Car maintenance and repair that can be done at home includes changing the air filter.
Illustration: Señor Salme/Synergy

With new and used car prices surging from a global shortage of microchips, more owners are paying to fix their cars and putting off new car purchases.

But for repair and maintenance, there’s the question of where to service your car. The dealership? A reputable independent shop? Or do it yourself?

If your car is under warranty, the answer is simple—always take it to the dealership for a covered repair. For other situations, the answer depends on what service needs to be performed.

“Car owners who want to save money will want to strategize the best option for each job,” says John Ibbotson, Consumer Reports’ chief mechanic.

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CR auto experts reviewed common maintenance and repair items, breaking down the best and most cost-efficient option for each. For example, if you don’t usually change your oil at home, we recommend going to the dealership. It’s only marginally more expensive than a chain oil-change shop, and we think it’s worth it for the manufacturer-recommended oil and the specific filter your model calls for.

On the other hand, some repairs are so simple, and the parts so inexpensive and easily available, that you may find that it’s more convenient—and far cheaper—to do them yourself.*

We also provide the cost for each repair and maintenance task for a Ford F-150 and a Toyota Highlander, among the most popular models in our survey and in the marketplace.

 

Fix It Yourself

Engine Air Filter

Parts, Ford F-150: $21
Parts, Toyota Highlander: $25

Description of job: Jill Trotta, vice president of industry and sales at RepairPal, and a technician who has 30 years’ experience and is certified by the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence, says increased demand for automotive service work, combined with parts shortages and a yearslong technician shortage, can make for longer wait times at the repair shop. (RepairPal is a CR partner.) That makes doing the easy stuff yourself a no-brainer. Changing the engine air filter, which keeps harmful contaminants from entering the engine’s combustion chamber, is simple. On most cars it’s easily accessible. Remove debris from the air cleaner box before installing the new filter, so it doesn’t clog the new filter or get into the engine.

Cabin Air Filter

Parts, Ford F-150: $30
Parts, Toyota Highlander: $36

Description of job: This filter keeps the air inside the car free of allergens and contaminants, and is usually accessed through the glove box. Some are simple to reach; others aren’t. Instructions can often be found in the vehicle owner’s manual. John Ibbotson, CR’s chief mechanic, says YouTube instructional videos can be helpful.

Windshield Wiper Blades

Parts, Ford F-150: $28
Parts, Toyota Highlander: $50

Description of job: On most cars, these can be replaced in minutes. (Some auto parts stores will even do it free after you buy the wipers.) Place a soft cloth on the windshield in case the spring-loaded wiper arm snaps back onto the glass during the replacement. Make sure the blades are affixed properly—if they fall off, the wiper arm can scratch or break the windshield glass and affect visibility. Some cars have a wiper arm “service position” that makes it easier to install new wiper blades.


John's auto repair is an example of a quality independent shop
Illustration: SEÑOR SALME/SYNERGY

Go to an Independent Shop

Suspension Shock/Strut

Cost, Ford F-150: $628
Cost, Toyota Highlander: $658

Description of problem: Suspension parts are regular wear items that, if in poor condition, could cause unsafe braking and handling. How long shocks and struts last depends primarily on the road surfaces you usually drive on. Rougher roads are harder on these parts. Their replacement is fairly straightforward, but make sure you ask the shop for the highest-quality parts to ensure a good, long-lasting ride. Even name-brand aftermarket shocks often come in different grades, so ask for details about quality and price.

Head Gasket

Cost, Ford F-150: $1,532
Cost, Toyota Highlander: $1,943

Description of problem: A head gasket creates a seal between your car’s engine block and its cylinder head. Over time the gasket can start to leak, which can get progressively worse and lead to overheating and engine damage. For most head gaskets, replacement can be labor-intensive, but the job is usually relatively simple, so it makes sense to choose an independent shop, which typically charges a lower rate for labor than dealerships charge. “Loyalty to one shop is most often rewarded with technicians who know your particular vehicle, and with an honest appraisal of what’s needed,” says Ibbotson at Consumer Reports. “A good shop that you’ve developed a rapport with will be able to tell you whether they can handle a job, or if you should take it to the dealership or a specialist.”

Brake Pads

Cost, Ford F-150: $167
Cost, Toyota Highlander: $228

Description of problem: This fix is the most frequent on the list of common repairs, according to RepairPal data. Brake pads—a regular wear item, like tires and windshield wiper blades—need to be replaced every so often. The number of miles between replacements depends on the model, road conditions, and how you drive the vehicle. The repair is usually pretty standard from vehicle to vehicle, so we recommend an independent shop. To keep costs down, it will probably use lower-cost aftermarket parts, so it’s up to you to ask for the best ones possible, Ibbotson says. Good aftermarket parts may still be less expensive than factory parts. Brake rotors should usually be replaced to ensure smooth operation. The technician should also inspect the condition of related parts, such as wheel bearings and suspension components, that can affect braking safety and performance, Ibbotson says.

