Why You Should Learn How to Work on Cars


While it would be most excellent if we all could ride around on bicycles or use public transportation to get to where we need to go, in reality that’s not what happens with most Americans.  Some live in towns with limited public transportation options, some have long commutes to work, some need their car for business while others just want the speed and convenience of getting from point A to B in an enclosed climate-controlled cage.  It’s no surprise that for most households “Transportation” is consistently one of the top 3 biggest expenses.

People spend a lot of money on cars and everything that they entail – car payments or cash to buy one outright, insurance, various state fees including registration and taxes, maintenance, accessories…  You can reduce some of the costs, for example by shopping around for insurance or driving less, but buying a car used instead of new has probably the biggest positive impact on the bottom line.  Besides costing less upfront, a cheaper car tends to have lower insurance (drop collision/comprehensive), lower fees and a much more palatable depreciation curve.  Of course the downside is that the older the car, the higher the maintenance costs associated with keeping it in good working order.

If you read this post about my car history, you already know that I only bought 1 vehicle new, which was a mistake but back then I liked to learn on my own mistakes rather than those of the others.  All the other 5 cars were older and most had high mileage.  Not only that, but 3 of them were older BMWs which are notoriously expensive to maintain, given complex engines and electronics and $150/hour dealer labor rates combined with expensive parts sold by the same dealer.  No wonder why a 5 year 3-series can be had for a price of a Toyota Corolla! Since I was always frugal (I know, an unusual follow up to the 3 BMWs) I was not ready to pay for the pricey maintenance but still wanted a chance to drive some of the best cars out there.  I had to devise a plan to reconcile both sides.

The plan was actually pretty simple – learn to do as much maintenance myself and learn how to get good deals on parts.  The latter was easy and intuitive because I love hunting for deals.  Turns out that most BMW parts are not inherently more expensive than any other car brands as long as you stay away from the dealer’s Parts Desk.  The former took some time, practice, bloody knuckles and swearing but I am now comfortable troubleshooting and working on pretty much anything that needs attention or can go wrong on a car.  The result is that I could own these nice bimmers at a fraction of the cost that someone without the same knowledge and skillset would surely spend.  The Yin of frugality and the Yang of wanting a sporty German car could happily co-exist!

Everything I learned while working on those 3 BMWs is, of course, applicable to any other vehicle with an Internal Combustion Engine.  I could probably even do whatever little maintenance there is on an electric car such as a Tesla.  While there is much less work to be done on the engine (when was the last time you maintained your vacuum cleaner’s engine?), there are still fluids to be changed, suspension components to be replaced, brakes to wear out, window regulators to go bad and other electronic gremlins to troubleshoot.

Since I now have most of the tools needed to tackle all kinds of auto projects, all I need to do is research the issue if it’s new to me and buy the right parts to fix the problem.  No more time wasted at the dealer along with their huge repair bills.  If there is something seriously wrong that I’m not willing or able to do in my own garage, at least I will be equipped to know what the issue is and how it needs to be addressed before I walk into a dealer’s office.

A quick example of how much money and time you can save just by knowing a little bit about cars follows.  Last month my mom complained about noise coming from the front passenger side wheel area of her car with 120,000 miles on the odometer.  After driving and confirming the noise I parked the car in my garage and noticed that the plastic liner inside the fender was hanging down and rubbing on the tire. Taking the car for a ride after fixing that problem with a couple of zip ties replacing broken clips the noise was still there. Since the easy repair did not help it was time to lift the car with a jack, take the wheel off and inspect the front suspension a little closer.  I quickly found the culprit – a torn CV boot that allowed the dirt and road grime to enter building up in the front axle joint and causing the noise. Knowing that the other side is usually not far behind, I took off the front driver side wheel and found that side torn as well.

This is not something I would want to do in my garage without a lift on a car with so much rust while laying on the floor, so I called a couple of shops to see how much it would be to repair. Since I knew exactly what needed to be fixed the conversation was just about the price and we quickly had the quotes.  All shops refused to use my own parts that I could buy much cheaper than they were quoting and their estimates ranged from $650 to $800 parts and labor.  I called my friend who just started a shop and he quoted me $180 for the labor.  After finding a $50 dollar off coupon for Advance Auto I ended up paying $95 for the parts for a total of $275.  My mom was happy to save more than $350 on this one repair and I was happy to help her.

