Jul 02 , 2020
Tired of high auto repair bills? Suspicious of the quality or honesty of work done at professional auto shops? No matter why you decide to pop the hood and dig in, learning to be your own mechanic, detailer and body shop pays off. This is not an all-or-nothing situation. Whatever your current car-care involvement or skill level, chances are you’re able to do much more on your own than you are.
It’s not just about money saved, either. Effort invested in diligently maintaining and repairing your vehicle rewards you with a reliable, good-looking, economical set of wheels, plus well-earned DIY pride in that accomplishment. I’m not a licensed mechanic, but over the last 35 years I’ve successfully completed everything on this list in my driveway. My family’s fleet of five vehicles ranges from 1990 to 2009. The two with highest mileage hit 225,000 while still looking great and running perfectly.
Consider this a checklist challenge, or simply inspiration for some new, attainable auto maintenance goals.
1. Change Wiper Blades
It’s actually easier to change the replacement wiper blade and holder assemblies than just the rubber refills. Lift the wiper arm, push back the locking tab at the end of the arm, then slide the old wiper assembly out. The new one fits on in the reverse order and clicks into place. Double check that the new blade and holder assembly is locked firmly into the wiper arm assembly before finishing up.
2. Re-Glue a Rearview Mirror
When your rearview mirror falls off the windshield it makes your car look and feel like a piece of junk. Special glue is made for refastening the mirror, and it really works. Take the mirror assembly off the mounting bracket and glue the bracket alone to the windshield. Only when the glue is dry do you then re-join the mirror assembly to the bracket.
3. Change Brake Pads and Rotors
Brake rotors are the round discs you can sometimes see through the open design of some wheels, and pads are the things that squeeze the spinning rotors to slow or stop your vehicle. Modern vehicles have disc brakes on the front wheels and many now have them on the back wheels, too. That’s good because disc brakes are easier to service than the drum brakes that were popular in the past.
Gather your parts, jack up your vehicle, put a block of wood underneath for safety, then get to work. It takes the average person three or four hours to replace a pair of pads and rotors, and will cost you about half of what you’d pay a pro, saving several hundred dollars.
4. Change Brake Calipers
Brake calipers are the things that squeeze the brake pads against the rotors when you put your foot on the brake. Calipers go bad in two common ways. Sometimes corroded calipers don’t allow the brake pads to fully retract, meaning the brakes stay somewhat applied even with your foot off the brake pedal. Other times calipers’ mounting pins seize and the caliper can no longer move as it needs to during use.
Whichever your problem, replacing the calipers is the best way to restore like-new brake performance. Do it when you replace pads and rotors.
5. Buff Out a Paint Scratch
Complete this correctly and it’s like magic. When scratches don’t go through the paint, some very fine abrasion can make them go away. I use a 6-in. random orbit woodworking sander for this, but with a buffing pad installed instead of the abrasive disc pad, of course. Use a mild auto body buffing compound with the moistened buffing pad, then rinse off when you’re done.
6. Fix a Flat Tire
Automotive tires became tubeless more than 40 years ago, making it possible to fix them right on the vehicle. First, locate the leak. Pump up your flat tire and spray it with a mixture of 80 percent water and 20 percent dishwashing liquid — it will bubble where the air is leaking. When you’ve found the spot, mark it with a piece of chalk or white paint marker.
If you have a screw, nail, staple or empty hole in the tread of the tire, that’s a DIY job. Jack up the vehicle and put a safety block under the frame, pull out the screw or nail, then use a plug kit to fix the leak. You’ll also need a tube of tire repair cement to use with the kit.
If air is leaking where the rubber meets the metal rim, that’s a job for a mechanic who can take the tire off the rim and remount it with sealing compound.
7. Check and Top Off Fluids
This is a simple yet vitally important thing. Many older cars break down unnecessarily for want of nothing more than the addition of some fluid that’s low. I check fluids in my vehicles weekly.
Standard fluids to check include the engine oil — check that with the engine off and the vehicle sitting on a level spot. Brake fluid and power steering fluid also need to be checked with the engine off. Automatic transmission fluid needs to be checked with the engine running, ideally after at least 10 or 15 minutes of driving.
