Guide to Car Maintenance and Repair

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Guide to Car Maintenance and Repair

Life in the Bay Area often means spending a lot of time in your car. That’s why it’s essential to keep your car in good repair. Get advice from the experts on everything from brakes to batteries, so you can be confident your car will take you where you need to go.

  • Get Started: Read articles on a variety of car repair topics.
  • Find: Find a top rated professional for your car’s needs.
  • Research: Dive into tips and videos on auto repair.
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Auto Repair Essentials

  • Essential Vehicle Maintenance

    Maintenance Overview

    Get an overview of auto maintenance from headlights to bumpers.

  • Mostly DIY Auto Care Tips

    DIY

    Find out what tasks you can do on your own to keep your car in good repair.

  • Under the Hood

    Advice from Auto Experts

    Auto industry professionals share their tips for properly maintaining your car.

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LOCAL EXPERTS' TIPS FOR AUTO REPAIR

Eduardo Porta

Fremont Foreign Auto

Ryan Cordes

European Sales & Service

Nana Sarkisian

Cal Auto Body

Chris Williams

Chestnut Automotive & Towing

Gurjit Singh

Reliant Auto Repair

Paul Jancis

Driven Auto Care

Joel Ramos Diaz

American Canyon Collision Center

Sheik Bacchus

Bacchus British Services

Gabriel Manzo

Gabe’s Auto Care Center

Alex Nunez

B & J Transmissions

Hans Art

Hans Art Automotive

Yann d’Argence

All Autos, Inc.

Chester Kniss

Delta Transmission

Agustin Cruz

Cruz Auto Repair

Ken DeMartini

Japan Auto Repair, Inc.

Manuel Garcia

George McGill’s Body Shop, Inc.

Greg Meier

Diablo Motors

Mike Schwarzbart

Berkeley Motor Works

Tom Tillett

TL Tillett’s Automotive

Josh Cherry

Big O Tires – Pleasanton

Richard Cordes

European Sales & Service

Ron McLeod

ASAP Automotive, Inc.

Wayne Pentecost

Wayne & Son’s Automotive Repair, Inc.

Rich Lezcano

Simply Superior Auto Body

Glen Poy-Wing

Oakland Auto Works

John Vanek

Orinda Motors, Inc.

Dave Proffer

Empire Auto Repair & Smog

Thuan Le

T & T Auto Repair

Ralph Kirberg

Kirberg Motors, Inc.

Bill Faulconer

Renson Automotive, Inc.

Lyde Waitley

Olsen’s Automotive Repair

Cliff Do

A1 Performance Auto Repair

Will Trbovich

Acurit Auto Repair

Mike Pogojeff

Automotive Excellence

Walee Gon

Faxon Garage

Reconsidering Synthetic Oil Change Intervals

Reconsidering Synthetic Oil Change Intervals

FREMONT — With the growing prevalence of synthetic engine oil, oil change intervals have become a hot topic for high-end car owners. Because of synthetic oil’s superior performance, the typical oil change interval for a high-end car is several thousand miles longer than that of a normal vehicle. Still, it’s important to get the right information when determining the correct oil change interval for your car.

Many high-end car manufacturers are now recommending an oil change interval of 10,000 miles. However, this is in conflict with synthetic oil manufacturers, which recommend oil changes every 7,500 miles. So, who should you trust?

As a professional mechanic, I’ve found the 10,000-mile oil change interval to be very problematic. After 7,500 miles, synthetic oil’s viscosity starts to break down, which means you’re driving that last 2,500 miles with bad oil in your motor. This is even worse for cars with more than 100,000 miles on the odometer, as they’re more liable to develop engine lubrication problems. At my shop, I’ve seen everything from BMWs and Mercedes-Benzes to Hondas and Nissans come in with major internal lubrication issues due to being driven too long without an oil change. In most cases, these issues cost thousands of dollars to repair.

For this reason, I advise listening to the oil manufacturer rather than the car manufacturer when it comes to oil change intervals. After all, as the ones designing and producing the oil, they should know best. By having your synthetic oil changed every 7,500 miles, you can avoid major engine problems and prolong your vehicle’s lifespan.

Caution for Buying a Used Mercedes-Benz

Caution for Buying a Used Mercedes-Benz

SANTA ROSA — If you’re interested in buying a used Mercedes-Benz, there’s something you should be aware of. Certain models from 2004 to 2008 are known to have a problem with their timing chains, caused by a defective balance shaft. Essentially, the balance shaft’s gears tend to wear out prematurely, which causes the timing chain to slip. Besides leading to engine problems, this defect can cause your car’s “check engine” light to come on, which is a problem if you need it to pass a smog check.

The cost to repair this issue can easily exceed $4,000—a substantial addition to any car’s price tag, much less a used one. So, when shopping for a used Mercedes-Benz, consider your options. One is to avoid models from the 2004 to 2008 range altogether. However, if you do find a car from this period that you like, you should ask the owner if they’ve addressed the balance shaft issue. If they say they have, ask for paperwork to verify the proper repairs were done.

What to do in the Event of an Auto Collision

What to do in the Event of an Auto Collision

COLMA — A car accident can be a jolting experience, even if it’s just a minor collision, which is why drivers sometimes forget what to do next. Besides confirming the safety of all passengers involved, there are a couple crucial steps to take following an accident.

