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Um, So How Do You Take Care of a Car? (Asking for a First-Time Owner)

for the first time in my young driving life, i am the owner of a new car. well, it's new to me — a 2003 volkswagen passat that my sister and i affectionately named patty. i'm doing more driving now than at any other point in my almost four years of having a license, but early in my love affair with patty, i had a sad and concerning realization: i had no idea how to take care of her.

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the good news is that these days, it's easy to be ignorant about the inner workings of your vehicle. with no shortage of quick-lube stops and auto shops, you can pay someone to do almost anything to your car. but you can save yourself the trip and the money by learning how to do some simple maintenance on your own.

michael calkins, manager of technical services for aaa, helped me figure out what i should know to help take care of patty. but how does a car owner learn how to do these things on their own?

"refer the owners to the least-read book in the universe, the owner's manual," calkins said.

the owner's manual is the first place you should look to learn about your car. beyond that, information is only as reliable as where it comes from. make sure to use trusted sources such as  or aaa to educate yourself.

learn it yourself

tire care: aaa recommends checking your tires once a month, including pressure and tread depth. keeping your tires properly inflated helps them last longer, helps your vehicle get its best fuel economy and can prevent a tire blowout. you can buy a tire-pressure gauge at pretty much any auto shop or online. learn how to check your tire pressure here.

you should also be inspecting your tires for wear and tear. a recent aaa study found that tires with tread worn to 4/32 of an inch increase stopping distance in wet road conditions by 87 feet. to check your tires' tread depth, all you need is a penny. learn how to inspect your tires here.

check your fluid levels: like humans, cars run on fluids. whether it's washer fluid, coolant, brake fluid or another liquid that's keeping your car safe and running, you can check if you have enough and even top it off yourself if you're running low. but before topping off any fluid, refer to your owner's manual to make sure you use a product that matches your car manufacturer's specifications. learn how to check and fill your car's fluids here.

take a look at your battery: make sure your battery has no corrosion on its terminals. calkins said that some corrosion can be cleared away with baking soda and water, but heavy corrosion necessitates taking your car to a shop to have the cables removed and the battery cleaned on the inside. also, make sure the battery is solidly mounted in place, as it can come loose on older cars.

change your wiper blades: if your wipers don't clear your windshield in one swipe, it's time to change the blades. calkins said that many shops will install them for free if you buy from their store, but you can also change them at home. learn how to replace your wiper blades here.

look at your lighting: "it's important to see and be seen," calkins said. make sure that all of the lights on your car are working properly and have no lightbulbs that need replacing, including brakelights, side lights and turn signals. having a buddy will make it easier to see what lights are functioning. hey, maybe you can inspect your cars together!

leave it to a pro

there's a lot of other maintenance that you may be able to learn on your car with a little bit of training and practice, but they may not be worth the time or effort of doing them on your own — unless working on your vehicle is a hobby, then by all means, have at it. but if you aren't an enthusiast who doesn't mind getting a little dirty under the hood, these maintenance activities might be better left to someone else for a little bit of coin.

changing your oil: calkins said that it used to be possible to save money by changing your oil yourself, but when you look at the time involved and the cost savings these days, you're probably better off paying somebody to do it for you. if you're really set on doing it yourself for whatever reason, you can learn how to change your oil yourself here.

replacing lightbulbs: if you've checked your lights and noticed a broken bulb, you may be able to change it yourself, but it could be more difficult than you anticipate. calkins said it can be a challenge, especially on some modern cars with some vehicles using unique types of bulbs. the best practice is to refer to your owner's manual to see if you may be able to find and change the bulbs at home.

replacing air filters: this is another task that will vary in difficultly depending on your vehicle. it's possible you'll be able to do it on your own time, but as with anything, your car's owner's manual will be your guide to figuring out if it's doable or not.

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