8. Replace the Air Filter
The engine in your vehicle doesn’t just burn fuel, it also burns air. In fact, for every gallon of fuel it burns, it also burns the oxygen in about 15 gallons of air.
Like everything else that goes into an engine, the air it burns must be clean. This is the job of an air filter, and as you’d expect, air filters get dirty and need to be changed. Once you’ve learned where your air filter is and how to get into it, the rest is easy. If you can see dirt on the filter, it’s time to change.
9. Check and Adjust Tire Pressure
Get yourself a tire-pressure gauge and use it monthly, paying attention to your tires’ and vehicle’s pressure limits. Having a portable air compressor in your vehicle beats driving to the gas station every time you need to top off.
10. Fix a Floor Hole
It’s not unusual for older vehicles in the rust belt to develop holes in the floor from rust. Although it looks serious when you can see the road beneath your feet, splicing in a patch of sheet steel is relatively easy. Pop rivets or sheet metal screws are perfect for fastening a steel patch if you don’t have the welding tools to do the job.
11. Add Trailer Wiring
This job used to be difficult, but not so much anymore. Ready-made trailer wiring harnesses are available for many different vehicles. Some install more easily than others, but it’s not a difficult task under any circumstances. I was even able to find a simple wiring harness for my 30-year-old pickup truck. I installed it myself in less than 30 minutes.
12. Replace Door Hinge Pins
All automotive doors swivel on hinges that have a central pin. There’s a lot of stress on these pins, so in time they get worn and sag under the weight of the door. If it gets bad enough, the door won’t even close properly. Replacement door hinge pins are available for different makes and models. Installing new hinge pins on my 1990 F-150 restored like-new door action.
13. Wax Your Vehicle
Automotive “wax” products may or may not be actual wax, but they all promise the same thing — improved shine and longer paint life. Only apply wax to a vehicle that’s been washed and dried with a chamois. Then apply a thin coat of wax in the shade. By the time you’ve finished putting it on, the spot you started with will be ready to buff off.
TIP: A power buffer makes this job quicker and easier than doing it by hand, and you’ll get better results.
14. Change a Rear Wiper Arm
Ever since the minivan revolution in the 1980s, more and more vehicles have rear windshield wipers. And there’s nothing quite as sad looking as a vehicle with a droopy, broken or missing rear wiper arm. You’ll need to buy a little tool called a “puller” to remove the stub of the old arm. They aren’t expensive, and you’ll be able to use the puller for other jobs, such as removing stubborn connections off an automotive battery with post-style terminals.
15. Replace the Battery
Automotive batteries store electrical energy so the starter motor can turn the engine over the next time you go to fire it up. The battery also powers all other electrical components in your vehicle. Auto batteries are constantly being recharged as the engine is running, but eventually the battery can no longer store enough energy to reliably start the engine. This is why auto batteries need to be replaced, typically every five to eight years.
There are many automotive batteries, so take a photo of the one you’ve got before you go shopping. Always remove the cable from the negative terminal before removing the positive cable, then unbolt the battery hold-down bracket to remove the old battery. Install the new one in the reverse order, then drop off your old battery at an appropriate recycling center.
16. Pull Out Dents
One winter a few years ago, I was driving along a country road when a deer ran into the side of my truck. It hit the passenger-side door and dented it badly. The depression was the diameter of a dinner plate and an inch or so deep. But back in my driveway, after less than two minutes work with an auto body dent puller suction cup, the dent was gone. Fasten it in the center of the dent, then pull. Not all dents can be fixed this easily, but many can.
17. Add a Trailer Hitch
Ever since trailer hitches were able to accept multiple ball hitches and other hitching hardware, having a trailer hitch has been especially useful. Installing your own is also easier than it looks. Now, hitches are made to fit specific vehicles. All you need to do is drill holes in the right place in your vehicle frame with an 18-volt cordless drill.
Locate the correct hole location using the paper template that comes with the hitch. You’ll probably need to drill 1/2-in.-dia. bolt holes through the frame. Start with a 1/4-in.-dia. bit and lots of cutting oil. When all these holes are drilled, move up to a large bit and repeat. Complete the drilling to the size of hole you need, then bolt on your new hitch.
