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The average price index of a new car jumped 20% from March 2021 to September 2023. Used car prices are rising as well, making buying a vehicle expensive for many people.
That’s why it’s important to take care of the car you have. Focusing on properly maintaining your current vehicle can help extend the life of your car and save you money.
Cars have many moving parts, so keeping on top of essential car maintenance may feel overwhelming. Here’s an ultimate car maintenance list to keep your car free of issues and ready to hit the road.
Alerts to check immediately
The following alerts are high-priority issues that need car maintenance immediately. Refer to your owner’s manual if you see any lights on your dashboard. You may need to service your car right away.
Check engine light
If your check engine light turns on, this typically means that the car’s computer has detected a trouble code. Common reasons your check engine light might come on include a loose gas cap, issues with the oxygen sensor, and problems with the catalytic converter.
When this light pops on, it’s a good idea to have a professional with a scanning tool check it out.
Tire pressure light
Your tire pressure light typically indicates that one or more of your tires have low tire pressure. Low tire pressure could raise your risk of hydroplaning, cause the tire to wear faster, and increase fuel usage.
If you look at the bottom of the driver-side door, you should see a sticker listing the recommended tire pressure for your vehicle. Once you’ve determined which tire has low pressure, you can add air at a pump at most gas stations.
Headlights and taillights
Headlights and taillights are critical in providing visibility for you and other cars, especially at night or in hazardous weather. You may be able to change a headlight yourself if your vehicle doesn’t require you to remove side panels to access the light bulb.
You can change your taillight by opening your trunk and accessing the light there. Some tail lights require you to remove the fixture to replace the bulb. Be careful when removing the lightbulb fixture, and wear gloves to prevent oils from damaging the bulb.
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You can prevent potential problems by staying on top of your vehicle’s fluids. You should check each of these fluids once a month.
When your engine is cool, remove the dipstick from the oil receptacle to check your oil. Wipe all the oil from the dipstick and reinsert it back into the oil. Pull the dipstick out again and look at both sides of the dipstick for the oil level. If your oil is too low, add more oil using a funnel.
Wait a few minutes after adding the oil for it to settle before rechecking the oil levels.
When you change the oil, if it’s dark or dirty-looking, it’s time for an oil change.
Checking your coolant is easier than checking your engine oil. Once you locate the coolant reservoir, look at the side of the container. The container is transparent, so you can see how much coolant is in there. If the coolant falls below the full line, remove the radiator cap and add more coolant until it reaches full.
Windshield wiper fluid
While you’re under the hood, check the fluid for your windshield wipers too. You won’t have a dipstick to check the wiper fluid. Instead, look for markings near the neck of the reservoir. If you don’t see any, fill the fluid to about two inches below the cap line. Use a funnel to avoid spilling washer fluid on the engine.
Automatic transmission fluid
You should check your transmission fluid every month and replace it every 30,000 to 50,000 miles. Transmission fluid helps keep your transmission cool and running smoothly.
You can check the transmission fluid by locating the dipstick near the back of the engine bay. You’ll want to check the transmission like you would the oil, but the engine should be warm, and you can leave the engine in idle while you check.
In addition to the fluid level, take a peek at the color. If it’s brown or dark red, you should book an appointment for a fluid change. If it’s brown or black, you’re risking damage to your transmission.
Check every 3 months or 3,000 miles
You should check a few other items at least every three months, typically around the time you would do an oil change.
Battery and cables
You can test your car battery at home using a low-cost multimeter. You’ll want to check the battery with everything shut off.
When connecting your multimeter, connect the red (positive) first, then the black (negative) terminal. Look for a reading between 12.4V and 12.7V. You should also look closely at the battery for any signs of corrosion, cracks, or bulges. Signs your battery could be going out include difficulty starting your car and dimming headlights.
While checking your battery, pull out your jumper cables and ensure they’re still in working condition.
Parts of your vehicle utilize belts to keep the car running. Newer vehicles have a single belt that operates most of the equipment under the hood. However, older vehicles may have separate belts for the alternator, water pump, power steering pump, and air conditioner.
You should change the belts on your car every 50,000 miles or once you notice excessive wear.
When inspecting any belts on your car, make sure the engine is cool. Look for cracks, slits, or frays. You should also keep an eye out for shiny belts. The glazing could cause the belt to slip or overheat.
Engine air filter
An engine air filter works like an air filter in your home. The filter prevents dust and debris from getting into the engine and causing damage. Clogged filters could permanently damage your engine.
Many mechanics will check your air filter as part of an oil change, but if you want to check your air filter yourself, clean the area around the engine with a vacuum or rag to remove any dust or debris. You’ll need to remove any bolts or clips holding your air filter box closed before removing the filter.
Look for damage, cracks, and wear and tear. When reinstalling the filter (or installing a new one), ensure the filter is set evenly in the box before closing it and reattaching the screws and clips.
Hoses are the weakest part of your engine and are more prone to cracking and damage. You can help prevent damage by ensuring the car’s fluids are kept to the proper levels. Car owners can check hoses once the engine is entirely cool.
Use your fingers to squeeze the hoses near the clamps. The hose should feel firm but pliant. If you find any soft spots, this is a sign that your hose may need replacing.
Look for any cracks, chips, bulges, or deflated sections. You should also check for any fraying where hoses connect to different components.
Power steering fluid
Under your hood, look for a small, clear container with a black cap. In many vehicles, it’s located near one of the wheels. If your power steering fluid has a dipstick, you can check the levels like you check your oil. If not, you can use the container to check the levels with the markings on the outside.
