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Five Car Problems You Shouldn't Fix Yourself Page 3

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Timing-belt replacement. For many vehicles, the timing-belt replacement that’s part of a major-maintenance visit every 60,000 to 100,000 miles is one of the largest repair bills you’ll end up seeing for your vehicle. And with the parts a relatively small portion of the $450 to $1,000 this typically costs (including other recommended service at the same time), it’s tempting to try it yourself. But don’t.

“The potential for damaging your engine is huge,” warns RepairPal’s Bodas, who recalls a customer who decided to do their own timing-belt replacement on a Volvo. The customer very quickly got over his head and through a set of mishaps turned a $600 major-maintenance job into engine damage and a nearly $3,500 repair job.

Transmission maintenance or repair. Automatic transmissions contain thousands of small parts, precise tolerances, and narrow passageways for hydraulic fluid. It’s a smart move that leave transmission repair to specialized transmission shops, and keep maintenance like flushes and fluid changes to skilled mechanics, not to your own workshop or oil-change places, recommends the AAA’s Calkins, who says that improper cleaning around connectors or gaskets during transmission flushes could spell doom for your household budget some days, weeks, or months later. “One grain of sand could wipe out your transmission,” he cautions.

Overheating. With some level of training and the right tools, cooling-system maintenance—like replacing hoses and the thermostat—is one of the more advanced repairs that a skilled home mechanic can do. But if the engine’s already overheated, forget about it—there’s just too much risk involved (your engine and thousands of dollars are on the line), and you need to have a proper mechanic diagnose the issue and do some damage control.

Drivability problems and error codes. When your car doesn’t start, or you have drivability issues like stalling, hesitating, or surging—accompanied perhaps by the ubiquitous ‘check engine’ light—home mechanics simply don’t have the training to diagnose and troubleshoot. “It’s very common for people to just start replacing things and maybe create new problems in the process,” says RepairPal's Bodas.

AAA's Calkins also notes this type of issue as a money pit for shade-tree mechanics because they don't understand that there may be pages of diagnostics, and other tests to be performed, for every code. “One particular parts store even says, ‘Come on down and we’ll read the code.’” mentions AAA's Calkins. “Most DIY mechanics just replace the oxygen sensor when they see an oxygen sensor code,” he says. “And that’s when the money starts adding up.”

Replacing suspension components. Suspension pieces like struts, arms, and bushings look deceptively easy to replace, but there are plenty of ways this kind of repair can go wrong in the hands of the uninitiated. Beginners might not understand the tremendous force that's in a compressed coil spring (when replacing struts, for instance); they might do things in the wrong order; or they might not realize that part of the suspension supports the front subframe—and the engine. It's impractical and cost-prohibitive for a home mechanic to own some of the specialty equipment (like a wheel-alignment rack) needed to get the job done right, while labor costs aren't all that high for typical suspension repairs, so you might as well leave them to the pros.

“Working with springs is dangerous—always has been, always will be,” said AAA's Calkins.

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