Basic Car Maintenance You Can Do Yourself

by Michelle Naranjo

Updated On: September 10, 2021

Maintaining a car can take up a big chunk of time and be quite costly. But a bit of regular maintenance can potentially prevent a frustrating future and keep you from seeing the dreaded check engine light. In fact, the American Automobile Association (AAA) has found that a lot of roadside trouble is often the direct result of car owners not performing basic car maintenance tasks. And while some upkeep is better left to the professionals, there are some simple, quick, and affordable tasks you can handle yourself with very little know-how to help make your car run the way it should. In this article you will find some basic car maintenance tips that will keep your car running the way it should.

Wash and Detail Your Car—The Right Way

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Grab a microfiber cloth at the discount store, a bucket, a hose, and a soap made specifically for use on cars. If you'll use hard water that could lead to residue spots on the paint, consider heading to a DIY car wash where, for a few quarters, the final rinse will be spot-free.

You should preferably wash a car out of direct sunlight and start from the top of the car, all the way around, working toward the bottom. A gentle scrub on painted surfaces should be completed before attacking the wheels. Road grime, dust, and grit on the wheels can get embedded in the cloth and scratch the paint's finish.

Using an easy-to-apply spray wax on the dried surface will give the car a protective shiny finish for around two or three months. Rubbing toothpaste on the headlights with a cloth and rinsing well is a little more labor-intensive, but clear headlight beams provide better visibility and are safer. A clean, shiny car will look better on the road, and because trade-in values are based largely on cosmetics, a car kept clean and shiny will also be worth more when you move on to another vehicle.

Easily Fix Paint Scratches and Dings

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Giving a car a good bath on a regular basis provides a perfect opportunity to get up close and personal with that car's finish. Chips and scratches in the paint can result in serious damage, and rust is one feature no car owner—or future buyer—wants.

Touch-up paint is the best way to stop deterioration in its tracks if you find damage that goes all the way through the paint to the body panels. Service departments at new car dealerships usually keep paint touch-up kits in stock that will match the factory color of a particular car model and year, but there are many online shopping options as well. A quick online search will reveal any number of outlets that carry the exact color produced by automakers as well as services that can match a specialty aftermarket paint color. Online prices run from under $20 for a half-ounce bottle with an applicator to hundreds of dollars for a full gallon for the true DIY paint enthusiast.

Large, deep paint damage might require purchasing some sandpaper of various grits, rubbing compounds, and clear-coat spray. But this type of repair, including larger dents, might be better left to a body shop if patience is not one of your personality traits.

Check Your Tires

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Flat tires can be annoying and dangerous. Driving a car when the tire pressure is too low can damage the tire wall and lead to a flat or even worse: a blowout.

As part of a car maintenance schedule, pick a date of the month that's easy to remember and check the tire tread and pressure monthly. Or, better yet, while refueling or recharging the car, get in the habit of checking the tires—including the spare, if your car has one. Either method of self-reminder can keep your tires in good shape and prevent a lot of heartache.

The tire pressure that's best for your car can be found on a label inside the doorframe and in the car's owner's manual. The number of pounds per square inch (psi) indicated there is the ideal pressure rating that will optimize the performance of the tires, keep car occupants safe, and result in the best gas mileage. Both too much and too little air pressure can be dangerous, so make sure to hit that recommended number.

You can easily check tire wear by placing a penny between treads with Lincoln's head pointing down. If the top of his head is visible, it's time for new tires.

Tire manufacturers recommend that tires get rotated every six months or 6,000 miles of travel. This is a vehicle maintenance process best left to the professionals, because they have high-tech systems to ensure that all tires are balanced and re-installed properly. If you want to learn more about tire sizes, types, and care, please see our Beginner's Guide to Car Tires.

Check Your Battery

One of the most common reasons for AAA to make a roadside-assistance call is for a dead battery. Car batteries are, in theory, supposed to last three to five years, but climate (excessive heat or cold), driving habits, and maintenance can often shorten their lifespan to less than three years.

