If you’re not a car expert—and let’s face it, most of aren’t—there’s an excellent chance that you’re the exact opposite: a car victim! Does that sound a bit cold? Maybe so, but it’s a fact that the less we know about cars the more we pay for everything—parts, repairs and buying the cars themselves. You can save on car repairs just by learning to do some basic repairs yourself.
Usually, when I write about anything related to cars, it isn’t from the position of a car expert, but rather a car victim who’s had enough of paying too much. It’s precisely my lack of expert status that drives me—relentlessly—to find less expensive ways to handle all things related to cars. I’m always looking for ways not only to increase income, but also to cut expenses—it’s the critical “other half” of being self-employed. Car repairs are a major expense, and one with a lot of room to cut!
In the past I’ve written on hooking up with car experts, making use of backyard mechanics, buying parts direct or where to find large and convenient sources or used car parts, and you can find links to some of those posts just beneath this article. Today, I want to take this a step farther and discuss the implications of fixing your car yourself.
The mother load of car repair savings
No area of car repairs will save you more than doing the repairs yourself. There are three main areas of savings here:
Labor costs. This is the most obvious savings, by doing the work yourself you’re eliminating the labor charge from the shop. Simple—but there’s more…
Cost of parts. Here’s something I’ve learned from years of stumbling through the car repair jungle: the parts that are provided by the typical repair shop are marked up two to three times above the price you would pay at a retail auto parts supplier! Any repairs you can do yourself frees you to get your own parts, and the savings there are substantial.
Upselling. Have you ever been to a repair shop to have a widget replaced, then be called by the shop and informed that “we’re going to replace the widget, but we should also replace the widget resuscitator, and we recommend replacing the widget capacitor and also the widget coil capacitor”? This is of course a completely fictitious sequence, but I think you understand what I’m going for. Go in to a typical repair shop for a $200 repair, and you come out $700 later with everything remotely connected with it being replaced. The less we know about cars and car repairs the more vulnerable we are to this kind of tactic.
The more repairs you can do yourself, the more you’ll save on all three of these. Are you motivated yet?
If you’re not an expert, what type of repairs can you try?
I’m probably the best example of a reluctant car repairman. I have no orientation toward cars, no interest in what makes them run, and no history of self-repair. In that regard, I consider myself to be an “expert” as a non-car-repair guy who aspires to do at least some repairs.
I don’t do a lot of repairs, but I’m gradually learning, and here are a few things I’d like to share with other would-be do-it-yourself car repair people:
- Take it in baby steps—do the simplest jobs first and work up; changing lightbulbs, fuses, spark plugs and a battery are pretty simple, even if they’re intimidating to a newbie.
- Work along side a person who does their own repairs and watch what they do—if you feel bold, ask to do the job under their supervision.
- Always have the number of a skilled repair person on speed dial just in case.
- You can get a car repair manual, but if you’re like me and you learn more by watching then by reading, check out Youtube—just enter “how to replace spark plugs on a 2005 Toyota Camry” or “how to rotate the tires on a 1999 Chevy Malibu”.
- Never take on a job that’s beyond your level of competence—you can make a big mess! If you want to advance your skill level, have a knowledgeable repair person present while you do.
- Most auto parts stores are also storehouses of knowledge and they’ll freely share it with you. If you aren’t sure about something, ask. Oh, and they provide FREE diagnostics to help you find out what the problem is—repair shops charge $100 and up for this same service.
It takes a combination of curiosity, courage and a genuine desire to save money to motivate us non-car types, but sooner or later you muster them all and when you do the road ahead doesn’t seem so dark anymore.
The opportunity cost of performing your own repairs
In the interest of full disclosure, I do have to say that all repairs have to be considered against other costs.
As mentioned above, you don’t want to take on repairs that are beyond your capabilities—you could cause problems that lead to even bigger repair bills. Most routine repairs however, don’t have these risks. For example, changing your battery isn’t likely to result in any kind of collateral damage.
Another potential cost is time. If you could be making $30 an hour working overtime or doing freelance work, it’s probably better that you pay someone else to do your car repairs. For most people this kind of trade off is unlikely and you’ll save more by doing the repair work.
Another aspect of time is the time it takes to perform the repairs—if it will take you 3-4 days to do a repair but a shop can get it done in 3-4 hours, you may want to go with the shop if you need the car right away.
Even with the potential opportunity costs, doing your own repairs is still worth considering, at least for the most basic jobs. You’ll be on a learning curve—the more repairs you do, the more you’ll be able to do and the more money you’ll save—so stay with it!
Do you ever do your own car repairs? Which repairs would you recommend a newbie try on their own? Which ones would you recommend against?