After making sure all passengers are safe, the first thing you should do is obtain the other driver’s information. While writing down contact and insurance information is standard protocol, the prevalence of smartphones often makes it more efficient to simply take a picture of the other driver’s insurance card and license. Also, be sure to take a few photos of the damage sustained by each vehicle—these pictures can serve as documented evidence for any legal issues that come up in the future.

While photos can protect you legally, you also want to protect yourself physically. After taking photos and swapping information with the other driver, you need to determine if your own car is in operable condition before driving it. While a flat tire is an obvious indication that you need a tow truck, it’s also important to look underneath your vehicle to see if any liquid is leaking from the engine. If you see any leaking fluids, your car needs to be towed, not driven, to a repair shop.

Troubleshooting Squeaky Brakes

Troubleshooting Squeaky Brakes

REDWOOD CITY — If you notice your car’s brakes squeaking or squealing, you might think they need to be replaced. However, the reality is squeaky brakes can be caused by a number of things. Here are some potential causes:

  • Debris between the pads and rotors
  • Stop-and-go traffic. Constant braking over an extended span of time can cause the pads and rotors to overheat, resulting in squeaking.
  • The type of material your brakes are made of. For example, some high-end cars use a braking composite for which squeaking is a normal occurrence.
  • Low brakes. The indicator on the pad touches the rotor, which causes squeaking.

Often, when brakes squeak, it’s due to a combination of factors. That’s why the best thing to do about squeaky brakes is have them checked out. Fortunately, this is easy to do—in many cases, you don’t even need to remove the tires. For example, most of today’s front wheels are mag wheels with spoke rings that leave the brakes exposed, so all a technician needs to inspect them is a flashlight. Some auto repair shops even have cameras that go between the rotors and pads to allow for a close-up view. Because of this inherent ease, brake inspections are usually inexpensive, so you don’t have to spend a lot of money to pinpoint the cause of your brake issue.

Maintaining Your Car’s Water Pump

Maintaining Your Car’s Water Pump

SAN JOSE — A crucial yet often-overlooked vehicle component is the water pump. As the heart of the engine’s cooling system, the water pump continually delivers coolant (antifreeze) to the engine and radiator to prevent them from overheating. Not surprisingly, when a vehicle’s water pump fails, it leads to dire consequences for the engine.

While water pump failure isn’t always preventable, you can reduce the chances of it happening with proactive maintenance. The first step is to flush your engine’s coolant at manufacturer-recommended intervals. As coolant ages, it starts to break down and ceases to provide the protection it once did, leaving your engine more vulnerable to corrosion and overheating. To avoid this, open your coolant reservoir and inspect the coolant on a regular basis. If you notice that it’s discolored or seems to have a thicker consistency, you’re likely past due for a flush.

Even with proactive maintenance, no vehicle component lasts forever, and water pumps are no exception. That’s why it’s good to replace your water pump preventatively rather than wait for it to fail. A good milestone for doing this is when you replace your timing belt—usually at the 90,000-mile mark. Since the timing belt is already being replaced, it won’t cost much more to replace the water pump as well, and it’ll extend the long-term integrity of your engine’s cooling system.

The Importance of Manufacturer-Recommended Maintenance

The Importance of Manufacturer-Recommended Maintenance

MOUNTAIN VIEW — As vehicles get more expensive, it’s becoming more common for owners to keep their cars for longer periods of time. However, if you want your car to be reliable for the long term, you’ll need to be proactive about regular maintenance. As automotive technology continues to advance, today’s vehicles don’t just consist of mechanical parts—they also incorporate a lot of sophisticated computer technology. For this reason, it takes more than mere oil changes to address the full spectrum of your car’s maintenance needs.

The best way to ensure your car is being comprehensively maintained is to follow its manufacturer-recommended maintenance schedule. This schedule (which can be found in your owner’s manual) outlines a sequence of service appointments to be performed at specific mileage markers. For example, the 90,000-mile service typically includes replacement of the engine’s timing belt, spark plugs and vital fluids. These regularly scheduled appointments are designed to keep your vehicle running optimally for the long haul.

While these maintenance intervals are important, you should avoid add-on items and services that your vehicle’s manufacturer hasn’t recommended. In many cases, these will interfere with your car’s operation and end up costing you money. That’s why it’s crucial to take your car to a quality repair shop that’s familiar with your car’s maintenance needs.

Maintaining Your Car’s Headlights

Maintaining Your Car’s Headlights

AMERICAN CANYON — As the winter brings shorter days, it’s important to make sure your car’s headlights are in good operating condition. Over time, headlights can become foggy, which obscures the shine of the bulbs and reduces visibility while driving at night. This fogginess occurs as the plastic comprising the headlights becomes oxidized due to continued sunlight exposure. You might think of it as cataracts developing on your car’s “eyes.”

To prevent the safety risk posed by reduced visibility, look at your car’s headlights and see if they appear foggy. If they do, bring your car to a local automotive shop to have them repaired. After sanding off the oxidized layer, a technician will apply a UV clear coat protectant to shield your headlights from the effects of sunlight. Keep in mind that you’ll need to have your headlights recoated every few years, as sunlight will gradually erode this clear coat.

