I had a series of successful small DIY car repairs:

  • Fixed the side view mirror when a screw fell out
  • Fixed a broken hood latch
  • Corrected imbalanced tire pressure with a cordless tire pump
  • Installed windshield wipers (this is really really easy)
  • Replaced my headlight bulbs. Well, OK … the associate at the auto parts store did the headlights. It was actually pretty tough because Prius headlights are at an awkward angle

Given the time it took me (and the auto parts associate) to fix these items, I saved at least 2 hours in labor. Given the cost of our recent repairs, I’m going to guess that calculates to at least $200.

More importantly, one by one, each repair lifted away the veil of mystery surrounding car repair.

So, when our Corolla couldn’t get in gear, I called upon the trusty DIY forum on Mr. Money Mustache. They suggested checking the transmission fluid — something I’d never done before. Lo and behold, checking your transmission fluid is not as easy as checking your oil. But a few Google searches and You Tube videos clarified the process enough for me to give it a whirl. And whirl it did — you have to have your car running when you check the transmission fluid. It’s intimidating to reach into your car while the fanbelt is whirring and the engine is pumping. 

There I was, thinking, “The $7 I paid for a funnel and transmission fluid just saved me $100 in having a mechanic do it for me!” I put the car into gear and backed it up.

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Yes, that’s my transmission dipstick, which showed that we had NO transmission fluid in the car.

Lest I get too smug, I then peered under the car and saw all that transmission fluid dripping out the bottom of the car.

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I went inside to get some newspaper to sop it up and found that, in 1 minute, it had pooled into a big puddle of wasted transmission fluid.

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I may not have saved myself cost of the repair, but I did save myself the cost of having the car towed to the mechanic, because I was able to get it in gear and drive it to the shop. They diagnosed a corroded hose and replaced it, and flushed the transmission fluid because the corrosion introduced rust into the fluid.

Why include my transmission repair failure in an article encouraging you to try easy car repairs? Because each time I dig in to a car problem, I learn a little bit more about my car and gain a little bit more confidence in doing the next easy car repair myself. It felt great when the mechanic asked “How do you know it’s transmission fluid that’s leaking?” and I could answer “Because I had just put it in the car.”

Now that we’ve slashed our budget, we think about whether we can do something ourselves before we pay someone else to do it. I will continue to investigate car troubles before dropping it off at the mechanic.

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If you’re interested in doing some easy car repairs yourself, a word to the wise:

In the transmission-fluid-checking process, I discovered that my car’s “Owner’s Manual” didn’t help me one bit. It didn’t tell me how to read the dipstick. Don’t laugh — an oil dipstick is easy to read, but the transmission dipstick says “hot” and “cold” on it, and the notches on the sides tell you if it’s full or empty. “Lucky” for me, I didn’t need a translator to know that we were all out of fluid.

In preparation for any future car trouble, I bought Haynes Repair Manuals for our Prius and Corolla. If you can’t find a Haynes Manual for your make and model vehicle, look for a Chilton ManualYou Can Do It! Easy Car Repairs

My car is due for an oil change soon. Inspired by my recent success, and these posts on BargainBabe‘s DIY Cheap Car Repairs and Mom And Dad Money‘s How to Do an Oil Change, I’m inspired to change my own oil. The Edmunds.com guy demonstrating How to Change Your Oil is wearing gloves, so I might not even get my hands dirty. 

What car repairs have you done yourself?

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11 thoughts on “My Kind of DIY: Easy Car Repairs

  1. I’ve been DIYing my auto repairs for a while now (um, decades). As long as I have the right tools, I’ll do it. So that means no DIY tire changing or wheel alignments. For someone who is a serious DIYer, Helm Inc. shop manuals are the reference of choice. Be advised that the auto manufacturers are rapidly going away with transmission fluid level dipsticks. So the method of checking will be to get under the car and remove a plug on the side of the transmission to check the level. Yes, it’s getting more difficult. Oh, and headlight bulb replacmenet is getting harder too on some models. You may have to remove a front fender liner to gain access to the headlight bulb!

    • I realize how old-school this post is! But in the age of Jiffy Lube, I feel like we’ve become very hands-off from basic car care. Thanks for the heads-up about the transmission and headlights. It sounds like it’ll be more important than before to get comfortable working on my car. The next thing I need is a set of ramps so I can actually get under the car but it’s a bit of an investment.

  2. i always TRY both home and car repairs before calling in the pros, but the simple reality is that i dont have a lot of the equipment and it often doesnt make sense to spend hundreds of dollars to buy it just for a single job

  3. I don’t change my own oil, the price at WalMart is way too cheap to mess with that. But, I do my own brakes, have replaced struts, hub bearing assemblies and my crown jewel – a rack & pinion.

    The trick when you delve into more major repairs I have found is time. If you can go a good while without your car, you can usually get it buttoned up.

    • Nice work! That’s a great point about being able to go a while without the car. We barely use ours as it is, so being restricted to one car for a little while isn’t the end of the world.

  4. LOVE the Haynes car manuals – aren’t they awesome? Rick does almost all of our car maintenance himself. Some of it’s a little tricky to learn, but once he masters it we know we’re done paying the ridiculous shop fees for them. 🙂

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