Spark Plugs

Cost, Ford F-150: $232
Cost, Toyota Highlander: $409

Description of problem: Spark plugs ignite the fuel-air mixture in your engine’s combustion chambers, which creates power to move the car. When they get dirty or worn out as miles accrue, it can affect fuel economy, drivability, and even emissions. Replacing spark plugs on some engines is easier than on others—a Toyota four-cylinder engine’s spark plugs are accessible from the top of the engine, whereas the spark plugs on a Subaru’s flat-four are in a tight spot on the side of the engine. Either way, independent shops work on a variety of cars and will have the tools and expertise to replace spark plugs and do other tuneup tasks.

Alternator Replacement

Cost, Ford F-150: $549
Cost, Toyota Highlander: $735

Description of problem: The alternator is a belt-driven part that converts engine power into electricity for charging the battery and powering the vehicle’s many onboard electronic components. Replacing one is another common repair that varies in complexity depending on the vehicle make and model. Some alternators are easily accessible. Others, not so much. But in general, disassembly of major components isn’t required to get to an alternator, so an independent shop is a good choice. Gas-electric hybrids and even mild hybrids, on the other hand, won’t have a traditional alternator, and they might need attention at the dealership if there is a problem.


Go to a Dealership

Advanced Safety System Alignment

Cost, Ford F-150: $280
Cost, Toyota Highlander: $178

Description of problem: Many newer cars are equipped with the active driver assistance systems that CR recommends having in all new vehicles. Features such as automatic emergency braking, blind spot warning, and adaptive cruise control consist of a series of cameras and/or sensors feeding information to a computer that works with vehicle control systems to increase safety. Occasionally—whether because of a fender bender, windshield replacement, or software problem—these systems can need repair and special alignments so that the cameras and sensors operate with precision. The dealership is best equipped to repair this complex hardware and software because it will have the most up-to-date tools. Independent shops can do some of this work. But, Ibbotson says, “the dealership’s expertise in its own cars justifies the higher cost of labor for these repairs.”

Infotainment Glitches

Cost, Ford F-150: Varies
Cost, Toyota Highlander: Varies

Description of problem: CR members complain frequently in our auto surveys about infotainment reliability problems—frozen screens, touch-screen buttons that don’t respond readily, or systems that go dark and need reboots, among other problems. Software bugs are more common than you might think, says John Ibbotson, CR’s chief mechanic. He adds that only factory-backed dealerships will have the right computer equipment and parts available for proper diagnosis and software updates, so it’s not a good idea to go to an independent shop. “Plus, the dealership will always have the latest information from the manufacturer,” Ibbotson says. The owner’s manual might tell you how to reboot the infotainment system yourself, and that might fix a software-related problem.

Airbag/Seat Belt Maintenance and Repair

Cost, Ford F-150: $442
Cost, Toyota Highlander: $609

Description of problem: Problems can also arise with airbags, such as the ongoing spate of Takata airbag recalls over the past several years. Or a blinking airbag light could indicate a potential malfunction. Seat belts can also develop problems; they contain specialized mechanisms, such as pretensioners, that have turned some restraint systems into high-tech feats of engineering. And child car seats are often secured in the back seat by belts that need to be in tip-top shape. If you have an airbag or seat belt problem, the dealer is best equipped to fix it and to ensure proper operation.

Timing Belt Replacement

Cost, Ford F-150: $1,215
Cost, Toyota Highlander: $742

Description of problem: A timing belt (or chain) is a vital part that keeps the engine operating smoothly. Timing belts should be replaced proactively at specific intervals, often at 100,000 miles. It’s a complicated procedure, often requiring partial engine disassembly. Skipping this service can lead to major engine damage. And if some key parts, such as idler pulleys, belt tensioners, and even the water pump, aren’t replaced at the same time, it could lead to failure and repairs—maybe expensive ones—down the road. If you already deal with an independent shop you trust, it might be able to handle this job. But Ibbotson says dealerships are more likely to know which parts associated with the timing belt or chain for your model should be replaced at the same time to avoid problems in the future.


What About EV Repair and Maintenance?

CR has found that generally, electric vehicles cost less to maintain than their gasoline-powered counterparts because they contain fewer moving parts. For example, EVs have no timing belt or spark plugs to contend with. But they do have normal wear items, such as tires, brakes, windshield wipers, and suspension parts, that degrade as time and mileage pile up. Most of these items are similar to those found in gas-powered cars, and they can be worked on at independent repair shops. But some EV-specific maintenance items and repairs require specialized knowledge and equipment, and only EV technicians should tackle them.

Batteries: EV battery packs—the large array of cells that power the car’s motor—usually last a long time. But they degrade over time and can be replaced at a shop that specializes in battery pack replacement, or at the dealership.

Software issues: As with a gasoline-powered car, you should take your EV to a dealership if there are problems with infotainment or other in-car displays.

Charging problems: The charging port and information displays can malfunction, making it impossible to fuel the car. This should be addressed by the dealership.

Editor’s Note: This article also appeared in the October 2021 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

*DIY prices are from manufacturer parts websites. Independent repair shop and dealership costs, which include parts and labor, were provided by RepairPal.