Coolant Leak Warning for Newer JLRs

Coolant Leak Warning for Newer JLRs

If you own a Jaguar or Land Rover (JLR) from 2010 or later, you’ll want to know about a common issue to watch out for. In recent years, it has become increasingly apparent that the 5.0 motors found in these vehicles are prone to coolant leaks, typically caused by faulty water pumps.

The first clue that you might have a coolant leak is if the “engine coolant low” dashboard light illuminates on a recurrent basis and you have to continually refill the coolant reservoir. It’s critical to not ignore this light. It doesn’t take much to overheat the 5.0 engine—even a single mile of driving with depleted coolant can do it. If your vehicle’s engine overheats, it can result in severe damage and you’ll most likely have to replace it.

If your coolant warning light comes on, stop your vehicle, check the reservoir level and refill as needed. If the problem persists, take your car to a local JLR specialist or dealership to have it checked out. If your vehicle is still under warranty, you can have it repaired for free. Either way, don’t ignore this issue—your car’s life may depend on it.

Timing Belt Replacement

Timing Belt Replacement

SONOMA — The timing belt is one of an engine’s most critical components, responsible for synchronizing many of its moving parts. Unlike an engine’s metallic components, however, a timing belt is made of rubber, which makes it prone to deterioration over time. If not preventatively replaced, the belt will eventually break, resulting in serious engine damage. That’s why it’s important to have your timing belt changed at the manufacturer-recommended interval (usually the 90,000-mile mark).

In addition to the belt itself, there are several components that make up an engine’s “timing system,” including an idler pulley that spins, a water pump that rides with the timing belt and cam seals behind the gears. All of these components should be changed out along with your timing belt at the time of replacement.

The timing belt is sometimes confused with the serpentine belt, which drives a completely different set of engine components. One easy way to tell the two apart is the fact that the serpentine belt is on the outside of the engine, whereas the timing belt is situated inside of it. Being able to distinguish between these two belts can help you avoid a potentially expensive mistake.

How to Check Your Transmission Fluid

How to Check Your Transmission Fluid

SAN JOSE — Most drivers know to keep an eye on their engine oil, but not everyone is so diligent about checking their transmission fluid. However, due to the important role a transmission plays in vehicle operation (as well as the substantial expense of repairing it), you should make a point of checking yours regularly.

Checking your transmission fluid involves the same steps as checking your engine oil: Just pull out the red dipstick (as opposed to the yellow one for engine oil) and inspect it. Most importantly, check the fluid’s integrity. Transmission fluid should have a clean, pink color and a semi-sweet aroma. If it looks dirty or smells burnt, you’re past due for a change, in which case you should schedule a service appointment with your auto technician as soon as possible.

In addition to independently checking your transmission fluid, have your transmission professionally serviced at regular intervals. Ideally, you should get a complete fluid and filter change every 40,000 miles. This simple step will add years to your transmission’s life and prevent costly damage.

Calculating the Cost of Auto Maintenance

Calculating the Cost of Auto Maintenance

SAN FRANCISCO — Upon receiving an unexpected bill to repair your car, it’s understandable if you have an emotional reaction. You might begin to wonder if it’s time to trade your old vehicle for something newer that needs less maintenance. However, while it’s natural to have these thoughts and emotions, the cost of maintaining your current vehicle probably isn’t as high as it seems at the moment.

This highlights one of the biggest problems of auto maintenance: its irregularity. You may go a year without paying for anything other than oil changes, and then suddenly you’re hit with an $800 repair bill. The problem is this doesn’t provide a realistic picture of the actual cost of maintaining your vehicle.

To determine what vehicle maintenance is truly costing you, have your mechanic look over your invoices for the last five to 10 years, figure out how much you’ve spent and break this down into an average monthly cost. Vehicle owners are often surprised to find that their maintenance expenses aren’t as high as they thought (which helps calm their emotions over large bills).

Generally speaking, the longer you can keep a car running, the less money you’ll spend overall. For example, maintaining a 15-year-old Japanese car typically breaks down to $75 to $125 a month, while an Audi or Mercedes-Benz will be closer to $200 a month. If this seems high to you, consider that the average cost of owning a new vehicle is closer to $300 a month, due to the fact that you’re making payments. So, as long as your car’s engine is OK and you have a good mechanic, you probably won’t overspend on maintenance.

Demystifying the “Check Engine” Light

Demystifying the “Check Engine” Light

The “check engine” light may be the most commonly known dashboard warning light, but it’s also the most misunderstood, and for good reason: Not only can any number of issues cause it to come on, it can also signify anything from a minor issue to a major emergency.

The most important thing to know about your “check engine” light is how to tell the difference between a minor concern and a major one. Fortunately, this is easy to do. If the light stays on steady, the issue isn’t an emergency; you can continue to drive your vehicle until you get a chance to bring it to a repair shop. If, on the other hand, the light is blinking, this indicates an immediate concern, whether a threat to safety or imminent engine damage. In this case, you need to pull over right away, turn off your vehicle and call for a tow to an auto repair facility.

