Image: Portra Images/Taxi/Getty Images
About This QuizNo matter how much you might believe in the DIY ethic, the hands-on approach doesn't make sense for all car repairs. This quiz might help you decide when it's time to call a pro.
If you're reading about DIY maintenance on the Internet, chances are, it's an older vehicle that's giving you problems. But before we get started, we really have to ask: Is the car still under warranty?
If the car is not under warranty, you can start getting ready for your project. If it is under warranty, though, it's a really bad idea to start messing around with it. You paid for the warranty, so you might as well use what you paid for. And, not only that, lots of manufacturers and aftermarket warranty companies will void a warranty if they discover that any work is done outside of the approved repair facilities. If you're not sure about your car's warranty status, it's worth checking out.
Hmmm … not sure.
What's the worst-case scenario if your first repair attempt is unsuccessful?
No big deal. Take it back apart, clean it up and try again.
If a failed repair won't break the budget (or your spirit) go for it. But if the task at hand is something you can't afford to screw up, that's a strong argument in favor of taking it to a pro.
It'll take another trip to the auto parts store for some relatively inexpensive replacement parts … but hey, it's part of the learning experience, right?
The test drive might be kind of dangerous, and another round of parts might be really expensive. Fingers crossed!
There are a few more things to consider before you start getting dirty. If it comes down to it, do you have any skilled friends or neighbors to help you out with your repair project?
Yup! And I’ve got beer and pizza at the ready!
Let’s face it, two heads are usually better than one -- especially in the case of a tricky, unfamiliar or potentially dangerous repair. Sure, there are plenty of automotive chores that don’t need to be completed by a committee … but then, why would you be considering a mechanic, anyway?
What my crew lacks in talent, they make up with enthusiasm.
Nope. The garage becomes too crowded, too quickly.
How well stocked is your garage?
There are some screwdrivers, a wash bucket, a bottle of soap and a mitt.
The fully loaded tool chest is the showpiece of the garage. Well, after the car, of course.
If you don’t have a decent work space and the right set of tools, it’s probably time to take the car to a well-equipped shop. You likely won’t manage a safe or quality repair if you’re improvising with second-rate tools or putting yourself at risk of eviction.
What garage? I work in my apartment building’s parking lot, "borrow" tools from my neighbors and hope no one calls the building manager or the police before I finish.
Think about what you’re about to do, and try to remember if you’ve ever successfully completed similar repairs before. If you’ve never tackled this specific repair before, what’s your plan of attack?
Follow the owner’s manual
Research it online or follow the car’s repair manual
Hint: An owner’s manual and a repair manual (aka a shop manual) are not the same thing. The owner’s manual that comes with the car can easily walk you through simple maintenance such as replacing fluids or changing fuses -- anything larger than that and an amateur will likely need more guidance. Try an online forum specific to the car, or, better yet, go to the auto parts store and invest in a shop manual.
Let’s look at more specific types of repairs. Brakes are a common repair or replacement project, since brake parts wear out regularly. What do you know about brake repairs?
Brake repairs are a fast, easy, risk-free project
Doing brake repairs at home is a great way to save money, since it doesn’t require any special tools
A lot of brake jobs may seem simple, and often are, but it’s also fairly easy to get taken by surprise when you need a special tool, a specific type of fluid or a second set of hands to finish the task.
Unless you’re experienced with brake repairs, you might want to consider going to a mechanic. If you're distracted during a brake job, the results could be dangerous -- or even deadly.
Your car’s been running a little sloppy for a day or two -- hesitating, misfiring and making weird noises. So far, you've been able to ignore it -- until your engine started giving you error codes. Do you have any idea how to figure out what might be wrong?
Sure, it takes just a few minutes to hook up the OBDII scan tool and figure out what the code means.
If your engine is running rough and giving you error messages, you need to get your car checked out. If you’ve already invested in a scan tool, well, nicely done! However, that’s just a start. You’ll probably still need a mechanic to diagnose and repair the problem -- but at least you’ll have an idea of what’s wrong.
I think there’s an app for that.
The car seems to be running fine, but the "Check Engine" light is on. What now?
Yank the fuse for the instrument cluster so the light doesn’t distract you.
Turn up the radio and wait until the car starts acting funny.
Pay attention for trouble symptoms while you’re driving. When you get home, pop the hood, let the engine bay cool off and then poke around to make sure there’s nothing leaking, loose or broken. Then it’s time to make the call.
If you’re willing to ignore potential engine problems and don’t know how to check under the hood for even the most obvious signs of trouble, you definitely need a mechanic to help you with potential powertrain problems.
You just noticed your car might be leaking some sort of fluid. What do you do next?
Check all the spots that are most likely to leak -- underneath the engine, near the gas tank, around brake line connections and at the radiator.
If you can identify the fluid by smell, color, or texture, at least you’ll know if it’s safe to drive the car or not. If you have no idea what the fluid is or where it’s coming from, it’s time to get your drippy ride over to a pro.
Dip your finger in the puddle and taste it to see if you can figure out what it is. If it’s sweet, it’s poisonous. If it’s not … well, it’s probably still poisonous. Whoops!
Ignore it. If something is really wrong, it'll be obvious once the car is moving.
What does it mean if you have a sudden decrease in your average gas mileage?
