How Often Should You Do Car Maintenance?

Checking your oil, inspecting tires, and other maintenance steps can help you avoid big service bills down the road.
Woman Repairing Car

Keeping your car's maintenance under control can seem complicated and expensive. But even if you're not a DIY wizard, you can do a lot to prevent pricey and unexpected service bills down the road.

Find out how to tell which services you need and when, and learn about the proactive maintenance tasks that all car owners should be aware of.

Consult Your Owner's Manual

Your car needs regular TLC to keep it on the road, so each car comes with a maintenance schedule in your owner's manual.

If your owner's manual includes a maintenance chart, it's easy to find out which services you should be doing and when. Check the mileage on your car, and the chart will tell you the rest.

If your owner's manual includes a maintenance schedule, it's easy to find out which services you should be doing and when.

There are usually two maintenance "schedules": normal and "severe." The severe schedule is for cars used in taxing driving conditions, which need more frequent maintenance.

You may not think you belong in the severe category, but if you mostly drive in stop-and-go traffic, you probably do. Other habits that put you into "severe" include frequent towing or frequent off-pavement driving.

Vehicle Computers May Help

Some newer cars keep track of your maintenance schedule for you. If you've got a system like Honda's Maintenance Minder, your car will display an "oil life remaining" indicator. When the light comes on, read the code that it shows (see your mechanic, or instructions in your owner's manual), and have that service done. These systems can be difficult to interpret, making it harder to plan ahead for expensive work.

TIP: Resetting the light will tell the car you've done all the associated maintenance. If you do your own work, make sure you've completed all the associated maintenance before you reset the light, or the light will become out of sync with reality.

Important Car Maintenance Tasks

Even if you're not a DIYer with a garage full of tools, there are several tasks you should do to keep your car in safe operating condition, which we've outlined below. Proactive repairs can prevent catastrophic (and expensive) damage. Read your owner's manual for more detailed maintenance information.

Check Your Oil

Maintaining the right oil level is critical to keeping your car from becoming a pile of useless metal. Do an oil check whenever you stop for gas — all you need is a paper towel and a warm engine.

SEE ALSO: The 7 Best Credit Cards for Gas Rewards

Drive around for 10-15 minutes. Turn the car off, pop the hood, and find the engine oil dipstick. Pull the dipstick out, wipe it clean with a paper towel, and reinsert it. Remove the dipstick again, and read the oil level.

If your oil is low, buy the appropriate type of oil for your vehicle at the gas station, add half, and recheck your oil level. Repeat until the dipstick reads in the appropriate range. Then schedule an appointment with your mechanic.

TIP: Losing oil could be a sign of serious engine trouble — or it could mean you have an easily repaired oil leak. Regardless, running your engine without enough oil can drastically shorten (or end) the life of your engine.

Change Your Oil

The days of the 3,000 mile oil change are long past. Advances in both oil and engine technologies have greatly increased the time between oil changes. That's good for the environment — and for your pocketbook.

Take your engine maintenance up a notch by sending your used engine oil to an analysis company. They'll run tests on the oil that can alert you to potential engine problems.

For 2008 and newer vehicles, Ford advises an oil change every 7,500 miles or every six months (whichever one comes first). Honda, BMW, and other auto manufacturers recommend changing your oil whenever the computer tells you to, based on your driving habits and conditions. Check your owner's manual for specifics.

TIP: If you want to learn more about the condition of your engine, try out an oil analysis company, like Blackstone Laboratories. They'll run tests on your used engine oil that can alert you to potential problems long before they surface.

Inspect Your Tires

Worn, underinflated, or damaged tires will cripple your ability to stop in emergency situations and inclement weather. Luckily, it's easy to inspect them.

First, check your tire pressure. Underinflated tires don't grip the road properly and can overheat at high speeds. Be especially observant during cold snaps — chilly weather can significantly decrease tire pressure.

SEE ALSO: 3 Ways to Save on Your Next Car Repair

Second, look at the sides of your tires for rips, tears, or gouges. Sidewall damage can cause unexpected blowouts at high speeds.

Lastly, check your tread depth. All you need is a penny. Insert the penny headfirst into your tread. If you can see all of Abraham Lincoln's head, you have less than 2/32" of tread left, and you urgently need new tires.

TIP: If you drive in inclement weather, consider replacing your tires earlier – say, at 4/32". It's the same test, but with a quarter.

Check Your Air Filters

While you're in there, take a look at your engine air filter. Usually accessible without tools, this filter cleans the air your engine breathes, keeping sensitive areas free from abrasive dust and dirt. Replace it on schedule — usually every 30,000 miles — or when it's dirty.

Likewise, your cabin air filter cleans the air you breathe inside your car. Have it changed once a year.

TIP: The cabin air filter is usually harder to get to, so this might be a job for the professionals.

Keep Tabs on Your Brakes

Brakes are important for stopping, and stopping is a critical part of driving. Replacing brake pads, shoes, and rotors can be expensive. But if you keep tabs on your remaining brake life, you'll be able to plan ahead.

