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Car Maintenance Made Easy

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Tread carefully. Check the tread to see if tires need replacing or are wearing more on one side, which means they need to be rotated and could signify an alignment issue. If there's no tread-wear indicator (a small bar perpendicular to the tread that indicates the minimum depth), a coin will suffice, says Tom Kenny of Hankook Tire America Corporation. "Place a penny, upside down, in the thickest groove of the tire," he says. "If the top of Lincoln's head is visible, the tire needs to be replaced immediately. If the top of Lincoln's hair is partially visible, you have a little time. If the tread covers Lincoln's forehead, you're good for now."

Switch your wipers. Wait too long to change blades and you could scratch your windshield, which runs $400 or more to replace, says Fix. Fresh wipers also mean better visibility. To extend their life, protect them in bad weather. Before a snowstorm, Marentic puts the blades up and covers them with sweat socks (yes, really).

Come clean. Wash the car at least once a month and wax the exterior four times a year to fight rust and corrosion, says AAA's Nielsen. Vacuum the interior regularly. Marentic recommends getting rubber floor mats or the absorbent pads used for housebreaking puppies to soak up excess water during the wet months.

"People think a soaking rainstorm now and then is a good-enough wash job," says Robert Gal, an accessories development manager for Volkswagen. "They're definitely mistaken."

Still, even the best-maintained car will eventually falter. "When a repair costs more than the value of the car, it's time to move on," says Fix. Edmunds.com or YahooCars can tell you what your wheels would fetch on the open market. Typically, people get rid of vehicles long before the scrap heap beckons, simply because they're tired of them, says Nielsen. Thinking long-term makes much more sense when it comes to cost per mile driven. "Keep a car for just five years and the depreciation kills you," he says. "If you drive it for 10 years, your cost per mile goes down by more than 40 percent. Economically, that's excellent."

Who knows? Maybe my son is destined to madly fall in love—with a jet-black minivan.

Originally published in the May 2011 issue of Family Circle magazine.