18. Re-Torque Your Wheels
After a spate of tragedies involving wheels falling off vehicles in the late 1990s, auto mechanics everywhere started advising that nuts on a reinstalled wheel be checked for tightness after the first 50 miles of driving. That’s a job you can easily do yourself with a torque wrench, which measures the amount of force applied to a nut. Seventy foot-pounds of torque is a common amount for wheel nuts, but check online for the right amount for your particular vehicle.
19. Clear Up Cloudy Headlight Lenses
Today, many vehicles have clear lenses over the actual headlight bulb and reflector assemblies. These lenses start to go cloudy as vehicles age, but buffing can restore headlights to like-new appearance.
Use the same method as for buffing out a paint scratch (explained earlier), except focus on the lenses. Five minutes of power buffing with a finishing compound gets rid of “headlight cataracts” completely. The lenses will cloud over more quickly than when they were new, but more buffing makes things right again.
20. Change Brake Shoes
A drum brake is like a straight-sided bowl with two semi-circular friction shoes inside. When you step on the brake pedal, the shoes move outward, rubbing against the inside face of the bowl as it spins, slowing or stopping it. Older vehicles had drum brakes like this on all four wheels, and some vehicles today have drum brakes on the back and disc brakes on the front. Many of today’s vehicles have more modern disc brakes all around.
If you’ve got drum brakes of some kind to deal with, the work is more complicated than disc brake work, but it’s still quite reasonable. If your brake shoes are worn and need replacing, it usually makes sense to change the drums, too. Drum brake shoes are held in place with specialized springs. Buy a spring kit so you can install the new shoes with new springs.
21. Replace Universal Joints
Spinning drive shafts deliver power from the transmission of a vehicle to the wheels, but those spinning shafts need to move up and down and change angle as they spin, and as the wheels move up and down over bumps. The ability of drive shafts to move and change angle while spinning comes down to something called universal joints. These wear out, but they can also be replaced. Replacing universal joints in the driveshaft of a rear-wheel-drive vehicle is the easiest version of this job.
22. Oil Spray Your Vehicle
I live in the rust belt of Canada, and I often see late-model vehicles with obvious rust. However, none of my vehicles have any significant rust because I oil spray them once a year. I buy the liquid in five-gallon pails and apply it with an air-powered oil spray gun with a long wand. (My go-to brands are Krown and Rust Check, which I’m not seeing online, but Fluid Film Rust Inhibitor is highly rated on Amazon.) With this annual oil spray, rust becomes a complete non-issue. How else could you explain my 30-year-old Ford F-150 that has no rust?
23. Clean Vehicle Interior
A shop vacuum with a range of attachments does a great job cleaning the inside of a vehicle. Invest in a good one and you’ll be able to tackle the job at home in less time than it would take to drive to a pay-as-you-go vehicle vacuum station.
TIP: In a hurry? Open doors on both sides, then use a leaf blower to blast out the dust and dirt. The results aren’t as good as with a vacuum, but it’s surprisingly good for a quick cleaning.
24. Change Engine Oil and Filter
One of the most common engine maintenance tasks, change the oil and filter as often as your vehicle manufacturer specifies is important.
Although you won’t save a ton of money doing this work yourself, there are good reasons why it makes sense. First, it’s the only way you can be sure of the quality of oil that actually goes into your engine. And second, it lets you get underneath the vehicle to look at other things while you’re loosening and tightening the drain plug. I’ve often spotted small mechanical issues while changing my oil.
25. Test Your Battery
All automotive batteries eventually die, but how close is yours to leaving you stranded and unable to start? It’s hard to tell, and that’s why they invented battery testers.
Battery testers measure the capacity of the battery compared to what it was designed to deliver, plus critical details such as voltage during start-up. Great battery-testing gauges aren’t expensive, and they provide insights that will help you keep your vehicle working reliably. (This is the battery tester I own, and it works great.)
26. Replace Plastic Retainer Buttons
Just about every modern vehicle on the road today has little plastic retainer buttons that hold black plastic shrouds in place underneath, and sometimes around the engine compartment. And every car on the road eventually loses some of these retainer buttons. Even cars regularly serviced at the dealership don’t seem to get those lost retainers replaced. It’s one of those things you need to do for yourself. Buy a variety of retainers since there are many kinds, sizes and shapes.
