DIY Maintenance for Vehicles

I can’t afford to take my van to the mechanic every single time something’s wrong. So, out of necessity, I’ve learned a lot of the basics of vehicle maintenance. I’m still learning! It was intimidating at first, but the more I learn the easier it becomes. I’ll add to this as my knowledge expands.

Check, top off, and change the oil

The oil in your engine is absolutely essential for keeping it running. If it get too low or dirty, your engine will be ruined. Generally, you need to change it every 5000 miles or so. If you drive your vehicle every day and haven’t changed it in a good 6 months or so, you want to check it right away. This is one thing you do NOT want to put off, as it can compromise your entire vehicle.

Checking and topping off your own oil is easy. Changing it, on the other hand, is a super messy job. I wouldn’t recommend the DIY route for city vandwellers unless you have a friend’s place where you can park for it. You’d probably also want to borrow their oil pan.

Changing your own oil isn’t necessarily the more frugal option. Groupon tends to have cheap deals for oil changes that are less than my cost of materials. The downside is I can usually only purchase a limited number of oil changes before I have to move on to another auto mechanic, which might not be as trustworthy. Also, the quality of the oil and filters used often isn’t the greatest.

The best way to start is learning to check and top off your oil, and make sure the oil gets changed somehow. So long as that’s happening, you’re good.

The Other Fluids

There’s four other fluids besides oil you want to keep an eye on: coolant, brake fluid, power steering fluid, and transmission. If you don’t have any leaks, then you shouldn’t have to do anything.


If your coolant runs too low, the engine becomes toast. It will overheat and die fast.

It’s a good idea to keep enough water or antifreeze in your vehicle at all times. It could make the difference between a minor inconvenience vs. calling a tow truck if you spring a leak. Water is for temporary use only.

Be very careful to never open the radiator cap when the engine is hot.

At this point all I really know about the other fluids is they’re important. Make sure to keep them topped up. I’ll expand this as I learn more.

Headlights, and all the other lights

Please don’t pay someone to change out a bulb. You can totally do this! They only cost a few dollars.

You’ll need to find the bulb that matches the specs of your vehicle. There’s a few different ways you can do this. Auto parts stores are always happy to help out. The dealership is also a safe bet. You can also find the information yourself in catalogues found in the auto parts section of major stores like WalMart. Make sure to look up not only the make and model of your vehicle, but also the year. You’ll also need to know the official name for which light has gone out. Headlights are easy. Distinguishing between “side marker light” and “parking light” requires a little orientation.

For installing the new bulb, I recommend Youtube. Look up your vehicle make and model, and the name of the light you want changed. There are lots of instructional videos out there to guide you through it. If you’re anything like me, the first time might take 5 hours. Most of that is just learning your vehicle, and that’s okay. The more you learn about how things work and come apart, the easier it will be next time.

Change out the same light on both sides if you can. The older bulb is going to be dimmer anyway, and is likely to burn out soon. I follow my dad’s advice of keeping the old working bulb as a backup option in case one burns out early. Make sure to label it!


These are next on my agenda to learn.


Tires are another absolute necessity. The danger of not maintaining them is traffic accidents. A tire that’s too old or doesn’t have enough pressure in it can blow out on the freeway. Tires that are too worn down can make you skid more easily, and means your brakes aren’t nearly as effective on wet pavement.


The maximum safe tire life is around 5-6 years or so. After that, the rubber starts to break down. So even if there’s plenty of tread left on the tires, they essentially cannot be trusted. I had two tires blow out on me on the freeway because they were over 12 years old. Don’t do this!

The age is stamped on the side of every single tire. You can’t read it like a regular date, it’s rather like deciphering a code. Once you know how you can read the date on any tire, anywhere. Make sure to read the date on each and every one of your tires, including the spare, if you have one.


Checking tire pressure is pretty simple. Buy any gauge at an auto parts store and google how to check your tire pressure. Check it when the tires are cold, not after you’ve been driving.

You’ll find the specs of how much pressure your tire needs on the inside of your driver’s side door. Those are just ballpark figures. Start with the recommended pressure, but keep an eye on the tread wear of your tires. If the middle is wearing out before the sides, the tire is overinflated. If the sides are wearing out before the middle, it’s underinflated. Pressure needs vary based on weight in the vehicle, and sometimes the ideal pressure for the front tires and back tires are different.

If pressure is too low, you can top up at most gas stations (look for the thing that says “air”). Another option is to carry around a little tire inflator that runs off your cigarette lighter. I recommend this one. The advantage to having your own is if you have a slow leak, or wake up to a flat, you can pump it up yourself and drive to the nearest service shop. Or you can repair your own…

DIY tire repair

Patching up your own tires really isn’t all that hard. A kit can be as cheap as $5, minus the tire inflator. You’re going to need the tire inflator, and probably pliers, too. Add google and have at it.

The only caveat is don’t try to patch anything in the sidewall as a permanent measure. If someone has used a nail gun to puncture the sidewalls of all your tires, then you’re outta luck. But most tire problems are repairable because it usually happens in the tread, where the tire meets the road.

Whenever I patch a tire, I watch it closely over the next few days to make sure it’s not losing air. Worst case, you might have to re-patch it, use two patching thingies, or relent and turn it over to a professional for like $15.

Tread and rotation

The tread of the tires is how deep the pattern goes. The shallower the tread, the more “slippery” your ride is going to be. You can google ways to check the tread with pocket change. Once your tread begins to near illegal levels, or perhaps a bit before, you want to get new tires.

It’s common for front tires to wear out faster than rear tires. The additional wear is caused by the additional weight of the engine. Ideally you want all tires to wear evenly, so that you get the most life out of your tires and all 4 can be replaced at once when the time comes.

Rotating tires is easy if you’re able to change a tire. If you’re not quite there yet (like me), many places will do it for around $10. It’s generally recommended twice a year, but honestly you can slack on it without significant consequences.