Car maintenance: DIY tips

If you consider yourself a bit handy, and are sick of being surprised with huge bills at the mechanic, some DIY car maintenance can help you save. Our checklist of short-term and long-term checks can help you improve the overall performance of your vehicle and keep your pennies in your pocket.

What car maintenance can I do myself?

While some things are better left to the pros, many car maintenance checks are simple enough to be tackled by most people of various skill levels. Short-term maintenance checks tend to be easier, while long-term maintenance checks might require your mechanic's help.

Even if you don't feel confident ticking every item off the checklist yourself, you may find one or two you can add to your routine.

Short-term maintenance checks

A few things you may be able to check yourself:

  • Oil levels

It's crucial to regularly check your oil. That means getting under the bonnet at least once a month - potentially more if you have an older car, or one that's had problems before.

Luckily, it's fairly simple to check. Make sure your car is parked on flat ground and the engine has been off for at least five minutes. Pull the oil dipstick out, wipe it clean on a rag, and dip it in a second time to get an accurate read on the level. If you find your oil is running out quickly, there may be an underlying issue a mechanic needs to look at.

  • Coolant levels

Coolant prevents your car's engine from getting too hot. How often you check coolant levels depends how much you drive, but once or twice a month is a good rule of thumb.

As with your oil levels, make sure the engine isn't running or hot when you check your coolant. Pop the bonnet of your car, look for the container with a brightly coloured liquid in it (usually green), and check the levels against the ‘maximum' line marked on the outside.

  • Air filter

A blocked or dirty air filter can make your engine wear faster, and increase your fuel consumption. It's a good idea to change yours every 12-18 months, or 10,000km-15,000km. Changing your air filter involves taking out the old one (after undoing the lid on top of it), cleaning out the space with a rag, and then putting the new one in there. Make sure you align your new air filter on both sides, and of course fasten the lid back on.

  • Tyre pressure

Tyre pressure is another thing you should aim to check once or twice a month, depending on how often you drive. Not only does poor pressure make it harder for you to handle your car on the road, it can mean you burn through more fuel.

It's best to check your tyres when they're cold, so if you're heading to a petrol station to use their air compressor, make sure you've driven no more than 2km at a moderate speed to get there. Once there, check the recommended tyre pressure (which should be on the driver's side door frame, inside the fuel door, in the glove box, or in your car's manual). Most petrol stations have an automated air compressor, allowing you to easily check your current tyre pressure and get it to where it needs to be.

  • Tyre tread depth

The tread on your tyres (ie, how smooth they are) determines how difficult it is to handle your car on the road. Having a tread of 1.5mm or less is illegal in Australia.

Most new tyres are fitted with tread wear indicators, so all you need to do is look for the indicator bars moulded into the tread grooves. As a general rule of thumb, tyres that are more than 5 years old should be checked annually by a professional.

  • Lights (headlights, indicator, brake & reverse)

Ensuring your lights are working is essential to your safety, and the safety of others on the road. While there's no golden rule for frequency, it can be good to routinely have someone stand outside your car while you test your headlights, indicators, brakes, and reverse lights. Make sure to check the indicators at both the front and back of the vehicle.

You may find your headlights are cloudy - this doesn't necessarily mean they need to be replaced, just cleaned.

  • Clean vehicle

Don't underestimate the value of keeping your vehicle looking good! A well-cleaned car is less likely to rust, which can cause more serious damage over time. Also, letting dirt and dust settle in the interior can make you more susceptible to getting sick, which nobody wants.

Long-term maintenance checks

Some less-frequent (but potentially more difficult) car maintenance checks include:

  • Battery terminals

Every 6 months, have a quick look at the terminals on your car battery for corrosion or damage. Make sure you disconnect your battery first – and in the right order. Remove the clamp from the grounded terminal first (that's the one connected by a wire to the body of the car or engine), and then the ungrounded one. Never touch both terminals at the same time.

Minor corrosion can be cleaned pretty easily, with a wire brush or even an old toothbrush. Keeping on top of corrosion can help ensure it doesn't get to a stage where there's serious damage, which requires the terminal to be replaced - and potentially a visit to the mechanic to do so.

  • Defroster grid

Defroster grids are those skinny lines that run across the rear windshield of your car, which generate heat to remove fog and help melt ice in cold weather. If you find one of your lines is playing up and not de-fogging your windows correctly, a fuse may have blown. Your owner's manual should have instructions on how to check and replace the fuse.

If it's not the fuse, you can paint over the line with conductive paint. Just make sure to put masking tape around the line so you don't get paint on the rearview window glass, and clean the area beforehand to get rid of any debris.

  • Transmission fluid

If you have an automatic car, checking your transmission fluid is quite similar to checking your oil levels. Simply find the dipstick (it's usually red, but check your owner manual if you're unsure), remove it and wipe it clean, then put it in a second time to check the level.

If you have a manual car, there usually isn't a dipstick. Instead, you'll need to jack your car up and check the filler plugs underneath the car. For this reason, it's usually easier to leave this one to your mechanic at servicing time.

  • Spark plugs

Spark plugs don't need to be replaced often, but they're good to check every year or so. If your engine light comes on, you have trouble turning your car on, or your car is accelerating slowly, that can also be a good time to inspect them. You'll need to remove the spark plugs to do so, looking for telltale signs of damage.

If your spark plugs are well-worn or damaged, it might be time to replace them.

  • Drive belt

There are two types of drive belts: serpentine, which is flat, and v-type, which sits in a deep v-shaped groove. Either way, you'll find your drive belt located in your car's pulley wheel under the hood. How often you need to check or replace your drive belt depends on the car you have, so it's best to check your owner's manual. Most last a long time though - up to 10 years, in many cases.

If your power steering is playing up, or you hear a squealing noise from the front of your vehicle, it may be because of your drive belt. You can check it for cracks and splits, see if it's oil-soaked, and make sure the tension is correct.

Modern cars have an automatic or spring-loaded belt tensioner, which doesn't need to be adjusted. But if that's showing signs of wear and tear, you may want to get it checked by a professional, as it can be pretty labour-intensive to replace.

Adding car insurance to your checklist

While insurance isn't a maintenance issue, it can still be important. No matter how well you take care of your car, the unexpected can still happen.

If something does happen to your car, or there's damage to someone else's car or property for which you're liable, car insurance may help cover the associated costs. Different policies cover different things, so it's important to compare and choose the right option for you.

Compare Bingle's car insurance