6 Slick Tools to Save Money on Car Repairs

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This article shares tips from the newest episode of Dealista, our podcast that'll help you get more for less.

It’s happened to all of us — a car repair we didn’t budget for, and that nearly left us cash-strapped or without transportation. It really doesn’t have to be this way! These 6 tools are reliable and affordable, designed to help get car maintenance and repair costs under control and well under budget.

1. CarMD Diagnostic Tool

CarMD is not the exact replica of the code readers used in fancier repair shops, but it can diagnose most any common car problem. Simply connect the $100 device to your car’s connectors (instructions are included) and get data to help you know what’s really going on with your car. You don’t have to wait for an issue to arise before getting your money’s worth out of this tool, however. It’s also great for pre-trip inspections and making sure that your car is smog compliant! (You might also find it useful to get a read out on a car you haven’t bought yet — before you drive it off the lot.)

2. Local Auto Supply Store

Thought they were only good for purchasing extra wiper blades and quarts of oil? Think again! There are many complimentary services available at most major car part suppliers (O’Reilly’s, Autozone, Advanced Auto, Pep Boys, etc.) that can help you out for little to nothing. Common offerings include starter checks, alternator checks, code reading, battery testing/charging, and tire checks. While it won’t prevent you from having to go to the shop for a major repair, I’ve used my local shop to help me decide whether I can go a few more miles on an already distressed battery, and they even loan out tools — the really expensive ones — for a refundable fee charged to your credit card. You can save big money at these places!

3. RepairPal

I absolutely love RepairPal! When I’m not using the web-based interface from home to get an accurate quote on what it will cost me to have a timing chain replaced, for example, I can use the accompanying smart phone app to get detailed info about what a repair should cost — before I head into the shop. It includes info on how much your repair will be parts vs. labor, and even gives you details of the common cost to perform maintenance by zip. If you’re stuck on the road with a broken down vehicle, you can use the RepairPal app to contact a local repair shop directly, and armed with all the information about your car and specific repair, you can be sure you won’t be taken at the mechanic’s shop.

4. DriverSide

DriverSide is another fantastic web resource, a community of drivers who care about their cars (but not in a weird way). You simply register your make and model to get automatic updates on recalls, service bulletins, and other news about your vehicle. You can ask questions of mechanics and even see how much parts will cost for your precious ride. It’s the perfect all-in-one solution to car maintenance, and it’s entirely free.

5. AllDataDIY

Do you feel ambitious? Like working on your own vehicle? If you’re up to the challenge of performing your own car repairs, then AllDataDIY may be the perfect solution for you. With just a minimal annual subscription fee, you can have access to all the data that a mechanic would need to perform all kinds of repairs and maintenance tasks for your particular vehicle. Loaded with diagrams, charts, parts detail, and recall info, you could do just about any job on your own — provided you have the patience, skills, and right tools. We’ve used our subscription numerous times to do everything from simple rotor replacement to a major engine overhaul. (Homes with more than one vehicle may get a discount for buying additional subscriptions after the first.)

6. Craigslist

Perhaps the most useful of all the tools, Craigslist has helped us to connect to all the things we just couldn’t fit into our budget, otherwise. Whether we’ve found quality used tires, a part-time moonlighting mechanic, or a tailgate for our pickup, we’ve been able to hunt down and purchase for far less from Craigslist. With so many qualified professionals and parts dealers struggling in this economy, we’ve found our odds of getting a competitive price for parts and labor to be much higher via the site, and it’s always nice to meet new people with similar interests in DIY car care. If you haven’t considered Craigslist for your parts or labor needs, add it to your resource list!

Dealista is a collaboration between Wise Bread and Quick and Dirty Tips, the producer of popular podcasts such as Grammar Girl, Money Girl, Winning Investor, and Mighty Mommy.

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Guest's picture

Wow, awesome info. I didn't know that buying a diagnostic tool was so cheap. Might make sense if you could have one that extended family would share (as long as one person doesn't take it and not give it up) to defray the costs.

Guest's picture

In addition to the tools you have outlined, I have found that finding a good local junkyard and online forum's about your car can be a huge savings. I recently purchased a Mass Air Flow Sensor from the junk yard for $40 dollars. It would have cost $300 to buy the part new. Since I drive a maxima, I am constantly on maxima.org learning about DIY projects and other peoples tips on diagnosing problems.

Depending on the make/model of your car, you can often pull check engine codes without the use of a cable/computer. On my car it as simple as turning a screw on the ECU and counting the number of long/short check engine light flashes. As mentioned in this article, the key is to be informed. Your ability to project a solid understanding of problems, could prevent mechanics from ripping you off.

Guest's picture

I had never thought of using Craigslist for inexpensive car repair. But it is a great idea. And Craigslist is probably applicable to every other money-saving idea. :)

Thank you for this list.

Linsey Knerl's picture

Yes, being resourceful is the key. We've also used online auto parts dealers like RockAuto.com for bottom-dollar new parts and Car-part.com for finding hard-to-locate used parts from You-pull-it dealers in the area.  Even with shipping, we've been able to get entire transmissions shipped from out of state for far less than buying new from the dealer.  It definitely pays to shop around!

I appreciate your comments :)

Linsey Knerl

Linsey Knerl's picture

Same thing happened to us!  In fact, the repair guy we work with regularly (that moonlights as an independent and we found on Craigslist) let us know that we didn't even need to replace one of the MAF Sensors in our vehicles.  Turns out that just using the $7 spray to clean it out got us thousands of more miles before even having to consider replacing it.  Something a repair shop probably wouldn't have told us!

Linsey Knerl

Guest's picture

I have been repairing my 15 year old car since I can remember. So I would try looking on amazon for parts or try frugalmechanic.com if you are a DIY'er. That is if you do not mind waiting for the part to be shipped to your house. Usually it is way cheaper this way as opposed to the auto parts store down the street.

Guest's picture

I've actually bought a code reader from Costco for only $40. Not sure if it covers all cars, but it's a great deal if it works for you!

Guest's picture

I have actually tried Craiglist with a non-emergency repair that I required for my car. It worked pretty well for me. Plus, I was able to save quite a lot when compared to our neighborhood car shop.

Guest's picture

Great share of these car repair online tools. Besides Local Auto Supply Store, I didn`t know of any of them.

Guest's picture
Philip Robert

I've been using AllData for a few years now. It's helpful, but a more accurate name would be SomeData...