A Beginner’s Guide to Auto Repairs

Matthew Gillman | January 7, 2022


    For most people, owning a car is a necessity. Vehicle ownership is also an investment, so you'll want to keep your car running for as long as possible by taking good care of it. The good news is that a lot of routine auto repairs are simple enough for do-it-yourselfers to manage. You may need a few special tools and supplies, but you can tackle many common vehicle problems yourself without paying a professional mechanic. Vehicles are surprisingly resilient, and it's unlikely that you'll do any permanent damage to your car by working on it yourself.

    Essential Tools and Shopping for New Parts

    Although every car make and model is unique, working on vehicles doesn't require a huge investment in special tools. A basic tool kit for automotive repair includes a torque wrench, an adjustable wrench, a socket and ratchet set, both Phillips and flat-head screwdrivers, pliers, and a jack. Auto parts stores operate both online and in brick-and-mortar stores, and this is the best place to find replacement parts. You'll need to know the year, make, and model of your vehicle to find the correct parts. Visiting an auto parts store in person is an excellent way to get tips and advice, too.

    How to Replace a Broken or Worn-Out Drive Belt

    Your drive belt may be wearing out if you hear squealing when you start your vehicle or when you use certain accessories. Check belts for wear, cracks, and looseness. If you notice cracking and wearing, you should replace the belt. If a belt is too loose, tighten it. You'll need a ratchet, sockets, wrenches, and a screwdriver to replace a drive belt. Key terms to know include:

    • Drive Belt: This is the rubber belt that connects around pulleys in the engine. The drive belt controls the cooling system, charging of the battery, windshield wipers, and power steering.
    • Serpentine Belt: In newer vehicles, the serpentine belt is the main drive belt that wraps around various components.
    • Pulleys: The pulleys are small wheels that a belt wraps around. Pulleys spin and give power to their attached systems.
    • Tensioner Pulley: The tensioner works with the pulleys so you can adjust the belt tightness at one point. Belts are known to stretch out over time, so use the tensioner pulley to keep the belt tight.

    How to Replace Your Battery and Alternator

    If you can't start your car or accessories aren't working, the problem may be the battery or the alternator. Leaving the lights on overnight will cause the battery to drain, and you'll need to jump-start it to get the car running again. Use a multimeter to test your battery and your alternator. If one or both of them doesn't have enough power, they need to be replaced. You'll need a socket set, wrenches, a screwdriver, and a multimeter to replace a battery and alternator. Know these important terms:

    • Alternator: The alternator works with the battery to generate power for electrical components.
    • Battery: The battery supplies initial power to the alternator to start the car.
    • Multimeter: A multimeter measures electrical properties, and you can use it to test the alternator and battery.
    • Accessories: Automotive accessories include electronically powered components such as power windows and locks, the clock, and the radio.

    Maintain your battery to increase its life. You can clean the battery connections with a paste made of baking soda and water.

    How to Replace Brake Pads

    When brake pads need replacing, you'll hear a squeal when you apply the brakes. If you hear a grinding sound instead of a squealing sound, this indicates that the rotors need replacing, too. Replacing the rotors is more complicated than just replacing brake pads, so you may need to hire a mechanic to perform this work. You'll need a jack, torque wrench, ratchets, C-clamps, and a tire iron to work on brakes. Important terms to know include:

    • Brake Pads: Brake pads apply frictional force to stop a vehicle. The squealing is a built-in warning that brake pads need to be replaced.
    • Rotors: Rotors are the disc component of brakes to which the pads clamp. Rotors are connected to the wheels to slow them down.
    • Calipers: Calipers push brake pads against the rotors to slow down a vehicle.

    How to Fix Exterior Coolant Leaks

    If you find a pool of yellow, green, or orange liquid on the ground under your car, you may have a coolant leak. Antifreeze can leak out of a hole in an exterior hose. The best way to determine the source of the leak is to open the hood and look for draining coolant right after you've driven the car. Don't touch these components immediately after driving, though, because they will be very hot. To fix a leak you can see, unclamp the leaking hose and replace it with a new one. If you can't see the leak, this may mean it's inside the radiator, which will require a professional mechanic to fix. You'll need a wrench and pliers to work on a coolant leak. Important terms to know include:

    • Radiator: The radiator is located in front of the engine, and it helps keep the engine temperature down by sending antifreeze through hoses and to the engine.
    • Water Pump: The water pump pumps antifreeze around the engine and the radiator.
    • Hoses: Hoses transfer antifreeze from the radiator to the engine and to the water pump.

    Regular Maintenance That Takes Little Time

    Most vehicles need tune-ups every 50,000 miles or every two years, whichever comes first. You can easily perform a tune-up yourself to save money and keep your vehicle running well. You'll need screwdrivers, wrenches, a ratchet and socket set, a spark plug gap tool, and a spark plug socket to perform a tune-up.

    • Replace the Fuel Filter: The fuel filter filters out particulates from the fuel line to keep these particles out of the engine. Replacing the fuel filter is not difficult.
    • Replace the Air Filter: The air filter keeps particulates from entering the engine. Replacing the air filter just involves unscrewing a plastic lid, removing the old filter, and putting in the new one.
    • Check and Replace Spark Plugs and Wires: The spark plugs ignite the gas and air to create combustion. Worn spark plugs will lead to reduced gas mileage, a rough idle, and difficulty starting a vehicle.
    • Replace the Distributor Cap and Rotor: The distributor cap distributes voltage from a coil to the corresponding cylinder to enable ignition.
    • Change the Oil: Try to change your oil when you perform your tune-up.

    Advanced Car Maintenance

    After becoming adept at general car maintenance, you may want to try more complicated auto repairs, too. The first step to handling more in-depth vehicle issues is to diagnose the problem. This can be challenging at times. Once you have figured out what a problem is, you'll need to determine whether you can tackle the repair yourself. Consider the time it will take, how difficult the work will be, and whether you have the right tools. If a problem arises that you don't feel capable of handling yourself, hire a reputable mechanic to repair your vehicle.

    About the Author

    Matthew Gillman is the founder and CEO of SMB Compass, a bespoke business financing company focused on providing financing and education to small businesses across the U.S. The company has provided over $250 million to more than 1,250 businesses. Coming from a family of small business owners sparked Matthewā€™s passion to not only become an entrepreneur, but also to work with his fellow entrepreneurs to build long-lasting relationships.