Long gone are the days of cars only being able to last about 100,000 miles. Nowadays, that kind of age is considered to be the tip of the iceberg, the break-in period. I am a big advocate for used cars. I believe that, given proper care, an older vehicle can be just as reliable as anything that just rolled off the dealer lot.
However, a car is only going to be as reliable as its owner makes it, and there are a lot of people who don't know the first thing about automotive repair and maintenance. This article is for those people, and is an assortment of painless repairs you can do in an afternoon or two. All of these are basic do-it-yourself (DIY) jobs, and you don't need a lot of experience fixing vehicles to do these jobs.
Oil Change (Cost: Approximately $25)
You knew it was coming, and it's listed first because it's the most important maintenance item you can do on your vehicle. Oil changes will extend the life of your car, so you should always perform them on time.
The old myth of needing oil changes every 3 months or 3,000 miles isn't really true. At one point in time it was accurate, but modern cars, as well as the oils with special additives we put in them, are engineered much better. However, I still recommend changing your oil frequently. A lot of people nowadays will go 10,000-15,000 miles between oil changes.
Even if that is the interval specified in your owner's manual, most professional mechanics advise against going 10,000+ miles between changes. A much better choice is to go 5,000 miles (or about 5 months if you don't drive much) between changes. Some people seem to think they are giving in to some oil company marketing hype, but I don't look at it that way. Oil is cheap and easy to change. Seriously, check out some YouTube videos to see just how fast it can be done. Personally, I would rather "waste" $25 now to keep my engine running silky smooth, rather than spend $5000+ for a new motor later on, all because I was too lazy to shell out a couple bucks and 20 minutes on a Saturday afternoon.
Air Filter (Cost: Approximately $15)
Air filters are an often overlooked part of automotive maintenance. Furthermore, they can be frustrating because there is a lot of misinformation surrounding them.
There are car enthusiasts out there who will immediately spend $60 on a K&N brand air filter, or even more money on a special "cold air intake" to replace their car's factory airbox. Most professional mechanics agree these items to be a lot of marketing hype, with no real proof of horsepower or fuel economy gained.
That's not for me to decide though. Here's what I do know: it's a good idea to check your air filter every 12 months or 12,000 miles. Many people will tell you that you need to replace your air filter every year, but that really isn't true unless you live in a particularly dusty climate. Most air filters will last a bit longer. However, you still need to check it every year. And if the filter looks dirty, replace it.
Luckily, it couldn't be easier to change an air filter. A car's airbox is one of the most accessible parts, and is almost always held in by a hose and a couple of clips or clamps. No special tools or skills required.
There are many people who seem to think that checking or changing air filters is a waste of time because they do not notice an immediate benefit to the car's drive-ability afterwards. There are tons of gaping logic holes in this argument, mainly because you won't notice the effects of a bad/dirty air filter until all of the dirt and particles it lets in have clogged up your engine. Spend the $10-20 and change your filter. It's the easiest job in the world to swap.
Spark Plugs (Cost: Approximately $10)
To find out how often you should install new spark plugs in your vehicle, you are going to want to check your owner's manual. Many mechanics will agree that every 3 years or 36,000 miles is a good idea though.
Depending on your vehicle, spark plugs may be a repair job best suited to the professionals. Many transverse-mounted V6 motors, as well as most Subaru engines, have very hard-to-access spark plugs.
However, with most spark plugs, particularly those with a 4-cylinder motor, spark plugs are a very simple repair. The best thing you can do to determine the difficulty level of this maintenance item is to check out some YouTube videos or Google around for DIY guides, and watch someone else performing the job first. If it looks like something you can handle, have at it. Generally it requires just one socket, as well as a special gapping "coin" tool, which you can pick up for just $1 at any auto parts store.
If you have neglected to change the spark plugs on your car before, you may notice a much better response when starting the vehicle up, as well as smoothness/power while driving. It's perhaps the most bang-for-your-buck maintenance item in terms of making an older vehicle run better.
Fuel Filter (Cost: Approximately $15)
Fuel filters are a cheap maintenance item that many people often overlook. The purpose of them is to, as the name would suggest, filter out dirt, rust, and other particles from the fuel before it reaches the engine.
Over time, particularly in an older vehicle in a colder climate, as the fuel tanks degrade and such, these filters will become clogged up. It can cause your engine to run rough from not receiving the proper amount of fuel at the correct time. Changing the filter is a cheap thing to do, and just might fix your issue. Just as with spark plugs, look into how it is changed on your particular vehicle before attempting this repair. On some cars it is as simple as a few bolts, while on others it is a more extensive job best left to a shop.
Hopefully this inspires you to take better care of your car. Automotive maintenance feels very rewarding--there's something immensely satisfying about caring for and servicing a complicated machine. In a society where everything is throwaway and buy a new one, it can feel good to actually take care of fix your car yourself.