27. Lube Door Hinges
Your appreciation of your vehicle has more to do with little things than you might think. Door action is one of them, and it’s why lubing the door hinges makes sense. A squeaky, raspy, sticky door will bug you every time you get into or out of the vehicle. Two minutes spent oiling the hinges can make you feel a whole lot better about your car.
Any kind of general lubrication oil or spray grease will do the job. I use anti-rust spray in a hand-held can on door hinges and to hit small spots that need rust protection, too. Oil spraying your entire vehicle each year, as recommended above for overall rust prevention, can keep the hinges lubed, too, as long as you’re intentional about giving them a shot during the process.
28. Change a Clutch
The clutch is the part of a stick-shift vehicle that you control with your foot, which allows the motor to be connected or disconnected from the transmission and wheels. Clutches do wear out over time. Although even most handy DIYers would not think to tackle replacing their own clutch, it is certainly possible. I’ve done it in my driveway, and so can you.
29. Fix Rust Holes
Although none of my vehicles rust significantly because of the annual oil spray treatment I apply (mentioned above), every so often we need to fix rust holes in a used vehicle we buy and bring up to snuff. The thing is, I’ve learned the hard way that regular auto body filler promotes re-rusting. Moisture gets trapped between the compound and the adjoining metal, encouraging rust big-time on your new repair. This is why I always repair rust holes with solder, not Bondo or any of the other catalyzed fillers.
Cut back all the weak metal, stuff some copper scouring pad material into the cavity, then use a propane torch, some soldering flux and some lead-free solder to fill the space. Keep building up solder until the cavity is filled, then grind and sand the ugly, bumpy solder so it’s smooth and contoured. It works great, doesn’t promote rusting and is an all-metal repair — as well as the way they used to do it before Bondo was invented.
30. Shine Up Dull Paint
Older vehicles lose their shine as the surface layers of paint start to break down and get chalky in sunlight. Buffing can help. Rubbing compound, applied and worked with a power buffer, can remove the oxidized paint, leaving behind a nice shine.
If you really want your vehicle to look great, go over it again with finishing polish, and apply a coat of wax to preserve the shine longer. Your old ride will look so much better after a couple hours of work.
31. Change Transmission Fluid
Most people seem to understand that engine oil needs to be changed regularly. What’s more often missed is the importance of changing transmission fluid as well. A mechanic friend of mine tells me that most transmissions that stop working do so because the fluid wasn’t changed as often as it should have been — if ever.
Some transmission oil pans have a drain plug in them while others require you to remove the pan to get rid of the oil. Removing the pan is a pain, so only do it once before installing a retrofit drain plug to make future fluid changes much easier. You can use this same kind of retrofit drain plug if the plug in your engine oil pan gets stripped from use.
32. Repair Weak Exhaust Pipe Support
Every exhaust system is supported by hangers as it extends back from the engine, ending at the rear of the vehicle. These supports are often the first part of the exhaust system to go bad. As the hangers break, the exhaust pipes sag and often break before they otherwise would.
If you keep your eye on your exhaust system — easy to do if you’re already under there regularly for oil changes — you can reinforce weak hangers that threaten to break. A short length of galvanized chain wrapped under the exhaust pipe and bolted over a frame member is an excellent way to support an aging exhaust system and get more life out of it. The exhaust system on my 1990 F-150 is currently 15 years old and still working great, but it would surely be toast by now if I hadn’t added support chains to make up for weakening hangers.
33. Change a Headlight
Every vehicle needs to have burned-out headlights replaced from time to time, and this is definitely something almost anyone can do themselves. Today’s headlights have small bulbs that fit into holders you access from inside the engine compartment. As you work, don’t touch the glass part of the new bulb. Oils from your hand can shorten bulb life.
34. Grease Your Vehicle
Steering parts and driveshafts have moving parts that need to be lubed with grease, and grease fittings are small metal nipples made to accept a grease gun that injects grease directly into the joint. Not all joints have grease fittings because some are permanently lubricated and sealed at the factory. But if you see a grease fitting, it means that particular joint needs injections of grease. Just buy a grease gun and a grease cartridge, and get busy.
