12 Car Repair Mistakes to Avoid

avoiding car repair mistakes since 1945
Actually, avoiding car repairs mistakes is pretty easy when you know what to look for.

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Car maintenance errors waste time and money, and can even put you in harm's way. In general, such mistakes fall into three categories: negligence, ignorance, and overconfidence. Here is a list of some of the most common.

Skipping Regular Maintenance and Inspections

keeping track of car maintenance
Regularly scheduled maintenance is more important than ever.

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The key word here is “regular.” It’s no secret that car repair can be expensive and time-consuming, but skipping maintenance actually leads to higher costs and wasted time. Each maintenance step is critical to your car’s longevity and reliability. Oil changes might be annual, but don’t forget to check oil level at least monthly. Similarly, tire pressure varies with the season and drops over time—check and adjust tire pressure weekly.

Solution: Get to know your vehicle’s maintenance requirements. Keep track of maintenance, and don’t skip anything.

Overlooking Wear and Tear

uneven tire wear is dangerous
Tire wear can be hidden in plain sight, perhaps a fatal oversight.

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Everything wears out over time, from brakes and tires and light bulbs to engine, transmission, and differential internals. Some wear is obvious, like a blown light bulb or squealing brakes, but not all. Tire wear and low tire pressure can be fatal if ignored. Regular inspections are critical to keeping on top of these before they cause collateral damage or a crash.

Solution: Get to know your car, and have it inspected at least monthly and before any trips. Take care of any needed repairs as soon as possible.

Ignoring Recall Notices

automobile safety recall notice
Never ignore safety recall notices. They could save your life.

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Automakers and suppliers spend billions of dollars on research, engineering, and development, but defects can occur. If a defect is serious enough, particularly concerning safety, they’ll announce a safety recall to repair or replace the defect. Ignoring important safety recalls could put you and those around you in danger.

Solution: Don’t ignore the safety recall notice in the mail. Check for recalls at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) or your dealership. If a recall is applicable to your vehicle, have the repairs completed as soon as possible.

Ignoring Warning Lights

multiple warning lights
Warning lights mean something is wrong. Fixing it will save you money and keep you safe.

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Since your vehicle can’t talk, it uses warning lights and messages to tell you about the status of your vehicle. Warning lights for the tire pressure monitoring system, oil pressure, brake system, and the check engine light might be the only indication you get that your car may be in a failure mode or unsafe to be driven. Driving with warning lights on might lead to higher refueling costs, excessive emissions, vehicle damage, or a crash.

Solution: If a warning light comes on, have it checked by a competent professional for identification, diagnosis, and repair.

Using the Wrong Fluid

adding engine oil
The best fluids are those recommended by the automaker for your specific year, make, and model.

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If an engine is designed for 5W-20, 10W-30 or 0W-20 engine oil may not be the best choice. Too heavy and you risk higher engine loads, increased fuel consumption, and starving top-end components of oil. Too light and you risk insufficient oil pressure and oil burning past the rings (older engines may benefit from heavier oil for worn bearings and rings). Similarly, using the wrong brake fluid, engine coolant, transmission fluid, or differential fluid can lead to poor performance and damage.

Solution: When it comes to engine oil or any other fluid, use whatever is specified by your automaker.

Wrong Torque

using a torque wrench to tighten crankshaft main bearings
Torque wrench: learn it, use it, love it.

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Manufacturers spend a lot of time determining how to assemble their vehicles, including how tight fasteners need to be. This is generally so the part can be assembled easily enough without falling apart during use. Some nuts and bolts are important to ensure sealing, too. Tightening something “until it feels right” is a recipe for leaks, broken bolts, deformed parts, and other problems.

Solution: Read the repair manual and use a torque wrench, whether it’s a wheel nut, axle nut, drain plug, head bolt, or bearing bolt.

Ignoring Safety Precautions

safety glasses protect your eyes
Car parts are replaceable. Your eyes aren’t!.

