10 ways to spend less money on car repairs - insider tips

Updated: March 14, 2020
Maintaining your car is not cheap, but there are always ways to save. We know how the automotive service industry works, so we wanted to share a few insider tips.

Not all services are equally important

Technician explaining the problem Prioritize services.
If your dealer or repair shop recommends several services for your car, but you don't want to spend too much money on one visit, ask to prioritize. Which repairs are vital to keep your car safe? Which services can wait?

For example, your service advisor tells you that your car needs new brakes, new air filter and cooling system flush. If you ask these two questions, a service advisor will probably tell you that brakes are important for safety and the air filter and cooling system flush can wait.

When some part is recommended to be replaced, ask for details: How bad is it and how long can it last if you don't change it? You may find that your drive belt, while showing some discoloration, will probably last for a while longer, but your strut is leaking and is a safety concern that needs to be addressed ASAP.

The maintenance schedule will provide many answers

Repair estimate Get a written estimate and do some research.
Many car owners are familiar with the situation when you bring your car for a simple oil change, and you get a long list of recommended "flushes" and other maintenance services. If you are not sure that your car really needs them, check the maintenance schedule for your car. You can find it in the owner's manual or in a separate Warranty and Maintenance brochure.

For example, if the repair shop recommends new spark plugs, but your car is good on gas, runs like new and has only 50,000 miles, see what the maintenance schedule says. You may find that, according to the maintenance schedule, your spark plugs need to be replaced at 120,000 miles; which means that this service can wait. If the shop recommends an "engine flush" and it's not even mentioned in your maintenance schedule, your car may not even need it; do some research. To help you, we posted explanations of many common services in this article.

Parts don't always have to be changed in pairs

Suspension parts Many parts in your car come in pairs.
Your car has many parts in pairs, for example, left and right struts or left and right shock absorbers or sway bar links. Often, when one part fails, a repair shop may recommend replacing both, left and right parts. For example, if one of your front struts is leaking, the shop may recommend replacing both front struts. Ideally it's not a bad idea, since a new strut will perform a little differently than the old one. It's nice to have struts that are in the same condition on both sides. However, if your budget is tight, ask the mechanic if it's safe to replace only the strut that is bad. If it is, you can change only one strut and leave the other one for now, saving around $200-$350.

Look for specialty shops

Muffler shop Muffler shops can fabricate some exhaust parts on the spot.
If your car is out of warranty and your exhaust is leaking, you can save some money if you take it to a specialized muffler shop instead of a general car repair facility or a dealer. Muffler shops have more supplies and can fabricate some exhaust components on the spot or repair a broken part by welding. Often, their prices are reasonable.

If your windshield is cracked and you don't have insurance coverage for it, check with a local auto glass shop. Their prices are usually cheaper. If the original audio unit has failed and your car is out of warranty, consider installing an aftermarket audio unit at a local car electronics shop instead. It might be much cheaper than replacing it with an OEM unit.

Additives and upgrades

Oil additive Some additives can help with expensive problems.
If you plan on keeping your car for a while and use it for towing, consider installing an additional transmission fluid cooler. Many transmission problems are caused by overheating, and an extra cooler can help avoid expensive transmission repairs.
If your manual gear box grinds when shifting into a gear, it's probably because some of the synchronizers are worn out. Repairing it will be expensive. There are, however, special gear oils that can reduce grinding. It's worth trying before spending a couple of thousand on rebuilding the gear box.

There are engine oil additives that can help reduce oil consumption between oil changes. A fuel additive that costs $5-$15 can clean clogged fuel injectors; it's cheaper than doing the fuel injection service at a repair shop. Check reviews and ratings for the product you intend to use.

What if your Check Engine light came on

Check Engine light Check Engine light.
Repairing the Check Engine light problem could cost you hundreds of dollars, including diagnostics. If the car is out of warranty, it's a gravy for dealership service departments. If the Check Engine light stays on, it means that there is a fault code stored in your vehicle computer. Some parts stores, like AutoZone offer to scan your vehicle for free and read the fault code. Once you know the code, you might be able to save some money. How?
Sometimes, the Check Engine light might be caused by something simple, like a gas cap that is not tight, or a loose battery cable clamp, or low oil level. For example, if a gas cap is not closed tight after filling up, it will most likely cause the trouble code P0455 that stands for Large EVAP leak.

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Often, it's some inexpensive part that fails. Once you know the code, you can google common issues that can cause this code in your make and model. This will help you decide on repair options.

Look up local parts stores that can scan your vehicle for free. You can even buy a simple code reader or scan tool that can read a fault code. A basic OBD-II scan tool costs around $50-$60.

Many repairs can be avoided

Adding engine oil Keep your oil level topped up.
Many expensive repairs can be avoided if you catch problems early. For example, If you notice that your coolant level is getting low, you might just need to replace a small hose that is leaking. If a coolant leak is not detected, over time, loss of coolant can cause the engine to overheat. This will require a much more expensive repair.

If you found that your oil was low and topped it up before a long trip, you might have saved hundreds of dollars because many engine problems are caused by running low on oil. Read more: How to check and top up your oil. Checking your car regularly and keeping all the fluids topped up pays off.

Some repairs can be done DIY

Adding engine oil Changing an air filter.
Many car owners do simple repairs at home. If you are confident in your skills and have necessary tools, why not consider DIY? Google: How to replace an air filter in 2019 Ford Escape? - you will find a guide with photos or a YouTube video that someone shared.

If you are ready to take on more serious repairs but don't have special tools, some auto parts stores (e.g. AutoZone) offer tool loan programs where you can borrow some special tools. If you need a repair guide, there are websites where you can buy instant access to a repair manual for your car: AlldataDIY.com, eAutoRepair.net, Chiltondiy.com

Power of secret warranties

Warranty brochure Warranty brochure.
Sometimes car manufacturers extend the warranty coverage for certain components when they realize that it's a common problem. The problem is that they don't advertise this type of information. These are so-called "secret warranties." How can you find this out?

First, it makes sense to check for recalls at the NHTSA website. Second, check owner forums dedicated to this make and model to see if someone had to deal with the same problem and if it was covered. Third, search for technical service bulletins related to the problem. Fourth, check with your dealer.

We know cases where car manufacturers approve certain out-of-warranty or "goodwill" repairs. They are more likely to do so if it's a safety-related problem and if your warranty has expired recently. Sometimes they may cover a portion of the repair cost. Your dealer can help you with the process.

Coupons, promotions and rewards

Browsing internet Research coupons.
Before visiting your dealer or repair shop, check the company's website for coupons, specials or service deals and see if they offer a rewards program. Often dealers offer free perks as part of a seasonal promotion. Some shops offer free wheel alignment when you buy a set of tires. Many dealers offer discounts on brake replacements and other services during off-peak seasons (e.g. January or February).

Many larger dealerships offer reward programs where a percentage of what you pay for parts and services gets credited towards your next service or vehicle purchase. If you plan to stay with the same dealer for many years, why not get some money back?