How-to Advice

In recent years, nine of 10 top U.S. auto insurance companies have started selling policies based on how motorists drive. At least a handful of pay-as-you-drive policies are offered in every state, covering as many as 3 million U.S. vehicles, according to industry estimates. Switching to use-based insurance (UBI) could help you save a little or a lot over what car owners spend on premiums associated with a more traditional policy.

If you're considering changing to a UBI plan , it pays to understand what you're getting.

Carriers set UBI rates by collecting mileage or other information directly from your car, but similarities among policies end there. Some insurers use a small, meterlike electronic device that plugs into a car's onboard diagnostics port to store or transmit information. Newer versions gather driving data through an app and a smartphone connected to a car's infotainment or telematics system.

Drivers may happily trade access to their driving habits for lower insurance rates. But privacy advocates worry that insurance companies aren't always 100 percent transparent about what data they collect, what they do with it and with whom they share it.

"Privacy is a real question," says J. Robert Hunter, insurance director for the Consumer Federation of America. "What do insurance companies do with that information? If I park at the corner of Main and 14th and on one corner is a bar and another is a gym, will you raise or lower my rate?"

Here are steps to take if you're shopping for car insurance and considering a use-based policy:

Find out what's available: Look on the Web site of your state insurance commission or consumer advocacy agency to see which insurance carriers are licensed to operate in your area. Here's a list of all 50 state insurance departments . Alternatively, visit auto insurers' Web sites and type in your ZIP code to see if they sell UBI plans where you live.

Understand what types of data insurers collect: Some states restrict the information insurers can collect, which limits the types of UBI policies they offer. In California, for example, insurance companies can track mileage but are barred from monitoring where or when you drive. They also can't track such behaviors as how fast you drive or how often you slam on the brakes, the activity known in insurance lingo as "hard-braking events." Visit state insurance regulators' Web sites for their explanations of the UBI plans they authorize, such as this pay-as-you-go auto insurance pamphlet from the Oregon Department of Consumer and Business Services. You can also read the fine print on UBI policies on insurers' Web sites to determine what driving data an insurer collects, and how it is gathered.

Try before you buy: Certain insurers give potential customers a chance to take a UBI policy for a test-drive before committing to a policy. In such cases, you may be asked to plug an electronic monitor into your car's diagnostics port for a month or so, which allows the insurer to collect enough data to set a rate. Other insurers offer UBI policies only to existing customers.

Understand how insurers determine discounts: Insurers may offer an introductory discount of 5 or 10 percent during a try-out period, and adjust the rate as needed after monitoring mileage or driving behaviors for a set time period. Progressive Insurance bases rates for its Snapshot policy on six months of driving data. State Farm customers with Drive Safe & Save policies keep electronic monitors plugged into their cars all the time, so, theoretically, their rates could change at renewal time, if they've driven substantially more or less than in the previous period.

Consider a UBI bundle: Some insurers offer UBI as part of a bundle of services tied to a car's built-in entertainment, safety or maintenance systems. State Farm's Drive Safe & Save with In-Drive Connect policy, a joint venture with Verizon Wireless, offers mileage-based insurance along with stolen vehicle assistance and hands-free mobile phone service. After a one-year free trial, charges for In-Drive Connect jump to $6.99 a month or more based on what other features a customer chooses.

See how you're doing: If you sign up, use the Web portal associated with your UBI policy to monitor your driving. Some insurers' dashboards give customers a grade based on their driving habits. For example, customers of Allstate's Drivewise UBI policies can download an iPhone or Android app to look up mileage, speed, hard stops and what times of day they drive.

Before you take your car in for a smog check, is there anything you can do to give it a better chance of passing? The obvious answer is to make sure your car is running well in the first place. A well-maintained car, with all its systems operating correctly, will probably pass the smog test.

If you think your car isn't running at 100 percent but you want to avoid the expensive repairs that would be required if you fail, there are simple steps you can take to tilt the odds of passing a smog check in your favor.

We'll get to the details in a minute, but first it's important to understand that smog testing, introduced in the 1970s as part of the Clean Air Act , is an essential step to keeping health-threatening pollutants out of the air. Smog check programs are in effect in 33 states to verify that your car's emissions system is functioning properly. For more information about your local smog check requirements, check with your state's motor vehicle registry.

"I can remember crying during recess in elementary school because the smog levels were so high," says Steve Mazor, chief automotive engineer with the Automobile Club of Southern California . He adds that in the 1960s, Los Angeles had 100 smog alerts each year. In the past 10 years there have been only two in the city. "That is almost entirely because of the improvements in emissions systems in cars," he says.

Still, smog tests can be a bureaucratic hassle for car owners. Understanding the rules, and how to prepare for and take the test, was so confusing for the average motorist that smog check technician Eddy Asmerian created SmogTips.com with information about how to pass.

"Most people leave the smog test until the last minute," Asmerian says. "They think, 'If I don't pass, I'll worry about it then.'" But he says there is a lot they can do ahead of time to help make sure their car will get a clean bill of health.

Here are the top tips from our experts to prepare your car for a smog check:

1. Clear that "Check Engine" light.
If your car displays a "Check Engine" light , that's an automatic smog check failure. You'll need to get a diagnosis and fix before you test.

