Car maintenance checklist: 13 tips to look after your car

Cars need regular care to make sure they perform at their best, particularly if you’re not driving them as often. Disuse can create problems for your vehicle, but with just a few checks and actions you can minimise the risk of these issues happening.

Rhiannon Philps Published on 15 May 2020. Last updated on 20 January 2021.
Car maintenance checklist: 13 tips to look after your car

In some ways owning a car is just like having a pet. It needs constant looking after and regular activity to stay healthy and in good condition.

A car is not designed to sit on a driveway or in a garage for days or weeks on end. If you’re not using your car as much, its condition may deteriorate and new issues emerge without you even realising until you get into the driving seat.

Whether it’s tyres, brakes, batteries, lights, or engine oil, there are many parts of a car where problems can crop up if they are not well maintained.

However, you can help to prevent these issues with some basic car maintenance.

Our car maintenance checklist offers some guidance on how to look after your car when it’s not in use, which can help to minimise the risk of breaking down when you do get back on the road.

Tyre pressure

When your car is left standing unused for a long time, particularly in cold weather, tyre pressure may drop and flat spots can appear. While you can easily see if you’ve got a flat tyre, it would be better for your vehicle and your tyres to take action earlier, before it gets to that stage.

Your car may have a fitted tyre pressure monitoring system that can indicate if there are any issues with your tyre pressure. However, you should still conduct your own manual checks (when the tyres are cold) and take preventive action to minimise the chances of any problems arising.

Mark Barclay, Ecommerce Manager at GSF Car Parts says:

“Make sure to pump your tyres to the manufacturer-recommended PSI, which can be found in the vehicle handbook. This will not only help elongate the life of your tyres but also prevent your tyres flat-spotting, which occurs when a tyre has been under the weight of a car for a prolonged time and the part of the tyre in contact with the ground can become flat.”

Moving your car can also help to prevent flat spots or, if you own a set of axle stands, it may be worth elevating your vehicle off the ground if you’re sure you won’t be driving any time soon.

When checking the pressure, you should also check for any visual damage to your tyres, such as cracks, cuts, bulges or uneven wear.

If you do get a flat tyre, you could change it yourself, call a mechanic or, if you have home start breakdown cover, contact your breakdown provider for assistance.

Tyre tread depth

It is also worth looking at the tyre tread depth to make sure it is at the legal minimum of 1.6mm at the very least. An easy way to test this is to place a 20p coin in a groove of the tyre. If you can’t see the outer band of the coin the tread should be fine; if you can see the outer band then it could indicate the tread depth is not sufficient and needs replacing.

Brakes

Brakes are a part of your car that can deteriorate quickly if they’re not used regularly or looked after properly. The brake discs can start to rust and corrode, which could then cause your brakes to seize and you may find your handbrake is stiff or locked when you first try to release it.

Major brake damage would need a professional to fix, which is likely to involve expensive repairs.

Scrap Car Comparison offers some advice on what you can do to look after your brakes if you’re not driving your car very often:

“To keep your brakes well maintained, we recommend rolling your vehicle back and forth ever so slightly, just a few metres where possible to keep the discs moving. Doing this will also look after your tyres and prevent any flat spots from appearing as you’re adjusting the pressure on them.”

If your vehicle is on private property, on level ground, and it is safe to do so, you may wish to take the handbrake off. This can help prevent it from sticking, which would render your vehicle immobile. You could place chocks (wedges) under the wheels to prevent your car from rolling if you do take this option. Just remember not to use this method if you are parked on a public road, as you would risk your vehicle rolling away dangerously if another vehicle knocked into it.

Battery

Rarely using your car, or only using it for short journeys, can drain the battery.

Older cars may be more at risk of getting a flat battery, but batteries can drain in new cars too if they are left unused for long periods.

To try to avoid this, Duncan McClure Fisher, CEO at MotorEasy recommends:

“For motorists who’ll be off the road a while, a trickle charger is a worthwhile investment, using low voltage to keep a battery at optimum charge for extended periods. A 15-minute run can also be beneficial every now and then, whether you take it on the roads or let the engine work while stationary — just make sure to stay with the car, as it’s an offence to leave a running vehicle.”

If you do plan to use a charger on your car, follow the instructions and make sure you are able to use it correctly and safely.

Oil, coolant and antifreeze

The additives and chemicals in motor oil can damage mechanical components if it is left to stagnate for a long time, so swapping it out for some fresh fluid and switching on the ignition occasionally to allow the oil to circulate may be a good idea.

Leasing Options underlines the importance of checking your engine oil, as well as the other systems in your car:

“It’s worth topping up your oil. It may have sunk to the bottom into the reservoir while the car’s been inactive, so it’s best to top it up as you want to make sure all moving parts are lubricated properly.”

“Also, while the bonnet is open, check windscreen washer fluid levels. If left over winter it may have frozen, so be aware that even if it says it’s full, it may not function properly, so give it a try before pulling off the drive.”

