Go in prepared. Edmunds.com has a plethora of educational and how-to categories on its site. Davis compiled a maintenance schedule for a variety of cars. See the list here.

Schaffels also recommended purchasing a device that can plug into the car's port and diagnose why the check-engine or brake light is on; that part is available at do-it-yourself car-parts stores.

Other sites, such as MotorTrend, 2CarPros.com and 10w40.com, can expand a car novice's vocabulary and know-how as well.

Here's a primer that will help keep you from getting scammed by mechanics.

"Be wary of inspections," Davis said. A 40,000-mile inspection package at $400, for example, will call for a check on everything from the oil and brake pads to the door hinges.

"You pay them $400 to tear your car apart and look for additional repairs to sell you," Davis said. "That's a great business model right there."

You don't need to replace or flush transmission fluids until 25,000 to 30,000 miles. Some cars won't need the transmission fluids touched for 50,000 to 60,000 miles, and some manufacturers are moving toward using fluid that never needs to be replaced.

Look at the brake pads yourself before committing to new pads and think about changing them yourself. "It's a really well-kept secret that changing a brake pad is pretty easy," Reed said. "People get freaked out with brakes thinking that if they don't do it correctly, the car won't stop. If there's a problem with your brakes, you'll know right away."

Don't fret either if the mechanic says the brakes are about 50% worn down. They don't need to be replaced until they're 85% to 90% worn.

Ask for the replaced parts. Some states may require that the old parts are given to car owners with the itemized bill. But know what you're getting. Davis said he once gave an established customer an old air-conditioning compressor rather than the water pump he replaced to make the point. "We had a nice discussion about what a water pump is, what it does and what it looks like," he said.

Put chalk marks on car tires before having them rotated. Tire rotation is important because it keeps the wear and tear on the tires even and it extends the life of the tires. With all the turning, stopping and parallel parking, the front tires wear out substantially quicker than the back.

When you have them rotated, you are swapping the front tires for the back, not side-to-side or crisscrossing. But it's tough to tell if the tires have been actually changed unless you put chalks marks on them -- say, FL for front left, RR for rear right, etc.

Tire rotations are directly tied to certain mileage marks. There's a 5,000-mile minimum by some manufacturers, but 7,500 miles is the average. Some tires don't have to be rotated for as many as 20,000 miles.