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Female Uneducated About Maintenance and Repair

Hello, I am ashamed to admit, but I am a female who doesn’t understand the mechanics of a car, including repair and maintenance. I take my 2009 Corolla Toyota to the dealer for service and never know what they are talking about. For example, today I took my car into the shop for an oil change. The car is at 40,000 miles - i was told that i need new brakes and alignment. I never had new brakes and my alignment was done about a year and a half ago. How do I know what really needs to be done? How do I stay abreast of car topics so I don’t get taken advantage of?

and she can’t spell

Many communities have adult night school classes in basic auto maintenance which is just what you are looking for. You can read on the web, there are many good car sites with basic info.

As for needing brakes at 40K miles that is reasonable. Some drivers and cars go further between brake jobs and some much less.

On the alignment, you should be able to see some uneven wear in the tire tread. Most cars do not need alignment every year. If you have front end mechanical work on your steering and suspension (not a brake job) the alignment needs to be reset, or if you hit a lot of big pot holes that can knock the alignment off. Ask “why” you need an alignment? If they can’t show you a reason or have an explaination then decline it. This is not an item you do every year or XX number of miles as part of routine maintenance.

Have them show you the brake pads/shoes before agreeing to have them replaced. The front has disc brakes and uses pads these are usually 3/8" to 1/2" thick when new. If they are worn to 1/8" thick it’s time to soon replace them. If they wear completely out this will cause metal to metal contact and increase the cost of the job. The rear probably has drum brakes, the brake linings on most brake shoes is approximately 1/4" thick when new. If the brake shoes are worn to between 1/16" to 1/8" thick it’s time to start thinking about replacing them, because again if left too long there will metal to metal contact causing more damage. As for the front end alignment I don’t know how they knew this unless they put the car on an alignment rack and checked it which I doubt. Ask them how they determined you need an alignment. Unless you’ve hit a bad bump/pothole or had front end parts replaced the alignment should be fine. I’ve driven cars as high as 200K miles without needing an alignment. Another indication of needing an alignment would be uneven tire wear, but this could also be caused by worn front end parts or tires out of balance or under inflated. If the tires look to be wearing evenly across the tread I wouldn’t have it aligned. If the tire wear looks normal and the car drives good don’t have the alignment done. Even if you do need the work an independent mechanic can probably do it and save you some money.

You said you didn’t know much about maintenance. Do you know how to check your fluid levels? (oil, coolant, brake fluid, transmission fluid, power steering fluid) If not get someone to show you. Going several thousand miles between oil changes and never checking the level could be fatal for you engine if it’s using oil and level gets too low. Checking fluid levels takes 5 minutes once every couple weeks/few hundred miles and could easily be the difference in a good engine/transmission and one that’s been ruined by low level.

check out the web site cars for dummies or is it autos for dummies it is a real simple basic site. your cars ownersmanuel can be of great help set down and enjoy a cup of what ever you enjoy and read it.

You might want to get the “Auto Repair for Dummies” book, it’s a good overview on car maintenance:

Brakes usually need no attention in the first 100,000 miles unless the car is used to deliver pizzas. I would suggest a second opinion on the brakes and alignment.

These are all good suggestions, but perhaps the best thing you can learn about cars is to say “show me”. If a mechanic says “you need front brakes”, say “show me”. When he shows you how think the pads are, say “can you show me what’s normal?”. Any honest mechanic will be happy to show you.

For big-ticket problems, it’s always a good idea too to get a second opinion.

IMHO, unless you’re really interested in learning about mechanics, and/or have some mechanical aptitude, you’ll never be able to glean enough from any literature to be able to tell whether the huge myriad of things that cars need as they age needs to be done or not. Your owners’ manual recommended repair schedule is a really good start, but as cars get old things wear out that are never mentioned in the manual.

And please don;t feel embarassessed to ask questions, both of ua and of the mechanic. If you’re unsure of what he says, don;t be embarassed to say “let me look into it and I’ll let you know”.

Well, brakes can vary widely, depending on lots of things. I’ve replaced them at 20k in a Suburban, 60k in a Forester, 100k on an ES300. But yes, get a second opnion.

T.S.M. has great advice about ‘‘show me’’.
It’s a great chess board play when you don’t generally know.
1 - it creates an air of making them back up their claim, giving you insight to their demeanor.
2 - it creates the mood that you DO know what they’re talking about.
3- it allows you to learn, hear and now.
4- it gives you real information to use in your research. When asking that second opinion from anyone - another mechanic, family, or friends - you are armed with real information to impart.

I use the same ploy when talking to my doctor, home contractor, etc.
I want ‘‘in your face’’ real information even if I DON’T know anything initially.

