Your car can develop small or large problems at any time, but you might not have room in your budget to make every repair right away. That’s why it’s crucial to know which maintenance and repair issues to address immediately—because they can affect the safety of your vehicle or lead to much worse problems—and those you can delay because they’re less critical.
A trusted mechanic can help you determine the importance of any potential repair. If you don’t have a reliable mechanic yet, start by looking for shops that have certification from an independent-rating agency such as the ASE (National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence). Then you can test the abilities and trustworthiness of a shop with small jobs such as oil changes and new brake pads and work your way up to bigger repairs. In the meantime, here is a list of common car issues that you should fix immediately, followed by some that can wait if need be…
Take care of these immediately…
Strange sounds in your engine. Clunking or knocking sounds in the engine—especially when the cadence of the noise picks up as you accelerate—should be checked out quickly. Among other problems, these sounds might indicate that the mix of air and fuel in your cylinders is off, causing your pistons to fire incorrectly. Because your engine is the most expensive system in your car, you want to get problems such as these fixed immediately. When left unresolved, they can create a domino effect of failing systems.
Oil changes. It’s critical to get your oil changed at the prescribed intervals for your car’s make and model, which you can find in your owner’s manual. Many cars now can go longer than the old 3,000-mile rule of thumb, and some higher-end cars even have sophisticated monitoring systems that signal the need for an oil change based on your driving habits. Clean oil protects your engine, helping to head off problems down the road. Regular oil changes performed by your trusted mechanic also provide an opportunity for him to check on your car’s overall condition, learn more about it and detect unknown problems. For this reason, although quick-lube shops can do a competent oil change, it’s better to have “your” mechanic change your oil.
Coolant leaks. Leaking coolant should be addressed immediately because it can cause your engine to overheat—potentially leaving you broken down on the road and facing costly repairs. A dashboard warning light might indicate when you need to check your coolant level, or you might see coolant that’s dripped to the ground where your car is parked.
Important: Many cars have plastic shielding under them that catches dripping fluids, making it hard for you to detect leaks. Check your coolant level once a month to help spot these hidden leaks.
Worn-out or damaged tires. Blowing out a tire on the road is a danger for you and those around you. If you notice a bubble on your tire or that your tread is low, change your tires right away. You can check your treads yourself. Many tires have wear bars that show the legal depth for your tread. Look for up to six rubber indicators in a row that are recessed in the tread of the tire. When the tread is flush with wear bars, it’s time to replace your tire. Or, you can use the penny test—insert a penny with Lincoln’s head pointing down into your tire’s tread. If any of Lincoln’s head is covered by the tread, your tread still is deep enough. If the top of Lincoln’s head is completely exposed, you should replace that tire. While it’s best to replace all the tires at the same time, if just your front or rear tires appear worn, you might be able to replace just the pair of tires that share an axle.
Exception: Owners of all-wheel-drive vehicles typically should replace all four tires simultaneously.
Brakes that don’t sound or feel right. If you step on your brake pedal and it feels different from usual—such as being difficult to press or so soft that your foot nearly reaches the floor—a brake component, such as the brake cylinder, may be leaking. These problems must be fixed immediately by your mechanic because they can make it difficult to stop your car. Also, stay alert for grinding sounds, which might indicate problems with brake pads or wheel bearings. These, too, can be harbingers of bigger issues with those systems.
Even better: Proactively changing brake pads when they’re thin can help make your brake rotors last longer, saving you money. You can ask your mechanic to inspect your brake pads at each oil change so that you know when to replace them.
Steering problems. A power-steering belt can crack and break, causing your power steering to fail and put you ask risk for an accident due to reduced handling ability. Ask your mechanic to check that belt at each oil change, and if he spots a frayed or cracking belt, replace the belt immediately. Also, power-steering fluid can leak, putting strain on the fluid pump—a potentially costly fix down the line if that pump fails. Ask your mechanic to check your power-steering fluid level at each oil change.
Noisy ball joints. Ball joints connect your car’s wheels to the steering controls of the car—and if one fails, a wheel can fall off. Unfortunately, ball joints deteriorate as your car ages. Signs that a ball joint may be failing include clunking or scraping noises coming from the front end of your car when you turn or steering that feels unstable. If you or your mechanic suspects a problem, your mechanic can raise the car to see whether there is too much movement in the ball joint, requiring an immediate replacement.
Repairs that can wait…
Minor oil leaks: Although oil is critical to your engine’s health, you can wait to fix minor oil leaks. For example, if you’re losing less than one-half quart of oil every 3,000 miles and you aren’t seeing oil on the ground, you’re not in immediate danger of damaging your engine. Regularly check your oil level by looking at your dipstick. If the level is below the bottom line, you need to add oil. Keep your oil level full, and monitor the amount that you need to add. Normally, it’s a good idea to check your oil level monthly. But with a slow leak, check it more frequently.
Certain belts and hoses: Typically, car manufacturers recommend changing belts and hoses at regular intervals, such as every five years. But if those parts aren’t cracked, splitting or bulging when they reach their recommended replacement dates, you probably can wait longer.
Exception: Your car’s timing belt is critical to the proper operation of the engine, but it is not clearly visible and can’t be inspected for wear. As a result, it should be replaced at the recommended interval—typically about every 100,000 miles, depending on your car make and model—because if your belt snaps, your engine could be severely damaged.
Belts that are solely for vehicle systems that aren’t critical, such as air-conditioning, can wait indefinitely. Have your belts and hoses checked every six months or with your regular oil change to monitor their condition.
Dents in your bumper. You might think it’s obvious that dents are largely cosmetic and don’t have to be fixed immediately. However, there are shock absorbers behind the bumper cover and sensitive systems built into them (such as air bag sensors behind your front bumper or parking sensors behind your rear and your front bumper) that may be damaged in minor collisions. So while it’s not an emergency, ask your mechanic to check that these systems still are working properly after sustaining damage to a bumper. If internal components are sound, you can wait to fix the cosmetic damage.
Scratches. The urgency of this repair depends on where you live. If you’re in a climate where there is little rain and, in the winter, little or no salt used on the roads, you don’t have to fix a scratch immediately. But if you’re in a region with a lot of rain and especially one that uses road salt, you should fix scratches sooner rather than later so that they don’t lead to rust. You can buy touch-up paint from the dealer and fix all scratches yourself.
Exception: A surface scratch that doesn’t expose bare metal under the paint doesn’t need to be fixed immediately even in areas with harsh winters.