Comprehensive Vehicle Maintenance Checklist and Care Guide

Matt Matasci Matt Matasci · Updated July 1, 2024

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For most people, vehicles are an essential part of life — a broken-down vehicle is more than just an inconvenience. What’s the best way to avoid needing costly and major time-consuming repair work? Sticking to a regular maintenance schedule for your vehicle.

A Regular Vehicle Maintenance Plan Prevents Costly Repairs

While most of us rely on cars and trucks for everyday use, few of us are genuine auto experts. The good news is that quite a bit of regular maintenance and care doesn’t require a degree from Universal Technical Institute. Many of these tasks can be completed with minimal tools and expertise. 

Vehicle technology has come a long way over the last few decades, making it more difficult to complete oil changes and other traditionally routine DIY tasks from home. Unfortunately, when it comes to this maintenance, it’s best to leave it to the pros.

Sometimes major repairs for your transmission, engine or electrical system are inevitable, no matter how diligent you are with daily maintenance. But, at the end of the day, staying on top of regular care significantly reduces the likelihood of needing to pay thousands of dollars — or worse, being stranded on the side of the road.

Scheduled Check Ups are an Important Part of Care and Maintenance

Even if you’re the most passionately-DIY car owner, you should regularly bring your car in for a check-up by trained professionals. If you’re dealing with scheduled maintenance, you’ll have to decide whether to take your car to a dealer or an independent mechanic. Generally, an independent mechanic will charge less than a dealer. If your car is under warranty, using an independent shop won’t affect its coverage.

The benefit of taking your vehicle to the dealer is that they have experience working specifically with its make. It’s up to you to decide whether that expertise is necessary; when it comes to routine maintenance, just about any auto repair shop will be sufficient.

While in the back of your mind you may have cautionary tales of unscrupulous auto garages recommending every repair and replacement under the sun, most mechanics are honest. To find a mechanic shop you can trust, consider asking around on local social media sites like NextDoor, checking with friends and family, or reading reviews on Yelp and Angie’s List. Two more great resources are the car repair estimator from Consumer Reports and the Mechanics Files at

Checking oil is one of the most important (and easiest!) steps in a vehicle maintenance checklist.

Vehicle Maintenance Checklist:

So now you know how important it is to regularly have your vehicle serviced by professionals. What sort of maintenance do you need to have done, and how frequently? Our checklist below helps you stay on top of maintenance.

Frequent Check-Ups

Regularly Check Your Vehicle’s Oil

For something seemingly so insignificant, neglecting to monitor your vehicle’s oil can have devastating effects. It’s a bit cliche, but think of oil as your vehicle’s blood — though in this case the “blood” serves as a lubricant, ensuring that engine parts don’t overheat due to excess friction. If your vehicle’s oil gets low or too dirty, it won’t perform properly, and that’s bad news for the vehicle’s engine components. 

In the old days, it was recommended that you have your oil changed every 2,000 miles. With the introduction of synthetic oil and technological improvements, that number has increased to 3,000 miles or every six months.

But believe it or not, the old wisdom may be just that — old. Most car manufacturers actually recommend changing your oil between 6,000 and 10,000 miles. Check your manual to see when the manufacturer of your vehicle recommends the oil be changed.

Routinely check your oil too. Most cars have a dipstick in the engine that allows you to check oil levels and how clean it is.

  1. Park on a level surface and wait until the engine has cooled down a bit (so you don’t burn yourself).
  2. Pull out the dipstick and wipe it off with a rag. 
  3. Put the stick back into its slot and pull it out again.
  4. If the oil is below the recommended level, add some oil. 
  5. The oil should be dark brown or black.

Some cars come with an oil life monitor, which can help remind you when your car is due for an oil change. These monitors range from simple mileage calculators to high-tech algorithms that account for ambient temperature, highway/city driving and other factors. However, it’s important to remember that these monitors are just a guide and you should regularly check your engine oil levels if possible.

Coolant Flush

Coolant is a liquid that circulates throughout your vehicle’s engine and radiator and keeps the engine from overheating. It may seem like a minor component of the vehicle, but just like oil, issues with your coolant that aren’t addressed will lead to major engine damage.

Coolant Flush Versus a Coolant Top Off

If your coolant is low, simply adding a little more coolant is sufficient. If your coolant is regularly at a lower than the recommended level, have the vehicle inspected to ensure there isn’t a leak or damage to the engine.

A coolant flush is when a liquid cleaner is added to the coolant. This cleaner flushes out any unwanted debris like rust or other sediments. Then, new, clean coolant fluid is added to the system. 

How Often Does Your Vehicle Need a Coolant Flush?

Luckily, you don’t need to have coolant flushes performed at nearly the same frequency as oil changes. Most manufacturers recommend a coolant flush every 30,000 miles or at intervals of 3-5 years, whichever comes first. 

Every car is different, so check your manual. Monitor your temperature gauge, too; if you notice it creeping toward that red line, it’s time to take your car to the mechanic to have the coolant tested.

Change Out the Air Filter

How often should you replace your vehicle’s air filter? Experts recommend changing out the filter once a year or every 12,000-15,000 miles, whichever comes first. If you drive in particularly dirty or dusty conditions, you may need to replace the filter more regularly.

A clean air filter improves your vehicle’s performance, so it’s important to check on it regularly. In fact, many filters have a service life indicator. This indicator will let you know when to replace the filter.

Changing out the air filter is a relatively simple and inexpensive job. Most mechanics will take a look at your filter when your oil is changed.

Checking tire pressure is important for safety and fuel mileage reasons.