Another aspect of the “check engine” light that confuses vehicle owners is the fact that a multitude of factors can cause it to come on—in some cases, several at once. That’s why it’s important to work with a professional auto technician who has the tools and problem-solving skills to get to the bottom of things. When multiple codes have been triggered, the instigating issue can be masked by others, which is why technicians often have to rely on instinct to uncover it. However, even after your technician returns your car, there’s always a chance the light may come on again. This is a common byproduct of the computer age of automotive, so don’t be discouraged or upset—just work with your technician to solve the issue as efficiently as possible.

Transmissions: To Flush or Not to Flush?

Transmissions: To Flush or Not to Flush?

ANTIOCH — Much like a “quick stop” oil change, a transmission flush provides a fast and affordable means of maintaining a vital vehicle component. However, upon closer inspection, this convenient service may not be as good an idea as it appears.

The problem with a transmission flush is it only addresses the fluid itself, which means components like the filter and gasket are ignored. While the fluid gets changed, any debris buildup inside the transmission case gets left behind, most of which becomes trapped in the filter. Over time, if the filter becomes plugged up with debris, it can result in a worse issue with the transmission than existed previously.

For this reason, instead of having your transmission flushed, take your vehicle to an auto technician for regular transmission service—preferably every 30,000 miles. The technician will remove and replace the pan gasket, filter, and fluid, which will keep your transmission running cleanly and smoothly.

Aiding the Diagnostic Process

Aiding the Diagnostic Process

RICHMOND — If you have a problem with your car, you’ll likely take it to a mechanic for diagnosis. However, you may not realize that you can personally assist with the diagnostic process. How? By communicating any details you can recall from when the problem took place.

Auto shops may have the tools and equipment to diagnose your vehicle, but they don’t have a personal recollection of the circumstances under which the problem occurred. For example, was your vehicle climbing or ascending a steep grade? Were you on the highway or a main road in town? Were there any immoderate weather conditions such as extreme heat or cold? Did you hear any strange noises or feel any unusual vibrations? Believe it or not, these kinds of details can aid the diagnostic process. The more information you can give your technician, the easier it will be to get to the bottom of things.

How to Prevent Catastrophic Engine Failure

How to Prevent Catastrophic Engine Failure

SAN RAFAEL — Most catastrophic engine failures stem from a lack of lubrication, whether engine oil or transmission fluid. In either case, being proactive about ongoing fluid maintenance is the key to maximizing the life of your vehicle’s engine.

Engine oil
One of the most important aspects of vehicle maintenance is having your oil changed at regular intervals—after all, a $75 service may save you $5,000 for a rebuilt engine. You should also make a habit of checking your oil level in between oil change appointments (at least once every 500 miles). Don’t wait until the red oil light comes on, which warns of an imminent catastrophic engine failure. If your oil light does come on, stop immediately and call for a tow to an auto repair shop.

Transmission fluid
Another critical part of engine lubrication is automatic transmission fluid. In the past, vehicle owners were advised to have their transmission fluid changed every 15,000 miles, but with today’s sophisticated technology, manufacturers are now saying it will last the lifetime of the transmission. That being said, your transmission’s lifetime won’t be very long if you don’t change the fluid; like any other engine fluid, it breaks down over time. To maximize your transmission’s lifespan, change its fluid every 30,000 miles.

What to Do After an Auto Collision

What to Do After an Auto Collision

SAN LORENZO — Following a minor collision, there are four steps you should take to ensure both physical safety and legal protection:

1. Remove any traffic obstructions. After safely pulling to the side of the road, turn off the ignition and turn on your hazard lights. If you have cones or flares, use them to warn oncoming traffic of the accident.

2. Confirm the safety of other drivers. If anyone is injured, call 911 immediately. Do not give emergency medical assistance unless you’re trained to do so. Never move an injured person unless they’re in danger.

3. Gather pertinent information. Get the names and phone numbers of drivers, witnesses, and injured persons. Also, secure the make, model and license plate number of every car involved. If possible, take a photo of the accident scene.

4. Remain calm and courteous. Remember, it’s never a good idea to accept a claim settlement at the scene of an accident; rather, you should contact your insurance agent and report the incident.

The Truth About Oil Change Intervals

The Truth About Oil Change Intervals

SAN RAMON — With the improved quality of modern synthetic oil products, many high-end auto manufacturers have extended their recommended oil change intervals. In some cases, manufacturers endorse driving for as many as 12,000 to 15,000 miles between services. This may be a good idea in theory, but in practice, it can lead to adverse consequences.

Over time, airborne contaminants cause engine oil to become dirty, regardless of whether it’s a synthetic or conventional product. So, if you keep the same oil in your car for 12,000 to 15,000 miles, you’ll allow that dirt to continue cycling through the engine, which will inevitably cause excessive wear and tear. To avoid this, skip the manufacturer’s recommendation and plan to have your oil changed every 5,000 miles.

An Easy Way to Protect Your Fuel Pump

An Easy Way to Protect Your Fuel Pump

ALBANY — If you’re like most vehicle owners, you want to get the maximum longevity out of your car or truck. One of the best ways to promote your vehicle’s long-term health is to properly maintain its fuel pump. If you’re worried this will require some type of hands-on maintenance, relax: it requires far less effort than you’d expect.