35. Change Cabin Air Filter
Most vehicles have a small filter that removes dust and debris from the ventilation air that gets pumped into the passenger compartment. Like all filters, cabin filters need to be replaced from time to time. If your vehicle smells stale, this is the best place to start freshening things up. Your owner’s manual will show you where the filter is and how to remove and replace it.
TIP: Mice love to make nests in cabin filters, so that’s the first place to look if your vehicle develops a dank, mousy smell.
36. Troubleshoot a Check Engine Light
Dozens of conditions that can lead to the check engine light coming on. In every case, something has triggered the diagnostic system to alert you to a problem, but this system never tells you what the problem is.
For that you need a scan tool. Mechanics own and use complicated, expensive scan tools all the time, but simpler models are available for DIYers on a budget. The scan tool tells you more or less what’s wrong — fixing the issue may or may not require a mechanic.
37. Wash Your Vehicle
This sounds simple, but there are tricks to getting good results. Plus, it doesn’t take long. And if you make the job a habit, it’ll give you the chance to keep your eye on the condition of the paint, tires and exterior body details. Two key helpers: A bucket of warm, soapy water and a wash brush with soft bristles, so it doesn’t scratch your paint. I use the kind with a rigid wand that threads onto a garden hose.
38. Condition Your Windshield
When you have a clean vehicle sitting in your driveway, it’s a great time to condition your windshields, side windows and mirrors so they repel water. This greatly increases visibility in a rain storm.
Rub on a coat of windshield water repellent, let it dry, then buff clean. Your windshield will shed water so effectively that you almost won’t need to turn on your wipers during a downpour (but of course you should anyway).
39. Top Off AC Refrigerant
All air conditioners use a highly compressible gas as part of the refrigeration cycle that allows cool temperatures to be created. The leading cause of failed vehicle AC is a leak that has allowed most or all of the refrigerant to escape.
If you have a slow leak that’s difficult to find, it makes sense to top off the refrigerant so your AC will work for a while. It’s available in small cans, but you’ll also need an inexpensive hose and gauge kit to get it into the system. For about $30, you can enjoy cool air again.
40. Repair Exhaust Leaks
While it’s difficult to replace an entire exhaust system yourself, repairing leaks is easier and can greatly increase the working life of an aging exhaust system. Many times it’s just one joint or section that’s rusted to the point of crumbling.
A reciprocating saw with a hacksaw blade is an excellent choice for cutting out bad sections of exhaust pipe in preparation for replacing it. I find high temperature silicone to be the best option for sealing new sections of pipe that you’ve worked into the system.
41. Deodorize Your Vehicle
The older a vehicle gets, the more likely it is to start smelling stale. And as far as I’m concerned, so-called auto “air fresheners” just create sweet-smelling stale air. The real solution to odor elimination is ozone produced by an electric ozone generator.
Ozone oxidizes odor-causing substances and destroys them, which is why ozone generators are a regular part of household restoration work after fire. They work amazingly well for all odor challenges, in your vehicle and beyond.
42. Seasonal Tire Changes
Depending on where you live, you might have summer and winter tires. If both sets are mounted on rims, changing back and forth each spring and fall is definitely something you can do in your driveway using nothing more than the jack and tools that came with your vehicle. (One exception: A decent torque wrench to tighten and re-tighten the wheel nuts to the specified tension required.) And since the wheels are off, inspect the amount of brake pad or brake shoe remaining. Anything less than 1/8-in. of material means it’s time for new pads or shoes.
43. Replace Spark Plugs
This doesn’t have to happen nearly as often with modern vehicles, but eventually spark plugs do need to be replaced. Buy them to fit your particular vehicle make, model and engine type. I always put anti-seize compound on the threads of spark plugs before installation so it’s easier to remove them next time.
44. Apply Decals
My favorite kind of auto decals go on with water. Soak the decal in a pan of water for five or 10 minutes to separate the decal itself from the backing paper that it’s on. Moisten the area of your vehicle where the decal with go using soapy water, slide the decal into position, work out any air bubbles with a rag, then let it dry.
