Easy DIY car maintenance jobs and tips

person changing oil in the hood of a blue car

RACV

Posted March 27, 2024


Step-by-step instructions for basic car care – plus those car maintenance issues you should leave to the experts.

Carrying out regular checks on your car will give you a good understanding of the car’s condition, and increase your awareness of warnings or changes that  indicate problems. Catching the problem early may prevent serious damage and save you money on expensive repairs.

When you tackle any car maintenance job yourself, your primary concern should be safety. Any time you look under the bonnet to check your water or lubricant levels, consider safety issues such as tying long hair out of the way and removing jewellery that could get caught on engine parts or scratch the vehicle.

Consider wearing old clothes and having rags handy to mop up spills. If the car owner's handbook recommends having the engine running for topping up fluid levels, it's advisable to carefully follow all the instructions.

If in doubt, talk to a mechanic. This is a list of car maintenance jobs the average car owner can do in their driveway at home, follwed by some tasks that require more skill, and those jobs you should leave to an accredited and qualified professional. 

Simple car maintenance tasks you can do yourself

Person checking oil level in car engine while another person watches

There are many DIY car maintenance jobs you can do at home with a little bit of guidance. Image: Getty



DIY car maintenance you can do at home

1. Check tyre pressure

Level of difficulty: easy

All car makers recommend an ideal pressure for the tyres on their cars. These are listed on the door jamb, fuel filler flap or glovebox lid. 

Get into the habit of checking tyre pressures regularly, and keep your tyres at the correct level to maximise fuel efficiency. This will help you avoid premature tyre repair or replacement costs. Driving with low-pressure tyres will increase wear, poor handling and braking, and potential blowouts. 

Always check tyre pressures when they are cool. Tyres warm up after a few kilometres on the road and that will give misleading pressure readings.

For those without an air compressor at home, most service stations have free air lines with in-built gauges situated away from the petrol pumps.

  • Remove the valve's screw-on dust cap, which is situated on the outer rim of the wheel. 
  • Place the tyre gauge, which is integral to the airline, securely on the valve and check the pressure.
  • Inflate the tyre to recommended level and check again.
  • Refit the dust cap, making sure no dirt gets in, as this can cause leaks. 

Some service stations have automatic systems that fill to the pressure you enter. These are great but be aware they are sometimes not well maintained. 

2. Check tyre wear

Level of difficulty: easy

All tyres have inbuilt indicators that show the tyre tread depth. These are little rubber blocks that protrude from the low point in the tyre channels. If the tread gets close to the wear indicators, it's time to change that tyre. Some tyre companies recommend replacing tyres once the depth reaches 3mm. The minimum legal limit is 1.6mm, but it's recommended that you replace tyres prior to that point.

Pay attention to tyre wear patterns, too. Check tyre wear on the inner and outer edges of the tyre as well as the centre. If a car is set up for sports performance, or the wheel alignment is out, that can cause excessive tyre wear on the inner edges. Check the inner edges of your front tyres by putting your steering wheel on full lock to expose the inside edge. If the tyre is heavily worn or below the legal limit, it needs to be replaced.

If your vehicle is older and you don’t drive far, the tyre rubber can become cracked over time. Seek professional advice on whether it's time to replace your tyres. Similarly, if you observe a bulge, cuts or nicks in the side of the tyre, it is time to get it replaced. This damage will weaken the tyre and increases the risk of a blow out.

Observe your wheel alignment when driving. Does the car pull to the left or right on a flat road? Does the steering wheel sit off centre? It is advisable to get your wheel alignment checked in order to maximise your tyre wear.

bundle of stacked black car tyres

It's important to see the difference between a good tyre and a worn tyre. Image: Getty.


3. Front and back lights

Level of difficulty: easy to check but some globes are difficult to change

Good lights on a car are essential and are a roadworthy requirement. Get a friend or household member to walk around the car and check that each set of lights is working as you turn them on. If you are by yourself, switch on each set of lights and walk around the car to check. For the brakelights, position the car so you can see the reflection of the lights on a wall or the garage door.

