Every vehicle has a variety of components that need to be checked routinely. Many parts should be inspected every 5,000 miles or so — which can often be done together with your oil change — whereas others only need to be checked every 20,000 or 30,000 miles. Each component should be inspected at the manufacturer-recommended interval, as failing to do so can lead to costly repairs or replacements.
In this guide, we'll discuss the common components of your car that must be routinely inspected, what they do and how often they should be checked.
How Often Should You Get Your Car Inspected?
In Pennsylvania, an inspection is required every year. You must also get an inspection when registering a vehicle from another state. Overall, we recommend you have your vehicle inspected every time you change your oil. This tends to be every 3 to 6 months and is convenient since your car is in the shop already. The majority of shops will perform an inspection for you and will inform you of any issues they find.
If you notice anything unusual with your vehicle, whether it's a change in its performance or an odd smell or noise, take your car in for an inspection right away. Driving around while your car is experiencing issues can cause the problem to worsen, making the eventual repairs more expensive. Leaving the problem unfixed can also endanger the lives of anyone in the car, especially if there is a problem with a critical component such as the brakes.
One obvious sign that your car needs to be serviced is if the engine light comes on, which means an inspection is due. It's also a good idea to look in your owner's manual for the factory-recommended services for your vehicle.
What Gets Inspected During Car Maintenance Checks?
During maintenance checks, a number of components will be inspected based on manufacturer-recommended intervals:
Components Inspected During Short-Term Checks
We'll start by covering the components that should be checked most often. Some of these checks are simple and can be performed by anyone. These components include:
- Oil and coolant levels: Every few times you fill up for gas — and especially before long road trips — we recommend popping the hood and checking the levels for your oil and coolant. Make sure you only do this when your engine is cool. To locate both of these components, refer to your owner's manual.
- Air filter: The air filter on your engine filters out debris and allows only clean air to enter. Proper airflow on your engine's air filter can make your vehicle more fuel-efficient, lower emissions and prolong your engine's life span. This is another task you can easily do — just make sure to check your owner's manual for specific instructions, including how often the filter should be changed.
- Tire pressure: Before a long trip or every month, check your vehicle's tire pressure. To do this, you'll need a tire pressure gauge. If you live in a region with cold winters, note that tire pressure drops 1 psi per 10 degrees Fahrenheit in the ambient temperature. Consult your owner's manual to find out the air pressure your tires require.
- Tread depth: While checking your air pressure, you can also check the tread on your tires by using a penny. Hold the penny upside down in the tread. If the top of Abe Lincoln's head is exposed, you need to replace the tire.
- Lights: It's also important that the lights on your car, which include headlights, brake lights, turn signals and parking lights, are all working properly. Every month, make sure these lights are functional while your car is parked.
- Tire rotation: Rotating your tires helps prolong their life by balancing their tread wear more evenly. How often this must be done depends on the alignment of your vehicle, how often you use it and a number of other factors.
Components Inspected During Long-Term Checks
Whereas the above components are usually checked several times a year, the following are inspected on a less frequent basis:
- Transmission fluid: Like engine oil, transmission fluid is a lubricant and helps ensure all the moving parts in your transmission are working properly. While the transmission fluid does not need to be checked as often as the engine oil, it's critical that it is checked at the intervals recommended by the manufacturer to avoid expensive transmission replacement or repairs.
- Transfer case fluid: In all-wheel and four-wheel vehicles, the role of the transfer case is to shift power from the vehicle's transmission to its axles. The frequency of this check is determined by the manufacturer. It involves going underneath your vehicle, so it's recommended that you leave this check to a professional.
- Shocks and struts: These serve to control impact and rebound when going over bumps. You should have a professional inspect shocks and struts every 50,000 miles or if you notice a change in their performance.
Consult your owner's manual for how to check these things and how often they must be checked.
The Cost of Car Care
Routine car maintenance ensures your car will continue to run smoothly. It's relatively affordable, with basic services starting at under $100 a year. This low cost is largely due to the many developments cars have seen in recent years, which include mechanical advances in engines and increased computerization.
Below, we'll discuss what you might expect to pay for each basic service:
- Oil change: Whereas vehicle owners were once told to change their oil once every 3,000 miles or three months, most modern cars are able to go much longer without an oil change, generally between 5,000 and 7,500 miles — and sometimes as long as 10,000 miles. The cost for an oil and filter change can range from $20 to $100. To find out how long your vehicle can go without an oil change, check the owner's manual to see what the manufacturer recommends. New vehicles sometimes come with an oil monitoring system that will notify you when the time comes for an oil change.
- Tire rotation: A vehicle's front often bears more weight than the back, and rotating the tires prevents them from wearing unevenly, thereby prolonging their life. Auto experts generally say tires should be rotated whenever you get the oil changed, but you can find your manufacturer's recommendation in your owner's manual. The cost to rotate tires can range from $20 to $50.
- Multipoint inspections: The price and scope of multipoint inspections depend on the mechanic, with some mechanics performing this service for free. When getting your oil changed, we recommend you also have your fluid levels, battery, belts, air filters, tire tread depth, tire pressure and hoses checked. If you feel comfortable, you can easily check some of the above yourself.
