Being able to diagnose simple car problems, or even major ones, can help you save a lot of money at the repair shop – especially if you are a woman!
It would be nice to think that every mechanic is honest and ethical, but that simply isn’t the case. Unfortunately, consumers are often spending more than necessary on car repairs, with the majority of victims being women.
In an undercover investigation, the ABC show “The Lookout” discovered that mechanics were not only overcharging women, but they were also lying about problems, and in some cases, even creating issues so they could bill more money for repairs. Charging too much for needed repairs is bad enough, but fixing something that isn’t broken to begin with is downright unethical.
Knowledge, Knowledge, Knowledge
So, as a woman, how can you be sure that you are being treated fairly and getting the best price on auto repairs? The answer is simple: knowledge, knowledge, knowledge. You don’t have to be able to rebuild an engine or know how an alternator works, but having the ability to make a simple diagnosis so you sound somewhat knowledgeable when speaking with a mechanic will go a long way.
In fact, a study by AutoMD found that women were overcharged when they admitted that they didn’t know the approximate cost of a particular repair. Conversely, women were charged much less when they displayed some knowledge and had a basic idea about what was wrong with their vehicle and how much it should cost to fix.
While there are automotive car care classes geared specifically to women, you can save money on car repairs without having to go back to school. By recognizing a few common problems and being able to diagnose them on your own, you will be arming yourself with the knowledge you need to ensure fair treatment at the repair shop.
And, you might even be able to fix a few problems yourself, saving a costly trip to the mechanic. Studies show that women are more likely than men to pay someone to do basic maintenance such as checking fluid levels or replacing light bulbs and fuses. But, by doing a little research and following your vehicle’s owner’s manual, you might be surprised at how simple some repairs can be.
Common Car Problems
Use this list as a reference to help you diagnose – and maybe even fix – common car problems.
Car won’t start. Usually, this means that the battery is dead. If you are in a public place where you can enlist the help of a good Samaritan, ask it they can give you a “boost” or recharge the battery using jumper cables. Important note: Jumping a battery can be dangerous. Read our blog post here for more information on this topic.
If the battery will not take a charge, this could be a sign that a good connection is not being made. Try cleaning the terminals and see if it fixes the issue. If this doesn’t work, or if the battery will not hold a charge, you may need a new one. But, before spending the money, have a mechanic test the battery to confirm that it needs to be replaced. If possible, watch while they test it to ensure that you are getting accurate information.
If you continually lose power, especially while using accessories such as air conditioning, heat, or headlights, then the problem may be with the alternator. It is important to have this fixed as soon as possible since an ill-functioning alternator can destroy your battery and then you will be paying for two repairs.
Advice: Keep a set of jumper cables or a portable battery charger in your car.
Temperature Light is On. If your temperature dash light in on, or you notice that your temperature gauge is higher than usual, this could be an indication that your engine is overheating. If the readings are still within the safe range, get off the road as soon as safely possible. However, if the temperatures are rising quickly or if there is smoke/steam coming out of the hood, pull over onto the shoulder immediately.
Try adding some coolant to the system to see if it fixes the problem. If the engine is still warm, be careful when opening the coolant cap as the contents may spray. If this doesn’t work, then there may be an issue with the radiator or the coolant temperature sensor so you will need to take your vehicle to a mechanic to have it repaired.
Advice: Carry a bottle of coolant in your car and learn how to locate the reservoir so you can refill it when needed.
Oil Light is On. If the oil light on your dash comes on, pull over at your earliest convenience and check the oil level. Unscrew the cap that is marked “engine oil” and use the dipstick to measure the amount of oil. The level should be all the way to the full mark. If it only a little low, add some oil as soon as possible. However, if it is nearly empty, or you cannot see a reading at all, then add oil immediately. Do not drive your car in this case as you can destroy your engine.
Advice: Keep a quart of oil in your car and learn how to add it when needed.
Car Not Braking Properly. You may experience a loss of brake power, brake fade, or notice that you have to push the pedal all the way to the floor to get the vehicle to stop. If you feel the car is unsafe, pull over to the side of the road immediately, using your emergency brake if necessary. If the vehicle is still stopping sufficiently, get off the road at your earliest convenience.
Brake issues could have a number of causes. Check the brake fluid level and add some if it is low. Poor braking could also indicate worn brake pads. You can check the indicators yourself or have them examined by a mechanic. A sudden inability to stop could mean a cracked or broken brake line and you should have your car fixed before driving it again.
