When to Tackle Car Problems by Hand (and When Not to)

When your trusty set of wheels starts stalling, sputtering or acting up in some other way, you might choose to tackle the problem yourself instead of taking it to a mechanic’s. That’s understandable, considering we’ve all experienced sticker shock at the price of a repair—and a healthy dose of suspicion about being overcharged.

Even still, taking the do-it-yourself (DIY) route isn’t necessarily the safest or even cheapest choice. “Most people don’t know how to properly lock and raise autos, so they put themselves at significant risk when they attempt a more complicated job,” says John Ulczycki, group vice president at the National Safety Council.

Before you throw in your wrench, know there are jobs an amateur can tackle—as well as ways to lower your repair bill and sniff out an honest mechanic.

Lauren Fix, The Car Coach® and author of Lauren Fix’s Guide to Loving Your Car, says some basic maintenance and repair projects anyone can safely do include changing wiper blades, headlights and taillights, checking tire pressure, replacing air filters, changing oil, checking fluid levels, and—for those with a bit more advanced knowledge—switching from summer to winter tires. For tips, check out carcare.org.

On the flip side, the projects in these departments fall squarely in a mechanic’s domain:

  • Brakes. “While you might think you know what you’re doing, brake technology has changed a lot over the years,” says Fix. “Making an incorrect repair will be expensive to undo later.”
  • Emissions, exhaust systems and engines. Mess up any of these sorts of repairs and you could be looking at costly repairs down the line, as well as possible carbon monoxide poisoning and compromised fuel economy.
  • Fuel systems. Because this job typically involves removing the entire gas tank, there’s plenty of potential for danger since you’re working with gasoline.
  • Suspension systems. “When bearings or shafts aren’t repaired properly, your car could break down or even cause an accident,” says Fix.
  • Transmission systems. You’ll need a transmission jack and possibly even an engine hoist and vehicle lift for this type of repair. What’s more, it could require several hours of toil—and trouble. “Bad repairs could get you stuck on the side of the road or rack up thousands of dollars of repair work later on,” says Fix.

If I can’t do it, who can?

To lessen the out-of-pocket damage when hiring a mechanic, Fix suggests checking out automotive tech schools, which typically offer significant discounts on services.

When hiring a mechanic, first make sure your guy or girl is certified by the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (ASE). “This certification guarantees he or she is following the proper procedures and knows the more advanced computer programs and technology,” says Fix. Don’t be fooled by a sign boasting ASE certification—it could signal that just one mechanic in an entire center meets the requirements, so make sure your particular hired hand passed the test.

By following these guidelines and pointers, you’ll save time and money and keep you, your passengers and your car cruising safely for many miles.

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