There are several different types of globes and fittings used in a car. Your car’s handbook should have instructions on how to replace blown globes and what type of globe to use. Some basic tools such as screwdrivers and pliers will be requried to change globes.

Use tissue or gloves when handling headlight globes because skin oils can damage the bulbs. 

Over time, your headlight lenses can discolour. A car headlight restoration kit will help improve visibility for safer driving.

4. Windscreen washers

Level of difficulty: easy

Check your windscreen washers regularly and keep the reservoir, which is usually under the bonnet, topped up.

  • Top up the reservoir with clean water and windscreen cleaning solvent so that it's quick and easy to clean your windscreen and remove road film. Ordinary washing detergent is not suitable. It affects the wiper blades and paintwork, and can leave streaks and cause rust.
  • The water jet should hit the centre of each wiper’s sweep. If the flow is poor, the jets can be cleared gently using a fine needle or pin. Most washer jets can also be re-aimed using the same needle.
  • Oil from exhaust fumes and road grime builds up on the windscreen. A regular wipe with a high-quality glass cleaner will help improve visibility and extend the life of the wiper rubber.

5. Replace windscreen wiper inserts

Level of difficulty: moderate

The rubber blades on the wipers wear through use and exposure to sunlight. They should be checked frequently. It’s wise to fit new blades at the start of winter, as the blades may have deteriorated over summer. Fitting new ones is easy.

The correct wiper inserts should be available at your local dealer or auto store. Instructions will be in the owner’s manual. It’s usually a variation on unclipping the old ones and sliding them out. 

  • Lift the wiper blade clear of the windscreen.
  • Push the end of the wiper rubber inwards (back along the blade) until the end can be lifted clear of the metal backing strip. Then pull the rubber out.
  • Using this old insert as a templete, cut the replacement rubber to the same length.
  • Feed the rubber insert into the metal backing strip and slide along. Once it reaches the end, pull back the rubber and refit under the retaining clip.
  • Lower the blade back on to the windscreen and repeat the process for the other wiper. Wiper rubbers should always be replaced in pairs.

 

person topping up motor oil in car bonnet

Some car maintenance jobs you can do yourself, but other tasks require professional help. Image: Getty.


6. Brake and clutch fluid levels

Level of difficulty: moderate. Always think of your safety first.

Cars with manual transmission usually have a hydraulic clutch that uses a similar set-up to the brakes. You can check brake and clutch fluid levels at the same time. The same type of fluid is used in both. Refer to owner’s manual for specification. If in doubt, take your car to an accredited auto centre.

  • Most cars have see-through plastic reservoirs with level marks to guide you. They are usually located at the rear of the engine bay. Simply check to see the fluid is up to the correct level. 
  • Don’t remove the caps unless you have to. If it does need topping up, be very careful. Before removing the reservoir cap, clean around the area. Dirt and other materials will contaminate the fluid. Brake fluid also absorbs water from the atmosphere, which will reduce the brakes’ effectiveness.
  • Keep the cylinders and caps clean and replace them firmly as soon as you’ve finished. It’s also advisable to only use freshly opened brake fluid. 
  • Brake fluid is very damaging to paintwork. When topping up reservoirs be careful not to splash it. Keep a rag handy to immediately mop up any spills and wash off the paintwork with water. 
  • As always, if the level drops suddenly, don’t take chances, have it checked by an auto specialist immediately. 

7. Coolant level

Level of difficulty: moderate. Always think of your safety first.

A car’s cooling system can be very dangerous and should be treated with respect. Whenever you check the coolant levels, be sure the system has cooled right down before touching anything. 

It is also critical that you add the correct colour coolant when topping up – coolants should not be mixed. Check your manufacturer's handbook, and contact your mechanic if you have any doubts or concerns. 

  • Before you check the system, look in the handbook and read any warning labels. Undo only those caps that are shown in the handbook.
  • Most cars have a clear plastic reservoir, so you don’t need to open the cap to read the level. The level should be between the two marks on the side of the reservoir.
  • If the level is frequently low, check with your mechanic for possible causes.