Advice: Carry a bottle of brake fluid in your car and learn where the “brake fluid” cap is under the hood so you can top up the level when needed.
Scraping or Grinding When Braking. If you hear a scraping “metal-on-metal” sound when applying the brakes, this is an indication that your brake pads need to be replaced. You should have this work done as soon as possible or you could damage your rotors, which will cost even more to replace.
If you notice a vibration in the brake pedal, this could mean that you have a warped brake drum or rotor and will need to have these parts replaced.
Advice: Learn how to check brake pad thickness yourself. Most pads can be seen through the wheel so you can monitor wear. Some pads even have a wear indicator so you will know when they need to be replaced. If you don’t feel comfortable doing this yourself, have your brake pads checked with every oil change to avoid the risk of more serious and costly problems.
Engine Keeps Cutting Off or Losing Power. You may notice that your car will shut down randomly, run rough, or even stall intermittently. This could be a sign of a major engine issue, but it could also be something very simple to fix.
Pull the air filter out and check if it is plugged with dirt and dust. If necessary, replace it yourself or have it done by a mechanic. It is also possible that there is a problem with the spark plugs. If you know how, you can check this yourself, but you will likely have to take your vehicle to a mechanic if your plugs and/or wires need to be replaced.
Often, a car will shut down while driving if the coolant temperature sensor is malfunctioning. You may be able to diagnose this issue by watching your temperature gauge or looking for other signs of overheating.
Advice: Learn how to check an air filter and find out the average cost of replacing spark plugs in your area. A little research can save you a lot of money and it is less likely that you will be overcharged if you know the “going rate”.
Car Vibrates When Driving. If you feel a vibration in the steering wheel or if it seems as if the whole care is shaking, especially at faster speeds, you could have a wheel out of balance or some other problem with the steering or suspension. Unfortunately, you cannot fix this yourself, but will need to take it to a garage to have it properly diagnosed and repaired. Have tires balanced as soon as you notice a problem since an out of balance car can cause accelerated tire wear and may lead to more serious mechanical issues.
Vibrations may also be caused by flat or soft tires. If the problem appears suddenly while driving, pull over to make sure that you don’t have a flat. If you notice that a tire is deflating slowly or has a “slow leak”, you can use a can of Fix-A-Flat to temporarily re-inflate the tire until you can have it properly repaired or replaced. If the tire is completely flat, you will have to change it before you can continue driving or you may cause more serious damage.
Advice: Keep a can of Fix-A-Flat in your car. Learn how to change a flat tire or purchase a Vehicle Protection Plan with roadside assistance so you can call for help when you are stranded on the side of a busy highway.
Car Makes Loud Noise When Accelerating. If your car sounds like a Harley Davidson, then it is likely that you have a hole in the exhaust system. You will need to take your vehicle to a shop to have this repair work done, but again, find out what other people have paid for similar work so you will know if a mechanic tries overcharge you.
Car Pulls To One Side When Driving. If you feel like you are fighting to keep your car in a straight line or if it seems as if it is always drifting to one side, you may need to make an appointment to have the vehicle re-aligned. Special equipment is needed, so you will need to find a garage that can do this for you at a reasonable price.
Puddles Under the Car. No one likes to see puddles under their car, but being able to tell a mechanic what type of leak needs repairing will save you a lot of time and money in shop fees.
Types of Leaks
A bright green puddle usually means coolant, which could indicate a radiator leak or a cracked/damaged hose.
A brown puddle is a sign that you have an oil leak. You may also notice a burning smell when the car is running. Keep your eye on your dash lights to see if the low oil indicator comes on.
A red puddle is typically transmission fluid or power steering fluid. Check both levels to determine where the problem lies.
A blue puddle is usually windshield washer solution, although some washer solution is also pink or yellow so double check all levels just to be safe, especially transmission or power steering fluid, which can also be pink/red. You don’t want to overlook a more serious problem.
A clear puddle is most likely your air conditioner, but if you are not using your AC or if this happens during the winter months, you should investigate further.
Advice: Keep a bottle of all fluids in your vehicle for emergencies and know where each refill cap is under the hood.
A little bit of knowledge can save you a lot of money when it comes to car repairs. If you are a woman, it is especially important that you can diagnose basic common issues so that you are not overcharged by dishonest mechanics.
Advice: Purchasing an extended warranty or a Vehicle Protection Plan from autopom! will give you the peace of mind knowing that your repair costs will be covered (per the terms of the agreement) and the work will be done properly, regardless of whether you are a man or a woman.