In 2013, I moved 1000 miles away from home to Nashville, Tennessee. The one friend I had in Nashville went off to college, and I found myself in a new place with a new life to create for myself. I got a job, found an apartment, and lived as a real adult… right after high school. That year changed my life for the better (and certainly prepared me for college), but I definitely had to get through some bumps and bruises to get there. Because of that, I wanted to start a short series called “how to adult,” which outlines some of the common struggles of moving out on your own, supporting yourself, and navigating the real world.
This week’s topic is cars (the good, the bad, and the ugly). I’ll walk you through the routine maintenance your car needs, when to panic and when not to panic about problems, and how to make sure you’re not getting ripped off. Cars are awesome, and many places need them. They’re also not so scary once you understand some basics!
1. Routine Maintenance
The sticker at the top of your windshield should tell you the mileage of your next oil change. You can go a couple hundred miles over this number, but try not to go too far over it. This is the most basic and common maintenance your car needs and also includes replacement of your oil filter. At an oil change, a good mechanic will also do a tire rotation, which will keep your tires from getting uneven wear. You know how your sneakers eventually wear down in different places from running and walking on them? The same thing happens to tires. That’s why they need to be rotated. Don’t be afraid to ask for this. A good mechanic will also check over your car when you get an oil change, and make sure everything is in working order. You can ask for this, too.
An oil change is a good way to spot a trustworthy mechanic. With conventional oil, it should cost around $30. In places like New York, or in the suburbs, it could cost more than that. But it shouldn’t be much more.
If your car smells like burning oil, or if the oil change light comes on, it’s time to at least get it checked, even if you haven’t reached the mileage on the sticker. If you want to check yourself, it’s actually pretty easy and only takes a rag and a cooled-off car.
While we’re on routine maintenance, make sure your tires are properly inflated. You can do this by buying a cheap gauge for yourself or asking a mechanic to check. They can (if they’re not busy) put air in them for free. Gas stations also have pumps to put air into your tires.
2. When to panic and when not to panic
Your car has three types of lights. The green lights, like your turn signals, mean go. The yellow lights, like your check engine light, mean proceed with caution: you can drive, but you may damage your car depending on why the light is on. The red lights, like the light that shows your battery or the oil pressure warning, mean don’t go under any circumstances. Pull over, stop the car, and call AAA or a tow truck. By the way, when you pull over, you should put on another red light: your hazard lights. Once you get to a place out of traffic, turn off your car.
The check engine light will probably come on most often. Luckily, most places should check it for free. Look for an AutoZone, Firestone, or O’Reilly if you want the check engine light investigated for free. They’ll hook your car up to a machine, which generates a code that diagnoses the problem. Sometimes, it’s a big problem, and sometimes it’s just a faulty sensor. Sometimes it just means your gas cap is loose, or the light has come on by accident. A check engine light isn’t always cause for panic, and you can sometimes drive with it on. Unfortunately, if you live in a state that requires inspection, you need the light to be off in order to pass. In review: check engine light = don’t panic, but get it checked out.
If your car overheats (which you can see by the little gauge near your gas gauge), pull over and stop the car immediately. If you drive a hot car, your engine will lock, and as my mechanic puts it, “you just got yourself a two-ton paperweight.” Do not, under any circumstance, drive a hot car. Ever. That said, in an absolute emergency, driving fast will temporarily cool the engine off. Sitting in traffic is the worst thing you can do for it.
I’d advise you to keep a simple emergency kit. It’s a great way to feel less panicked about your car. In my trunk, I keep a spare tire (with a wrench), jumper cables (the most important part), water to fill up my radiator in an emergency, and a flashlight. I also have a window smasher, a seatbelt cutter, and mace, but these are because I travel alone quite a bit.
3. How to not get ripped off
There are tons of great mechanics out there. For instance, the mechanics at Campus Auto in Gambier have been extremely kind to me. However, you can’t always tell if you’re being treated fairly, and some mechanics are not worth your time and money. I have experienced people making up parts to charge me for or exaggerating the difficulty of a repair in order to charge more. These people banked on me not understanding the repairs I was getting. Luckily, I did.
Here are some tips for finding a good mechanic:
• Know your car. Some cars have quirks, and that’s good for a mechanic to know.
• Check out reviews on Google or Yelp, or ask community members for their recommendations. They’ll probably have a lot to say.
• A mechanic should always be able to explain what they’re doing to you. When I had to have an expensive head gasket repair last year, the mechanics at Campus Auto took me into the garage and showed me an example of a broken and a replacement gasket, showed me where the gaskets went in the car and why they did the repair the way that they did. Although this is an example of someone going above and beyond, you should at least be able to get a basic idea of what needs to be done and why.
• Once you have an idea of what’s wrong, cross reference. I cannot stress this enough. Just Google (problem name) cost or (problem name) estimate, along with the make, model, and year of your car. If you have a Subaru, try All Wheel Drive Auto. They’re an amazing resource. Make sure the price you’re getting at least resembles the prices others have gotten for the same repair. Another great way to price check is to call the car dealer. For instance, subaru.com has a customer support page with a number to call. I have called that number before with more expensive repairs and asked, “is this a fair price?” They are happy to help, as long as you give them enough information.
• Educate yourself! Look online and see if the problem is common. Sometimes, there’s even a recall on the part, and you can look into getting it fixed for free. There are even small repairs or checks that you can do yourself like checking oil, replacing wiper fluid, and even changing a tire. A great way to learn how to maintain your car is Auto Repair for Dummies. I try to take every unexpected repair as an opportunity to learn more about how cars work. That way, with repairs, you’re not only investing in your car; you’re also investing in yourself.
Although this may seem complicated, remember: just because you’ve never done something before doesn’t mean you can’t do it. Cars are a learning process, and a fun learning process at that! Although maintaining them seems daunting, it’s also rewarding. And at the end of the day, having a good car will make you safer. And there’s quite a lot of value in that.
Image Credit: Sisterhood Agenda, Dummies, Automatic, Briggs Buic GMC