This post is from Ollie Geiger, a personal finance writer who contributes to MoneyRates.com.
As a former auto mechanic and service manager, my dad's car expertise has saved our family from countless binds.
Over the years, he's done everything from replacing my wife's broken timing belt in the parking lot of her apartment complex to rebuilding our truck's toasted alternator at a motel high in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. A master of seeing mechanical possibilities, he replaced the alternator's seized bearing with a wheel bearing from a motorcycle we happened to be carrying.
Growing up in his shadow, I acquired three insights that guide my thinking on mechanical things today:
- Understanding how machines work is a virtue.
- Even simple repairs come with high costs at repair shops.
- Not every shop is dishonest, but some definitely are.
As a result, I try to avoid taking my truck – a 1998 Toyota Tacoma with 192,000 miles – to the garage. When the ol' Taco fails in a way that appears simple to fix, I'll usually try to repair it myself. While I lack the proficiency of my dad, I like mechanical things and the satisfaction that comes from making them work again.
My rule of thumb is that I will only tackle a repair job if I understand at the onset how all of the parts work and fit together. For example, I understand how a valve cover gasket works, so when one starts to seep, I can change it. But I'm less sure how all the parts work in my transmission. If it fails, I'm probably going to seek help.
Unfortunately, newer cars are generally harder for home mechanics to work on. Computer technology has made modern cars far more complex than the drag-race Oldsmobiles my dad built as a teenager. While a mechanically inclined person can easily examine and understand a carburetor, an electronic fuel injection system hides its secrets in silicon chips. Unraveling a new car's issues is often a matter of acquiring specialized diagnostic equipment or manufacturer training – or both.
This puts mechanically minded consumers in a lamentable position today. When something fails on a modern vehicle, taking it to a shop is the only sensible approach if you lack the tools and knowledge to address the problem. For those who don't want to pay someone else to fix their machine, this is a regrettable – and costly – solution.
Some car repairs still defy modern complexities, however. Replacing worn-out spark plugs or cracked radiator hoses is still as simple as it was in 1962. While repairs like these aren't without their potential difficulties – stripping the threads on a spark plug hole will ruin your afternoon – they are within the grasp of anyone with a basic set of tools and a healthy desire to keep the family car out of the shop.
Your money or your time
When done properly, performing your own repairs can save you a lot of money. I can't estimate how much we would have spent over the years on auto fixes if my dad hadn't performed them, but I'm sure the figure is staggering. This is another reason I find taking my car to the shop so unpleasant today: I'm just not used to paying for that sort of thing.
Still, working on your own vehicle has its own price. You may spend considerable time diagnosing and fixing any car issues you tackle, and mistakes can cost you too – possibly at the repair shop you avoided in the first place. Frustration is another likely expense. While I appreciate the feeling of completing a task on my Tacoma, that feeling is often preceded by frequent curses on my decision to ever lift the hood.
Do you ever perform your car's repairs or maintenance to save money? If not, would you ever consider it? If so, how much have you saved? How do you determine whether to take on a job yourself or bring it to a professional?