Most vehicle owners have a tendency to wait until the last minute to refill their gas tanks, which means they regularly run their vehicles on low fuel, even to the point of being nearly empty. What few people realize, however, is that the fuel pump is lubricated and cooled by the fuel in the tank. That means continually running a vehicle while it’s low on fuel can lead to premature wear and even pump failure, which is a costly repair.

Luckily, you can avoid this problem by adopting a simple habit: keep at least a quarter tank of gas in your car at all times. This will ensure the fuel pump stays lubricated and help extend your car’s lifespan.

One Important Aspect of Subaru Maintenance

One Important Aspect of Subaru Maintenance

SANTA ROSA — The Subaru is an all-wheel drive vehicle, which is not to be confused with a four-wheel drive vehicle. With four-wheel drive, the driver has to shift into gear to get all four wheels spinning, whereas with all-wheel drive, the wheels are automatically running all the time. This feature gives Subaru vehicles superior road traction, especially in inclement weather—in many cases, drivers don’t even need to put on tire chains in snowy conditions.

While its all-wheel drive characteristic gives a Subaru optimum handling and control, it also makes certain aspects of maintenance especially critical. In particular, a Subaru’s transmission fluid needs to be closely monitored and well-maintained. Since all four wheels are always spinning, the transmission has to work really hard, so maintaining it is crucial to avoid engine problems.

Maximizing Vehicle Performance with Proper Tire Pressure

Maximizing Vehicle Performance with Proper Tire Pressure

PLEASANTON — One of the simplest ways to maximize your vehicle’s performance is to check and maintain the air pressure in your tires. In addition to improving fuel economy, keeping your tires correctly inflated helps ensure even tread wear and better road safety. Checking your tire pressure is easy—all you have to do is unscrew the valve stem cap and use a tire pressure gauge to get a reading. Compare your gauge’s reading to the one recommended by your vehicle’s manufacturer, which can be found on the driver’s side door jamb of your car or in your owner’s manual.

When inflating your tires at a gas station, be sure to use your own gauge for checking tire pressure, as gas station gauges aren’t always accurate. You can purchase a gauge at any auto parts supply store. Also, consider filling your tires with nitrogen rather than regular air. Since it’s a denser molecule that doesn’t contain or support moisture, nitrogen doesn’t fluctuate as much as air, which makes it better for gas mileage and tire lifespan.

The Benefits of Specialized Auto Care

The Benefits of Specialized Auto Care

SANTA ROSA — If you own a high-end imported car like a Porsche, Mercedes-Benz or BMW, you’ll want to make sure it gets the best care possible. A good way to do so is to take your car to a shop that specializes in servicing its particular make.

Since every vehicle make has its own unique idiosyncrasies, the in-depth knowledge of a specialist can prove invaluable when it comes to diagnosing problems and anticipating future needs. In addition to having the right training and certifications, a specialist possesses all the pertinent tools and technology, including manufacturer-specific diagnostic equipment that a general repair shop might not have.

The Importance of Cabin Filter Replacement

The Importance of Cabin Filter Replacement

FREMONT — Cabin filter replacement is one of the most commonly overlooked aspects of vehicle maintenance. Designed to filter out elements like dust and pollen, a cabin air filter provides clean air for a vehicle’s driver and passengers. However, a lot of people don’t even know what a cabin filter is, which is why the filters in many vehicles simply never get changed.

Even though a cabin filter is designed to improve air quality, it can actually have the opposite effect if it’s ignored. In many cases, when a cabin filter is neglected, it becomes inundated with dirt and grime, and it can even start to grow mold.

To keep your vehicle’s cabin air clean and safe, have your cabin filter changed every 15,000 miles, as per manufacturer recommendations.

Little-Known Factors that Affect Fuel Economy

Little-Known Factors that Affect Fuel Economy

SANTA ROSA — Most people know tire pressure can affect fuel economy, but there are several lesser-known factors that can have an equally significant impact. One of these is the condition of your engine air filter. When an air filter isn’t regularly replaced, the excessive dirt buildup can cause it to become clogged, which restricts engine ventilation. When an engine isn’t able to “breathe” properly, it’s more likely to run rich—in other words, to use more gasoline than it’s supposed to.

Another factor that can affect fuel economy is the regularity with which you change your engine oil. As engine oil becomes dirty over time, it can clog up the engine’s rings and get into the cylinders, which can hinder proper combustion.

In addition to routine oil changes and air filter replacement, another way to boost your vehicle’s gas mileage is to keep its engine well-tuned. Having important functional components like the crankcase ventilation system serviced on a regular basis will help the engine perform optimally, which will maximize fuel economy.

How to Get the Most Value for Your Totaled Car

How to Get the Most Value for Your Totaled Car

CONCORD — Following an accident, an insurance company may deem a car to be “totaled,” which means they reimburse the owner for its cash value rather than repair it. The problem is, it’s not unusual for an insurer to value a totaled car at a significantly lower amount than the owner was expecting. Fortunately, there are some proactive steps you can take to maximize your cash reimbursement.

The first thing you’ll need to do is independently establish your car’s actual cash value (ACV) by gathering a sample of what similar vehicles are selling for. Get prices on 20 vehicles with the approximate year, make, model and condition as yours, and then do some simple math to determine the average. Remember to document your sources (URLs, newspaper clippings, etc.)—you may need to provide them later.

