help me be a better car owner
November 7, 2011 4:03 PM   Subscribe

I am a first time car owner, and I realized recently that I am not taking proper care of my car, nor do I know how to take proper care of my car.

I saw this question, but I am not interested in learning how do things myself - I'm perfectly happy to have someone else change my oil.

What I want to know are things like this:
- how often do I need to take my car in to the mechanic for maintenance?
- what do I ask for when I take my car in?
- how do I know if the repairs the mechanic suggests are actually needed, or if the price is fair?

I'm sure there are other questions that I don't know to ask, either.

I'm happy to spend several hours reading about cars, but not interested in getting my hands dirty, it's just not my thing to tinker with cars. If anyone could point me towards resources to educate myself, I would appreciate that a lot.

I do know how to check my oil, and I've heard that you should change it every 5000 miles. I tend to forget to do this, and any tips for how to remember would be appreciated.

(oh, and I drive a 2009 Honda Fit, if that changes anything - but I'm really looking for general tips on car ownership/ maintenance, rather than tips that are specific to this car)

posted by insectosaurus to Travel & Transportation (20 answers total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
Fortunately for you, the Honda Fit has a maintenance minder. You don't have to really do anything but take it in when it tells you to. A wrench will appear on your dash, with several codes that correspond to changing oil, rotating tires, filter changes, etc. If you have a reputable dealer or mechanic, they'll stick to just doing what the maintenance minder says, and only recommend other services if absolutely necessary.

One caveat, though: if you drive really low miles, you should bring your car in at least once a year for an oil change. This is the case for me and my 2007 Fit, which says it needs an oil change roughly every 7500 miles.
posted by zsazsa at 4:13 PM on November 7, 2011

I recommend spending a bit of time on Car Talk's website.
CarTalk home...
Start here... the "owning" section.
There's a lotta stuff here, and Tom and Ray try to make the subject accessible.
I'd think that a 2009 Honda should remind you of the need for a service by a light, but not certain of that.
posted by drhydro at 4:13 PM on November 7, 2011

I think probably the best advice I could give would be to start cultivating a relationship with a good mechanic before you need one. It's a lot easier to trust someone telling you about big stuff that needs fixing when you know they haven't fleeced you for the small stuff. Looks like you're in LA--maybe someone here can recommend a specific shop that works on Hondas?

Also--you can always ask for a quote before any work is done. Then, depending on the severity of the needed repair, you can shop around to see if other places might do it for less.
posted by stellaluna at 4:45 PM on November 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

In addition to the notification light mentioned by zsazsa, your owner's manual will tell you the maintenance schedule for the car, including oil changes, belt replacement, coolant flush, etc. There are a lot of wives' tales out there about how frequently these things should be done - ignore them and follow the schedule in your manual.

Beyond that:
  • Keep an eye on tire pressure every couple months. There should be a sticker on the door or in the center console telling you how much pressure they should hold (probably around 32-34 psi).
  • Relatedly, watch tire wear. After 40 to 70k miles, you will need new tires. There is a tread wear indicator that gives you an idea of how far they are from needing replacement.
  • If you don't rack up a lot of miles, so you're going many months between oil changes, then keep an eye on the oil level once a month or so. (There is usually a light to warn you if it's low, but you shouldn't rely on it as your only check.)
  • In general, be alert for funny noises and behaviors. A tab on your brakes will make a high-pitched scraping sound when the pads are almost worn out. Vibration in the steering wheel often means you need to have your wheels balanced or alignment checked. Fixing problems as soon as you notice them is better for your chances of keeping costs down - they tend to compound over time.
All that said, a car like your Fit will probably work perfectly fine for 150k miles with almost no maintenance whatsoever, and then run to 300k miles with a bit more frequent maintenance.
posted by knave at 4:54 PM on November 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

Sorry, better link for examining tread wear.
posted by knave at 4:57 PM on November 7, 2011

- how often do I need to take my car in to the mechanic for maintenance?

People who follow the maintenance schedule as listed in their owner's manual tend to have the least problems with their cars over its lifetime. Your car has the maintenance minder, which will inform you when to take the car in. It will put up symbols for what needs to be done. Here's the list out of the manual (really big PDF):

A: Oil change due.
B: Oil change. Also inspect brakes, adjust parking brake as needed, check steering, gearbox, boots, suspension, brakes lines, all fluids, exhaust and fuel lines.
1: Rotate tires.
2: Replace air filters, check drive belt.
3: Transmission fluid flush.
4: Spark plugs and engine inspection.
5: Radiator coolant flush

- what do I ask for when I take my car in?