45. Upgrade Wheel Rims
You’d be surprised how many fancy wheel rims are available for most vehicles. I’ve bought two sets of aluminum wheel rims over the years, in both cases to replace existing rims that were losing their finish and corroding. You’ll need to have the tires professionally mounted on your new rims, but choosing is still very much a DIY affair. If your vehicle has a tire pressure warning feature, consider installing new wireless sending units in the rims before the tires go on.
46. Replace Lift Gate Struts
Many vehicles with a hatchback or lift-gate design use hydraulic struts to assist in opening, and these struts often go bad over time. Save a lot of money by swapping the old ones for new yourself — online suppliers everywhere offer replacement struts, and they’re easy to change.
TIP: If your current struts are completely useless, use a wood prop to hold the lift gate open while you work.
47. Secure Loose Body Molding
Nothing says “junk” quite like trim and molding that’s falling off your vehicle, but just a few minutes of diligence can help. I’ve had great results securing loose molding using polyurethane caulk (a great adhesive, although it’s sold as a sealant) and even waterproof type III woodworking glue.
48. Rotate the Tires
Tires tend to wear more in some places than others, and moving tires from one location on the vehicle to another spreads this wear out over the entire tread area, for maximum tire life. If you’ve got a full-size spare, be sure to work it into the rotation. Look online for suggestions about where to move tires during rotation, depending on whether you’ve got a full-sized spare and if the tires themselves are bi-directional or uni-directional.
49. Replace an Armrest
Over the years the armrests on two of my high-mileage vehicles deteriorated and finally broke. Both were on the driver’s side, naturally, because those armrests get the most wear.
You can buy replacement armrests new or from a used-parts dealer, or you can make a replacement out of wood, like I did. My first was made from laminated layers of Baltic birch plywood. The second I made from walnut, finished with oil. Unbolt the old armrest, then use it as a pattern for your home made version, including the location of mounting bolt holes.
50. Troubleshoot a Coolant Leak
All modern vehicle engines are cooled by liquid that travels around the outside of the engine block and in the radiator. The system may develop small, visible leaks, which can be detected with a cooling system pressure testing kit. It develops pressure in the system, making any leak more easily visible. You might not want to change an entire radiator yourself, but many times these small coolant leaks come from a loose hose clamp or other fitting, fixes that are entirely DIYable.
51. Check Air Pressure in the Spare
Most vehicles have a compact spare tire that doesn’t see the light of day for years, if ever. And like all tires, air can slowly escape from your compact spare, leaving you with nothing helpful when you really need it.
Check and top off the pressure in your spare tire with a gauge every time you check the pressure on all the other tires. Compact spares usually need higher pressures than regular tires, so read the sidewall and dial in the correct pressure.
52. Remove Stuck Bolts
There are three ways to loosen and remove your vehicle’s stubborn, corroded nuts and bolts. Two tool-free options to try: Apply penetrating oil and let it sit for several hours, or heat it with a torch. The third method is using a cordless impact wrench, which I’ve found surprisingly effective at removing stubborn, rusted fasteners.
53. Replace a Broken Antenna
The most important thing about keeping an older vehicle running reliably and respectably is to fix the little issues as they come up. Case in point: A broken radio antenna.
You can find a replacement antenna online, and many are a universal or semi-universal fit. Amazon verifies whether or not a specific part fits any vehicle you input into the system and has never steered me wrong in dozens of purchases.
54. Change Engine Coolant
All auto engines need the coolant changed on the manufacturer’s schedule to prevent internal corrosion of the motor and radiator, and changing the coolant yourself offers a distinct advantage.
Drain the old stuff into a container for disposal as toxic waste, then fill the system with ordinary water and drive for a few minutes before draining and refilling with a proper antifreeze mix. (It comes premixed or as a concentrate to be mixed 50/50 with water — usually the better deal.) You’ll get a cleaner result than the drain-and-fill approach they use at auto garages.
55. Clean Your Tires
Your tires will get mostly clean after a normal wash of the whole car. But if you want to put in the extra effort to make them really clean and nice looking, you’ll need to get down and scrub them. Have a stiffer bristle brush than what you use on the auto body for any tough spots.