Making sure the terminals on a battery are clear of corrosion and dirt is easy enough. Just pop the hood of the car and look at the points where the leads connect to the battery itself. If you see corrosion, the fix is relatively easy, but it does require a wrench, an old toothbrush, baking soda, and water.

Put on safety glasses, gloves, long sleeves, and pants. The acid in a car battery can burn your skin. With the car turned off, loosen the bolt on the negative lead and remove it from the battery. Apply a mixture of very hot water and baking soda with a toothbrush to the battery terminal and, after a few minutes of soaking, scrub the corrosion away. Rinse with cold water, dry thoroughly, and apply a light layer of petroleum jelly to the terminal. Soak, scrub, rinse, and dry the lead, then reattach it, tightening with the wrench, making sure that the wrench doesn't touch any metal except the nut. Repeat this process on the positive terminal. Make sure that the leads never touch one another or anything else, including yourself. That could cause an electrical short or even a serious injury. It is also important to not have both leads disconnected at the same time. If for any reason that happens, always reconnect the positive lead first.

While you're looking at the battery, check its casing for cracks that could leak acid. If the battery is over two years old, go to an automotive parts store every few months where they will have a special electronic testing tool for measuring the performance of the battery for free. If the battery hasn't been checked by a professional and the headlights seem dimmer than usual when first starting the car but increase in brightness when the accelerator is pushed, that is most likely an indicator that the battery needs to be replaced.

Testing your battery with a multimeter is easy and could save you from being stuck with a dead battery. An auto-battery tester can tell you what percentage of life your battery still has. The test is simple enough, but again, make sure to protect your hands and eyes. Connect the red lead to the positive battery terminal, black lead to negative, and the measurement will be displayed on the screen. It isn't even necessary to disconnect the battery from the car for this test.

Replace Wipers and Check Washer Fluid

Windshield wipers should be replaced when they stop working well, which will likely be every six to eight months. Dry, cracked wiper blades can result in poor visibility during rain and snow, so it's especially important to get them replaced before the seasons when balmy sunshine is less likely.

Wipers can be found online and at auto-supply retail locations and many big-box stores. The model of wiper you'll need can be found by looking in a guidebook at the store or a matching service online. Buying online can often save some money, but one advantage of buying at a local store is that the staff will usually provide free help with installing the blades if they prove difficult to attach.

Windshield-wiper fluid is essential to driving safety and can easily be checked and refilled at home. Fluid can be bought by the gallon at auto-parts stores or can be made by adding a cup of regular glass cleaner to a gallon of distilled water. Never fill the windshield wiper fluid reservoir with just water: In cold conditions, water alone will freeze and can damage the reservoir and hoses. In extremely cold conditions, consider purchasing special fluid that can prevent freezing damage and is made for low temperatures. Under the hood, near the windshield, there should be a translucent white container. Remove the cap and pour in the windshield-wiper fluid nearly to the top of the container. Replace the cap and consider it a job well done.

Many cars have a back windshield wiper and a separate reservoir that should also be checked regularly to safeguard rear visibility.

Don't Drive On Empty

It's a good idea to always keep the gas tank at least one-quarter full and even better if it's more than half full. Running out of gas is not only a potentially hazardous hassle, but habitually getting stranded can lead to damage to the expensive fuel pump.

Besides keeping an eye on the fuel gauge, try to monitor the mileage your car is getting monthly. Decreasing mileage can be a sign of many things, from a dirty air filter to poor tire pressure, from spark plugs about to give up the ghost to a leaking fuel injector. All of these can lead to unfortunate breakdowns that could have been avoided.

Satisfy Your Inner Gearhead

If you feel like the basic car maintenance items discussed above just aren't scratching your mechanical itch—and you're not afraid to get your hands a little dirty—you might also consider changing the vehicle's engine oil, flushing the transmission fluid and radiator coolant, or installing new brake pads. Make sure, however, if you're doing anything with liquids that might harm the environment that you have the proper waste fluid storage containers so that you can properly dispose of them.

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