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When working with tools and vehicles, there are many ways you can get hurt. Using safety glasses can prevent eye injury when using hammer, chisel, drill, or dealing with hot fluids. Using earplugs can limit damage to your hearing using loud power tools. Gloves can prevent chemical burns or painful abrasions. Jack stands can prevent you from being crushed by your own vehicle.

Solution: Learn the dangers. Then, use appropriate protective gear and strategies to prevent injury to yourself and those around you.

Saving on Auto Repair

young confused car mechanic
If you think experts are expensive, wait until you work with amateurs.

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Sure, everyone wants to save money, but cheap parts or the cheapest mechanic may not be the best method. Genuine and OEM parts are usually the most expensive, but they’re also made specifically for your vehicle. Aftermarket parts might fit or require adjustment to fit, and they may not work as well as the original. Still, some aftermarket parts are better than the original, so it’s a good idea to check with a trusted mechanic. Competent auto repair shops may charge more, but the training and experience within their walls easily justifies the price.

Solution: Pay for the best parts and service you can afford, maybe not the most expensive, but enough to ensure quality repairs and reliable performance.

Not Double-Checking Your Work

double-check oil level after oil change
Always double-check your work, even on “the little things.”.

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It doesn’t take much to wreck some good work, and precise machines, like your vehicle, need extra attention to keep them running. A loose bolt can become a dangerous loose brake or expensive crashed valves. Forgetting to install the drain plug can become a slippery mess. Forgetting to refill the oil can seize your engine. Forgetting pump up the brakes after brake repairs can lead to a crash.

Solution: Whether you’re a professional or DIY mechanic, always double-check your work. It only takes a moment but can save plenty of heartache.

Relying on Google Diagnosis

high-level auto diagnostics
Accurate auto repair requires the right training, experience, and tools.

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Given a check engine light, anyone with a scan tool can read diagnostic trouble codes, but not everyone can diagnose them. There is a big difference between proper auto diagnostics and replacing a sensor because 'it’s a sensor code' and you Googled it. Real diagnosis and repair requires training, experience, and diagnostic tools, not a browser.

Solution: Educate yourself and follow the manual. If it’s beyond your expertise, don’t waste your time and money throwing parts at the problem, but get a professional diagnosis.

Self Diagnosing

mechanic working on front of car
No mechanic will take responsibility for someone else’s diagnosis, not even yours.

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Today’s auto repair technicians spend a significant part of their time educating themselves in auto repair strategies, auto diagnostic methods, and special tools to make them more effective. Telling them what to do is like telling a doctor you’ve self-diagnosed and will only waste everyone’s time.

Solution: Let the mechanic diagnose the problem and make the repair—that’s what they’re trained for! If you tell them, “replace the thing,” and it doesn’t work, who’s fault is it? No mechanic will take responsibility for your diagnosis.

Unclear Explanations

unclear communication
Be sure to clearly communicate your concerns to your mechanic.

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Knowing how to communicate car problems can be tricky, especially if not everyone is on the same page. Miscommunication with your mechanic leads to lost time, wasted money, and broken trust. You drive your car every day, but your mechanic may only see it once every six months and deal with up to a dozen cars every day. Vague concerns won’t give them a clear direction to focus their attention, and what they address might not be your concern.

Solution: Be clear and precise. Instead of saying you hear “a funny noise,” note when it happens, on what kind of road, how fast you’re driving, where you hear it, and what it sounds like. If the car is “lacking power,” it’s good to know things like when you refueled last, in what circumstances it acts up, even the temperature and the weather.

The main point of considering all these is to prevent you from making the same or similar mistakes. True, you might learn from making car repair mistakes, but there are some mistakes people don’t escape unscathed, if at all. Don’t be that person—educate yourself, use the right tools, maintain at the right time, and use the right parts and supplies. If you have questions, ask questions, even if you think you know the answers.