car maintenance checklist

Image courtesy of Robert Couse-Baker on Flickr, hosted under CC BY 2.0.

12 Car Maintenance Tips You Can do at Home

Performing regular car maintenance is an effective way to ensure that your car runs at optimal capacity and helps you avoid costly repairs in the future. There are several things that you can do at home. Before you perform any of the maintenance on the checklist below, review the owner’s manual for your vehicle and keep in mind that this doesn’t excuse you from professional regular checkups and maintenance.

Check the Engine Oil 

Photo by Dvortygirl on Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0.

Photo by Dvortygirl on Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0.

To check the engine oil in your car, park on level ground and wait a couple of minutes for the oil to drain into the pan. Pull out the dipstick, wipe it clean, and then put it back in. Pull it out again, and make sure that the oil reaches between the “Low” and “Full” engravings. The oil should be golden to light brown in color and transparent. The oil needs to be changed when it appears to be black and is no longer transparent.

If the oil is clean and doesn’t reach the proper level, you can top it off by pouring oil into the oil filler neck, but don’t overfill the pan. It’s very important that you use the correct oil type for your vehicle, which you can determine by checking the owner’s manual or the oil filler cap. During the winter, use the oil viscosity range that the manual recommends. You should check and top off your engine oil every 3,000 to 5,000 miles.


Inspect the Fuel Filter

Image courtesy of, hosted under CC0.

Image courtesy of, hosted under CC0.

The fuel filter cleans your fuel and traps debris before it reaches the fuel injectors. Fuel filters belonging to vehicles made in 2003 and prior, are easy to find and change because they are located under the hood or along the fuel lines underneath the vehicle. These filters need to be changed every one or two years.

  • Replacing Fuel Filters in Older Vehicles – First, relieve the pressure in the fuel line by removing the fuel pump fuse while the engine is off. Turn on the engine until it stops, and then turn it off. To ensure that you install the new filter correctly, determine which direction the fuel flows by looking at the arrows on the fuel filter. After replacing the filter, put the fuel pump fuse back in, start the engine and check for leaks.
  • Replacing Fuel Filters in Newer Vehicles – Since 2004, many manufacturers have placed the fuel filter inside the fuel tank – it’s larger and generally lasts for 100,000 miles or more. It’s preferable to leave fuel tank-mounted filter replacements to the professionals.


Inspect the Power Steering Fluid

Image courtesy of Brian Snelson on Flickr, hosted under CC BY 2.0.

Image courtesy of Brian Snelson on Flickr, hosted under CC BY 2.0.

Power steering fluid lubricates the steering system and ensures that the steering feels consistent. You should inspect it every time you change the engine oil. The fluid is located in a reservoir under the hood of your car, and it will either be opaque with indicators for the proper level or have a dipstick attached to the cap.

If it has a dipstick, clean the cap and the area around it to eliminate any dirt. Unscrew the cap, wipe the dipstick clean, and put the cap back. Remove it a second time to check the level. When the power steering fluid is low, you can add more into the reservoir, but don’t go above the “Full” or “Max” indicator.

Power steering fluid should be transparent and amber or pink in color. Black or brown fluid is contaminated and needs to be replaced by a professional.


Test the Battery

Image courtesy of Vernon Chan on Flickr, hosted under CC BY 2.0.

Image courtesy of Vernon Chan on Flickr, hosted under CC BY 2.0.

When testing a car battery, perform a visual inspection first. It should not be leaking, cracked or damaged, and the terminals should be clear of mineral or other buildup. Dirty batteries and terminals require cleaning with a battery cleaning brush. You can find cleaning tips in the owner’s manual. Batteries generally need to be replaced every 48 to 60 months, and you should test, or have it professionally tested, every six months.

In the winter, however, car batteries lose up to 33 percent of their power in below-freezing temperatures. To keep a battery in good condition through winter, take it out and put it on a battery charger overnight.

  • Replacing a Battery – To replace a battery, remove the negative cable first and then the positive one. Remove any bolts that are holding the battery in place, then insert the new battery and reconnect the cables. Leave the replacement to the pros if the terminals are too corroded for you to disconnect them.


Change the Air Filter

Image courtesy of Chris Billman on Flickr, hosted under CC BY 2.0.

Image courtesy of Chris Billman on Flickr, hosted under CC BY 2.0.

An engine air filter allows the right amount of air into the engine gullets, and keeps the air clean by trapping dirt and debris. The filter becomes dirty over time and needs to be replaced every 12,000 to 60,000 miles, or every year. You can learn how to change the air filter on your vehicle by reading the owner’s manual. If other airflow components such as an oxygen sensor or PCV valve need replacement as well, it may be best to take your car to a professional.