Tell them "the maintenance minder came on, showing A and 2, when can I bring it in for service?"

- how do I know if the repairs the mechanic suggests are actually needed, or if the price is fair?

You will have to do some looking around for this. Check on the typical ratings websites for good, trustworthy mechanics. Dealers will follow things by the book and will often result in the least hassle for warranty issues should something major break in your car, however, dealers tend to be the highest priced. I personally take my car (beater Chevy) to a local mechanic that gets good ratings and I've never had an issue. Most prices for these services are fairly regular.
posted by Mister Fabulous at 4:59 PM on November 7, 2011

The best thing to do is to look in your owner's manual. Depending on the car and how much you drive it, the time to change your oil varies. Believe it or not, the car manufacturer will give you the best information on that and it is listed in the owners manual.

You can get a sticker to put on your car to remind yourself of when to change it. A Jiffy lube or some sort of company like that would be happy to give you a sticker for free if you ask nicely. Plus, they'd like to be the ones to remind you since you may go to them for an oil change.

You should check your transmission fluid too. Not just for level, but for cleanliness since like motor oil, it will need to be changed.

How much will you be driving the car?

The quickest things that need to be changed are: windshield fluid, motor oil and filter, air filter, breaks, transmission fluid, antifreeze, belts.

When you get gas, have the attendant check them for you and stand next to him or her so you can see what they are doing and you can see the color of the fluid when it's clean and what it will look like as you head toward needing a change.

Welcome to owning a car!
posted by Yellow at 5:00 PM on November 7, 2011

nthing all the above but also - listen to your car. It likes to be driven. Creaks, groans, muffled burps, pings, whirs, they all mean something. Maybe not now, but as your relationship with the car grows so will your vocabulary. As you learn your car note to yourself what noises (and smells) it creates. Then when you take it to the mechanic describe how the car sounds. A simple sound now may be solved with preventive care that could be a big bill later.

I have seen countless cars driven to their end by owners who did not bring the car in when it first started buzzing or shimmying...

Also, change the oil every 5000 miles or once a year if you do not drive that much.
posted by alfanut at 6:50 PM on November 7, 2011

WRT oil changes. You need to be using full-synthetic oil if you want to go 5,000 miles between oil changes. My understanding is that regular oil, even though it is mostly synthetic, will break down after three months or so no matter how many miles you drive. Unless you're driving 5,000 miles over three-months, your oil won't be as effective and you can cause extra wear on your engine. With full-synthetic, you only have to worry about the mileage and not the time.

Besides that, full-synthetic oil is better for your engine in the long-run. I buy mine in five quart jugs from where ever I find it cheapest (usually Walmart, much to my dismay) and have my mechanic do the rest.

They put a little sticker in the upper-left corner of the windshield with the mileage you'll have when you're due for your next change. You should keep track of your mileage for a little bit to come up with an average and use that to figure out about how often you need your oil changed and then set up a reoccurring calendar reminder with Google calendar or whatever you use.
posted by VTX at 7:02 PM on November 7, 2011

Also, change the oil every 5000 miles

WRT oil changes. You need to be using full-synthetic oil if you want to go 5,000 miles between oil changes.

... the aforementioned wives' tales. Follow the schedule in your owner's manual.
posted by knave at 7:21 PM on November 7, 2011

Hi! I also have a 2009 Fit. You've gotten a lot of good advice already, but I wanted to share something that I learned about the filters: You can very easily change them yourself.

There's the engine air filter, the enclosure for which you can see here (scroll down a bit). All you have to do is pop back the four clips to remove the cover. Then take out the old filter, put a new one in, replace the cover and clip it closed. Super easy.

Here are instructions for removing your cabin air filter (this is sometimes called the pollen filter). The creator of that site is advocating for not using a pollen filter at all -- I'm not sure if this is a good idea or not -- but you can use these photos/instructions to learn how to find and access the filter in order to change it. Note that the filter itself has to be oriented a certain way. There is an arrow printed on the edge of the filter, so when you remove the old one, just make a note of which way the arrow is pointing and put the new one in facing the same way.