You can check the power steering fluid while it’s cold or hot, and the levels for each are marked on the outside of the container, so make sure you’re checking levels correctly. Most service centers will check your power steering fluid and other fluids when you go in for an oil change.
The average car owner should have a professional inspect the exhaust system thoroughly. While you can check your exhaust system using a vacuum cleaner and a funnel, some leaks may be undetectable without the help of a professional. Some mechanics will inspect the exhaust system during a 21-point inspection process.
Many states require emissions tests for car registrations, so it’s important to maintain your exhaust system properly.
Tire pressure and treads
Make checking your tire pressure a part of your regular maintenance routine. Maintaining ideal pressure ensures that your car functions at maximum efficiency and safety. You can check your tire pressure using a small pressure gauge and pressing against the open tire valve.
Remember that cold weather can affect your tire pressure. Colder temperatures cause the air to condense, so you’ll need to check your pressure and top it off.
Tire treads help your car maintain traction on the road. A quick visual inspection will tell you when it’s time to go shopping for new tires. You can check tire tread depth using a penny. Place the penny in the tires’ grooves, with the top of Lincoln’s head pointing toward the tire and with Lincoln facing toward you. If you can see all of Lincoln’s head, it’s time for a tire change.
Check every 5,000 miles
A few maintenance tasks require a little less attention on your car. But check these things every 5,000 miles to extend the life of your vehicle.
Engine oil and filter
Older recommendations encouraged drivers to change their oil every 3,000 miles, but more advanced lubricants allow drivers to safely go 5,000 miles between changes. Vehicles that use full synthetic oil can go even longer between oil changes.
Motor oil breaks down over time, and the residue in oil can make it less effective at keeping your engine running smoothly. An oil change completely removes all old oil from your oil pan and replaces it with new oil. Regular oil changes can extend the life of the parts in your engine and prevent costly repairs.
The oil filter helps remove contaminants from the oil. You should change the filter every other time you change your oil.
Rotating your tires saves you money and keeps you safe. Tires wear down unevenly depending on your driving patterns and their positions on the car.
Rotating your tires allows them to wear down more evenly so that you have to replace them less often. If your tires are wearing down more on one side, you may need to check your car’s alignment. Rotate your tires every 5,000 miles or according to your owner’s manual.
Check every 6 months or 6,000 miles
You should check the following at least twice yearly or every 6,000 miles. Your oil and lube service center may check some of these when you come in for an oil change.
The steering and suspension systems are part of the chassis in your vehicle. They’re essential for safe and effective driving and need proper lubrication to work. Newer models may have closed systems, meaning they don’t need regular maintenance.
However, many vehicles still have areas that require attention. Unless you’re intimately familiar with the inner workings of a car and have access to a jack or a full lift, you’ll likely want to work with a professional for this job.
Where you live can affect the exterior of your vehicle. For example, drivers in areas with a lot of snow may see a lot of road salt buildup during the winter months. Vehicles in drier areas are more prone to damage from sand and dust.
Regular maintenance of the car’s exterior can protect your vehicle’s body from rust and corrosion.
Since wiper blades are exposed to the elements, they can break down rather quickly. You might not give them much thought when they aren’t in use, but the first major rain or snowstorm can prove dangerous if your blades aren’t in good working condition.
Fortunately, wiper blades are a relatively inexpensive replacement that most car owners can handle on their own. If your blades leave streaks, look bent, or make squeaking noises during use, it’s time to change them out. Most drivers should plan to replace their blades once or twice per year.
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Check every 12 months or 12,000 miles
Here are a few items you’ll want to include on your annual maintenance checklist.
The brakes are arguably one of the most essential parts of your vehicle. Since you may need to remove the wheel to check your brake pads, you should leave this to the professionals. If you hear squeaking or grinding or feel vibrations when braking, it’s time to schedule a visit to ensure your brakes are working properly.
Worn brake pads can cause permanent damage to your brakes, so don’t wait to replace them.
Cabin air filter
The cabin air filter helps keep the inside of your vehicle safe from outside pollutants and allergens. The filter cleans the air through the heating and air conditioning system.
Depending on your car, you may be able to change the air filter yourself. The air filter is typically located behind the glove box, so you might need to remove the glove compartment to access the filter.
Car owners should regularly check and maintain their tire pressure, fluid levels, and tires to ensure safety on the road. Drivers should have more in-depth inspections annually.
How often should you conduct car maintenance checks?
You should conduct basic car maintenance tasks, like checking your engine oil and wiper fluid, every month. Some routine tasks, like batteries, engine air filters, and more, can wait until your next oil change. However, you should address check engine lights and other dashboard alerts immediately.
Are there maintenance checks that you can perform yourself, or should you always involve a professional?
Drivers can check and refill most fluids, maintain tire pressure, and change some filters on their own. More complex maintenance, like tire rotations and replacing transmission fluids, usually require the help of a professional.
What’s an essential car maintenance checklist?
A basic car maintenance list includes information and a timeline for checking and maintaining critical systems in your car to extend its life and ensure your safety. Typical tasks include managing fluid levels, checking tire pressure and treads, and replacing air filters.
Angela Brown is a freelance writer with 17 years of professional writing and editing experience. She specializes in finance, real estate, and insurance content. Angela uses her experience to create easy-to-understand content that helps consumers understand tough topics better. When she’s not working, she enjoys spending time with her family and planning vacations.