Car repairs can drain your wallet fast, but you can do a wide range of repairs yourself, regardless of your technical skill. We're not just talking oil changes; provided you can hold a spanner, you can fix everything from fuel filters to alternators. We'll detail the tools necessary for your DIY toolkit, where to turn to for help when you're making the repairs, and how to tackle some of the most common car problems yourself.
Car repair picture from Shutterstock
The biggest hurdle in convincing someone they can handle car repairs is the fear factor, but here's the thing: It's actually pretty hard to permanently screw up a car. You might break something temporarily, or a fix might not work in the long run, but you probably won't set yourself or your car on fire just because you banged too hard on a valve. Cars are resilient machines and regardless of the year or make, there are plenty of repairs even the clumsiest and technically challenged can handle provided they have the confidence to push through.
Free Help Is Just A Thumb-Click Away
First, a little background. I didn't own a car for about eight years, and before that, I had a small vehicle I barely had the sense to put petrol in, let alone repair anything on. Then, a couple of years ago, I was given a small truck. Within two weeks, a hose connection leading to the radiator cracked. I took a picture of the part that seemed to be leaking, walked into an auto parts store, showed it to them, and they found the replacement part for me. 20 minutes later it was in and the truck was working again. Since then, I've helped friends with a wide range of repairs so I could learn more and practice.
For DIY repairs, your computer is your friend. AutoMD and Expert Village are both excellent resources of general purpose videos, how-to guides, and diagnostic assistance for the most common car problems. AutoMD also has a dedicated mobile app optimised for viewing on smartphones.
So for the repair work, consider your phone, tablet, or computer the manual. Bring it out to the car with the video guide loaded up or the walkthrough in front of you. Watch and read over the directions several times in advance so you feel comfortable about the task, but keep your technology ready in case you need to reference a step.
Take a picture of the section you're going to work on with your phone or a digital camera before you start so you know exactly how the engine is supposed to look if you get lost in the directions. If you feel like you need paper, you can always print an online guide out.
Essential Tools And How To Shop For New Parts
Every car is different, but that doesn't mean you'll always need specialist tools. Nearly all cars use basic nuts and bolts for the most common repairs you need to make. Here's a short list of what you typically need:
- Adjustable spanner
- Torque spanner
- Socket and ratchet set
- Phillips and flat head screwdrivers
- Jack (often included with your car)
There's no real secret to picking out tools, but they need to have a good grip. Buy tools with hefty handles. If you're using American video guides, you'll find some tools referred to by different names (check our guide to the Australian equivalents if you're unsure.)
You will also need to purchase new parts for your car if you're doing a replacement. If you purchase these from an auto parts store online, you will enter your car's year, make and model into a form before searching for the part you need.
If you're unsure of the technical name for a part, you can find the part number on the piece in your car, or you can head into a parts store for expert advice. Every car is slightly different, so make sure you enter the correct information to get the correct part and always hold onto your receipt in case it doesn't match up.
Replace A Broken Or Worn Drive Belt
How to know when to replace your drive belts: If your car squeals when you start it or when you use certain accessories, it might be a drive belt. You can quickly give the car a visual inspection and check the belts for cracks, wear, and looseness. Even if you're not hearing noises, if the belt is cracked or worn, it's best to replace it. If it's loose, you might need to tighten it up instead.
Terms you need to know
- Drive Belt: A drive belt is the rubber belt that connects and loops around pulleys on the your car's engine and is located at the front of the engine. These belts typically control accessories like the cooling system, battery charging, windshield wipers, and power steering. In older cars, you may find multiple belts for each system, but newer cars often use a belt called a serpentine belt, which is a single belt that loops through all of your car's systems. When working properly, you will not hear or notice the belt's existence, but if it's starting to fail, you will hear a loud squealing sound.
- Serpentine Belt: The serpentine belt is the main drive belt in new vehicles. It wraps around several of your cars components instead of individual systems.
- Pulleys: These are the small wheels with grooved rims the belt wraps around. When force is exerted, they spin, giving power to the systems they're attached to.
- Tensioner pulley: A tensioner helps the pulleys work properly by allowing you to adjust the tightness of the belt in one place. Belts often stretch over use, so this keeps the system tight so belts don't fall off.
Tools you need: Ratchet, sockets, spanners, screwdriver
Replace Your Battery And Alternator
How to know your alternator or battery needs replacement: If your car isn't turning over and your accessories aren't powering on, two possible culprits are the battery and the alternator. You can test your alternator and your your battery with a multimeter to see if either are dead.
If one of them isn't measuring enough power with the multimeter, you will need to replace it. If you have trouble locating your battery or alternator, your car's manual will include a chart with their location. If you left lights on overnight, your battery might just need a jump start, so make sure you know how to jump start a car. If your battery or alternator have failed, a jump start will often work to at least get you home.
Terms you need to know
- Alternator: The alternator is the device that works with your battery to generate power for the electrical parts of your vehicle. An alternator is almost always found near the front of the engine, with a belt connected to the front.
- Battery: The battery is usually a large black box found near the front of a vehicle that supplies the initial power to the alternator. It is connected to your car with positive and negative terminals.
- Multimeter: To test and replace a battery or alternator, you'll want a digital multimeter. A multimeter measures electrical properties like current and resistance. You'll use this to test your battery and your alternator to figure out which is causing the problems you're experiencing.
- Accessories: Accessories refers to all your electronically powered parts in your car. These might include your stereo, power windows, power locks, or clock.
Tools you need: Spanners, socket set, multimeter, screwdriver
Keep your battery in good shape: It's good to keep your battery clean to increase the battery life and cleaning isn't hard to do. You can clean your battery with baking soda, water, and little elbow grease to ensure the connection between the car and the battery is strong. It's not a bad idea to mix in cleaning your battery terminals to your yearly maintenance.
