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5 car-repair mistakes

We're keeping our vehicles longer. But are we taking care of our investments?

By Donna_Freedman Jul 19, 2012 6:58PM
Image: Man working on car © Jose Luis Pelaez Inc/Blend Images/Getty ImagesHow's the old heap running these days? I say "old" because we're keeping our wheels longer. The average age of U.S. vehicles reached an all-time high in 2011, according to the Polk auto data service: 11.1 years for cars and 10.4 for light trucks and SUVs.

Every year without a car payment is a good year. The best way to extend that obligation-free period is to be assiduous about maintenance. "Jalopy love: 5 dumb car-repair mistakes to avoid," on the blog, reminds us why being penny-wise is definitely pound-foolish.

For example, you should never ignore the "low fuel" dashboard light -- and not just because you might run out of gas.

"Driving a fuel-injected engine frequently on a very low tank is hard on the fuel pump," writes author Barbara Marquand.

It's tempting to hold out for the cheapest gas you can find. To spare your fuel pump, don't let the needle go below one-quarter of a tank. MSN Autos has an online tool to help you find the best gas price in your area. Or use a smartphone app.

Two other ways to save: Buy gas cards on the secondary gift card market, and earn free gas cards from rewards programs.

Don't repair -- prevent

Don't put off scheduled maintenance even though your car sounds and runs fine. Prevention is cheaper than repair. A friend in Anchorage, Alaska, drives a 17-year-old Acura Integra. She's followed the manual's maintenance schedule so faithfully that it may be rust, rather than repair issues, that finally kills the car.

Little things matter, too, such as regularly checking the oil. (How often should it and other fluids be changed? See "9 car-care myths you should ignore.") To bring down the cost of changes, watch for ads or Val-Pak coupons for local auto shops or lube-and-oil franchises. (Post continues after video.)
Be prepared for the inevitable up-sell at the franchises. For example, you can probably change your own wiper blades. (More on that in a second.)

Make sure your tires are properly inflated. Squishy wheels wear out faster and reduce gas mileage, so get a pressure gauge and check them regularly.

Which brings us to another mistake: not doing certain repairs yourself. "Not everybody's a mechanical genius, but anyone can learn to replace wiper blades, light bulbs, and even fuses and air filters," Marquand writes.

Check the manual or do an Internet search for help. Freelance writer Becky Blanton has used both sources to keep vehicle ownership costs down, including replacing her van's brakes and painting the vehicle. The result "looks like a (professional) paint job," Blanton says.

A friend of mine visited a junkyard to look for tire rims and a Subaru door. He lucked out with the rims: The junkyard already had a set removed. Getting the door off, though, was hard. Junkyard jaunts aren't for everyone, so know your limits.

The same friend got another four rims through Craigslist for $25 apiece, then bought snow tires at a discount tire dealer. Now he changes out his family's wheels each winter.

Other ways to save: Watch the ads for loss-leader deals on fluids and small parts. Earn gift cards through Swagbucks to pay for wipers, headlight lamps, tire gauges and the like.

You better shop around

The other two mistakes Marquand cites: not seeking the best repair shop prices, and not communicating well with mechanics. For help with the first issue, see "19 tips for finding a great mechanic."

That article, however, warns against shopping by cost alone. Instead, find two or three highly recommended mechanics and then compare prices among the three.

Give your mechanic as much information as you can about the problem that brought you in. Marquand's article suggests writing down what you "hear, feel, see and smell," which can hasten the diagnosis.

Marquand also links to a free online car diagnosis tool, to help you with questions your mechanic may ask. Be prepared, even if it means sniffing around your car's hood.

More on MSN Money:

Jul 20, 2012 4:34PM

Two more things worth mentioning:

1. If replacing freon in older vehicle, ask technician to add 'dye' to it. This is usually free. It will serve you well as it shows the source of the next leak.

2. If you have anything break on a vehicle immediately after an oil change, complain to owners and never return. Unfortunately, this is usually how a person spots a disreputable service department. Spread the word and complain to BBB. A dealer service department or full-service auto shop is a better choice over the quick oil change guys who frequently do not let all the oil drain and just end up topping it good and changing filter.

Aug 2, 2012 4:23AM
Now why should driving with low fuel be hard on the fuel pump?
I don't believe it.

Jul 23, 2012 5:57PM
dont buy a chevrolet! they're air conditionong, and heat components fail after 50,000 miles .also made in mexico.would you rather have a toyota made in japan or a chevy made in mexico?????
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Donna Freedman's Frugal Nation blog is for readers who want to live cheaply -- whether due to necessity or a lifestyle choice. It explores living sustainably and making life more meaningful at the same time.


Donna Freedman

Donna Freedman, a writer based in Anchorage, Alaska, writes the Frugal Nation blog for MSN Money. She won regional and national prizes during an 18-year newspaper career and earned a college degree in midlife without taking out student loans. Donna also writes about the frugal life for her own site, Surviving and Thriving.