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.
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.
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.
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.
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!