Properly taking care of a vehicle is perhaps the single most important thing you can do when it comes to owning a car – aside from driving safely. And yet, for many people, car maintenance is the last thing they want to think about. I get it – after a long day of work, the idea of crawling around under your car or taking it to a shop can be the last thing you want to do. But ignoring a problem does not make it go away – it merely ensures it will come back to ruin your day later on, usually as something much worse than what you ignored.
With that in mind, here are some common things that a lot of people forget or neglect when it comes to proper car maintenance. Don’t let the word “car” fool you though, these apply to trucks and SUVs too. Some of these are simple things you should be doing yourself, often through simple routine care and maintenance. Others are more elaborate and you’ll probably want to have a professional mechanic or technician handle them for you – unless you have a really impressive home setup and a lot of experience.
#1 – Checking Your Oil Level
The first of three things you should be doing fairly regularly as a form of simple car maintenance related to your engine’s oil level is to check it. You don’t need any fancy equipment for this – just park your vehicle on a level surface and have a paper towel or old rag handy. Find the dipstick for your engine’s oil and pull it out, wipe it off with the towel, and then put it back in. Now withdraw it again and look at the oil level on the stick – it should be between a pair of lines indicating proper levels; if not, then add some oil until it is.
#2 – Checking Your Oil’s Appearance
While you are checking how much oil is in your car’s engine, you should also pay attention to what the oil on the dipstick looks like. Good motor oil is somewhat transparent, with a clean amber or brown coloration to it. You shouldn’t see impurities or dirt in the oil, and it should have a glossy, slick texture. Dirty oil needs to be replaced or changed right away to ensure your engine runs properly and avoid potential issues that can be quite costly.
#3 – Changing Your Oil
The last thing you might be forgetting or neglecting when it comes to car maintenance and your oil is to have it changed. Old rules about how often this should be done can be ignored – check the owner’s manual for your vehicle. Somewhere in there you will find the manufacturer’s recommendation regarding how often to change your oil – follow this. As long as you check your oil every few months, and it looks good, you can stick to the manufacturer’s recommendation. Consider using synthetic or a blend when getting new oil in your engine – it costs more, but it works better.
#4 – Checking Your Tire Pressure
Now that you have your oil under control, it’s time to think about your tires and make sure you remember to include them in your regular car maintenance. Start off by regularly checking the pressure in your tires. You can do this with an inexpensive gauge that makes it quite simple, or use a gauge typically located with air pumps at gas stations. Check your tire pressure regularly and make sure you inflate your tires if they are getting low – you’ll get a smoother ride from it, and it’s better for your tires.
#5 – Checking Your Tire Tread Depth
While you’re checking the pressure, you should also check the depth of the tread on your tires. That tread isn’t just there to look interesting or provide clues on police TV shows – it helps you maintain control on slippery terrain such as rain and slushy snow. Use either a penny or a quarter to check the depth of your tire tread – just insert it into the tread with the head of the President facing down. If you cannot see the top of the President’s head, then you’re still fine. As soon as his head is showing, however, then it’s time to replace your tire – you have more time to act if you use a quarter rather than a penny.
#6 – Rotating Your Tires
In a perfect world, your tires would wear evenly as you drive on them. All evidence indicates this is an imperfect world; however, so wear on your tires is not even and over time can really make a difference. When you go in for an oil change or other routine car maintenance, ask them to rotate your tires for you – assuming they’re not due for replacement. This keeps the wear on your tires more even and helps them last longer while providing a smoother ride.
#7 – Changing Your Tires
Finally, when considering your tires, be sure to have them replaced as necessary. Checking your tread depth is great, but you need to actually act on that information and replace tires that are getting worn down. The rubber in tires is quite durable, but it still breaks down over time and with regular use. So even if they look okay and have good tread, you still need to replace them as they get older.
#8 – Check the Seal on Your Gas Cap
This is very easy to forget or ignore when considering routine car maintenance, but it can make your life much easier. The gasket that forms a seal on your gas cap will wear down and break over time – it’s typically just rubber, which has a limited lifespan. As it wears down, it no longer forms a tight seal, which can cause you to lose out on gas mileage and even cause your “check engine” light to come on. Do yourself a favor and remember to give your gas cap a good look every now and again – you can save a lot of time, money, and frustration by replacing a cheap cap rather than going to a mechanic for a mystery light.
#9 – Change Your Air Filter
This is one of those things that is not so much commonly forgotten as it is mistakenly ignored. A lot of mechanics will push the idea of replacing your air filter while you are in for car maintenance, which you might think is just a way to get more money out of you. In reality, however, the air filter is vitally important to keeping your engine running smoothly and avoiding potentially costly damage to it. Air filters are cheap to replace – much more so than an engine that has been damaged by dirt and debris or by lack of airflow.
#10 – Change Your Windshield Wipers
You can put this squarely in the “don’t think of it until you need it” category when it comes to car maintenance. Windshield wipers are absolutely essential for ensuring you have proper visibility while driving. Of course, the majority of the time you’re not using them so you’re probably not thinking about them. Trust me; it’s better to replace your wipers as they wear down before you’re caught in a torrential downpour, rather than in the midst of a thunderstorm.
Check them every so often when it’s not raining and replace them as needed. This is something you can easily do yourself, plus new wipers are much less expensive than your insurance rates will be after you slam into a vehicle you couldn’t see due to rain.