A good mechanic will peek at your brakes every time you get an oil change, and will alert you if you'll need service soon. (Don't be afraid to ask if they don't mention it.) Servicing all four brakes usually starts at $200 to $300, and you should expect to do it every 30,000-70,000 miles.

Replacing brake pads, shoes, and rotors can be expensive. In fact, servicing all four brakes usually starts at $200 to $300.

This may seem like a wide margin, but your brake life is closely related to your driving habits. Aggressive driving and carrying heavy loads will drastically reduce brake life.

TIP: Don't wait for a noise. Once your brakes are making noise, you could be damaging much more expensive parts, and you're putting yourself and those around you in danger. If you hear noise when you brake, get to the mechanic ASAP.

Test Your Battery

Batteries should last about five years, perhaps less if your car sees subfreezing weather. If your car is slow to start, have the battery tested. Most major parts stores should be able to test your battery and tell you whether it needs to be replaced.

TIP: If in doubt, replace it. Batteries usually die in the cold, so an aging battery could strand you in the dark.

Readers, what are your favorite tips and tricks for keeping your car in tip-top shape? Let us know how you get it done in the comments!

Contributing Writer

Sean is a freelance writer and photojournalist working in the Hampton Roads region. He has been a writer, adventure motorcyclist, drag racer, data nerd, shade-tree mechanic, and tornado chaser. Recommend good beers to him on Twitter at @wxgeek.
DealNews may be compensated by companies mentioned in this article. Please note that, although prices sometimes fluctuate or expire unexpectedly, all products and deals mentioned in this feature were available at the lowest total price we could find at the time of publication (unless otherwise specified).
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I'm with nestormart. I've spent nearly nothing for my last two vehicles -- both electric vehicles -- because there is no oil to change, no filters to replace... virtually no maintenance. I purchased new tires and that's it.

You don't have to be a tree-hugger to own an electric car. Just someone who doesn't want to spent so much on maintenance and operation of the vehicle.
I've owned my Nissan Leaf for a little over a year now and the only thing I've had to do thus far is replace the windshield wipers, rotate the tires, and add windshield washer fluid. Total of about $50.00, not bad.
This article fails to mention a few things.....

1. Tire rotation. Do this every 8,000-10,000 miles to prolong your tires. A relative neglected to do this and while his front tires were bald, the rear tires still had 50% left meaning had he rotated them he could have gotten 1-2 years more out of them.

2. Cabin air filter. Dealers often charge $100 or more for this service when you can buy the filter for under $10 on Amazon and do it yourself. Most cars have the filter located behind the glove box, which can be easily unhinged. Just remove and replace. Saved yourself $90+!!!!!

3. Synthetic oil. I do my own oil changes with Mobil 1 Extended Performance 15,000 mile oil. Dealer charges $100 but I can do it for less than $30. My car minder usually tells me to change the oil every 10,000 miles (often the case with newer cars).

4. Carry portable battery jumpers. Bought them on ebay for only around $20 and they can jump dead/low battery and even power cell phones. Great for cold weather.
Lindsay...Hilarious! ;^)
Real clever Lindsay - shouldn't it be Lindsey? - the yawn was for - as you know - the tedious fourth grade level "articles" you post here. If it's not clickbait, it sophomoric BS.
Thanks for noticing me.
Tony Balogna
What I have learned for years of owning cars that i run for 300-400k miles. Usually my frames go from road salt.

1. Quality synthetic oil and best quality filter- there are good deals on
DealNews periodically.
2. Drain and refill transmission fluid 1/year. Don't need to drop pan.
That will always keep it fresh.
3.FluidFilm or similar on underbody if you live in road salt area
4.Best quality extended life coolant (ELC). Drain and refill on manufacturers schedule

Don't go cheap on the fluids
always follow your owner's manual. if you bought it used and it doesn't have one you can pretty much always find a .pdf version on the internet; first try the manufacturer's website.

also, bmw recommends an oil change by mileage or annually, whichever comes first. at least it does for ours.

and since we are all deal-seekers it is worth trying to negotiate repair quotes. just ask for a parts list (brand and model #) on the repair and google the prices, you'll be astonished at the markup and will give you leverage to negotiate. also, let the car sit while you call around. 30 minutes or less calling two more shops can save you major moolah.

they don't have to start working on it right that minute. trust me, they won't anyway... i work for a municipality and took my city car to the city garage and watched a mechanic knock out an oil change and new pads/rotors on all four corners in 45 minutes!! that's when i decided to start working on my own cars.
Everyone should learn how to change their own air filters and cabin air filters and then use the deals on Deal News at the various auto parts stores to buy them. You will be amazed at the markup they charge to do these simple things for you at the dealer or other mechanic. Regarding ease of doing this, I have never had a car that didn't require me to at least unscrew a top plate to get to the air filter so I can't say no tools are required. As for the cabin air filter, it's usually located behind the glove compartment and the only difficulty is shimmying the box out and back in. Changing lights and wiper blades on your own is also a great way to save money. Also keep a record of when you do all these things so you know when to do them again.