Looking at the same example from a different angle – I earned over $450 pre-tax ($350 after tax) for about an hour of my efforts that went into this process.  This time I did not even do the repair work and still was able to save a ton of money just because I’m comfortable around cars.  Without help, my mom would certainly end up paying $650-800 to get her car back on the road and that’s what most people would do in her situation as well.  I have lots of other examples like this one and the amount we saved on car maintenance over the years is staggering.  I don’t know a lot of other opportunities that will allow you to make this type of a return so it seems logical to suggest that learning how to work on your car is one of the best investments you can make in yourself.

Best part is that the skills, the knowledge and the tools are all transferable to other “expensive labor” parts of your life and you will find yourself well equipped to handle anything from a broken lawnmower to a malfunctioning HVAC unit.


13 thoughts on “Why You Should Learn How to Work on Cars

  1. I hate going to the mechanic. It always seems like they’re out for my last nickle! Working on cars can definitely save money but, I love that you mentioned that the mechanic experience can go a lot further than that. Great post!

    • Thanks for the kind words, Josh! For me it’s 3 main things: saving money, saving time and knowing that I can fix most things that can go wrong.

      Money – self-explanatory. Labor is usually the most expensive part of the repair bill. I am not paying someone $150 an hour to work on my car unless I have no other choice. I am also not paying someone for parts that are marked up to double or triple what I would pay online or Autozone/Advance Auto/O’Reily’s that often have nice coupons like $50 off any purchase of $100+.

      Time – I can do most car maintenance faster at home than if I brought it to the shop. I don’t have to ask anybody for a ride to and from the shop, don’t have to sit around there waiting and drinking their crappy coffee, don’t have to take a shuttle to work if they even offer one etc. For example, a DIY oil change takes 30 minutes, spark plugs – 30 minutes, engine/air filter 10 minutes, any fluid change (brake/coolant/transmission/differential) is under an hour, brakes – an hour, etc.

      Confidence – insourcing is wonderful because it builds confidence. All cars are incredibly complicated yet simple machines. The more you work with them, the simpler they become. If the check engine light goes on I no longer panic and check my account balance to see if there is enough money to bring it to the shop. Instead I reach for my code reader and know that chances are, this repair is going to cost me under $100 because of yet another malfunctioning sensor. Cars cease to be a mysterious black box to only be handled by select professionals. And as your skills build up you will find that other expensive professionals are disappearing from your life and that self-reliance is a wonderful thing!

  2. I like working on my car too. We live in a condo now though and can’t do it anymore. Someday when I have a garage again, I’ll learn more. I can only do simple stuff right now…

    • To be honest, one of the reasons I really wanted a house with a 2 car garage is because our condo HOA rules prohibited any kind of car repair in the parking lot. Even if I could do it in the parking lot it’s not something I would want to deal with on a regular basis maintaining 2 cars and a motorcycle. We probably paid a bit more to get a house with a 22’x22′ garage but it’s worth it if you can save so much money on car repair bills by having a nice work space set up just right and available in any kind of weather. By the way, when we lived in the condo I often went to my friend’s house and used his garage to start learning how to work on cars. If you know someone with a garage, maybe you can do the same? A six-pack goes a long way 😉

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  4. How did you start? I would be too scared to mess up my car doing something stupid. What kind of tools do you need to get started?

    • I started shortly after I bought my first BMW and brought it in for an oil change quoted at close to $200 at the dealer 🙂 Parts are under $50 and I can’t make $150 per hour doing anything else, so I decided to learn. There are forums for every make and model out there along with step-by-step DIYs with pictures along with videos on YouTube. Google your car’s “make+model+forum”, create an account there, read up in their DIY section and then post questions – that’s the best way to learn. You will be amazed at how much support is out there.

      The tools that I use and recommend are in this thread: http://insourcelife.com/recommended-tools-for-a-diy-auto-mechanic. This was bought over time as I moved from simple to more advanced DIYs. All of these saved me THOUSANDS of dollars so the price is not even relevant any more. I also posted this article showing how I go about buying auto parts: http://insourcelife.com/where-to-buy-auto-parts/

      You WILL have issues while learning to work on cars. Going back to that first oil change – I ended up with a giant oil spill on the floor of my buddy’s garage where I was doing it. I did not realize that when the oil starts draining, it is shooting at a much different angle than after about a minute. I opened up the plug, positioned the oil pan under the oil stream and went inside for a few minutes. When I came back, the oil was completely missing the pan and spilling all over the floor. Oh well, I cleaned it all up, learned from it and have never had the same issue again!

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