Caring for your car and keeping it in proper running order takes a little bit of effort, but you definitely don’t have to be a mechanical whiz to keep your vehicle running well. The biggest hurdle is being aware of what needs to be done—and how often—for optimal vehicle upkeep. By knowing the basics about what your car needs, and when you should perform routine car maintenance, you’ll ensure that your car is in top-running condition.
As an added bonus, if you can prove that your vehicle has been well maintained, you’ll be able to ask top dollar when it’s time to resell it. And, of course, it’s important to remember that car maintenance costs, while not always cheap, can ultimately help you avoid expensive repairs down the road.
To make it easy to keep track of your car maintenance schedule, we’ve created a simple, downloadable car maintenance checklist to help you keep on top of your automotive maintenance.
Short Term Check-ups
For proper vehicle maintenance, inspect the following:
Oil and Coolant Levels
Every month, or every few gas fill-ups and especially before any longer road trips, it’s a good idea to get under the hood of your car and inspect both the oil and coolant levels while the engine is cool. Low levels of either can lead to engine problems if left unchecked. Refer to your owner’s manual to locate both on your specific vehicle.
Your engine’s air filter is what regulates the air that flows into your engine and helps keep out debris and particulate. By making certain that your air filter is flowing properly, you can improve your fuel efficiency, decrease your emissions, and help ensure the life of your engine. This can be done easily at home, so check your owner’s manual for instructions and how often it needs to be changed.
Tire Pressure and Tread Depth
Since well-maintained tires are integral to a safe, fuel-efficient ride, make it a habit to visually inspect your tires often. Check the pressure in your tires every month, and before long trips or carrying extra load. Don’t forget the spare. A tire pressure gauge will be needed to check your tire pressure. Also, during the colder months, note that tire pressure drops one pound with every 10 degree decrease in pressure. Your owner’s manual will tell you how much air pressure your tire needs. You can check your tread depth using the simple penny method.
Headlights, Turn Signals, Brake, and Parking Lights
It’s important that the lights on your vehicle are properly functioning, but oftentimes it can be easy item to overlook. Once a month, turn on your headlights when you’re parked in front of a flat surface and check that both headlights are working properly and well-positioned. Walk around your car and visually inspect both turn signals and your parking lights. Have a friend stand behind the car while you engage the brakes to be certain that your brake lights are functional.
Oil & Filter
The motor oil in your vehicle’s engine serves a whole slew of functions: it lubricates the moving parts, helps act as a sealant against debris, cools the engine, reduces wear and tear, and helps prevent engine corrosion. Keeping it clean is vital for good engine health. Depending on your car and what kind of oil you’re using, you may need to change both the oil & oil filter as much as every 3 months or 3000 miles. Many newer vehicles’ owners’ manuals will recommend changing your oil less frequently – often in-between 5,000 and 10,000 miles. Check your vehicle owner’s manual and consult with a professional to be certain what is appropriate for your vehicle.
Depending on your vehicle alignment, usage, and many other factors, the tread wear patterns on your tires may vary between the front and back tires, or even from one side of the tread to the other. Rotating your tires will help to extend the service life of your tires by more evenly balancing the tread wear, and helping prevent noise and vibration problems.
Making certain to wax your vehicle every six months after washing it won’t just keep it shiny, it’ll also help to keep both the paint in good shape and reduce the chance of rust. Many irritants such as dust, sand, and salt can build up and environmental factors like ozone and ultraviolet light can cause microscopic damage, but waxing can help minimize this by forming a protective seal to extend your paint’s life.
Long Term Check-Ups
Much like the oil in your engine, transmission fluid is a lubricant that helps keep all of the moving parts inside of your transmission functioning properly. Whether you’re driving an automatic or manual transmission vehicle, it is essential that you have your transmission fluid checked and changed when needed to avoid costly transmission damage or replacement. Follow the vehicle manufacturer’s recommendations.
Transfer Case Fluid
In four-wheel or all-wheel drive vehicles, the transfer case is what shifts power from the transmission to the axles. You’ll need to have the transfer case fluid checked according to the vehicle manufacturer recommendations to make certain that it is properly filled and leak-free. This will require you getting under the vehicle, so bringing it into a professional is recommended.
Inspect Shocks and Struts
The shocks and struts on your car function to control the impact and rebound as your vehicle passes over bumps in the road and are an essential part of your auto’s steering system. They should be inspected by a professional every 50,000 miles or bring your car in to the shop if you notice a decrease in smoothness or loss of control when driving.
Coolant Fluid Exchange
The radiator in your car is a vital component that helps keep your engine cool and functioning properly. Having your coolant system flushed regularly will help get rid of contaminants that can build up inside as well as ensure that your radiator is filled to a proper level. Check your vehicle manufacturer’s recommendation to find out how often your coolant should be exchanged,
The spark plugs in your engine ignite the gas and air mixture that ultimately powers your vehicle . If your spark plugs aren’t functioning properly, your engine will lose power and won’t run at optimal capacity. Have a professional check and replace any faulty spark plugs depending on vehicle mfr recommendations or when you feel a decrease in your engine’s power.
Although may seem like a simple piece of rubber, your vehicle’s serpentine belt is essential to keeping your car running by powering peripheral devices such as your alternator, power steering pump, and air conditioner compressor. Visually inspect the belt to ensure that it is free of cracks or other wear and tear. Replace id damaged or according to your vehicle manufacture’s recommendation.
Front and/or Rear Differential
The differentials are devices that split the torque—or power—from the engine and allow it to send power to the tires. In front or rear-wheel drive vehicles, there is only one differential, but in 4-wheel and all-wheel drive vehicles, there is both a front and rear differential, and possibly even a center differential. Like many parts of your vehicle, the differentials need to be kept lubricated to ensure proper functionality. Have a professional check and change fluid whenever your vehicle manufacturer recommends it.
The needs of your vehicle can vary by season and driving conditions. Following are a few suggestions to add to the notes section of your vehicle maintenance checklist:
Replace Windshield Wipers
Windshield wipers need to be replaced about once every year, or whenever the effectiveness is compromised. In winter months, it could also be a good idea to install winter wiper blades for optimum performance. You should also pull your wipers away from the window when parked during the winter to prevent ice buildup.
Battery Performance Check
Your car battery is one of the most important components for your vehicle to run. A car battery supplies large amounts of electrical current for the starter, engine and other electronic accessories in the vehicle. Extreme temperatures affect the performance of the battery so regular battery testing will ensure that battery will perform when you need it to.
Depending on where you live and the winter driving conditions you might encounter, you might want to switch your tires in cold, snowy months to a winter/snow tire. When the temperature hovers at or below freezing consistently, the tire compounds in non-winter tires hardens, decreasing traction and handling performance while increasing braking distance. Winter tires are have tread patterns and compounds designed to remain soft in the cold and provide grip in snow, slush, and icy driving conditions.
Check Coolant Levels
It’s also important to check your antifreeze levels in your radiator in winter months to keep your radiator or engine components from freezing. A 50/50 mix of antifreeze to water is generally recommended, but check your owner’s manual or with a professional to be certain.
Sticking to a car maintenance schedule, and keeping good records of what you’ve done, can help extend the life of your vehicle and protect you against breakdowns, expensive repairs, and other unwelcomed surprises.