With gas prices well over the $3 mark and auto insurance costs rising, owning a car is no drive on Easy Street. Don't let common repair mistakes add more bumps to the road.
Smart car care keeps a vehicle running safely and prevents accidents. And staying accident-free keeps car insurance rates down at a time when drivers could use all the help they can get. (See: "How minor repairs can boost your car insurance rates.")
The Consumer Price Index for auto insurance rose 3.6 percent last year and was up 33 percent from 2002, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Proper car maintenance also prolongs the life of a vehicle, another critical factor in today's sputtering economy. (See: "Learn about car insurance coverage in 5 easy steps.")
"People are holding onto their cars longer, so they really have to pay attention to maintenance," says Brian Hafer, marketing vice president at AutoMD.com, an online automotive repair resource for car owners.
After purchasing new or used vehicles, drivers on average are keeping them 57 months -- an increase of 23 percent since the third quarter of 2008, according to Polk, a global automotive market intelligence firm headquartered in Southfield, Mich.
Meanwhile, the average age of cars on U.S. roads reached a record high of 11.1 years in 2011, up from 9.3 years in 2001, Polk says. The average age of light trucks reached 10.4 years last year, compared to 8.4 years in 2001.
Whether you have a brand-new set of wheels or a beloved clunker, poor maintenance will cost you big time. Here are five mistakes to avoid, according to AutoMD.
Don't let the temptation to save a few bucks by delaying maintenance steer you off course. Follow the maintenance schedule in the vehicle owner's manual.
"Not changing the air filter and oil at the right intervals just makes your engine work all that much harder," Hafer says.
Neglecting other tasks can have even more serious consequences. Failure to replace worn-out brake pads, for instance, will result in the grinding down of other parts and put you and your passengers in danger. "Parts of the brake system may then need to be replaced," Hafer says.
Don't take your tires for granted, either. Make sure they're inflated to the proper pressure. Underinflation increases treadwear on the outer edges and reduces gas mileage, according to Goodyear Tires. Too much air pressure leads to uneven wear and faster deterioration.
Goodyear suggests checking tire wear every 3,000 miles. Use the "penny test." Put a penny into the tread with Lincoln's head upside down and facing you. It's time to replace the tires if you can see the whole head, according to the tire maker.
"The better you are at communicating what's wrong with your vehicle, the better your chances of getting the repair done right," Hafer says.
AutoMD recommends keeping a log of what you hear, feel, see and smell when your car has trouble and then sharing those details with the mechanic. Thorough information about the symptoms will speed up the diagnosis and save on labor costs. AutoMD provides a free online car diagnosis tool that provides questions a mechanic might ask.
Don't tell the shop what needs to be replaced -- you might be wrong. Also, ask for your old parts back if anything is replaced. This prevents dishonest mechanics from needlessly replacing good parts or charging you for work that wasn't done.
Research repair shops online and get quotes for repairs, AutoMD says. Keep in mind you don't have to visit the dealership for every problem. Car owners can save an estimated $300 or more a year by opting for independent repair shops rather than dealerships, according to an AutoMD analysis. (See: "Vehicles that cost less to fix often mean lower premiums.")
Read the owner's manual to understand what the dashboard warning lights mean, and take appropriate action when a light turns on -- even if the car appears to be running OK. Ignoring warnings could lead to expensive damage and danger.
That includes the warning light for low fuel. Besides increasing the risk of running out of gas, driving a fuel-injected engine frequently on a very low tank is hard on the fuel pump, Hafer says. AutoMD recommends keeping the fuel level above a quarter tank.
Not everybody's a mechanical genius, but anyone can learn to replace wiper blades, light bulbs and even fuses and air filters. Doing simple tasks yourself will save money you can use to pay experts for complex work.
With the economy stuck in neutral, do what you can to keep your car running smoothly today and save money for tomorrow.
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