8. Engine oil level

Level of difficulty: easy to moderate. Always think of your safety first. 

Check your owner’s handbook for the ideal way to check your oil. Usually it's after a drive. Most importantly, you must park on a flat surface, turn off the engine and wait at least 10 minutes for the engine to cool down before checking your oil.

If you need to replace your oil, make sure it's the correct oil grade. Different manufacturers use particular oils for different engine types.

Some vehicles have an electronic dipstick. If your oil light is on and you can't check the oil level manually, consult a mechanic for possible causes. Too much oil can cause as much damage as too little oil.

  • Park the car on a level surface with the engine stopped for at least 10 minutes. 
  • Check your owner's handbook for the location of the dipstick. 
  • Remove the dipstick and use a clean rag to wipe off the oil. 
  • Take a look at the end and find the marks indicating the lowest and highest recommended levels. 
  • Put the dipstick back in, then draw it out again. Look to see where the oil level comes to, it should be around the full mark. It’s a good idea to repeat the process to be sure about the level . 
  • If the level is low, you need to top up your engine oil. As a rule of thumb if the oil is down to the low mark it will require about half a litre. 
  • The handbook will tell you what grade of oil you need and where to find the oil filler cap. 
  • A simple trick is to put a rag around the filler neck, then if you spill any oil it will be caught by the rag. A plastic funnel will make the job easier. 
  • Before you finish, give the oil time to drain into the sump then check the dipstick level again. Do not overfill. 
  • Put the dipstick back. 
person topping up coolant in car bonnet

It is critical that you add the correct coolant when topping up – coolants should not be mixed. Image: Getty.


9. Automatic transmission fluid level

Level of difficulty: moderate. Always think of your safety first.

Every time your car goes in for its annual inspection or service, the transmission should be checked for any signs of problems or faults. Automatic transmissions are fairly reliable, but if you need to check the fluid level, make sure you read the owner's handbook first.

  • Most manufacturers specify that the fluid level should be checked when the automatic transmission is at operating temperature. This can sometimes require a drive of up to 20km. 
  • Before you check the automatic transmission fluid level, make sure the car is parked on a level surface and the handbrake is applied.
  • Your owner’s handbook will have instructions on the location of the dipstick, how to check it, and the grade of oil required.
  • If the fluid level is down excessively or requires frequent topping up, or if the oil is a dark colour with a burnt or sugary smell, take the vehicle to a mechanic or transmission specialist.

10. Power-steering fluid level

Level of difficulty: moderate. Always think of your safety first.

While it’s a straightforward operation to check the power-steering fluid level, and top it up, if necessary, it’s important to check the owner's handbook first.

  • On some cars you check the level while the engine is running and on other makes and models the engine must be off.
  • After checking the level, stop the engine before topping up to avoid coming into contact with moving parts. 

If you don't feel confident conducting this type of car maintenance task, consult an expert.
 

11. Check radiator and heater hoses

Level of difficulty: moderate. Always think of your safety first.

Radiator and heater hoses can leak and occasionally burst.

To check they’re in good shape, make sure the engine is cold, then go over all the car’s hoses and squeeze them to check for any soft spots or signs of cracking or splitting. If in any doubt, have them replaced.

 


Car maintenance tasks you shouldn’t tackle yourself

Most car maintenance and repair services should be left to qualified and accredited professionals. If in doubt, find your nearest RACV Accredited Auto Care Centre to book in your next service. 

Do not attempt: 

  • Air-conditioning degassing.
  • Anything involving the fuel system.
  • Cooling system work, other than level checking and topping up, undertaken with caution.
  • High-tension ignition system maintenance, especially while the engine is running.
  • Suspension work.
  • Brake system, other than checking the fluid level.

As with anything, common sense and caution is the key. If you’re not sure, consult an expert.
 



Prepare for the best with RACV Emergency Roadside Assistance.
Discover more →