A beginner's guide to car maintenance

Spotting and fixing small problems before they turn into big ones will keep you safe and save you money in the long run. So we've put together a few tips to help you keep your engine running smoothly.

How often should I get my car serviced?

It depends on your car. But, generally speaking, it's around once a year. Check your handbook to find out how often you should be booking it in.

Should I go to a garage or a dealership?

It's completely up to you. Dealerships sometimes charge more, but they might understand the faults common to your kind of car a bit better.

What will they look at during a service?

It depends how long it's been since your last one and how many miles you've driven since then. Usually, your mechanic will look at the:

  • engine
  • fuel
  • drive system
  • electrics
  • steering and suspension
  • exhaust
  • brakes
  • tyres and wheels.

What maintenance checks can I do myself?

Here are a few things you, or a mechanic, can do to keep your car in tip-top condition.

Check your motor oil regularly – and always before a long journey
If your oil level is too high or too low, it can cause trouble for your engine.

Look in your handbook to find out which kind of coolant or antifreeze to use
Coolant/antifreeze stops your car overheating when it's hot and freezing in cold weather. You mix it with water – check your handbook for the right mix for your car.

If you're in a hard water area, you might want to dilute your coolant with de-ionised or distilled water. And to avoid scalding yourself, always wait until your engine's cold to open the radiator cap.

Keep tabs on your tyre pressure and tread
The law says your tyre tread should be at least 1.6mm deep.

You should check the pressure once a week – your handbook will tell you what it should be. If it isn't right, you'll get through more fuel and wear your tyres out more quickly. Don't forget to check your spare tyres, too.

Test your lights regularly
Ask a friend to help you check your brake, indicator and fog lights all work, and won't dazzle other drivers. Ask a mechanic if you need help adjusting any.

Deal with a chipped windscreen straightaway
A small chip can quickly turn into a big crack. If there's a chip larger than 10mm in your eye-line you could fail your MOT. You'll fail straightaway if it's bigger than 40mm.

Lots of car insurance policies cover a damaged windscreen, and sometimes sunroofs and windows, too. It often won't affect your no claims discount. Check your policy to make sure.

Keep it clean inside and out
Clean the bodywork regularly and deal with small bumps, scrapes and rust spots sooner rather than later. Keep your lights, indicators, reflectors and number plates spick and h3 – and make sure nothing obstructs the view through your windscreen.

What should I keep in my car?

Car care basics

  • Jack
  • Puncture repair kit
  • Tyre wrench
  • Oil and other engine fluids
  • Jump leads
  • Reflective triangle and high-vis jacket
  • Wheel lock opener
  • Multi-tool
  • Screen wash

If you break down, put your warning triangle at least 45 metres (147 feet) behind your car, on the same side of the road.

Travel essentials

  • Water
  • Sunglasses
  • Torch – wind-up ones are the most reliable
  • Hands-free kit for your phone
  • Multi-use car charger
  • Small change
  • Up-to-date maps / GPS kit
  • Manufacturer's handbook
  • First aid kit
  • Small fire extinguisher

Winter extras

  • Thermal blanket
  • Gloves
  • Foldable snow shovel
  • Emergency snacks and drinks
  • Cardboard and de-icing salt
  • Snow chain or winter tyres

What do my warning lights mean?

Warning lights vary from car to car, and you'll be able to find out more in your handbook. As a starter for ten, here are the most common.

Battery charge
If this comes on, it means you've got a problem with your battery charging system. You should get off the road as soon as you can, switch off your engine and call a garage for help.

Oil pressure
This comes on when you need to top up your oil. If it lights up and your oil level's fine, call for help.

Brake system
If this stays on after you release the handbrake, there might be a problem with your brake fluid.

Engine
If this light stays on after you've started the car, or comes on when the engine is running, there's a problem with your engine management system. Get help as soon as possible.

Anti-lock braking system
If this comes on, it could mean there's something wrong with your brakes. Come to a gradual stop and call for help.

Tyre pressure
If this comes on or stays on, you might need to top up the air. You might also want to check for punctures.

Airbag
Get your airbag looked at as soon as possible if this light comes on. It could go off unexpectedly, or not go off when you really need it.

What are my legal responsibilities?

MOT
Most cars need testing every year once they're three years old, although sometimes they need testing when they've turned one. You'll find more details at GOV.UK.

Car insurance
It's a legal requirement to have car insurance and to keep your details up to date.

Vehicle tax
You don't need a paper tax disc anymore, but you do still need to get your new vehicle taxed before you drive it. Vehicle tax is no longer transferred when you buy a new car.

You don't need to buy vehicle tax if you only park and drive your car on your own property. Instead, you'll need to declare a SORN (Statutory Off Road Notification).

Registration documents
You need to register your vehicle with the DVLA as soon as you buy, build, rebuild or import it. You'll also need up-to-date registration documents if you want to sell it.

Breakdown cover
It isn't a legal requirement, but it could protect your car and save you money if you break down. Different policies have different features like free roadside recovery or cover for driving in Europe.

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