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.
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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 vehicle needs regular TLC to stay 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: Which Motor Oil Is Best for YOUR Car?

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.

According to Ford, today's oil-change intervals can reach 7,500 to 10,000 miles, or every six months (whichever one comes first). Toyota, meanwhile, suggests oil changes every 10,000 miles/12 months or 5,000 miles/six months, depending on the vehicle, while Honda points people to the owner's manual for recommended intervals. In any case, 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: Flat Tire? 7 Reasons Not to Repair It With Fix-a-Flat or Slime Tire Sealant

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!


DealNews 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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14 comments
tulsarunner
Chill out Ted. Instead of checking your cars fluid levels, check your BP.
vwoom
Ah yes..the good old reliable automotive tool, the turkey baster..
mort blort
One of the best bang-for-the-buck investments you can make in your life is to take a basic auto maintenance course at a community college. Learn how to maintain and replace components like brakes, filters, seals, etc. and you'll save yourself thousands of dollars. Three quarters of most auto-repair bills are on the 'labor' line. DIY where you can, but you gotta know what you're doing, so take a class.
supersaver77
Don't forget to get your turkey baster out and rejuvenate the fluids every so often.
Biltmore
Every car owner should remove their transmission once a year. Take it inside and put it on the dining room table where the light is good, and just open it up and check to see if there is any wear.
Ted Tier
Hey Gennady,
Check my first comment before you repeat what I already said. And as you said, you're guessing - stick to deals
Gennady Lager (DealNews)
@Ted

These are the major items that your average driver should look out for and can check without tools. Its also generally what is checked for free at a tire or lube place. I'm not really seeing anything incorrect or egregiously missing here. At not point was this stated as a comprehensive checklist. It's also not a directive--as you can see, the first thing mentioned is to check with your specific vehicle's manual. I'd venture to guess that if you walked into a repair shop and asked the mechanic what a driver should look out for maintenance wise, the answer would probably be something very similar.
Ted Tier
Hey Lindsay,

What you have here is not an "uncomplicated, surface level guide"; it is in a large sense a directive that could potentially cause financial or personal loss for a reader who takes at face value the words of a hobbyist. At that point it becomes actionable - think of that before your next clickbait "article" that could affect safety. As I wrote, stick to President's Day sales and gift card issues; it's what you know and beyond that you are all way over your heads.
Lindsay Sakraida (DealNews)
@Ted Tier

Hi there!

With this guide, we've intentionally created an uncomplicated, surface-level guide for readers who have little to no background in the topic. We wanted to surface some basic tips so people have context for what's recommended. It's helpful that a manual already has a schedule of maintenance, but that also entails proactively seeking out that information to begin with, and that requires at least a foundational understanding of what's expected. Manuals might also require one to absorb dense and/or disorganized information, which can be a non-starter for those who find it intimidating.

Ultimately, regular car maintenance saves money in the long run, so it's good for everyone to be aware of how to plan for it; we wanted to provide a quick reference for those who don't already know the ideal schedule so they can plan, research further if needed, and get the work done.
Pandp
Ted, my take on owners manuals is they are a guideline. Not really in the interest of the manufacturer to extend the life beyond the warranty or the competitors life expectancy of like products. I put a magnetic inline filter on my truck transmission line. Couple years latter Ford sent out a TSB to do just that because the OEM filter was not up to the job. She turned 20 last fall. Probably last till they ban diesel
Ted Tier
"If your owner's manual includes a maintenance schedule, it's easy to find out which services you should be doing and when."

END OF STORY!

Stick to deals and stay away from anything that concerns autos and safety. This guy sounds like an "expert" on everything - we all have hobbies - if you are going to publish "articles" like this get a real expert.
AgentX
@Pandp So true! I was facing that same potential issue on our 06 Pathfinder, until I read about it and performed the bypass myself (before I found any indication of cross-contamination). Did a drain and fill on the trans at the same time, just in case. The Frontier's of the same generation were prone to this issue too.
Found out about the whining timing chain tensioners too. Also found info on replacing the in-tank fuel level sensor, so I did that myself when it messed up. Takes some research and maybe a few Youtube videos to get an idea. People need to be able to sort through the online information and find what's good info, and what's junk.
My sister had oil change done on her Pilot at dealer and they said she needed new air filter and cabin filter. I told her what to buy and where, and pointed her to a good Youtube video explaining the cabin filter. She did both for less than $20, and dealer wanted $60 just for the cabin filter.
Pandp
I have found that vehicle specific forums to be very helpful in heading off possible issues. One example is 06 on Nissan Xtteras have radiator transmission issues. Problem can be cheaply avoided. If not done a new transmission and that's very expensive. Most cars have weaknesses and owners will post.. Some expensive maintenance items by dealership have some shade tree work arounds. Sparkplug changes are one. 400 plus for my X. Shade tree fix, six pack and couple hours 30 bucks.
AgentX
I like to keep up with my own regular maintenance, from oil changes to trans fluid drain/fill and differential fluid changes. Brakes are pretty easy too most of the time. I keep a dry erase board in my garage to keep up with dates and mileage for services I do on each car.
Tires can become over pressurized in the summer due to warmer temps and hotter roads, which could give a TPMS warning (most that I know of have a High and Low set point).
Some vehicles call for specific fluid for their vehicle's systems- I have 2 Nissans that are particular about trans fluid. Using something off the shelf labeled for an "Import" may not be adequate. Do your research.
Check your fluids weekly- some cars will use oil, and the manufacturer states that it's normal. Over the course of an extended oil change interval, you could get pretty low.