Cars have definitely become more complex, with computers running everything from the engine to the radio volume. But that doesn’t mean you can’t diagnose and fix your car yourself with a little help from the Internet. There’s so much good information online now that DIY car repair has never been easier. By visiting the right car forums, you can get help diagnosing the problem, learn how to do the repair and find the correct parts at good prices. And if you get stuck, you can even get advice from fellow owners and professional mechanics.
Meet the Expert: Rick Muscoplat, gearhead
I volunteer on several auto repair Q&A sites, helping DIYers diagnose and repair their own vehicles. My site contains more than 1,300 articles covering the most common car and truck problems, and they’re all free. The advice listed here comes from years of experience helping online DIYers.
I’ll show you how to locate and use Internet sites to get the answers you need to diagnose and fix your car. And I’ve included links to sites where professional mechanics volunteer and other sites where you can talk to a professional mechanic for a small fee. Once you review all online posts and get advice from others who’ve done the repair, you can decide whether you’re up for doing the repair yourself. If not, check out our Internet source to help you locate an independent repair shop near you.
Diagnose the Problem
When a problem shows up repeatedly on a specific vehicle model, people write about it online. You can save a lot of time simply by searching what others have done to diagnose and fix the problem. Here’s how to find that information:
• If the “Check Engine” or “Service Engine Soon” light is on, get the trouble codes read for free at most auto parts stores, or buy your own code reader for less than $40 (one choice is the Autel MaxiScan MS300; $19 at amazon.com).
• Then search for solutions using any online search engine. Enter the trouble code along with your make and model, like this: “P0420 on 2003 Ford Taurus.” If the “Check Engine Light” isn’t on or you’re dealing with another type of problem, search for results based on the symptom, like this: “clunking sound over bumps on 2001 Honda CRV.”
• If the search results don’t address the problem, find a vehicle-specific auto repair forum. Search by entering your vehicle’s model, followed by the word “forum,” like this: “Ford F-150 forum.” Search the forum’s archives first to see if others have had the same problem. If not, post your problem on the Q&A section of the forum and wait for replies.
Learn the Lingo Before Posting Your Question
There’s a right way and a wrong way to ask a question in a car forum. For example, if your car won’t start, don’t just ask: “Why won’t my car start?” Instead, give meaningful details: “2009 Pontiac Vibe cranks but won’t fire up when cold.” Always include the year, make and model, along with a detailed description of the problem and when you encounter it, such as when it’s cold or hot, when turning left, at speeds less than 30 mph, etc.
• If you come up empty using a search engine and a vehicle-specific forum, try a site frequented by professional mechanics. Here’s a list of places frequented by volunteer professional mechanics: gminsidenews.com/forums/f53/, batauto.com, reddit.com/r/MechanicAdvice, 2carpros.com, ricksfreeautorepairadvice.com
• Pay to talk or email one-on-one with a professional mechanic at an online help service like expertcaradvice. com or justanswer.com. The services contract with mechanics from dealers and independent repair shops and route your question to an expert who works on your car’s brand every day.
Learn How to Do the Repair
You can’t decide if you’re up to doing the repair yourself until you know the steps involved and the tools required. Find that information online. Then decide whether to fix it yourself or take it to a pro.
• For step-by-step instructions, specifications, factory service bulletins, wiring diagrams and illustrations, buy a subscription to a professional online shop manual. The two best online manuals are alldatadiy.com and eautorepair.net. Check your local library to see if it offers online repair manual access.
• Search for repair videos this way: “replace power steering pump 2005 Dodge Grand Caravan video.” Or go directly to YouTube and search for repair videos there. But use common sense when viewing these amateur videos, and watch several before deciding if there’s a common thread when it comes to the fixes. Some of the techniques you’ll come across are not only wrong; they can be downright dangerous.
Get the Best Deal on Parts
The best source for replacement parts is the dealer, but it’s typically the most expensive. However, many dealers now sell genuine manufacturer parts online at a discount. And, retail auto parts stores also offer online discounts. So shop online first, then ask whether the parts store or dealer will match the online price.
• Search for discounted dealer parts like this: “genuine Dodge discount parts.”
• Search for coupon codes for auto parts retailers like this: “AutoZone coupon code.”
• Find a non-dealer discount online parts seller like this: “Discount auto parts.” Rockauto.com, frugalmechanic.com and autoanything.com offer great deals on replacement auto parts.
— Rick Muscoplat, Contributing Editor