People on tight budgets are often tempted to skip some routine car maintenance services, or at least to delay an appointment with the auto shop.
However, poorly maintained vehicles cause thousands of wrecks each year. The bill for accidents resulting from unperformed vehicle maintenance tops $2 billion a year, according to the Car Care Council, an advocacy group based in Bethesda, Md.
Even if you are lucky enough to avoid a crash, putting off maintenance is likely to reduce your car's lifespan.
"If you don't maintain your car, you're taking a vehicle that might have been driven for 200,000 miles over its life, and you're knocking it down to maybe 150,000 miles," says Philip Reed, author of the "Strategies for Smart Car Buyers" blog at Edmunds.com.
The true cost of not maintaining your vehicle can include hefty repair bills for bad brakes, failed emissions tests and maybe even a failed engine. Following is a list of some common maintenance requirements for automobiles and the costly problems that can occur if they aren't completed:
Car care checklist
Delaying car repairs can cost you hundreds -- or even thousands -- of dollars over the long run. Here are six areas of maintenance you should never skip.
6 car maintenance must-dos
1. Consistent oil changes
2. Tire rotations, air pressure checks ...
3. Replace timing belt
4. Annual brake checkup
5. Replacing the PCV regularly
6. Changing spark plugs and filters
Consistent oil changes
Regular oil changes help keep your engine clean and lubricated, says Deanna Sclar, author of "Auto Repair for Dummies."
"Oil cuts down on the friction that can literally wear away the parts of the engine," she says. "One of the most important maintenance-related things you can do is change your oil frequently."
There is some debate about how often drivers should change their oil. Many car experts recommend getting the work done every 3,000 miles or three months, especially if you often drive in stop-and-go traffic or your car idles for long periods of time.
However, some car manufacturers recommend longer intervals between oil changes. The safest advice is to follow the manufacturer's recommendations for your specific car.
"The definitive answer is to check your owner's manual," says Vyvyan Lynn, author of "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Auto Repair."
"Few people read their owner's guide, but it's golden."
Cost of skipping: Potential engine failure.
Tire rotations, air pressure checks and tire alignment
Rotating tires -- switching the tire position from front to rear and vice versa -- helps them wear equally. A tire rotation should generally be done every 6,000 miles, or as often as the car manufacturer recommends.
In addition to having tires rotated, check to make sure tires are properly inflated at the pressure specified in the owner's manual. This prevents unnecessary wear and helps extend tire life.
"It costs barely anything to make sure your tires are properly inflated, and air is practically free," says Steven Eppinger, president and CEO of Ownersite.com, a Web site that helps car owners track their maintenance histories. "Your car will be safer, your tires will last longer and you will get better gas mileage. You get all of this for just taking a couple of minutes each week to check tire pressure. With gas prices close to $4 a gallon in some places, that kind of savings can add up quickly."
The Car Care Council also recommends getting your tires aligned once a year. A tire alignment adjusts your vehicle's steering and suspension so that it's in line with your car manufacturer's specifications.
Cost of skipping: Excessive tire wear and poor gas mileage.
Replace timing belt at recommended intervals
Not all vehicles use timing belts, but many of today's engines do. Your car manual will tell you whether your car has one, and if so, when it needs to be replaced.
If the timing belt fails, the engine will cut off and the car will slow down until it stops, according to the Car Care Council. A lucky car will only require a belt repair. An unlucky car could suffer severe engine damage.
"I'm dealing with a situation where a customer drove their car for 90,000 miles without ever having the timing belt replaced, even though the car manufacturer suggested changing it at the 60,000 mile mark," says Eric Currin, a mechanic in Georgia.
"The timing belt slipped in three places. The car cut off. When the customer tried to restart the car, they bent several valves. So what would have been a $600 job to replace the timing belt has turned out to be a $2,000 job to replace the belt, valves and other related parts."
Cost of skipping: Damaged valves and pistons.
Annual brake checkup
Brake disc pads and shoes eventually wear down. Checking your brakes annually allows you to plan ahead and know when it's time to replace them. By contrast, neglecting regular brake work could eventually lead to more costly rotor or drum replacements.
