Smart Consumer: Don't let pricey car services drive you round the bend -- just do it yourself!
Our cars are getting older, but looking after them needn't cost the earth, writes John Cradden
It will probably come as no surprise to learn that our cars are getting older. After all, new car sales fell off a cliff in 2009, and only recovered last year thanks to the scrappage scheme, which ended in June.
According to figures from car history checking website Cartell.ie, the average age of a car in Ireland has risen from less than six years old in January 2006 to 7.4 years in January 2011, with a month-by-month increase.
Shane O'Donoghue, director of Completecar.ie, says: "People are holding onto their cars out of necessity and not, in my opinion, because they suddenly think that older cars are just fine now."
It may be one of the first things to fall victim to a tightening of the household purse strings, but skimping on a hard-working car's maintenance is a false economy.
Anecdotal evidence from garages suggests that while people are holding on to their cars for longer, many are putting off their service or repair work until something serious goes wrong, according to the Society of the Motor Industry (SIMI).
Keith Colton of Colton Motors in Tullamore, Co Offaly, told Smart Consumer of a car with an engine knocking noise that came into his garage recently.
It ended up needing an expensive engine repair simply because the owner had not changed the oil -- never mind checked it -- in over two years.
"There was very little oil left in the sump and the small bit that was left had turned into a thick treacle-like substance, which had no lubricating qualities left," he said.
"If the car owner only checked their oil more regularly and kept it at the right level, the engine will last a lot longer, and also will save on fuel."
But while the cost of maintaining a car begins to rise once it reaches four years old (according to AA Ireland), there are lots of ways to save money on running costs without skimping on essential maintenance.
1 But if the average age of cars has been steadily rising, does that not mean that cars today are more reliable?
Yes and no. "The rate of development of the car in the past 20 years has been nothing short of astounding," says O'Donoghue.
"The downside to that is that there is now more to go wrong than ever before.
"However, I'd maintain that cars are inherently much more reliable now. The issue is that the average car owner can't fix it for themselves."
Not surprisingly, SIMI agrees. Spokesperson Suzanne Sheridan says the greater complexity of cars, particularly diesel ones, means that garages need to be well up to date on new diagnostic technologies and methods, something that might not apply to a nixer or back-street mechanic or someone unqualified.
2 Right, so if today's cars require a degree in computers to fix or maintain, is there nothing I can do myself?
Yes, there are still lots of basic, simple checks you can do that will save money.
"Before you bring your car to be serviced, check all the lights and fluid levels for yourself, as it's easy to do and garages charge more than it would cost you to remedy anything for yourself," says O'Donoghue.
Sheridan says motorists can still carry out basic maintenance themselves on a regular basis, such as checking tyre pressure, thread depth, oil, coolant levels and so on, "which will all make the car run more smoothly and improve a car's miles per gallon".
Savings: Up to €100 for a basic service
3 I've been doing this basic maintenance for years, so I'd be quite confident in doing more complex jobs with the help of my trusty Haynes manual.
The Haynes manuals are still regarded as the bible of the DIY mechanic with its easy-to-follow step-by-step instructions, and they also contain 'difficulty' ratings for each job, which is very useful. You can get them from any motor factors, Halfords or from online car parts retailer Micksgarage.ie for about €25-30 -- well worth the money.
Savings: Up to €250 for a full service (if no major work needed)
4Ever since my car's free servicing and warranty expired, my local dealer has been charging me an arm and leg for a major service.
There is a lot to be said for maintaining a dealer-stamped service history from new because this reassures prospective buyers when the time comes to sell. But once your car reaches four or five years old, this becomes far less important, as long as you keep all receipts for work done.
This means you can shop around for cheaper car servicing at independent garages, or perhaps from other franchise dealers who are seeking to win more servicing business by offering competitive-priced servicing packages for all popular makes of cars. Nissan dealer Windsor Motors, for instance, offers servicing packages for all makes from €69 to €139.
5I hate the hassle of visiting garages.
There are a growing number of mobile mechanic services that can service your car at your doorstep.
One of the newest entrants to this market is AA Ireland, which now offers such a seven-day-a-week service starting at €179 for an 'interim' service and from €229 for a full car service that includes 74 checks.
According to AA spokesperson Miriam O'Neill, the service is currently only available in Dublin and Cork, but there are plans to roll it out to other parts of the country next year.
You don't need to be a member, either.
6If I do some servicing myself, or get an independent garage to do it for me, can I shop around for car parts myself to save money?
Yes, you can certainly check this out. Main dealers will usually be the most expensive place to buy original replacement parts, but you can get the same parts (or pattern or second-hand parts) much more cheaply from your local motor factor.
You could also try online shops such as Micksgarage.ie. If you need a replacement engine or body part cheaply, you could also check out scrapyard part finders, such as Partfinder.ie.
Savings: Pattern parts can be up to 50% cheaper than original replacement parts