You will save a lot of money by changing the filters yourself. The maintenance department of the dealership* wanted something like $65 to do the engine filter and $125(!!) to do the pollen filter. I have done this twice myself and each time the filters cost me under $20 each and the whole thing literally takes five minutes. The last time I bought the filters, I got them from this guy on eBay.

*Car dealerships are notorious for overcharging for service and repairs, so I'd advise you to ask around for recommendations of mechanics. I see that you're also in Los Angeles! The place I take my car to is in Santa Monica, which may be a little out of the way for you, but let me know if you want its name.
posted by kitty teeth at 7:54 PM on November 7, 2011

1/ The manual will tell you about service intervals and whatnot.

2/ It can be worth learning to do oil changes and filter changes yourself; it can save a bit of money. Given your car is still in the manufacturer warranty period, though, it may invalidate the warranty if you don't get it done by an authorized dealer.

3/ I probably over-service my cars. I get a service done pretty much whenever their warrant of fitness is due (every year for newer cars/bikes, ever 6 months for older ones).

4/ Get into the habit of checking the oil and (if automatic) transmission levels every month. Get someone mechanically literate to walk you through checking a dipstick if you can't fine a how-to on YouTube.

5/ Get into the habit of checking the tyre pressure and tread depth every couple of weeks. Rubber naturally leaks air and slow leaks (from e.g. small scrapes on tyre wall) can exacerbate this. The tyre being at the right pressures has a significant impact on the safety of your car, since it changes the handling and braking characteristics, as well as the fuel economy. The manual should have the correct air pressures.

6/ Wash it regularly. Depending on where you live and how often you're near salt (ocean, roads) this can make a significant difference to the longevity of the car.
posted by rodgerd at 10:13 PM on November 7, 2011

Some suggestions for knowing the mechanic is being honest:

-Get a second opinion for any major repairs. Many mechanics will do a quick inspection and quote for free.

-If the mechanic is replacing something, ask to see the old part. This is a tip I learned from a guy who used to be a mechanic. It is totally normal to ask. The mechanic should be able to show you what was wrong with it (if it's just a filter: how it is dirty; if it's a hose or radiator, where the leak is; etc). Also, this ensures that they did actually replace something, rather than just saying they did. If you are super-duper suspicious, you can ask to keep the old part. Then you can show it to another mechanic and really check that it needed replacing.

-To get a good mechanic recommendation, you could do what I did, and ask the guy who teaches car repair at your community college. He will probably be able to direct you to ex-students or other people he has worked with, and he has no reason to lie about their competence or honesty.

-At the very least, when work has been done under the bonnet, lift it up and take a look. Even if you don't know what you are looking for. A dishonest mechanic will remember the customers who never even took a peep at the work, and they are the ones s/he won't be so careful about doing high standard work for in the future.
posted by lollusc at 10:47 PM on November 7, 2011

Yes, just follow the directions in the owner's manual.

1- Oil. The oil change computers are smart enough to calculate time versus wear. If you follow its directions, you will mostly be fine. There is nothing wrong with changing your oil more often, however, except for cost. Just make sure that you reset the oil minder computer each time. One thing that is important: the oil minder assumes the oil level is correct. If you are a quart low, the remaining oil will be worked harder and it will wear out quicker.

(Yes, oil wears out. Mostly because oil is designed to pick up dirt and combustion byproducts and keep them from building up on the inside of the engine. Once it is "full", that stuff gets left in the engine. This stuff is dissolved in the oil, so it doesn't get removed by the filter.)

2- Find a carwash that has an undercarriage washer. Makes a huge difference if you live in salty areas. There is a place by me (DeltaSonic I think?) that gives you unlimited car washes for like $12.99 a month. At least in winter, if you have snow and salt, this is a good idea. Or just make sure you spray off all the encrusted snow and muck on those days when the temperature gets above freezing. Nothing is better at corrosion than dirty, salty water being held against the metal of the car by a glob of snow that hasn't melted yet.

At least a couple times a year, make sure the car gets hand washed with a rag/sponge/brush. "Touchless" washes will rinse the dirt off, but they aren't better at actually cleaning the paint. You need to wipe off the dirt grains that want to get embedded into the paint. This starts to become a problem after like 5-10 years.