Be sure to check back next month for more bits of car maintenance you’re probably forgetting or letting slide!
#11 – Have Your Brakes Checked
To be fair, this is something you probably can’t do yourself, unless you have a terrific home setup or you really know what you’re doing. Sometimes the most important aspect of car maintenance is to know what you can do yourself and what you need to have someone else do for you. While you are getting other work done on your tires, it’s a great time also to ask them to check your brakes and see how they’re holding up.
Your brake pads will wear down over time through simple use – it’s not something that only comes up after a serious issue. When you’re having your tires rotated or changed, ask the licensed mechanic also to check your brakes and see how they look. If they’re getting worn down, then have them replaced. You should also have your brakes checked immediately if you notice a change when braking or sounds different or if your brake pedal feels soft or not as responsive.
#12 – Visually Inspect Your Vehicle
This falls right into the category of “things so simple they get overlooked.” On a reasonably regular basis, take a moment to inspect your vehicle from the outside and give it a good looking over. This is probably not something you want to do when you’re in a rush to fly out the door on a Monday morning, but when you have a few minutes, and you’re going to your car, stop and look it over. Check to see how your tires look, check for any signs of damage to your vehicle, and look for issues with your lights or windows – you never know what you might have overlooked.
#13 – Keep an Eye on Your Warning Lights
I’ll be honest, this probably goes without saying, but I’m going to say it anyway: keep an eye on those warning lights on your dashboard. Better yet, when you see one light up, take it seriously. Don’t be that person who has the “Check Engine” light come on and then keeps driving around like normal for three weeks.
Those lights come on for a reason, and it can be pretty serious. Even a minor issue should be handled right away so that it does not become a much larger, and more expensive, problem. If you’re not sure what a light means when it comes on, then check your owner’s manual for information about what the light means and how to properly respond.
#14 – Check Your Drive Belts
You likely have two different belts in your vehicle: the serpentine belt and the timing belt. Make sure you know where both of these are and check on them regularly to see that they are in good condition. These belts are very important for the proper functioning of your vehicle, but they are made of rubber that will wear down naturally over time. You can check your vehicle’s owner’s manual for timing on how often you should replace them, but proper car maintenance includes visually inspecting them from time to time to look for any wear or damage that could become a serious issue.
#15 – Check Your Coolant Levels
The radiator is in your vehicle to help keep the engine cool because the regular operation of your vehicle’s engine generates a lot of heat. When your radiator gets low on coolant, then your engine is more likely to overheat, and that can create all sorts of problems. Check the levels of your coolant during routine car maintenance and add more coolant when needed to keep your radiator working well. If you notice the levels are frequently low, then you might have a crack or other damage that is causing coolant to leak out of your vehicle.
#16 – Keep an Eye on Your Fuel Economy
When you bought your vehicle, you were probably told how many miles to the gallon it is estimated to get. While this is an estimate, it still gives you a pretty good idea of what to expect. More importantly, keep track of your gas mileage for the first few months you have a vehicle and make a note of what it typically gets. If you notice that you are not getting the kind of fuel economy you were before, that could indicate an issue that you need to have checked out and fixed. Not only will this save you money, but it could help prevent a much larger problem.
#17 – Replace Your Spark Plugs
Check your vehicle’s owner’s manual and know what type of spark plugs you have to determine how often you should replace them. Spark plugs are relatively inexpensive and easy for you to replace yourself during other car maintenance with only very basic tools – but they are vitally important to the proper operation of your vehicle. If your vehicle is idling roughly or misfiring, then that can mean it’s time to replace them.
#18 – Check Your Battery Connections
Even if your battery seems fine, it’s a good idea to occasionally pop your hood and check the terminals where the cables connect to it or during other routine car maintenance. These can become corroded or have mineral buildup on them that you can easily clean off with an inexpensive cleaning brush. Not only will this help improve your vehicle’s performance, but it can avoid larger issues with your battery and the connection terminals for it.
#19 – Check Your Vehicle’s Lights
Every so often, take a moment in the evening to turn on your car, turn your lights on, and then inspect them from the outside, walking around your vehicle. Make sure they are all working properly and well illuminated. Check your turn signals and other indicators while you are at it, especially your brake lights.
If any of your lights are not working, then have them replaced immediately. Not only is this a safety issue, because other drivers need to know what you’re doing, but this a type of car maintenance that can also help you avoid an expensive ticket from a police officer.
#20 – Replace Your Cabin Air Filter
There’s an air filter for your engine (we talked about that earlier), but there’s also an air filter for your cabin. This filters out dust, pollen, and other particulates for you and your passengers riding inside the vehicle. Just like any other air filter, this will get clogged up and dirty with the stuff it blocks out for you. Make sure you check it fairly regularly and replace it, or have it replaced, during other routine car maintenance to make sure the air you breathe is as clean as possible.
#21 – Check Your Wiper Fluid
I know the title of this article said 20 things, but here’s a freebie: check your wiper fluid regularly. Whether you use it to wash dust or pollen off of your windshield, to help clear away ice, or simply to shoo away an insect, you want to make sure your wiper fluid is there when you need it. It is easy to check and inexpensive to replace, so take a moment every so often to see where you’re at with it. Trust me; you’ll be glad you did.