- Part replacement: Many modern cars are built to last for a long time, and the parts typically won't fail unless routine maintenance has been neglected. However, there are still certain parts that will wear down due to regular use and will need a replacement at some point.
Car parts that may need to be replaced include:
- Tires: There is no standard for when tires should be changed, and even owner's manuals don't provide much information on this topic. Inspect tires every month for cracks, which are an indication that the rubber is dried out. The price of new tires ranges widely, from $50 to $300 per tire.
- Wiper blades: Wiper blades are made of rubber, which degrades over time. Experts recommend you change your wiper blades every 6 to 12 months. Luckily, they'll only set you back about $7 to $15.
- Engine air filter: The engine air filter is a critical component that blocks dirt and debris from making its way into the engine, allowing only clean air to come in. Experts recommend a replacement every 20,000 to 60,000 miles, depending on the make and model of your vehicle. The cost of a replacement may range from $20 to $75.
- Brake pads: How quickly your brake pads wear out will depend on how you drive and the terrain you drive on, but most pads generally wear out after about 30,000 and 50,000 miles. The cost to replace them could range from $100 to $350.
Keep in mind that specific maintenance costs will vary based on your location, the services performed and your vehicle type.
Handling Unexpected Costs
If you have to pay for a car repair and haven't budgeted for the expense, there may be a few ways to help lessen the expense. These include:
- Negotiate the cost: Speak with your auto shop and see if you can get them to come down on the cost of the repair. Don't forget to ask whether they offer a AAA discount. If the repairs on your vehicle are estimated to be very expensive, consider getting another opinion. Even though it will cost more, with a second opinion you can be more sure that the original diagnosis was correct, and the second estimate may be a bit cheaper.
- Ask about payment plans: If you don't have the money to make the payment at the moment, see whether the repair shop offers payment plans or another type of financing. Some shops may recommend a third-party lender that offers interest-free, 90-day loans. These can be a good option, but be aware that if the loan isn't paid off within 90 days, they will add the accrued interest to the balance, and the interest rate they charge tends to be significantly above market rates. If you're not certain you'll be able to pay the loan off within 90 days, you may want to use a credit card instead or find a lender that's more convenient.
Why You Should Create a Vehicle Maintenance Budget
Vehicles will always need periodic repairs and maintenance, and in most cases, repairs may be unexpected. If you're trying to plan your finances, getting hit with an auto repair bill could make this more difficult. If you haven't set money aside for vehicle maintenance, you might put off necessary maintenance, causing more damage to your vehicle in the long run.
Here are some tips for making your vehicle maintenance budget:
- Find all records of car repairs made in the last year: Your records depend on how you make payments and may be in the form of credit card statements, maintenance receipts or a checkbook register. Maintenance expenses include required work like oil changes and repairs but not insurance or car payments.
- Calculate how much you spend monthly: Add up all these expenses to find the total you paid for maintenance over the past year, then divide that figure by 12 to calculate your average monthly expenditure. For instance, if you spent $1,200 in the past year, you should budget at least $100 per month for your vehicle maintenance.
- Consider the current condition of your vehicle: If your car is older, keep in mind it may require major repairs over the next year. If this is the case, increase the amount you've budgeted. If you've spent a large amount in the past year and have reason to believe you'll be paying less next year, budget less. Auto care professionals suggest you set a minimum of $100 aside every month for maintenance, then adjust it to reflect your car's actual condition.
- Keep your vehicle maintenance money separate: Keep the money you've set aside for your car maintenance separate from the rest of your money. Since you use this money for the specific purpose of maintaining your vehicle, keep it in a savings account until it's needed. Every month you can add to this account so you'll have the money when the time comes for repairs and maintenance.
Benefits of Routine Car Inspections
Most car owners stay on top of their car inspections if they're aware of all the benefits these inspections offer. These include:
- Peace of mind: If you own a car and feel you don't have the budget for a breakdown, you can rest easy knowing that by getting your vehicle inspected regularly, you are less likely to have a breakdown. Knowing your car is functioning reliably and that you and your passengers are safe is worth the relatively cheap cost of a routine inspection.
- Discovering problems: One of the most important reasons for a routine car inspection is to know whether there's an issue with your car. In most cases, there won't be an issue. But if there is a problem — or an indication that a serious problem may arise — a car inspection can find it. If you need a certain car part or your gaskets are experiencing too much wear and tear, you won't know about these issues by just driving your car. With routine inspections, you'll always know what's going on under your hood.
- Passing emissions tests: Before you can get a license plate or complete registration, your car will need to pass testing, which will allow you to drive legally and let you know what the condition of your car is. If your car doesn't pass testing, you'll have to get certain issues fixed before you can get a plate or registration.
- Repairs following an accident: Whether you've been in a small fender bender or your vehicle has been totaled, you'll need to have your car repaired. Once the repairs are finished, you should have an inspection of the repairs. Inspections following damage to your car are extremely important, as they will determine whether your car is salvageable or if problems remain.
Considering the relatively low cost and major benefits, getting your car routinely inspected is a no-brainer. By monitoring the health of your vehicle and correcting issues soon after they arise, you can avoid the headaches and expenses of a vehicle breakdown.
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