Make sure you keep up on any nicks and dings, and fill them in with touchup paint. Those dings are where water gets into the paint and eventually makes it flake away and you start to get rust spots.

3- Buy the right kind of gas. If the manual says anything like "this car will perform fine on 87 octane, but will perform better with 91 octane", use 91 octane. If it doesn't, don't use it: the octane rating isn't an indicator of quality, but of how the gas burns. Some engines are designed to operate more efficiently with higher octane, some aren't. You are better off buying gas from a brand name station than buying higher octane if you don't need it.
posted by gjc at 5:51 AM on November 8, 2011

... the aforementioned wives' tales. Follow the schedule in your owner's manual.

Just to clarify, conventional oil can break-down over extended periods of time regardless of how many miles you drive. The rule used to be to change your oil every 3,000 miles or three month whichever comes first. With advances in engines and oil, you can certainly go a longer distance on conventional oil but I would be wary if it takes you six months or more before you've driven 5,000 miles. My Nissan recommends oil changes every 7,500 miles and some Honda's recommend 15,000 miles. It takes me well over a year to drive 15,000 miles and I would let conventional oil sit in my engine that long.

Full-synthetic oil doesn't have this problem and will still be fine no matter how long before you hit the mileage for your manual's recommended service interval.

However, I read this in an issue of Road & Track a few years ago. I can't seem to find the information on their website anymore and a most of the other information I can find only talks about miles and not about time so this might not be true anymore.
posted by VTX at 7:19 AM on November 8, 2011

Definitely keep your car clean. Cars get dirtier a lot faster than you realize, and excessive uncleanliness can actually degrade your car's quality. I didn't take very good care of my first car and I really regretted it. All the leaves that I neglected to brush from around the hood/trunk got moldy and nasty. Crusty bird droppings destroyed my clear coat. Sticky residue on the interior became impossible to clean off.

I got a new car this year, and I force myself to take it to a full-service wash every time I get my oil changed. (Some oil change places have a combo deal for this.) I also regularly shake out the floor mats, and wipe down and vacuum interior surfaces. I am not a huge fan of the automatic car wash drive-thru thingies but I do that if my car is super-dirty as well.
posted by radioamy at 7:55 AM on November 8, 2011

For now, follow the manufacturer's recommended service interval, from the manual. If your car has a service notifier, you can pay attention to it, but sanity-check your mileage against the manual just in case (that is, if the minder hasn't come on but maintenance is due from a mileage perspective, consider taking it in.)

Once you're around 80,000 miles, start hanging out on the forums for your particular car, to learn what issues are starting to crop up and what kinds of maintenance you might want to ramp up on.

Oh, and for the love of all that is holy, don't go to a Jiffy Lube or anything like that. Use the dealer while you're under warranty, and after that, talk to your car-owning friends to get recommendations for a quality independent mechanic.
posted by davejay at 4:29 PM on November 8, 2011

To davejay, and others saying to check the manual for mileage for maintenance intervals: there aren't any mileages in the manual, except for when the vehicle is driven in dusty conditions or mountainous areas. The only thing it says is to follow the maintenance minder on the dashboard.
posted by zsazsa at 11:07 PM on November 8, 2011

I typically get my cars with 100k and retire them around 200k so this may not be appropriate for folks who drive new cars but:

1. I check something every time I fill up. Sometimes oil and coolant. Sometimes tire air pressure. Sometimes transmission fluid. Sometimes windshield washer fluid. Sometimes I just clean my windshield. Takes 2-3 minutes and if something's awry, you can get out in front of it.

2. Oil changes at the shortest interval recommended. For most of the vehicles I've driven, that means every 3k but newer cars have longer intervals even for tough conditions. I agree on avoiding the Jiffy Lubes of the world but in a pinch, i'll use one.

3. Keep track of gas mileage if your car doesn't do it automatically. Big changes in mileage without commensurate changes in driving habits may be a sign of trouble.

4. A dryer sheet wrapped around the rearview mirror makes a great air freshener.

That's all I got.
posted by screamingnotlaughing at 10:05 AM on November 9, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks to all of you - these are all really helpful answers!
posted by insectosaurus at 11:00 AM on November 14, 2011

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