Don’t Forget the Automatic Transmission Fluid

Photo by OSX on Wikimedia Commons / CC0 Public Domain.

Photo by OSX on Wikimedia Commons / CC0 Public Domain.

Transmission fluid keeps the transmission cool, lubricates moving parts, shifts gears and transfers engine power to the wheels. It can be tricky to get an accurate reading of transmission fluid levels, so there are different methods for checking this.

  • For vehicles that have a transmission with a dipstick, drive for 10 minutes before checking the fluid level. Ensure that the vehicle is level and shift into each gear before putting the car in park. Pull out the dipstick and read both sides. Wipe it clean, stick it back in, pull it out and read both sides again. The lowest reading is the most accurate.
  • When there is no dipstick to check the transmission fluid, you will need to take your vehicle to a professional, because this method requires very exact procedures and tools. Since newer transmissions are more complex than older models, the transmission fluid level is much more critical.

Different types of transmissions require certain types of fluid. Using the wrong kind can damage the transmission, cause shifting problems and void the warranty. Check your owner’s manual to find the correct fluid for your transmission.


Know Your Spark Plugs

Image courtesy of Aidan on Flickr, licensed under CC BY 2.0

Image courtesy of Aidan on Flickr, licensed under CC BY 2.0

Spark plugs are responsible for firing up the mixture of air and fuel in each cylinder. They need to be replaced every 30,000 to 100,000 miles or when you notice that your car:

  • consumes more fuel
  • has poor acceleration
  • has trouble starting
  • is idling rough
  • misfires

To replace the spark plugs, allow the engine to cool and disconnect the battery. Working on one spark plug at a time, clean around the coil pack or plug boot to prevent dirt from falling into the hole. Remove the coil pack or plug boot, and then remove the spark plug. Install the new spark plug, and put the coil pack or plug boot back into place.

Hire a professional to change the spark plugs if you can’t do it yourself. This may be necessary if the project is too complicated for your vehicle or if the spark plugs require more than moderate force to remove.


Keep Your Engine Cool 

Photo by EvelynGiggles on Flickr / CC BY 2.0.

Photo by EvelynGiggles on Flickr / CC BY 2.0.

Coolant or antifreeze circulates through the engine to absorb heat and keep the engine cool. It also maintains efficient operation and keeps emissions low. You can check the coolant level by simply looking at the overflow tank under the hood.

If the coolant is low, don’t remove the cap for the radiator or overflow tank while the engine is hot. While the engine is cool, you can add more coolant to the overflow tank up to the “Full” indicator. Consult the manual to determine the correct mixture of coolant and water for your engine.

You should check the coolant levels when you check the engine oil. If the coolant needs replacement, it’s suggested to take your vehicle to a professional. This is generally recommended every 24,000 miles or two years.

Do a Proper Tire Checkup

Image courtesy of, hosted under CC0.

Image courtesy of, hosted under CC0.

Checking the tire pressure every month is an important part of maintaining efficient mileage and fuel consumption. You can go to a gas station or use your own air pump to add air to your tires. Look in the owner’s manual for the correct amount of pressure your vehicle requires.

Additionally, check the tread depth on the tires, which can be done with the penny method:

  • Put a penny in the tread with Abraham Lincoln’s head upside down and facing you. Change your tires immediately if you can see the very top of his head.
  • You don’t need new tires yet if you can’t see his hair. Ensuring that the tread is still in good condition will contribute largely to the efficiency, performance and safety of your car. Poor tread can cause braking and traction problems, particularly in the winter.

You should rely on a professional for  tire changes, because they have the proper equipment and tools for the job.


Make Sure That the Brakes Work Properly

Photo by Dan Lindsay on Wikimedia Commons / CC0 Public Domain.

Photo by Dan Lindsay on Wikimedia Commons / CC0 Public Domain.

As with the other fluids in your vehicle, you need to check the brake fluid level often, and replace it every 24,000 miles or two years. You should check the brake pads just as often and replace them before they wear down to the minimum thickness. A properly functioning anti-lock braking system is important because it maintains traction with the road when you push the brake pedal and prevents the wheel rotation from ceasing to avoid skidding. This is particularly critical in wet and cold weather.

To change the brakes, you need to do the following:

  1. Remove the wheels.
  2. Unbolt the calipers.
  3. Remove the old brake pads.
  4. Compress the brake piston.
  5. Install the new brake calipers.
  6. Bolt on the wheels.

It’s important to focus on changing one brake at a time. If you are having trouble removing the wheels and calipers, acquire professional assistance.


Checking the battery, fluids, spark plugs and tire pressure in your car will ensure optimal operation and make it last longer, which is why proper maintenance is so imperative.

Do you keep up with regular maintenance on your vehicle?

What other tasks do you include on your maintenance checklist?

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