When DIY Car Repair Costs More

There are two reasons people take on do-it-yourself projects: 1) The person is crafty, handy, or otherwise skilled, and/or 2) The person is looking to save money.

If you fall exclusively into the "saving money" category, you probably realized long ago that DIY anything often takes a lot more time and effort than it is sometimes worth. But did you also know that DIY sometimes actually costs more money? (See also: Like DIY? Avoid These 10 Costly Mistakes)

For instance, consider basic car repair. Dealnews recently wrote Save on Car Maintenance With These 5 DIY Tips. Specifically, the article advises that you repair and replace your own windshield wiper blades, fuses, air filter, car battery, oil, and oil filter. But if the only reason you are doing these things yourself is to save money, you may be spending more money than you otherwise would.

Recently, my cousin who is a mechanic, performed some maintenance on my car and I got the chance to help with a few of these "DIY" tasks. I can attest that these tasks may actually cost you more than if you had had the work performed by a professional. (My cousin also did a lot of much more skilled work, which, on the whole, saved us roughly $800.) Check out my three cost comparisons below.

Oil Change

Several of my local car repair shops either have daily specials (if you come in between certain hours) or they frequently mail coupons for $19.99 oil changes. If you want synthetic oil you'll pay about $20 more. So how much does it cost if you do it yourself? At our local Target store the cost is about $5.50 per quart of regular oil and about $7.50 per quart of synthetic oil. My Mitsubishi Galant (a standard 4-door sedan) takes 5 quarts of oil. Add an additional $5-8 for an oil filter and suddenly the cost is over $30 — nearly $10 more than I would have paid had I brought it to a shop.

Windshield Wipers

I paid $10.99/windshield wiper for a total of $20 (plus tax) for my Galant. Unfortunately, one of the wipers was faulty which will require an extra trip back to the store — where they will hopefully exchange my wiper. (I've already trashed the packaging.) If not, I'll have paid $30. Yet, last month on our other car (an Accord), we used a Groupon for a tire rotation, oil change, new wiper blades, and system check for only $34. Had I purchased two of the Groupons, I would have spent $6 less than I did doing the car repair myself.

Car Battery

I didn't need a new battery this maintenance-go-round, but my cousin quoted me the price and it was only $15 cheaper than the price of the battery I had installed last winter. Call around and get price quotes as some of the companies can buy in bulk at a much better rate than you will ever get yourself. And if you do the battery replacement yourself, you risk temporarily losing access to your radio until you place a 30-minute call to the dealer to find out your radio code (I speak from experience about the radio code issue).

Big Caveat: There will always be DIY car repair that will save you money. For example, the handle to my glove compartment recently broke. The repair shop was going to have to order a $256 new part and also charge $40 in labor; but they advised me of a site called car-parts.com where I could likely find the part for cheaper. For $32, including shipping, I got an entire used glove box and installed it myself in less than 20 minutes.

There are times when DIY saves you money, but, like all projects, ensure that you actually run the cost comparisons instead of assuming DIY always means cheaper services.

Have you ever done car repair yourself? Did you actually save money?

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Guest's picture

Keep voltage in the system through the lighter socket to avoid shutting down the radio. Shame on you if you didn't keep the code for the radio with the papers for the car, and double shame on the dealer if he gives out the code to some anonymous person on the phone - assuming he even has it.
My local parts store will install wiper blades and batteries free.
I agree with having the oil change done - screw up and you could destroy the engine, plus it is a pain to take the used oil to be recycled.

Guest's picture

I have a feeling the Wise Bread audience will find exception to your numbers and calculations on this one. If you know where to shop and what prices to pay, all of this maintenance can easily be done for less than a shop or dealer. Unless you have some really good coupon.

You also have to decide if you trust the knuckle-head at the QuickLube to change your oil properly.

Guest's picture
Tim Anderson

You're willing to wait for a certain time or coupon for the oil change, but not use the same technique when buying supplies to change your own oil? It's extremely common to find a sale for 5 quarts and a filter from your local auto parts store for around $15. Only a savings of $5 and you're doing the work, but still....

Guest's picture

There are also a couple of good groups on youtube that walk you through some simple repairs that will save you money.

Also, parts stores like Advance Auto or Auto Zone have very helpful and skilled staff. If you purchase a battery/windshield wipers/etc. there, they will often help you with the repair if not repair it themselves. They also have the diagnostic machines and will read what your check engine light code is for free.

I'm a do it yourself kind of gal and have always done simple maintenence myself. I agree that an oil change, while simple, is not worth the trouble for the cost difference. Oil is often much cheaper if you purchase in larger quantities rather than individual quarts.

Guest's picture

I agree with this comment. I saved $100 when my check engine light came on by going to one of the auto stores that diagnosed it for free. The solution? I needed a new gas cap... cost $12. A fantastic bargain over the auto shop in both time & $.

Guest's picture

If you're going to do a cost comparison, at least make it fair. Comparing a discounted oil change with a full-cost DIY option? C'mon. Auto stores very frequently run oil change specials. This week at Autozone, it's $12.99 for 5 quarts of Pennzoil and a filter. Plus, if you DIY, you can do it at a convenient time for you, not just when the lube place is open.

Guest's picture

I'd be wary of a cheap oil change - I feel it is a 'save now, pay later' deal. Remember their cost structure - not only do they need to pay someone to do the change, but still need to pay for the space, tools, and for the big cheese up top. That leaves very little for the filter and oil. So you need to be very careful about what they put in your car and need to ask many questions to ensure that you aren't setting yourself up for a big repair bill in the future.

Oil is cheap insurance to get maximum life out of your engine (just as tranny fluid is cheap insurance for your tranny). Proper car maintenance, while costing more in the short term allows for much greater savings long term.

Guest's picture

5 qts of synthetic oil on sale with a filter is 20$, you have to also remember that some cars take less than 5 qts! my car takes roughly 3qts so technically doing it myself saves!

Guest's picture

My husband does all of the maintenance on all of our cars - a 2005 Corvette, a 2000 Silverado, and a 2005 Grand Prix. He saves us thousands of dollars per year. Before we met I had a small sensor replaced in my car for $300. It faulted again a few years later and he replaced it for $10. Right when we met, the shop had quoted me $1000 for all fluids change (a 100k mile workup)....he offered to do it all for just the cost of the fluids ($180). Even though we literally had just met a few weeks before that, I let him do it, he saved me a ton of money, and I definitely got to see what a darn sweetheart he was!