There are countless variables that go into the what-tasks-can-be-tackled-at-home equation, including skill and confidence levels; available tools and equipment; and the type of vehicle. But even on more modern vehicles there are still a handful of jobs that aren’t out of reach for someone who’s willing to get their hands a little dirty. With that in mind, here is a quick breakdown of tasks that should and shouldn’t be left to the professionals.
Some “backyard car mechanics” are quick to take on just about anything before they resort to towing their pile of bolts into their local repair shop, while others are fearful of picking up a wrench to tackle the easiest of tasks.
DIY: Touch-up paint
Take it in: Dent repair
DIY: Oil changes
Take it in: Automatic transmission fluid changes
DIY: AC/accessory/alternator belts
Take it in: Timing belts
DIY: Brake pads and rotors
Take it in: Suspension & steering work
DIY: Spark plugs
Take it in: Clutches
Between Canada’s many miles of gravel roads and the amount of sand and gravel that gets scattered on snowy roads all winter long, it’s usually only a matter of time before a rock chip or two appear on that shiny new hood. Rather than breaking the bank on a full coat of paint, most manufacturers offer up bottles of colour-coded touch up paint that can make those chips look barely noticeable. The process takes a little finesse and a bit of patience, but it tends to turn out way better than one would expect. Much like any other kind of painting, make sure your work surface is clean before applying the paint, and don’t use too much paint with each pass of the brush otherwise your ride will start looking like an acne-prone teenager.
There are two big reasons to avoid any kind of dent repair as a DIY project. Firstly, dent repair requires a very light touch, and the wrong pressure in the wrong place can quickly turn into cracking paint, or a blemish that looks miles worse than the original door-ding that was being worked on. Second, professional dent repair is surprisingly cheap and effective. Quotes can be as low as $150-200 for pulling a whole slew of door dings out of a car, which in our eyes is worth every penny.
This is an easy one just about all around. Modern vehicles may have an extra cover or 2 in the way, but all-in-all changing the oil in your car is the best place to start if you want to start tinkering. Depending on the type of filter installed you may need a special wrench to remove it, but otherwise there isn’t much of a trick to it. Word to the wise, if your car is fitted with a thread-on type filter make sure the rubber seal comes off with the old filter. If the old one stays on the car and you thread on the new filter it won’t be long until all that fresh oil is pooled on your garage floor.
Automatic gearboxes can be finicky things on the best of days. They are remarkably sensitive to fluid level changes, the hazards of running them dry can lead to costly repairs, and the fact that you really need to have your vehicle off the ground enough to crawl around underneath more than you would for an oil change means that this work is far more hassle than it’s worth. A good transmission shop can do a fluid and filter change quickly, at a reasonable cost, and if something goes horribly wrong you won’t be the one on the hook for it. On the flip side, manual gearboxes are way more user-friendly when it comes to fluid replacement.
Belt replacement has to be one of the most common up-sell jobs on the planet when cars are in for service, and in most cases the cost is primarily labour. Depending on engine configurations some belts can be off and back on in a matter of minutes, where others do require unbolting a few odds and ends first. Do your homework ahead of time, as occasionally there are some slick factory tools that can make the job even easier. If you are faced with a long serpentine belt on the end of your engine be sure to snap a quick photo so you aren’t left guessing which way the new one gets routed.
Any task related to engine timing should always be reserved for a skilled professional. Enthusiasts on a budget may be quick to skim through step-by-step guides that can be found online and think that it’s no big deal, but there is a level of precision that has to be followed without fail, and more often than not there are a number of brand- and engine-specific timing tools required that aren’t cheap, especially for a task that only requires completion every 100,000kms.
Brakes typically aren’t that pricey to have replaced by someone else, but they also make for a fun project for someone wanting do a bit more tinkering at home. Other than a few wrenches, sockets, pry bars, and most likely a hammer, not much is needed to throw a fresh set of brakes on your car. Caliper bolts are typically snugged on pretty tight, so you’ll want to be sure that your car is securely planted on jack stands and isn’t at risk of falling over. If your car is equipped with drum brakes or have an electrically actuated parking brake, these are both a bit more of a pain in the arse to deal with, so in that case it’s time to turn to the pros.
There are a number of reasons we recommend staying away from any steering and suspension work in the home garage. Many components have an effect on wheel alignment, which is something you just don’t want to be messing with, and beyond that there are plenty of bushings that require either a press or specific puller tools to complete their removal or installation. Add to that the fact that our salty Canadian roads are quick to rust and seize up most the bolts and nuts holding these components and, well, you get the picture.
Depending on engine configuration, spark plugs are another great money-saving at-home project. A good spark plug socket will run you all of a few dollars, and other than making sure you don’t over-tighten them, there aren’t many hazards to be afraid of. The only real challenge can be how easy the plugs are to get at, so spend a bit of time familiarizing yourself with your engine and grab a few different length extensions to be sure you can get all of them out safely.
Once again, there are so many reasons why this should never be attempted by you DIY-ers out there. Dropping a gearbox from a car that isn’t on a hoist is an absolute nightmare for starters. Once the box is out, the clutch has to be centered just right in the pressure plate for the gearbox to bolt back in right. Going a step further, throw-out bearings can create all kinds of racket if they aren’t installed correctly or are improperly lubricated. The long and the short of it is that simply this job is big, heavy messy and challenging so even if it is a bit pricey to have a pro do it, it’s still worth every penny.