Once you’ve determined your car’s ACV, it’s time to play ball with your insurance company. If their estimate of your car’s worth is less than the ACV you’ve determined through your research, you can use your information to counter their offer.

Keep in mind that you should do your research prior to getting a number from your insurance company. If you have your figure ready when they approach you with theirs, they’ll be more likely to work with you. Also, since tax is usually included in the insurer’s settlement figure, ask for their pre-tax number in order to establish a more even comparison. This may seem like a minor detail, but the tax on an expensive car in California can amount to a lot of money, so it’s important to factor it in.

Improve the Diagnostic Process with Good Communication

Improve the Diagnostic Process with Good Communication

OAKLAND — When your vehicle starts making unusual sounds or acting strangely, your first inclination should be to schedule a diagnostic appointment with your local auto repair shop. While a technician will typically be able to resolve the issue, you can actually help the diagnostic process by communicating accurately and specifically about your vehicle’s symptoms.

Diagnostics is one of the most time-consuming aspects of auto repair. When a customer brings a vehicle to a shop, the technicians will typically begin the process by verifying the customer’s complaint, whether that means taking the vehicle for a test drive or just running the engine. When the symptom is identified, an in-depth inspection usually follows to determine the cause.

The promptness and success of the diagnostic process can depend in part on the accuracy and detail of the information supplied by the vehicle owner. The better you can relay information to a repair technician, the more quickly they’ll be able to get to the root of the problem. In contrast, if you can’t give a good description of the problem or you give inaccurate information, it can compound the difficulty of the diagnosis.

To ensure you give good information about your vehicle’s issue, take notes and detail when and how often the issue occurs, as well as what it sounds and feels like. In any case, communicating accurately and in detail will enable your technician to confirm the issue and repair your vehicle in a more expedient manner.

The Importance of Properly Functioning Shocks

The Importance of Properly Functioning Shocks

ORINDA — Shocks are an important yet often overlooked aspect of a vehicle’s operation. The basic function of shocks is to absorb the turbulence (bumps and jolts) of driving on the road—not only to provide a more comfortable ride, but also to reduce stress on other components of your car. However, when shocks become worn out over time, they can compromise vehicle performance.

One of the first things to fail in a shock is the dampening, which, in addition to rebounding bumps while driving, keeps the tire firmly mounted on the pavement, creating what’s known as a “contact patch.” When dampening becomes diminished, this contact patch becomes diminished as well. Not only does this lead to uneven tire wear, it also requires components such as the brakes and suspension to work harder, resulting in premature wear.

An easy way to assess the functionality of your shocks is to check the ride control: if your vehicle rides rough, with a lot of body roll, sway and bouncing, it’s probably time to replace your shocks. Additionally, the shocks in modern cars tend to lose their dampening after 50,000 miles, so if your car has anywhere near 100,000 miles and you’ve never replaced the shocks, it’s a good idea to get them checked by a car care professional.

Check Engine Light Tips

Check Engine Light Tips

SANTA ROSA — Most drivers know to be concerned when their vehicle’s “check engine” light comes on, but few are aware of the potential complexity of the situation. Here are a few tips to help you better understand your “check engine” light:

1) While the purpose of a “check engine” light is to alert the driver of a problem sensed by the vehicle’s onboard computer system, there are several things that can cause it to come on, from an issue with the emissions system to something as simple as a loose gas cap. Though it’s a good idea to get an illuminated “check engine” light diagnosed, you may save yourself a trip to the mechanic by checking to see if your gas cap is screwed on tightly.

2) There’s a significant difference between when a “check engine” light is illuminated and when it’s flashing. When flashing, the light is warning of an imminent crisis that usually involves the catalytic converter, which is why it’s crucial to pull over and turn off the vehicle as soon as possible. Otherwise, you may end up with severe catalytic converter damage that requires expensive repairs.

3) Most people know an illuminated “check engine” light will cause a vehicle to fail a smog inspection, but many don’t realize that with modern vehicles, even past incidents can be an issue. Even if it’s off during the inspection, if your “check engine” light has been on recently, your vehicle’s computer memory will have stored the code, which will show up during the test. So, if you’re aware that your light was previously on, let the technician know about it upfront to avoid an unnecessary inspection fee.

Under the Hood: Getting to Know Your Vehicle

Under the Hood: Getting to Know Your Vehicle

MONTEREY — Even if you have no prior knowledge of auto maintenance, the first step to becoming acquainted with the inner workings of your vehicle is to simply lift the hood. You’ll be surprised how much you can learn by taking some time to examine the various fluids and filters found inside.

Fluids
To maintain ongoing functionality, your vehicle requires several different kinds of fluids. Some of the most important fluids include coolant (also known as antifreeze), which helps maintain the temperature of the water in the radiator and engine; transmission fluid, which lubricates the transmission’s moving parts; and engine oil, which lubricates the engine’s moving parts. Other important fluids to know are brake, power steering and windshield washer fluid. While all fluids should be replenished at regular service intervals, it’s also a good idea to routinely observe fluid levels on your own. While most fluids can be monitored by simply looking at the reservoir, engine oil and transmission fluid levels can be checked with yellow and red dipsticks, respectively.