"If you ignore your brakes, then you'll just continue to wear down your discs (the friction part of the brakes that wear with normal driving)," says Reed. "If the discs go down metal-to-metal, you could gouge your rotors. Then, what would have been a $150 brake job (to replace discs) could turn into a $300 brake job to replace rotors."
Brake inspections can also help a technician identify a problem that doesn't involve brake disc pads at all.
"There could be a lack of brake fluid or a leak in the master cylinder that's under the hood," says Sclar.
You might never know unless you have the brakes checked.
Cost of skipping: Expensive rotor or drum replacement.
Replacing PCV valve regularly
The positive crankcase ventilation, or PCV, system helps regulate the flow of fumes around the engine. It includes hoses as well as a PCV valve, which should be replaced at recommended intervals.
"The PCV valve helps protect the seals and gaskets on an engine. It keeps them from getting corroded and cracked, which can cause oil to leak," says Currin. "The cost for a replacement PCV valve is just a few dollars, plus a minimal cost of labor to install it. But if you don't get it replaced when necessary, the seals could leak.
"If you do have a leak, it costs over a hundred bucks to replace a valve cover gasket. If it gets really bad and the head gasket starts to leak, you could be faced with thousands of dollars for repair bills."
Cost of skipping: Leaking head gasket, failed emissions test.
Changing spark plugs and filters
Do you live in a state that requires your car to pass an emissions test? If so, failing to maintain your car could lead to a huge repair bill to bring the vehicle into compliance.
"The average repair bill is somewhere between $335 to $350 to fix a problem that causes an emissions test to fail," says Rich Parlontieri, chief executive officer of Speedemissions, a vehicle emissions testing/safety inspection company with stations in Salt Lake City, Houston and Atlanta. "Common causes of failed emissions tests include faulty oxygen sensors, air flow monitors and catalytic converters."
States may require drivers to pay well over $700 to attempt to fix their own cars before the state finally grants them a waiver to bypass the emissions test, Parlontieri says. Basic maintenance can prevent many of these problems from occurring in the first place.
"The best way to improve the odds of passing an emissions test is to maintain your vehicle. A well-maintained engine is usually a clean engine as far as emissions are concerned," says Parlontieri.
Basic maintenance includes changing the spark plugs, air filter, fuel filter, PCV valve and oil regularly, Parlontieri says. Checking ignition timing and adjusting the carburetor (if you have an older vehicle) can reduce emissions and greatly improve the odds of passing an emissions check.
"It's amazing what following the maintenance schedule in the owner's manual can do for a car when it comes time to take the test," says Parlontieri.
Bad emissions also involve an environmental cost that we pay in the air we breathe.
"When you fail a test, it means your car is creating a lot of pollution," says Parlontieri.
Cost of skipping: Damaged catalytic converter, failed emissions test.
Getting the best deal
It's a mistake to delay routine maintenance simply because your budget is tight, Reed says. Instead, he recommends learning more about your car's basic maintenance requirements before you take the car to the shop.
"I don't want to tell anybody to skip anything. Instead, the best way to save money when you're going to get your car serviced is to know exactly what's required, and have that done and nothing more," he says.
People who know little about their cars sometimes are persuaded to undertake repairs that may not be necessary, Reed says.
"I recently took my truck in to be serviced, but before I went, I looked online and saw that the estimated cost should be $152," Reed says. "When I went in, the service person tried to recommend that I get extra work done that would bring the total to $382. I challenged him, and he literally tossed the higher estimate in the trash and told me I was right. He did that because I did the research and had the verification."
Lynn agrees that a car owner can save money simply by knowing what routine maintenance is required on the car and when the maintenance is scheduled.
Another way to stretch your dollars is to find a good, trustworthy mechanic, she says.
"There is a fear factor people have when it comes to taking their car to the shop," says Lynn. "To get over the fear, you've got to find an auto repair shop that you're comfortable with. Get recommendations from friends. Then, ask the mechanic about his or her credentials."
Following your car manufacturer's recommendations for oil changes, tire rotations and routine checkups requires relatively little upfront cost. However, the benefits can pay off in the long run with better fuel economy, an engine that runs well and a longer car life.