“One of the things that separates great mechanics from weekend-project disaster is knowing exactly what’s involved, and being able to figure out any other problem that happens along the way,” stresses Bodas.
It’s a common issue with do-it-yourself (DIY) auto repair: Just as in assembling that IKEA bedroom set, you might have a rough idea of how to do the job, yet you don’t know all the details along the way—let alone what could go wrong in the process, or what to do if it does.
Only here the consequences can be much more expensive. Bodas has seen cases as simple as a customer who replaced an air filter and accidentally detached a vacuum line, to many who’ve in the course of a brake job broken a sensor or set off a warning light—or those who have managed to foul out during major maintenance like timing-belt replacement. In all of these instances, the piece of the repair job they were missing—in addition to understanding what might go wrong—is the diagnosis and troubleshooting that's part of a real mechanic's job.
$50 saved becomes $500 in damage
And there's a lot of potential for damage in that. “If you drive a ’64 Chevy, then sure, you can save money and do nearly all the repairs yourself,” says Bodas. “But on modern cars it’s more like, maybe you save $50, or maybe you do $500 in damage.”
“In my opinion, owners should not attempt to do the majority of repairs on a modern automobile,” said Michael Calkins, who manages the AAA’s Approved Auto Repair program. “There are just too many things you can damage in today’s cars, and it’s not worth the risk.”
And sometimes there's just a daunting amount of disassembly required. Brian Hafer, VP of marketing for AutoMD, an auto-repair resource that breaks some DIY repairs down into steps, oversaw the production of videos for his company and was surprised “how difficult it actually is just to get to the point where you can replace something.”
If you have some experience turning a wrench, and you know your way under the hood of your car, it’s probably tempting to spend a little extra time on the weekend doing some of those smaller repairs. But first, you need to get familiar with the repair manual for your car (try Alldata or Mitchell), and you need hands-on training. For the latter, community college classes, evening shop programs, or weekend community-ed courses will help you understand some troubleshooting and diagnosis basics. And for tutorials on model-specific repairs, try YouTube.
First: What can you do?
In addition to replacing cabin and air filters, as well as wiper blades, there are a number of routine checks and minor maintenance items that the typical owner can perform, like checking fluids and lubricants, along with replacing belts and hoses, filters, and perhaps starters and alternators—all if nothing’s already at the point of failure.