Air filters
Your vehicle has a couple different air filters, including the engine air filter, which stops abrasive particles from entering the engine’s cylinders, and the cabin air filter, which helps ensure clean cabin air for the driver and passengers. Replacing either of these air filters is easy: Once you’ve located it and removed the protective casing, simply pull out the old filter and put a new one in its place. By replacing your vehicle’s air filters on a regular basis, you’ll be able to optimize air quality for both your engine and yourself.

To learn more about maintaining your vehicle’s fluids and filters, take a look at your vehicle owner’s manual.

Understanding Dashboard Warning Lights

Understanding Dashboard Warning Lights

BELMONT — There are a lot of warning lights on a vehicle’s dashboard, all of which help ensure safety on the road. While some are self-explanatory, others aren’t as obvious, so it’s important for drivers to acquaint themselves with the various warning lights and their functions. Here are some important ones to know:

Battery warning light
This light is in the shape of a car battery and usually indicates a problem with the alternator. Since the alternator recharges the battery, it’s important to directly address any issues because its failure can render your vehicle inoperable. If the battery light comes on and stays on while you’re driving, the most common cause is a broken alternator belt.

Oil pressure warning light
This light is in the shape of an old-fashioned oil can and indicates low engine oil pressure. When this light comes on, it’s crucial to immediately pull over and turn off your vehicle—if the engine runs out of oil, it can seize up and grind to a halt, resulting in extensive and costly repairs.

“Check engine” light
Also known as the “service engine soon” light, this warning light indicates a problem with the vehicle’s emission system. Numerous components can cause this light to turn on, so it’s important to have it checked out as soon as possible.

Brake warning light
In most cases, the purpose of this light is straightforward: to let you know your parking brake is on. However, if the light stays on after you’ve released the parking brake, it may indicate a low level of brake fluid in the master cylinder. This can compromise brake safety, so be sure to check your brake fluid level.

Airbag warning light
Often referred to as SRS, which stands for “supplemental restraint system,” this warning light usually indicates an issue with the vehicle’s airbags, whether a faulty deploy mechanism or a past-due expiration date (most airbags expire 10 to 15 years after the initial purchase).

To better acquaint yourself with your vehicle’s dashboard warning lights, it’s a good idea to study your owner’s manual, which outlines each light and its purpose in detail.

Do-It-Yourself Vehicle Maintenance

Do-It-Yourself Vehicle Maintenance

CAMPBELL — Many aspects of auto maintenance are best left to a professional, but there are some things you can easily do yourself. Here are two do-it-yourself measures you can take to improve your driving experience:

Tire pressure maintenance
While regulating tire pressure is important for safety, performance and tire longevity, many drivers don’t know that it can also affect fuel economy. While vehicle manufacturers set recommended tire pressure at a minimum specification, raising the pressure slightly above this number can actually improve your car’s gas mileage.

To maintain the air pressure in your tires, you’ll need a tire pressure gauge. Pocket gauges are simple and inexpensive, but a digital gauge offers improved reading accuracy. After removing the valve cap, use the gauge to check the air pressure and make sure it’s at or slightly above the manufacturer recommendation (this can be found in your owner’s manual or on the inside of the driver’s side door).

Air filter replacement
An engine air filter helps keep the engine running clean by stopping abrasive airborne particles from entering the cylinders. In most cases, replacing an air filter is simply a matter of popping off the adhesive clips, pulling out the old filter and putting a new one in its place. Before replacing an air filter, determine whether replacement is necessary—even if the filter isn’t completely clean, it may still be functional for a while longer.

Three Important Aspects of Vehicle Maintenance

Three Important Aspects of Vehicle Maintenance

LIVERMORE — While some aspects of vehicle maintenance require the expertise of an auto technician, there are a number of things you can keep track of yourself. To ensure safe driving throughout the year, there are three main areas to address on an ongoing basis: visibility, fluid level and tires.

Visibility is a crucial aspect of safe driving, which is why it’s important to address related vehicle components like headlight lenses, windshields and windshield wipers. The performance of headlight lenses can become compromised as their UV coating breaks down, so it’s a good idea to have your lenses polished and the UV coating reapplied periodically. Windshields with large cracks should be replaced as soon as possible, especially if the crack directly obstructs your visibility, which can earn you a ticket. Additionally, you should replace windshield wipers regularly, as their performance starts to diminish with increased wear.

You can prevent engine problems by regularly checking fluid levels, particularly engine oil and radiator fluid. To check your engine oil, remove the dipstick, wipe it off, re-insert it and take it out again to get a more accurate reading (also, make sure you’re parked in a level area). Most dipsticks have a full mark and a low mark, with a one-quart difference between them. To avoid overfilling, add oil when you’re a quart low, not before. While engine oil is best checked when the engine is still warm, radiator fluid should only be checked after the engine has cooled down, as removing the radiator cap of a hot engine can be a safety hazard.

Tires should be inspected regularly for proper inflation, as well as signs of adverse wear such as cracking. Set tire pressure to the vehicle manufacturer’s recommended level, not to what’s printed on the tire itself—that figure is actually an engineering specification for the structural integrity of the tire and shouldn’t be referenced when setting tire pressure for normal driving.

