Auto repairs put some in a fix

Backward brake pads, mixed-up spark plugs, axles falling out of cars. Those are a few of the do-it-yourself car repair disasters that Tony Hughes, owner of J&T Automotive in Modesto, has seen lately.

In business for 30 years, Hughes said he's witnessed an uptick over the past year in people trying to avoid a trip to the mechanic by making their own repairs. Or trying to, anyway. Their efforts can backfire, costing them more money in the end.

"People come in and their cars are in worse shape than if they had just left them alone," Hughes said.

"You know what, desperate times, desperate measures. They come in and they give us the stories about 'I'm trying to cut corners and I thought I could do this.' "

That's not a good idea, Hughes said. Cars are more complex machines than they once were. In the old days, drivers could easily change their own spark plugs. Now spark plugs are harder to find and replacing them incorrectly can lead to $1,500 to $2,000 in damage.

A Mitsubishi driver recently came to Hughes' shop after he failed to properly install a new axle, which dropped out of the car, taking the transmission with it.

Is there any way for drivers to save money by playing Mr. Fix-it? Hughes doesn't recommend it. Even changing your own oil isn't as simple as it once was, because oil is supposed to be recycled, Hughes said.

He recommends that drivers listen carefully when mechanics tell them which repairs are essential and which repairs can be put off.

"I recommend they take it to someone they trust," Hughes said.

At Auto Care Experts of Modesto on McHenry Avenue, owner Jeff Taylor said he's seen more drivers putting off basic maintenance until it's too late. "Typically what we see is that they don't bring it in until it's broken," he said.

Across the country, mechanics say they've seen it all in recent months, including incorrectly applied brake pads and antifreeze poured into engines.

"A lot of people, they're in dire straits," said Pam Oakes, owner of Pam's Motor City Automotive in Fort Myers, Fla. "They try to do this stuff at home in their driveway."

The results can be frustrating and sometimes dangerous.

Beth Riggs, who lives near Lebanon, Ohio, took her Chevy Trailblazer SUV to a car-savvy neighbor who charged $500 to replace her front and back brakes, far less than the going rates at nearby repair shops.

Later, on a highway ramp, her car froze up and pulled to the side of the road. The problem? Riggs said her neighbor neglected to put a certain part on a bolt of the wheels, setting off a chain reaction that caused the tires to lock up.

The car had to be towed, and Riggs ended up paying an additional $400 to have it fixed.

When the taillight of Laura Musall's 5-year-old Nissan Altima burned out, she hoped to avoid the repair shop by letting her husband replace it at home. To the Fishers, Ind., residents, it seemed simple enough: Buy a bulb, pop off the cover and make the switch.

But her husband struggled to remove the plastic casing, and when he used a screwdriver to pry it off, it shattered. What came next was even worse: Her Nissan dealer wanted $250 to order a new one.

Even so, some car owners remain undeterred. On Yahoo, queries for the terms "car repairs" and "salvage auto parts" are up 77 percent and 99 percent, respectively, in the past month, according to the site's data.

Auto shops say there's an easy way to save money: Just be upfront about the repairs you've tried at home. Most do-it-yourselfers, perhaps out of embarrassment, play coy when mechanics start asking questions about what went wrong with the car, said Paul Lambdin, owner of Cary Car Care in Cary, N.C.

"Rather than saving themselves time and money by telling us the whole story, they'll just say, 'This doesn't seem to be working,' without going into the details of what they've already done to destroy the whole mechanism," Lambdin said.

Many of the people who try to work on vehicles at home are men who think they can apply their fix-it skills in other trades to car repair, said Craig Douglas, owner of ASG Automotive in Indianapolis.

"It's those people who have that mind-set, 'Hey I can fix this, I can fix that,' " Douglas said. "Bob the Builder type people."

Musall, with the broken taillight, said she's learned her lesson. Her husband won't be laying his hands on the car anytime soon.

"It's all fixed," she said, "and he's not going to do any more car repairs."