56. Change Wheel Bearing and Hub Assembly
All automotive wheels rotate on some kind of a bearing. When this gets worn, it starts making a kind of whining sound. It will be mild at first — you might even second-guess if you’re hearing it or not. But eventually, the noise will get louder and unmistakable. Don’t ignore this, because entire wheel assemblies can fall off if bearing failure continues unchecked.
Most modern wheel-bearing hub assemblies unbolt from the vehicle, with the new one bolted in place. Search for “wheel bearing and hub assembly” online to find what you need for your vehicle.
57. Change Interior Light Bulbs
It’s an annoying problem but an inexpensive fix — the cost of a replacement bulb is typically low. Figuring out how to remove the lens that covers a burned-out bulb can be obvious or obscure, depending on the design of your vehicle. Search YouTube for “how to change a ??? bulb, model and year of your vehicle,” for the tricks that apply to your vehicle.
58. Paint Your Vehicle
If money is tight but you still want a vehicle that looks better than it does now, DIY painting is an option. A brush and a gallon or two of rust paint won’t win you any prizes at a car show, but it will probably look better than peeling paint and rust. You can also spray your vehicle, but the prep time is much greater because of the need to mask more parts.
59. Fix a Stone Chip in Exterior Paint
My favorite approach to this fix involves a spray can of touch-up paint and a cotton swab. Be sure to remove all wax residue from the area beforehand. (Wax tends to build up in stone-chip depressions and will cause paint to flake off unless you remove it.) Shake the can, spray some paint into the can lid, then use the swab to daub some paint on the stone chip.
60. Change a Tire Valve
If you’ve got a flat tire, the problem may not be a puncture at all — you may have a bad valve.
To determine if this is the case, remove the cap and put some water on the tip of the valve. (If the tire is completely flat, add some air first.) If you see bubbles, it means the valve is defective. You’ll need an inexpensive valve core tool kit, including a valve removal tool and replacement valves and tire valve caps.
61. Replace an O2 Sensor
Modern vehicles use a computer to control engine function, and this computer needs input from many engine sensors. One common failure point: The O2 sensors, which measure the concentration of oxygen in the exhaust stream.
A failed O2 sensor will trigger a check-engine warning light, which a diagnostic scanner will reveal (see Troubleshoot a Check Engine Light above). The sensors thread into the exhaust system in different places, with a wire leading to the sensor. It’s an easy job, and your local automotive parts supplier will likely have the sensor you need, ranging anywhere from about $20 to $175.
62. Jump-Start a Vehicle
Jumping a car when the battery is too weak to turn the engine over is a basic troubleshooting skill that all vehicle owners can learn. You’ll need traditional jumper cables, which make use of a strong battery in another vehicle, or a portable booster. The latter, often smaller than a box of tissues, can turn over a full-sized auto engine when the battery needs a boost, no second vehicle required.
63. Change the Transfer Case Oil
All-wheel-drive and four-wheel-drive vehicles have a secondary gear box, in addition to the transmission. This is the transfer case and it contains oil that needs to be changed every 30,000 miles or so. It’s easy to forget this detail because it’s necessary infrequently, but it’s an important maintenance detail. Refer to your maintenance schedule to discover how often transfer case oil needs to be changed and which product to use. Depending on the design of your vehicle it could be easy or difficult to get to the transfer case’s drain plug and filler hole.
64. Fix a Rust Bubble
Moisture under auto paint can trigger rust. Use a flap disc in an angle grinder to remove the bubble and get back to bare metal. Fill the cavity with auto body filler, smooth the area with the flap disc and sander, spray on primer, then wait a week to allow all the solvents to off-gas from the surface before applying paint and clear coat.
Additionally, after the clear coat has dried for a week, wet sanding and buffing the repair area will blend it with the surrounding paint and create an even sheen.
65. Secure Loose Weather Stripping
All vehicles have flexible rubber strips around doors, the trunk and engine compartment to seal out wind, rain and road noise. Re-attaching them is an easy DIY fix with weather stripping retainer clips, which snap into holes in the vehicle body. They have hook-shaped wings that tuck into holes in the weatherstripping. They’re good for prevention, too.