Much of the above applies to your coolant, too. Consider replacing it if your vehicle will be out of action for a few months, and make sure to top up the antifreeze in accordance with the volume stated in your vehicle’s handbook.

DPF (diesel particulate filter)

If your vehicle is relatively new and runs on diesel, it’s probably been fitted with a diesel particulate filter (DPF), which expunges harmful substances from the exhaust.

Under normal circumstances, the DPF cleans itself by way of a regenerative process when the engine is running at over 2,500 rpm for an extended period. But if you aren’t driving regularly or only driving locally, this speed may be difficult to reach, let alone maintain.

This could leave your DPF clogged with soot if you’re using your vehicle for repeated short journeys. If the problem goes unchecked, you may end up needing to pay for expensive repairs at a garage to fix it. The best way to avoid this scenario is to avoid short spurts of driving wherever possible, then take your vehicle for a longer journey on a motorway or A-road when you’re able to.

Always look out for a warning light on your car’s dashboard that could indicate a problem with the DPF.

Fuel

Many vehicle owners are unaware that fuel has an expiry date. Waking your vehicle after a long hibernation and forcing it to run on old petrol or diesel will not go down well.

Filling your tank to the brim can help prevent a build-up of air, minimise the risk of condensation, slow down the rate of oxidation, and therefore prolong the life of your fuel. However, a quality fuel stabiliser will keep petrol or diesel fresh for as long as 12 months. And when the time comes to finally take your vehicle out for a spin again, make sure to check your seals and fuel lines for any signs of dryness or fatigue.

Air conditioning

If you don’t regularly use the air conditioning in your car, dust, moisture and mould can build up in the system. This can not only cause an unpleasant smell when you do eventually turn on the air-con, but it can also stop it from working as effectively.

Simply switching on your car’s air conditioning whenever you go for a drive or run the engine will help to keep the vents clear and in good condition.

Lights

It’s advisable to check your fog lamps, brake lights, headlamps and side lights every so often as you never know when you might next need to drive in the dark. If any of the lights don’t work, change the bulbs as soon as you can.

Electric vehicles

Electric and hybrid vehicles need looking after just like petrol and diesel cars. Their batteries also need to be kept topped up as they can go flat after a period of inaction.

One of the ways to prevent a flat battery is to plug in your car (ideally not to full charge) or to put the car in “ready mode” for a certain amount of time each week. For specific information on what is recommended for your own car, you should consult your vehicle handbook as advice can vary between models.

Security

If you leave your car for long periods, especially if it is parked in an open space, there is a risk of theft or damage. Although you can’t prevent this from happening completely, you can reduce the chances by parking your vehicle in a well-lit area to deter criminals operating under the cover of darkness. A steering lock and a dashcam may prove sound investments — and it goes without saying that you should always leave your vehicle locked.

Finally, if you drive a newer vehicle then it may have come fitted with keyless entry. Make sure your keys are left in a Faraday pouch (which blocks signals that thieves use to gain entry to your vehicle) and are kept a considerable distance from windows and doors.

Exterior and interior

If you’re fortunate enough to own a garage, keeping your vehicle under a roof protects it from moss, dirt, rust and bird mess. Leave a window slightly open to allow air to circulate and prevent mould. Just make sure to check that no animals have crept inside and made your vehicle their temporary home. Insects, rats and small birds have been known to build nests in neglected vehicles and chew through seats, dashboards and wiring looms.

If you don’t have a garage, you could purchase a vehicle cover. If you’re going to use one, just make sure that you clean your vehicle first to prevent the cover from compressing any grime and damaging the paintwork. Waxing your car could also help to protect the paintwork from the elements and keep the bodywork in good condition.

Before leaving your car unused, it would be a good idea to give the inside, as well as the outside, a good clean, making sure to get rid of any dirt or old food that may be lingering there. Doing this means you won’t be surprised by a nasty smell when you eventually get back in your car!

Documentation

While your vehicle is off the road, take some time to get your paperwork shipshape. As well as checking how long your MOT has left before it expires, you may also wish to ensure your car insurance and breakdown cover are still valid and your road tax has been paid.

If your vehicle is going to be out of action for a long time, consider applying for a Statutory Off-Road Notification, which informs the DVLA that the vehicle will not be used on public roads and temporarily exempts it from road tax.

Summary of tips

Be ready to hit the open road once more

Even if you’re not planning to use your car for a while, you never know when you might need it for essential travel. Keeping it well maintained and in a roadworthy condition is simple and takes up very little time, and if you take the necessary steps then you’ll be ready to get back into gear straight away.

If your car has sat idle for an extended period, you should consider performing these simple checks before driving off:

  • Check the tyres and tyre pressure.
  • Make sure that all the lights are working.
  • Check your oil, coolant, and fuel levels are sufficient.
  • Ensure all the windows are clean.
  • Look out for any cats, hedgehogs, or other animals that may be sheltering under your car or around the wheels.
  • Drive carefully and test the brakes to remove any corrosion that may have developed.
About the author:

Rhiannon is a financial writer for NerdWallet, with a particular interest in personal finance and insurance guides for consumers. Read more

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