Disagree on brakes <100k comment from @Rod Knox

It is all dependent on driving habits, style, and type. Brakes do not seem out of ordinary for a car with 40k.

I have never gone 100,000 miles on a set of brakes, I would be happy to get 50,000.

@Irma711
No need to be “embarrassed” about not knowing about vehicle maintenance. You probably have many other vital concerns in your life. All the above advice is excellent, all from several of the main contributors on this site. Kudos to @Fordman for his thorough and clear explanation, especially his comment about regular checking of fluid levels. If you do just that, you’ll help yourself greatly.

As I read your post, your basic question seems to be how to avoid being “taken advantage of”. My input is, as always, to establish an ongoing business relationship with a shop, ideally but not necessarily, an independent local business. Dealers and chain repair businesses sometimes get criticized on this forum, though some contributors are ok with them, and some are far better than others. Be especially wary of quickie lube places for your oil changes. Instead, try to find a place you feel respected, and which seems competent, fair with prices, convenient, etc and go to them for most things. When a shop knows you are an established customer, generally they are less likely to try to upsell you. No guarantees, but this may be a solution - if you find the right shop, you can trust them to treat you honestly.

The hard thing is finding that shop. This website offers some help - look at the top of this page for “mechanics files”…and of course ask friends for recommendations. If you know someone who is particularly “into” cars, that person would be a great source of info on local mechanics. You’ll also learn a great deal by reading some of the posts on this website, though that may be more time investment than you want. But certainly don’t don’t be a stranger here… use this site for advice - there are many extremely knowledgable regular contributors, including those who have already replied. Best wishes!

I never have either.

Perhaps Rod lives in the midwest where 99% of the driving is highway. Or even in Texas, where one can get on a highway in the morning and never touch the brakes again until suppertime. Brake wear really does vary greatly.

One thing I will testify to…Rod absolutely definitely knows his stuff and is not prone to throwing out numbers wildly. There absolutely must be some real variable involved.

Years ago the YWCA offered a course called “powderpuff mechanics”, a politically incorrect term by today’s standards, but my wife got a lot out of it. It was partly hands on and part classroom. Each participant at the beginning had to stand up and state why they were taking the course.

My wife said she wanted to know more about car care; while a wealthy matron stood up and related that her son asked to borrow her Olds, and then came back into the house stating that the oil light was on. She said; “don’t worry about it, it’s been on all week”! After that her husband made her take the course.

Your community college or AMA should offer a similar course. For $125 or so you can become “car smart” enough to be able to amanage your vehicle’s needs with confidence. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, and the “show me” advice is excellent.

Good luck!

If you want to try another garage for your Corolla, ask everyone you know who does their work and if they are happy with them. Ask for specific examples of why they like the repair shop. Eventually, you will have a short list of frequently mentioned shops. You can try one to see if you like it, too. There are so many Toyotas around these days that any repair shop should be able to handle it.

And never worry about not knowing something. Almost everything in the world is a mystery to everybody. We know a bit about a few things, but the world is just to big and too complicated to know everything, or anything close to it. If someone puts you down for not knowing something, it’s more likely their problem, not yours that is showing through.

The only stupid question is the one not asked…

You should not be ashamed of asking a question about something that you know little about. You are doing the right thing. And your spelling is by far not the worse we’ve seen.

Car repair is a business transaction. Get second opinions and estimates and ask questions about the things you don’t understand. Be wary of estimates that are too good, but other than that, go with the lowest.

40K on a set of brakes, especially if you do mostly city driving would be about right. Get a second opinion and when you get estimates, check to see if they offer ceramic brake pads. They will cost a little more but they last about twice as long. They should only be about $20 more. Be sure they include a brake line flush. This is often left off in order to lower the estimate and it probably won’t be a problem for many years, but eventually it will cause a problem.

Alignments are tricky to advise on without looking at the tires. Use a small ruler or even a coin to check the tread depth across the tread. The actual depth is not important (as far as needing an alignment) but it is important that all the treads across each tire be the same. If the tires have less tread on the inside vs outside or visa versa, then you need an alignment.

If the tires are worn more on the edges than the center, or visa versa, then you need to adjust your air pressure, more pressure if the outsides are worn, less if the centers are worn.

One last thing, since you have a Corolla, if you have the four speed automatic, I recommend that you have the transmission fluid drained and refilled. If you have the five speed automatic, then I can’t justify this recommendation, but the four speeds have an issue.

There’s a pretty decent book out there for people that don’t know anything about cars called “auto repair for dummies”. It won’t make you a specialist but it explains the basics very nicely.

At 40,000 miles, disc brake pads might need changing but drum brake shoes probably don’t. If you drive on really bad roads you might need an alignment but at 40,000 miles I would go three years at least on an alignment. An alignment is a high profit job when it isn’t needed.