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Postponing car maintenance a costly error

Tara Baukus MelloIf you've been avoiding car maintenance or repairs because you can't afford it, it's quite likely you'll end up spending more money in the long run.

A recent study by the Car Care Council found that 84 percent of the vehicles that participated in its community car care events in the U.S. in 2011 needed parts or servicing, and avoiding car maintenance could cause problems that require costly repairs. The good news is that keeping a watchful eye on a few simple things and taking care of any issues when they first arise can save you money in the long run, not to mention reduce your chances of a breakdown or a car accident. Here are four things to watch for:

Check your car's fluids. Like any machine, cars need lubrication to run properly or serious failures may result. Low, dirty or leaking fluids were the top problem with the cars the Car Care Council inspected. Once a month, check your car's engine oil, antifreeze coolant, and fluids for the power steering, transmission and brakes. Some fluids require checking when the engine is cold, others require it when the engine is hot. Check your owner's manual for the car maintenance details, including any specific recommendations on fluid types if you need a refill.

Assess the hoses and belts. All your car's systems are connected with hoses and belts which, if worn, can fail and cause a breakdown or serious problems. Twenty percent of the cars inspected by the Car Care Council had problems with a belt, and 15 percent required a new hose.

Once a month, when the engine is cold, simply do a visual check of the hoses and belts. Use a flashlight if the lighting isn't good and look for any signs of wear such as cracks or fraying. Touch the belts and hoses to make sure they aren't loose and that the rubber isn't brittle. If you spot any of these conditions, take the car to a trusted mechanic.

Check the battery. The battery is a key component of the car, yet it wears and can become loose over time, resulting in dependability issues. Seventeen percent of the cars inspected by the Car Care Council had problems with the battery clamps, cables or terminals. During your monthly car maintenance inspection, check the battery connections, cleaning and tightening them if necessary.

Pay attention to warning lights. A car's dashboard has a variety of warning lights and messages that notify you of many car maintenance problems. Read your owner's manual to understand what each of these indicator lights means and address them promptly when one is lit.

These lights shouldn't be ignored even if the car seems to be running fine, as ignoring it can cause other problems such as computer issues or decreased fuel economy. Don't assume these lights indicate an expensive repair either, though they can. Ten percent of the cars inspected by the Car Care Council had the "check engine" light on, and 19 percent of those vehicles simply needed a new air filter.

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If you have a car question, email it to us at Driving for Dollars. Read more Driving for Dollars columns and Bankrate auto stories. Follow her on Facebook here or on Twitter @SheDrives.

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