Replace Your Brake Pads
How to know when your brake pads need replacing: If you hear a squeal when you apply the brakes, the pads need to be replaced. However, if you hear a grinding sound instead of a squeal, it usually means the rotor needs replacement. In the early stages of your car repairing life, you should probably take your brakes into a shop for service if you hear grinding. The brake pads, however, are an easy replacement you can do yourself.
Terms you need to know
- Brake pads: The brake pads are the part of your brakes that apply the frictional force to stop the car. These pads have a built-in warning system that squeals when the brakes are applied and the pad is worn down.
- Rotor: The rotor is the main disc part of your brake system that the pads clamp onto. It's connected to the wheel and when the pads hit it, the car slows down. The pads are held on the rotor by calipers.
- Calipers: The calipers are the part of your brakes that push the brake pads against the rotor, which causes the car to slow down. The calipers are usually located at the top of the rotor, like bicycle brakes.
Tools you need: jack, torque spanner and ratchets, tire iron, c-clamp
Fix Exterior Coolant Leaks
How to know when to replace hoses and other parts: If after driving your car you notice a pool of green, orange, or yellow liquid on the ground when you park, you might have a leak. The liquid on the ground is antifreeze and if you're lucky, it's coming from a hole or crack in one of the exterior hoses. Right after you stop the car, pop open the hood and look for the same coloured liquid draining from a hose or plastic piece, but be careful not to touch it because it will be hot. If you can see the leak, you can fix it yourself. All you need to do is unclamp the leaking hose, put on a new one, and then reinstall the clamp. It's about as complicated as attaching an accessory to a vacuum. If you cannot locate the leak, it might be inside the radiator. For this, you are best off taking your car into a garage until you have more experience.
Terms you need to know
- Radiator: The radiator is the large, air conditioner-looking part in front of the engine. When the engine gets hot, it's the radiator's job to keep the temperature down. To do this, it sends antifreeze through the hoses and to the engine. These hoses erode over time and eventually start to leak. When a hose is leaking, the engine isn't getting enough coolant and can overheat.
- Water Pump: The water pump acts as the heart of your coolant system and pumps the antifreeze to and from the engine and the radiator. Like the radiator, it has hoses that can become brittle and cracked over time.
- Hoses: While mostly self-explanatory, the hoses in the coolant system are what transfer the antifreeze between the radiator, engine, and water pump. These are made of rubber and often crack over time. They are usually attached with spring clamps or worm gears.
Tools you need: spanner, pliers
The Regular Maintenance You Can Do In An Afternoon
How to know when your car needs a tune-up: It's often recommended you get a tune-up every 50,000 kilometres or every two years, whichever happens first. If you're close to either of those marks, it's a good idea to do some maintenance before taking a long road trip.
Nearly every facet of your regular maintenance, or tune-up, in car speak, is easy to do yourself. Each part of a tune-up is a separate procedure, so we've broken it down into individual sections that guide you through the process. With regular maintenance, your car will last longer and run better over time. We're not going to walk through each of these, but you'll find how-to guides by clicking the link on each section.
Terms and procedures you need to know
- Replace a Fuel Filter: The fuel filter does exactly what the name describes. It filters dust, particles, and anything that falls in your fuel line before it gets to the engine. Replacing your fuel filter can be a little terrifying since you're tapping into the gas line, but despite the inherent danger and caveat that you can't go around lighting fires while doing this job, it's usually a quick fix. Despite the name, the fuel filter often looks like a soda fountain cup with one or two straws sticking out of it.
- Replace the Air Filter: The air filter is the part of the car that keeps dirt and particles from outside from getting into the engine when the engine sucks in air. It's incredibly important to your vehicles operation and a dirty filter can affect gas mileage and engine performance. There are few replacements on your car that are this simple. You need to unscrew a plastic lid, usually on the side of your engine, then take out the old filter, put the new one in, then screw the lid back on.
- Check and Replace Spark Plugs and Wires: The spark plug is the part of your engine that ignites the gas and the air that cause combustion. When spark plugs fail, your gas mileage goes down, you may have trouble starting the car, a rough idle, or you might fail an emissions test.
- Replace Distributor Cap and Rotor: The main job of the distributor cap is to distribute voltage from a coil to the correct cylinder. It essentially makes it possible for ignition to happen, which ensures the car starts. It's an easy replacement you'll do alongside replacing the spark plugs.
- Oil Change: Regardless of your regular oil schedule, changing your oil also good to do it when you do your tune-up. Not changing your oil can lead to contamination and will begin to affect your engine's performance.
Tools you need: ratchet and socket set, screwdrivers, wrenches, spark plug gap tool, spark plug socket
Once You're Comfortable Under the Hood The Possibilities Are Endless
Once you're comfortable fixing minor car problems and doing your regular maintenance, you're likely going to want to try more complicated repairs. With the exception of major engine work, you can do many repairs from the comfort of your own garage or street. Diagnosing the problem is the hardest part of more difficult repairs, but Car Trouble make the diagnosing process a little easier.
For the repairs, using a website like AutoMD will give you a difficulty estimation to help you decide if you can handle it. The difficulty bar is based on the amount of time it takes, the location of the replacement or repair you need to make, and the tools needed to make the repairs.
Every car is going to have quirks and there will inevitably be a few things you can't figure out or can't get to. The main point to remember is that car repairs are not as difficult as they look and it's pretty hard to screw things up. Even newer cars with more electronics have parts that can be repaired in your driveway and it's just a matter of trusting yourself to do it. Getting over your fear of car repair just takes a bit of practice — fixing cars is more willpower than anything else.
Do you do your own car repairs? Share your tips and favourite guides in the comments section!
This article has been revised and updated from its original publication.