Quiz: Do I need a mechanic?

Staff

4 Min Quiz

If you're reading about DIY maintenance on the Internet, chances are, it's an older vehicle that's giving you problems. But before we get started, we really have to ask: Is the car still under warranty?

If the car is not under warranty, you can start getting ready for your project. If it is under warranty, though, it's a really bad idea to start messing around with it. You paid for the warranty, so you might as well use what you paid for. And, not only that, lots of manufacturers and aftermarket warranty companies will void a warranty if they discover that any work is done outside of the approved repair facilities. If you're not sure about your car's warranty status, it's worth checking out.

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What's the worst-case scenario if your first repair attempt is unsuccessful?

If a failed repair won't break the budget (or your spirit) go for it. But if the task at hand is something you can't afford to screw up, that's a strong argument in favor of taking it to a pro.

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There are a few more things to consider before you start getting dirty. If it comes down to it, do you have any skilled friends or neighbors to help you out with your repair project?

Let’s face it, two heads are usually better than one -- especially in the case of a tricky, unfamiliar or potentially dangerous repair. Sure, there are plenty of automotive chores that don’t need to be completed by a committee … but then, why would you be considering a mechanic, anyway?

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How well stocked is your garage?

If you don’t have a decent work space and the right set of tools, it’s probably time to take the car to a well-equipped shop. You likely won’t manage a safe or quality repair if you’re improvising with second-rate tools or putting yourself at risk of eviction.

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Think about what you’re about to do, and try to remember if you’ve ever successfully completed similar repairs before. If you’ve never tackled this specific repair before, what’s your plan of attack?

Hint: An owner’s manual and a repair manual (aka a shop manual) are not the same thing. The owner’s manual that comes with the car can easily walk you through simple maintenance such as replacing fluids or changing fuses -- anything larger than that and an amateur will likely need more guidance. Try an online forum specific to the car, or, better yet, go to the auto parts store and invest in a shop manual.

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Let’s look at more specific types of repairs. Brakes are a common repair or replacement project, since brake parts wear out regularly. What do you know about brake repairs?

Unless you’re experienced with brake repairs, you might want to consider going to a mechanic. If you're distracted during a brake job, the results could be dangerous -- or even deadly.

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Your car’s been running a little sloppy for a day or two -- hesitating, misfiring and making weird noises. So far, you've been able to ignore it -- until your engine started giving you error codes. Do you have any idea how to figure out what might be wrong?

If your engine is running rough and giving you error messages, you need to get your car checked out. If you’ve already invested in a scan tool, well, nicely done! However, that’s just a start. You’ll probably still need a mechanic to diagnose and repair the problem -- but at least you’ll have an idea of what’s wrong.

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The car seems to be running fine, but the "Check Engine" light is on. What now?

If you’re willing to ignore potential engine problems and don’t know how to check under the hood for even the most obvious signs of trouble, you definitely need a mechanic to help you with potential powertrain problems.

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You just noticed your car might be leaking some sort of fluid. What do you do next?

If you can identify the fluid by smell, color, or texture, at least you’ll know if it’s safe to drive the car or not. If you have no idea what the fluid is or where it’s coming from, it’s time to get your drippy ride over to a pro.

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What does it mean if you have a sudden decrease in your average gas mileage?

Gas mileage may vary from time to time, depending on the weather, where you’ve been driving, or even how much stuff is crammed in your trunk. But a sudden, huge decrease in gas mileage means something is probably wrong. If the car seems fine otherwise, it could be difficult for you to diagnose at home. This is another job for a pro.

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Do you know what to do if your car starts shaking?

Maybe a wheel is loose, or maybe that pothole you just hit screwed up the alignment. In any case, a violent and suddenly shaking car should definitely be taken to a mechanic.

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So, you safely made it home with your shaking car, and you figured out that all the wheels are still on securely. That means your alignment is probably off. Can you fix that yourself?

These days, alignments are computer calibrated and require lots of expensive equipment. There’s no way to fix this on your own.

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If you notice an odd odor when you’re driving, it’s often a sign that something is wrong. Do you know what it means if your car smells like it’s spewing sulfur, or the exhaust reeks like eggs?

The eggy smell means the catalytic converter needs attention. This is definitely a job for a pro, and you should try calling your car dealership to see if it’s covered -- even if your car is out of warranty. Some laws require extended coverage on pollution-reducing exhaust components, such as the cat.

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The exhaust system can reveal a lot about how your car is running. Do you know what it means when blue smoke is coming from the tailpipe?

If the exhaust coming from the tailpipe is any color other than white, it typically means something is wrong. Get the car to a mechanic, because blue smoke indicates the engine is burning oil, which can be a sign of (or a cause of) bigger problems.

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Now that we know what blue exhaust smoke means, what about black exhaust clouds?

Black exhaust definitely isn’t normal. If your tailpipe emissions are a dark, smoky color, your oxygen sensor probably needs to be replaced. On some cars this is a simple project, but on others, the O2 sensor is located in a hard-to-access spot and might need a mechanic’s expertise.

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What should you do if you hear a loud grinding noise when you step on the brakes?

Grinding from the brakes usually means the friction material on the brake pads is too worn down to work properly -- and you definitely don’t want to drive with old brake pads. If you have experience putting your car up on jack stands and removing the wheels, installing new brake pads might be a job you can handle at home. It's relatively simple. Otherwise, see a mechanic, because you really shouldn’t take chances with your car’s brakes.

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Have you noticed a lag when you step on the throttle? If the engine revs really high, and it feels like the rest of the car is struggling to catch up, it could be a problem with:

If you notice a lag while you're accelerating, try keeping an eye on your tachometer. If the engine revs up, but you feel the car isn’t moving as fast as it should be based on the engine speed, it could be a problem with your transmission. Whether your car has an automatic or a manual transmission, shifting problems will almost always require a mechanic's intervention.

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If trying to steer your car in a crowded parking lot is like going to the gym for an upper-body workout, what's wrong? And does a mechanic need to get involved?

If the power steering fluid is low, it'll be noticeably more difficult to steer your car at slower speeds. The good news is that it's pretty easy to check this problem yourself -- locate the power steering fluid reservoir with the help of your owner's manual, and top it off with the recommended fluid.

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Often, an auto mechanic can help out when you might think you know the source of the problem, but you’re still not positive. In the previous question, you learned that a lack of power steering fluid can make it difficult to steer your car at slow speeds. But similar symptoms can mean different things. What might be wrong if your car is dragging to one side?

Brake problems aren’t to be ignored. Head to an auto shop if your car is dragging -- it’s best to let a pro handle this diagnosis.

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There’s something wrong somewhere in your car's electrical system -- the battery drains rapidly, the alternator whines or maybe the lights flicker randomly. Do you have a test light and a voltmeter in your toolbox? And do you know how to use them?

If you don’t know the basics of working with a car's electrical system (and how to protect yourself from injury) any electrical job is best left to a mechanic. Electrical problems can be time-consuming to properly diagnose, and it’s easy for an amateur to make the problem worse -- or even get hurt while attempting the repair.

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About This Quiz

No matter how much you might believe in the DIY ethic, the hands-on approach doesn't make sense for all car repairs. This quiz might help you decide when it's time to call a pro.

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