Someone probably siphoned the gas from your tank last night.
Something’s probably wrong -- a gas leak or a problem with the engine’s overall operating efficiency are likely culprits.
Gas mileage may vary from time to time, depending on the weather, where you’ve been driving, or even how much stuff is crammed in your trunk. But a sudden, huge decrease in gas mileage means something is probably wrong. If the car seems fine otherwise, it could be difficult for you to diagnose at home. This is another job for a pro.
I’m supposed to be paying attention to that kind of thing?
Do you know what to do if your car starts shaking?
Drive faster. Happens all the time.
Drive slower. Happens all the time.
There’s probably something wrong with the wheel alignment, or maybe another part of your car's suspension. Carefully drive somewhere safe and have a look.
Maybe a wheel is loose, or maybe that pothole you just hit screwed up the alignment. In any case, a violent and suddenly shaking car should definitely be taken to a mechanic.
So, you safely made it home with your shaking car, and you figured out that all the wheels are still on securely. That means your alignment is probably off. Can you fix that yourself?
No. An alignment job requires specialized tools.
These days, alignments are computer calibrated and require lots of expensive equipment. There’s no way to fix this on your own.
No. An alignment isn’t fixable, you'll need to replace your car.
Sure. Why not?
If you notice an odd odor when you’re driving, it’s often a sign that something is wrong. Do you know what it means if your car smells like it’s spewing sulfur, or the exhaust reeks like eggs?
There’s probably something wrong somewhere in the exhaust system.
The eggy smell means the catalytic converter needs attention. This is definitely a job for a pro, and you should try calling your car dealership to see if it’s covered -- even if your car is out of warranty. Some laws require extended coverage on pollution-reducing exhaust components, such as the cat.
That pesky neighbor kid stuffed his lunch bag in the tailpipe.
No, but it’ll probably be expensive.
The exhaust system can reveal a lot about how your car is running. Do you know what it means when blue smoke is coming from the tailpipe?
It means there’s something wrong with the O2 sensor.
It means the car is burning oil.
If the exhaust coming from the tailpipe is any color other than white, it typically means something is wrong. Get the car to a mechanic, because blue smoke indicates the engine is burning oil, which can be a sign of (or a cause of) bigger problems.
It means the exhaust bearings need to be replaced.
Now that we know what blue exhaust smoke means, what about black exhaust clouds?
It doesn’t mean anything -- that’s the normal color.
It means the car is burning oil.
It means there’s something wrong with the O2 sensor.
Black exhaust definitely isn’t normal. If your tailpipe emissions are a dark, smoky color, your oxygen sensor probably needs to be replaced. On some cars this is a simple project, but on others, the O2 sensor is located in a hard-to-access spot and might need a mechanic’s expertise.
What should you do if you hear a loud grinding noise when you step on the brakes?
Reach down and take the kids’ toys out from under the brake pedal.
Turn up the radio and forget about it.
Take the car to the mechanic and have him (or her) check the brake pads for wear.
Grinding from the brakes usually means the friction material on the brake pads is too worn down to work properly -- and you definitely don’t want to drive with old brake pads. If you have experience putting your car up on jack stands and removing the wheels, installing new brake pads might be a job you can handle at home. It's relatively simple. Otherwise, see a mechanic, because you really shouldn’t take chances with your car’s brakes.
Have you noticed a lag when you step on the throttle? If the engine revs really high, and it feels like the rest of the car is struggling to catch up, it could be a problem with:
If you notice a lag while you're accelerating, try keeping an eye on your tachometer. If the engine revs up, but you feel the car isn’t moving as fast as it should be based on the engine speed, it could be a problem with your transmission. Whether your car has an automatic or a manual transmission, shifting problems will almost always require a mechanic's intervention.
The wheel bearings
If trying to steer your car in a crowded parking lot is like going to the gym for an upper-body workout, what's wrong? And does a mechanic need to get involved?
The steering wheel probably needs to be replaced.
The power steering fluid is probably low.
If the power steering fluid is low, it'll be noticeably more difficult to steer your car at slower speeds. The good news is that it's pretty easy to check this problem yourself -- locate the power steering fluid reservoir with the help of your owner's manual, and top it off with the recommended fluid.
The alignment probably needs to be loosened.
Often, an auto mechanic can help out when you might think you know the source of the problem, but you’re still not positive. In the previous question, you learned that a lack of power steering fluid can make it difficult to steer your car at slow speeds. But similar symptoms can mean different things. What might be wrong if your car is dragging to one side?
The brakes are sticking on one side.
Brake problems aren’t to be ignored. Head to an auto shop if your car is dragging -- it’s best to let a pro handle this diagnosis.
The car needs a new equilibrium.
It’s fine -- it’s just how the road is sloped.
There’s something wrong somewhere in your car's electrical system -- the battery drains rapidly, the alternator whines or maybe the lights flicker randomly. Do you have a test light and a voltmeter in your toolbox? And do you know how to use them?
If you don’t know the basics of working with a car's electrical system (and how to protect yourself from injury) any electrical job is best left to a mechanic. Electrical problems can be time-consuming to properly diagnose, and it’s easy for an amateur to make the problem worse -- or even get hurt while attempting the repair.
Those aren’t real tools -- this is a trick question.
Portra Images/Taxi/Getty Images