Have a car problem? Or is your car trying to tell you it does with one of its dashboard lights? Getting a mechanic to diagnose or fix it could be its own problem. Limited supply and high prices of new vehicles have encouraged many people to keep their older vehicles. That means demand is up for repairs while shops are short on labor. Result: Weeks-long waits and surprisingly steep bills.
But maybe you don’t need a mechanic. Here are seven things you can do to save time and/or money.
Check engine light comes on. This could signal any of a wide range of problems, several of which are extremely simple to correct.
What to do: If your car is model year 1996 or later, you can buy an inexpensive on-board diagnostics II reader. With your car turned off, connect it to the vehicle’s computer via the port, which is typically located under the dash, near the steering column. Reliable OBD-II reader manufacturers include Autel (starting at $16.99 on Amazon) and Fixd, which works wirelessly with iPhone and Android smartphones (starting at $37.99 on Amazon).
Start the car, and look for the code on your scanner or wirelessly connected smartphone. Enter this code into a search engine to determine what it means and potential fixes, which may include things that anyone can easily try. Example: Code P0455 or P0457 indicates that the gas cap might be loose, missing or poorly sealed. Tighten or replace that cap.
Bonus: Most code readers let car owners turn off the check engine light by clearing the codes—the light will soon reappear if the problem hasn’t been fixed.
Code readers are useful even when they point to problems that are too complex for you to solve on your own—you can use the code to confirm that the repairs recommended by a mechanic make sense.
Tire pressure light won’t go away. Most modern cars have a tire pressure–monitoring system (TPMS) that displays a dashboard warning light when a tire’s pressure is low. You generally know what to do when this light appears—inflate the tire to its proper pressure. But sometimes even doing that doesn’t make the dash light turn off.
What to do: Resetting the TPMS generally involves pressing buttons or flipping switches in a particular order—details vary by vehicle. Enter the make and model of your vehicle and the words “reset” and “TPMS” into a search engine to find instructions.
If this warning light comes back on even though the tire pressure is correct in all four tires, check the pressure on the spare tire. The TPMS may track its pressure, too.
If the TPMS light comes on after you rotate your tires, purchase a “TPMS relearn tool” to turn off the light. This digital device is easy to use and costs just $10 to $30 on Amazon. Buy one that works with your vehicle make.
Engine isn’t as peppy as it used to be…and/or the car is hard to start. Any number of issues could be causing this, but there’s one potential DIY solution worth trying before heading to a mechanic—change the engine air filter.
What to do: An auto-parts store can help you choose the correct filter for your vehicle. Then enter the year, make and model of your vehicle into a search engine, along with the terms “engine air filter” and “location,” to find photos and videos that will direct you to the compartment under your vehicle’s hood where this filter is positioned and show you how to replace it.
Musty smell inside the car. This often can be solved by changing the cabin air filter, which is even easier than changing the engine air filter. The most difficult part—figuring out where this filter is. It sometimes is hidden behind the glove compartment.
What to do: As above, an auto-parts store can help you find the correct cabin air filter for your vehicle…and entering the year, make and model of your vehicle along with the terms “cabin air filter” and “location” into a search engine should produce photos and videos that can help you find the appropriate filter compartment in your vehicle. Every car owner should do this fix on his/her own—garages sometimes charge a full hour of labor for changing a cabin air filter even though it’s typically a two-to-three-minute job.
Heater isn’t working. Your car’s coolant level may be low, especially if your car’s been running hot or overheating. (Never drive a car that is overheating—it can cause a catastrophic engine failure.) Unless you drive an EV, coolant plays a crucial role in the heating system.
What to do: When the engine is cold and the car is parked on a level surface, locate the coolant reservoir under the hood—your car’s owner’s manual can help you find this—and confirm that the fluid is at the appropriate level. If it’s low, adding coolant might solve your heating problem. Be sure to add the correct type of coolant—there should be a sticker under the car’s hood specifying the coolant your car requires or check this detail in the owner’s manual. Note: If the car’s coolant level is low because there’s a leak in the radiator or elsewhere in the coolant system, a trip to a mechanic—or a significantly more complex DIY repair—will be required to solve the problem. To find out: Look for tell-tale drips coming from the radiator or attached hoses…or suspicious puddles on the ground beneath the car after it has been parked for a while. Burning coolant can give off a sweet, maple-syrup–like aroma. So if you smell this while driving, it can be an indication that coolant is leaking and burning inside the engine compartment.
Screeching or grinding sounds when you brake. Your car needs new brakes. If you’re handy and strong enough to put on a spare tire, you can replace your brake pads and rotors—probably in less than an hour per axle.
What to do: Watch a YouTube video or two to confirm that you’re comfortable giving it a try…and to learn the steps. Enter the words “changing brake pads and rotors” into YouTube’s search bar, and look for videos that have received millions of views. An auto-parts store can help you choose the appropriate pads and rotors for your vehicle. You will need a pair of jack stands—less than $50 each—plus a few other relatively common tools. One specialized tool you will need is a brake compressor tool, but these are inexpensive and you don’t necessarily even have to buy one—the auto-parts store that sells you brake pads and rotors might lend you one for free…or you could use a C-clamp or large locking pliers instead.
Windshield wipers aren’t working well anymore. Yes—some car owners actually pay mechanics to replace their car’s wiper blades.
What to do: Replacing wiper blades is very simple…but if you don’t want to do it, there’s still no need to pay a mechanic. Just buy replacement blades at an auto-parts store—not a big-box retailer—and ask if an employee can put them on your vehicle. Most auto-parts stores will do this for customers at no extra cost.