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Maintain Your Brakes

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You Can Ignore Some Problems, but Brakes Are Not One of Them
Has your mechanic ever handed you a lengthy list of needed repairs on your car that added up to more than $1,000, involving parts you didn't even know existed and weren't making any obnoxious noises?

Here's very good news: Not all the maintenance recommended by service advisors and mechanics is necessary. A lot of automotive service can be safely ignored for a time. After all, no 7- or 8-year- old car is going to be as trouble-free as a brand-new vehicle.

It helps to be an informed consumer and to know priorities. If you never want to be stranded on the roadside, then your repair costs will be significantly higher than if you accept a modest risk that the car will break down eventually, but not immediately.

However, if you want to ignore the lesser problems, you should be aware that you either need to have some mechanical skills or have a regular mechanic who will monitor your car. Jumping around from shop to shop will not work well.

Here are five repairs that mechanics and auto repair experts say can be delayed, if they are carefully watched:

  1. Belts and hoses
    The rule of thumb used by mechanics is that belts and hoses (not including the timing belt) should be replaced at least every four years or 50,000 miles. But original belts and hoses can easily last more than 10 years or 100,000 miles.

    If you guess wrong, you can pop a hose or break a belt and find yourself sitting at the side of the road. Even worse, if you ignore the broken hose, you'll destroy your engine through overheating. Chances are, however, you'll save hundreds of dollars by electing to replace them every six or eight years instead of every four.

  2. Mufflers and exhaust pipes
    These corrode from the inside and often develop tiny holes that you'll hear as a slightly higher noise level. A little muffler tape, sold at auto parts stores for a few dollars, can be wrapped around the hole and defer expensive repairs for more than a year. Experts suggest that you crack your window for ventilation.

  3. Struts and shock absorbers
    You don't want to drive a car that handles like a pogo stick, but struts and shock absorbers take a long time to wear out. Replacing them at the first sign of deterioration-such as a minor oil leak or barely noticeable shimmy-is an expensive way to go.

  4. Constant velocity joints
    These joints transfer motion along the axles, allowing the wheels to bounce and turn while the transmission stays stationary. The CV joints typically begin to fail when the rubber boots sealing them develop cracks and allow in road grit. Once you hear a clicking sound, it's too late to replace the boot and you will eventually have to replace the joint, but not for several thousand miles or more. Even then, they seldom fall apart.

  5. Oil leaks
    Engines and transmissions almost always develop lubricant leaks as they age. A transmission can leak if the filter gets plugged, which is worth fixing in a hurry. But if the main bearing seal or the valve cover is leaking modestly-losing a quart of oil every 1,000 miles, for example-it's probably something you can live with.

To be sure, there are plenty of problems that you should never disregard. I would put in that category the following safety systems:

  1. Brakes
    It should be no surprise that the No. 1 safety item on your car is the braking system. If your mechanic warns you that your disks or drums are below minimum thickness, that your pads or shoes are worn down or that your hydraulic system is leaking, get it fixed immediately.

  2. Steering
    A worn steering system is a hazard. Moreover, it will cause your tires to wear out prematurely. Get ball joints, tie rod ends and rack-and-pinion systems fixed promptly.

  3. Oil
    Changing your motor oil every 3,000 to 4,000 miles will do more to prolong the life of your engine than any other maintenance you perform. Similarly, more frequent transmission oil changes also will help prevent a costly transmission overhaul. And biannual brake fluid changes are often ignored, but they can save you hundreds of dollar down the road.

  4. Timing belts
    Auto makers often fail to recommend maintenance on timing belts, even though a failure can ruin an engine. Belt changes are typically suggested at 60,000 or 80,000 miles. Check with a dealer for what is correct for your model.

  5. Water pumps
    These crucial parts fail when the internal bearing goes bad, heralded by a humming sound. It is impossible to say how long the pump will last once the humming begins, but it often fails in just 100 or 200 miles.