How to Tell if You Need New Brakes

How to Tell if You Need New Brakes

SUNNYVALE — Brakes are one of the most important components of any vehicle, which is why it’s vital to proactively maintain them. A crucial part of brake maintenance is being able to tell when they need to be replaced altogether.

To take the guesswork out of brake replacement, some modern cars are equipped with brake pad wear sensors. Mounted on the brake pad and routed through the caliper, this sensor warns drivers if the pad is becoming excessively worn and needs to be replaced, usually by triggering a warning light on the vehicle’s dash. However, not all vehicles are equipped with such warning devices, which is why you should have your brakes inspected on a routine basis.

If you notice your vehicle’s stopping time seems to be increasing or you have to press harder on the brake to come to a stop, these are good indicators that it’s time to get your brake pads changed. Ignoring these warning signs can result in potentially dangerous consequences, whereas promptly addressing brake issues will ensure better safety for yourself and others on the road.

Avoiding Unnecessary Caliper Replacement

Avoiding Unnecessary Caliper Replacement

ROHNERT PARK — Why is it that some brake jobs are more expensive than others? In some cases, it’s because an auto repair shop recommends replacing major components of your car’s brake system, such as the calipers. Replacing the calipers on your car can be very pricey—up to $600 apiece—but is it really necessary? The truth is that caliper replacement is rarely (if ever) needed, so be suspicious if a shop tries to convince you otherwise.

Calipers are a crucial part of your car’s brake system—not only do they house the brake pads, but their function is to push the pads against the rotors when you step on the brake pedal, which effectively stops the car. As with any part of your car, it’s important to have your calipers properly maintained. Each time you have your brakes serviced or your pads replaced, the calipers should be removed and thoroughly cleaned and lubricated. This includes the bolts that attach each caliper to its corresponding rotor.

Properly maintained calipers will often last for a vehicle’s lifetime, so it’s very rare that they need to be replaced, especially on a car with less than 200,000 miles. In fact, many cars that have 300,000 to 500,000 miles still have their original calipers. So, if an auto repair technician recommends replacing the calipers on your vehicle, you should get a second opinion before making a final decision.

Choosing the Right Auto Repair Shop

Choosing the Right Auto Repair Shop

ROHNERT PARK — With the sophistication of today’s vehicles, it has become more important than ever to choose an auto repair facility that has the knowledge and ability to take care of your car’s specific needs. When it comes to selecting an auto shop, there are three very important things to consider:

Know who is working on your car. Ask the shop about the technicians it employs. What’s their level of expertise? Do they have the proper training and certifications? How long have they been working for the company? A well-run shop that’s dedicated to excellent work will retain its employees for a long time, but a shop with high employee turnover is unlikely to foster an environment where technicians care about doing a good job.

Make sure the shop knows how to work on your particular vehicle. Some cars have components that are specific to a particular manufacturer, so make sure the shop’s mechanics are aware of your vehicle’s needs before any work begins.

Know what kinds of parts are being used. A high level of quality is important when it comes to car parts, which is why many companies use original equipment manufacturer (OEM) parts whenever possible. Before leaving your car with a repair shop, ask if it uses OEM parts. If it doesn’t, ask what type of aftermarket parts it uses and how they compare in terms of quality. Also, make sure you ask about the warranties on the parts so you know what’s covered and for how long.

Remember, an auto repair shop that says it specializes in “everything” most likely doesn’t, so use caution when it comes to chain stores, tire shops and quick oil change places. Your vehicle is a valuable asset, so choose wisely.

How to Maintain Your Tires

How to Maintain Your Tires

SAN FRANCISCO — Tires are a vital component of any vehicle, which is why keeping them properly maintained is so important. In addition to optimizing both fuel economy and the tires’ lifespan, properly maintained tires ensure maximum safety on the road.

One crucial aspect of tire maintenance is proper inflation. Low pressure can decrease the life of your tires by as much as 20 percent, as well as increase your vehicle’s fuel usage and braking distance. Use a tire pressure gauge to check your tires’ current air pressure (Psi). Compare the reading on the gauge to the manufacturer-recommended Psi, which can be found both on the driver’s side door jamb and in your vehicle owner’s manual. If the Psi is low, add some air to your tires.

Another important aspect of tire maintenance is knowing when to have them replaced. All modern tires are manufactured with wear indicators built into the tire tread. With a new tire, the indicator is recessed inside. As the tire wears, this indicator starts to become visible and eventually reaches a point that lets you know it’s time for a replacement. Having worn tires replaced is critical for road safety, especially during winter, when tires’ wet weather traction can be compromised.

When replacing a set of tires, it’s important to put the new ones on the rear of the vehicle. Older tires are more prone to lose traction, and when a rear tire loses traction, it can send the car spinning. If one of the front tires loses traction, however, the steering wheel will give you more control of the situation.

AUTO REPAIR VIDEO

Snehal Shah, owner of Auto Techies, demonstrates how to safely jumpstart a car.

Video: How to Jumpstart Your Car

If you own a car, chances are you’ll need to jumpstart its engine at some point. Drivers need to understand that jumpstarting requires an enormous transfer of energy from the running vehicle to the inoperative one. That's why it's important to respect safety protocol.

Watch the video to learn how to safely jumpstart a car.

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