66. Replace a Broken Side Mirror
Factory-finished, aftermarket mirror assemblies are available for most vehicles, and swapping one for your damaged side mirror may be more economical than bringing it to a repair shop. Search “replacing side mirror on [make, model and year]” to find instructions for your particular vehicle. Some preliminary research will help you decide if you’ve got the skills and tools required to make it worth it.
67. Repaint Steel Rims
Painted steel rims don’t stay rust-free forever, but repainting can help. One of the best and most permanent rust paints of all time is called POR15. It’s legendary for bonding permanently to existing rust, although it does need a top coat to resist UV breakdown. Remove old loose paint and rust, then brush on the new paint. You don’t even need to remove the tire from the rim, as long as you’re careful with the paint brush.
68. Replace a Tail Light Lens
The most challenging part of this job is discovering how your existing broken tail lens is held on. An online search for “replace tail lens” and the make, model and year of your vehicle is the best way to discover the hidden location of the screws and fasteners involved. Once you have that knowledge, the job should be quick and easy.
TIP: You might as well replace the tail light bulb while you’ve got the old lens off.
69. Replace Suspension Struts
Struts are legs that extend down from the upper frame of a vehicle, supporting the wheels. Excessive strut wear usually starts to appear after 150,000 miles and shows up as a rattling noise and, in extreme cases, trouble steering. Replacing struts is a major job, but it is possible as a DIY repair, for the confident and dedicated.
70. Maintain Your Battery
Modern, sealed auto batteries don’t need fluid added, but they do need their electrical connections cleaned at the first signs of whitish, fluffy corrosion. Same goes for the end of the ground cable that connects the negative pole of the battery to the chassis of your vehicle.
To clean, remove the negative cable from the battery first. Clean the battery terminals and the end of the ground cable using sand paper and a battery terminal cleaning tool, but leave the negative cable off the battery until you’ve removed, cleaned and replaced the positive cable.
If your battery has removable caps (some still do), it means that the battery is not maintenance-free and must have the fluid levels checked and possibly topped off. Pry off the caps and look inside at the fluid levels in each cell. The fluid in each one needs to be 1/4-in. above all the layers (called “plates”) that you can see inside each separate cell. Use distilled water, not tap water, to top off battery fluid, if needed.
71. Clean the Throttle Body
The throttle body is the part of the fuel injection system where air and fuel come together before going into the engine. Spray throttle body cleaning solvent into the throttle body as general maintenance task, to dissolve the carbon buildup that can cause rough idling and poor starting. Doing this every time you put on a new set of tires will help your engine to run more smoothly.
72. Change a Flat Tire
This is a basic self-reliance skill that I’d recommend all drivers practice at least once. Take the time to install your spare with your vehicle sitting in your driveway and you’ll be capable of doing the job for real when you’re roadside with a flat and no one to help.
73. Replace a Coolant Hose
Hoses that direct coolant to and from your engine get soft and weak over time. Often called radiator hoses, replacing them before they develop a leak is a good way to boost the reliability of older vehicles. A large coolant leak can ruin your engine, so it’s wise to assess coolant hoses to avoid a very expensive repair.
Soft spots or bulges in hoses are a sure sign that replacement is necessary, and the work requires only modest mechanical skills. Always install new hose clamps every time you install a new radiator hose.
74. Replace an Alternator
The alternator creates electricity for recharging your vehicle’s battery while the engine is running. If the alternator has failed, your car might stall when driving, and the battery will run down and be unable to start the engine even if the battery tests good.
If your battery voltage isn’t a volt or two higher while the engine is running than it is with the engine off, then you’ve probably got a bad alternator. Replacing an alternator requires moderate skills and a socket wrench set. Work begins by removing the main serpentine belt, which drives all engine accessories, including the alternator. Check out the next (and final!) task for help doing so.
75. Replace the Serpentine Belt
This belt delivers power from the engine to the alternator, power steering pump, AC and other engine accessories. It derives its name from the way it twists, turns and snakes around multiple pulleys. Replace the serpentine belt every 50,000 miles or five years, whichever comes first.
TIP: All cars have a spring-loaded idler pulley that’s part of the serpentine belt system. Take several photos of your current belt as reference, then relieve the spring tension on the idler pulley to allow enough slack to remove the belt and properly install a new one.