Repairs and checks you can still "do yourself"
By Eric Peters
for immediate release

New cars can be pretty intimidating, fix-it-yourself wise. Sometimes, it's a challenge just to find the hood release -- or locate the dipstick in order to check the oil level.

So, are you totally at the mercy of Mr. Goodwrench -- and his $70 per hour labor charges?

For the most part (and for most people) the answer, unfortunately, is yes. Even jobs that were once fairly simple -- such as changing spark plugs -- are often beyond the skill level or patience of the average do-it-yourselfer.

But that doesn't mean you should stop thinking about handling routine checks and even a few basic maintenance chores yourself. And doing these routine checks can prevent potentially expensive problems from developing in the first place -- perhaps even warn you in time to do something about it before it's too late. Basic maintenance stuff can also still save you time and money -- just like in the good old days.

I. Basic checks:

* Tire pressure. In the 20-plus years since full service gas stations went away, more and more cars are driving around on under-inflated tires -- accelerating tire wear and sometimes dangerously comprising your vehicle's handling/braking performance. It doesn't matter if you drive a six-figure exotic or a $10,000 Kia -- checking tire pressure is as simple a job today as it was 20 or 30 years ago. A pen-style air pressure gauge can be bought at any auto parts store for about $10 -- and should be used at least every other week to confirm the tires are inflated to the specification listed in the owner's manual. Any tire that appears to be losing air excessively (more than a few PSI every couple of weeks is cause for concern) should be inspected by a tire shop for leaks, nail damage and so on. It's also important to visually check each tire for potentially dangerous defects or damage -- such as a bulge in the sidewall, abnormal or uneven wear -- and so on.

* Fluid checks. Every car owner should know where the oil dipstick is -- and how to check the oil level. That's because every car engine uses oil during normal operation -- gradually reducing the level from "full" to something less than full. And some cars use more oil than others -- occasionally, as much as a quart or more per month. If the oil level isn't checked periodically (and topped off as needed), your engine could run dangerously low on oil -- the lifeblood of the most expensive single part of your vehicle. It's very possible to ruin a $4,000 engine by running low on 2-3 quarts of $1.50 oil. Checking the dipstick once every couple of weeks will prevent this -- and give you a sense of your car's "normal" use of oil, too. That can help alert you to a sudden change in the amount of oil being used -- and clue you in to a potentially serious problem you might otherwise have missed.

* Under hood/under car once-over. Once every week or two, it's a good idea to pop the hood and look for anything that's changed since the last time you looked. You don't have to be a mechanic or have any significant mechanical knowledge to be able to notice things that aren't "right" -- for example, green (or orange/yellow on some cars) engine coolant seeping out of the radiator. Or something that looks like it's working loose that should be tight. If you see something that suggests a developing problem, you can then take the car in for a check by a mechanic -- instead of waiting for something to leave you stuck by the road waiting for a tow truck. It's also a good idea to back the car out of its usual overnight parking spot and check for abnormal drips/puddles underneath. All cars drip slightly, eventually -- but any new puddle or significant dripping is cause for having a mechanic give the car a look.

II. Basic maintenance:

* Air filter check/replacement. While spark plugs and other "tune-up" parts on a new car can easily last 50,000 miles or longer, air filters still need to be changed more often. Every six months or so, it's a good idea to check the condition of the air filter -- and pop in a new one if the old one's clogged with dirt. Air filters usually are good for a couple of years, but if you live in a very dusty area or put serious miles on your vehicle (more than about 12k annually) you'll probably have to replace it more often. In any event, this is usually still an easy job -- even on today's new cars. You may need a screwdriver, but usually it's just a matter of locating the "air box" (see your owner's manual; there are usually instructions), popping the clip-style fasteners commonplace on late model vehicles -- and accessing the filter element.

* Fluid top-off. As with checking engine oil levels, it's no big thing to open the hood and periodically check to see that the windshield washer reservoir is full. Running out of washer fluid is annoying -- and potentially dangerous, too. If you can't clear your windshield, you can't see where you're going. The washer fluid reservoir is usually clearly marked (again, see your owner's manual; you'll find instructions) and it's just a matter of pouring in new fluid until the "full" mark is reached. While the hood is up, you might also eyeball the engine coolant overflow tank to make sure it, too, is at the appropriate level. There will usually be "full hot" and "full cold" marks on the side, indicating where the level should be if the engine has been running -- or sitting overnight. If it seems low, ask a mechanic about it. (Newer cars use a variety of different coolants -- not just "green" ethylene glycol -- and it is very important to use the right coolant specified by the manufacturer. Don't "top off" anything unless you're sure about the coolant -- and know what you are doing. Also be aware that cooling systems are hot and under pressure; be extremely careful if you intend to do any work yourself.)

* Debris removal. In the fall especially -- but at other times of year as well -- leaves and other debris can accumulate in the vents near the base of the windshield, hampering water drainage and air circulation. Many cars with AC also have drain holes underneath the car to allow condensation to drain away -- and prevent foul-smelling mold from forming inside the AC system. Every 3-6 months or so, it's a good idea to raise the hood and remove any leaves/twigs or other debris jammed near the base of the windshield. And you can use a hose to spray a jet of water underneath the car (the area just ahead of the front doors, directly below the base of the windshield) to help keep the AC system's drain holes clear. (If you're really ambitious, you could crawl underneath and locate/inspect the drain holes; use a coat hanger tip or other appropriately-sized homemade tool to manually clear out any gunk.)