Tire Pressure

It’s important to maintain proper tire pressure for safety and performance reasons. Luckily, most modern cars monitor the tires and flash a light on the dashboard when the pressure of a tire is low. If you see that light, it’s time to add some air to your tires.

Most older vehicles don’t have a tire pressure monitor. If you own an older model, check your tire pressure regularly. If you notice your gas mileage is suffering or you notice sluggish handling, the first place to check is your tires. Low tire pressure can hurt your car’s fuel efficiency and steering.

Your owner’s manual will include the appropriate tire pressure for your vehicle. Another place to look is on the bottom of the door frame. 

If you notice you have low tire pressure, good news! This is the ultimate DIY car repair. Simply find a gas station with air and water pumps (which is most gas stations) and use the air compressor to add a little air. 

Many gas stations provide free compressed air for tires; those that require payment rarely charge more than a dollar or two. It’s a good idea to have your own tire pressure gauge and keep it in the glove box, but most gas station air pumps include a built-in gauge.

Tread Depth

Checking tread depth is extremely easy but also very important, particularly if you frequently drive in inclement weather. A tire’s tread keeps it firmly gripping the pavement; worn tires suffer from poor traction, which affects handling, acceleration and stopping distance.

To check the tread depth in a pinch, just grab a penny. Yes, the famous penny test is a great way to quickly determine whether or not you need new tires.

However, you might want to get a slightly more accurate measurement just to be safe — after all, proper tread depth is all about your safety. Tire tread gauges are relatively inexpensive, usually no more than $10. The gauge will give you precise measurements so you can plan ahead for replacing your tires.

  • If the tread is 6/32 of an inch, you don’t need to worry about replacement any time soon.
  • Tread that measures 4/32 of an inch is showing signs of wear; you should start planning for replacement down the road.
  • If your tires’ tread is 2/32 of an inch, replace them as soon as possible! You’re starting to get into dangerous territory. 

Long-Term Check-Ups

Transmission Fluid

Transmission fluid should be replaced every 50,000 to 100,000 miles, so it’s not a very frequent maintenance need.  However, using the dipstick under the hood, you should check your transmission fluid about once a month. It’s just like checking your oil, with one extra step. 

  1. Pull the stick out and touch the fluid. 
  2. Move the fluid around between your fingers to see what color it is. 
  3. The fluid should be almost entirely clear, with a slight tinge of pink. 
  4. If the fluid is dark or smells burnt, it’s time to replace your transmission fluid. 
  5. Wipe down the dipstick and put it back into the engine. 
  6. Pull it back out and check the fluid levels.
  7. If it’s below the “Full” line, top it off with a little more transmission fluid — but be sure not to overfill it!

Shocks and Struts

Shocks and struts affect the ride of your vehicle, which is a comfort issue as well as a safety issue. You should have your shocks and struts checked every 12,500 miles and replaced every 50,000 miles. If you drive on rough roads, you may need to have them replaced sooner.

Spark Plugs

If you’re lucky, you may not need to have your spark plugs changed very often over the lifetime of your car. Vehicle maintenance experts recommend having your spark plugs checked every 30,000 miles — that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll need to be replaced though! 

Most mechanics take a look at your spark plugs when you get an oil change. If you’re approaching the 30,000-mile mark on a new car, ask the mechanic to take a look at your spark plugs.

Serpentine Belt

It used to be that the rubber serpentine belt would frequently wear down over time and need to be replaced. Advancements in technology have made it, so most vehicles only need the belt replaced once, if at all. 

Generally, modern serpentine belts last an average of 60,000 to 100,000 miles. However, some cars never need to have the belt replaced. When you get around the 60,000 mile mark, ask your mechanic to take a look at the belt and see how it looks. While replacing a serpentine belt isn’t a costly repair or a safety concern, if it snaps in the middle of a trip, you could end up stranded.

Windshield Wiper

This is another simple maintenance task that is as easy as it is important, especially if you live in an area with a lot of precipitation. In fact, you’ll probably notice a decrease in the performance of your wipers before they actually end up failing. 

It’s pretty easy to install new blades on your wipers. Head to your local auto parts store and ask someone in the parts department to look up the appropriate blades. Sometimes the employee will retrieve them for you and, other times, you’ll be given a part number and sent off into the aisles to find the correct blades. Either way, it’s pretty straightforward.

For most vehicles, installing wiper blades is as simple as snapping them into place. If you’re unsure, chances are your owner’s manual will have information about wiper installation.

Battery Performance

Even the best car batteries will run out of juice over time. If you suspect your car’s battery is losing power, take it in for a test. The tests typically cost $35-$50 — well worth avoiding being stranded in a parking lot. 

If you need a new battery, there’s good news. New car batteries aren’t very expensive. Become a AAA member so you can save up to 16% on car batteries.

Going the DIY Route Vs. Hiring a Mechanic

Now you have a handy checklist that details the most common care and maintenance needs for your vehicle. You’re probably asking yourself whether you should hire someone for the job or go it alone. While repairing your car by yourself could save on mechanic’s fees, you also run the risk of making the situation worse. 

Modern vehicle systems and engines are increasingly computer-based, making it difficult for everyday Joes to perform the types of DIY maintenance like they could with “analog” vehicles. Because of this, we recommend leaving the more technical repairs to the pros. 

Changing wipers, maintaining adequate tire pressure and checking fluid levels are all tasks anyone can easily do on their own. If you have the workspace, correct tools and means to dispose of the waste, changing your own oil is still a common DIY repair. 

When it comes to changing spark plugs and replacing the air filter, the choice is yours. Many people successfully complete these tasks on their own vehicles, but others choose to leave this work to the pros.


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