The most common reason for a Check Engine light is a faulty oxygen sensor , says Kristin Brocoff, director of corporate communications for CarMD.com, which sells an automotive diagnostic tool and provides repair information. Sometimes, even before an oxygen sensor fails, it becomes "lazy," not properly regulating the gas/air mixture, and that will cause a smog check failure, Mazor says.

An oxygen sensor in an older car is a $168 part, according to CarMD data. Replacing it is a good idea. Ignoring it can lead to a more costly catalytic converter repair, which can cost more than $1,000.

2. Drive the car at highway speeds for the two weeks prior to the smog test. This gets the catalytic converter hot enough to burn out any oil and gas residues. The catalytic converter, mandated by federal law in 1974 for all U.S. cars and trucks, converts harmful pollutants into less harmful emissions before they leave the exhaust system. The worst thing for the proper operation of emissions systems is a series of short trips: The catalytic converter never gets hot enough to do its job, Mazor says.

3. Change the oil, but only if it needs it. Dirty oil in the crankcase could release additional pollutants, which could cause the car to fail the smog test, says Asmerian. While the mechanic is changing the oil, ask him to do a visual inspection of the car's engine to see if any hoses are cracked, broken or disconnected.

4. Do a tune-up two weeks before the smog test. Have any required maintenance performed well before the smog test, Mazor says. Most mechanics disconnect the battery while doing a tune-up and this resets the car's onboard computer. The car then needs two weeks of driving to run all the diagnostic tests needed to pass the smog test.

5. Make sure the tires are properly inflated. Many states require a dynamometer test , which positions the car's tires on rollers that allow the engine to run at high speeds while it is stationary. If the tires are under-inflated, the car's engine works harder to achieve the engine revolutions required by the test.

6. Check coolant and gas levels before the test. Since the test runs the car at high speed while it is stationary, less air flows through the radiator to cool it. So make sure to fill your coolant tank properly. Also, the car will be on a dynamometer, possibly at an angle. If gas is low in the tank, this could expose the fuel pump and put vapor in the fuel line, causing the car to fail the test.

7. Get a pre-inspection. In some states, smog check stations will do a less expensive pre-inspection that shows if a car will pass or fail without officially recording the results with the state's registry of motor vehicles. If an owner knows the car is borderline, this might be a good idea, says Asmerian. Mazor thinks this is unnecessary: "If it fails, have the work done then."

8. Avoid rainy days. There was disagreement on this recommendation. Asmerian says that wet tires can slip on the dynamometer and give a false reading that can cause smog check failure. However, Mazor says the warm-up cycle of the test will usually dry off the tires. Furthermore, extra humidity during rainy days results in lower emissions of some pollutants.

9. Use a fuel additive. Older cars could have clogged fuel injectors, causing them to run lean, says Asmerian. An additive such as Techron could clean the small openings and help the car pass the smog test, he says. Mazor believes this is unnecessary in California, however, since the gas sold in the state is the "best in the world" and loaded with additives that will keep the engine clean.

The night Hurricane Sandy struck the East Coast, Mandee Bellarosa and her roommates were hunkered down in their multilevel condominium in Hoboken, New Jersey. At 9 pm, the power went out, and shortly afterward they went to bed.

Bellarosa woke just two hours later when a friend called with bad news. Water was already entering his garage, where she had earlier parked her 2009 Volkswagen Jetta , hoping to keep it out of harm's way. Despite the blackout, she could see that the streets below her windows were fast becoming rivers.

It wasn't until the following afternoon that the water had receded enough for Bellarosa to venture outside, and even then it was a knee-deep trudge to check on the status of her car. The Jetta actually looked OK, but when she opened the driver's door, water poured out.

Car shopping would probably be the last thing on your mind if you were caught in a natural disaster. But events like the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan or this year's so-called Frankenstorm can destroy tens of thousands of cars in little more than the blink of an eye, leaving their owners no choice but to pick a replacement vehicle as they start to rebuild their lives.

Even a lesser calamity — a toppled oak or a deer leaping from a dark wood — can unexpectedly leave someone without wheels, while life continues forward at full speed.

In these situations, the last thing you want is any more stress or drama. With that in mind, here are a few basic strategies — from filing car insurance claims to car shopping — to get you back on the road as swiftly and painlessly as possible.

Determining if Your Car Insurance Covers Natural Disasters
You'll want to establish what's covered by your car insurance policy before making any big decisions. "If your car was damaged in [a storm like] Sandy, it is likely covered if you have comprehensive coverage as part of your auto insurance policy," says J. Robert Hunter, director of insurance for the Consumer Federation of America . Comprehensive coverage — which is sometimes known as "other than collision" insurance — "covers many things that could happen in a storm, including water or flood damage, falling objects including trees, signs and such, and wind damage," he says.

People with newer cars usually have this coverage. But Hunter also advises those with older cars, who may be thinking of dropping collision from their policies, to "keep the usually much less costly comprehensive coverage." It can be especially important if they live in areas prone to floods, high winds, earthquakes or other calamities.

"File your claim fast, as they are usually settled on a first-come, first-served basis," he advises. This is critically important after a widespread disaster like Sandy, since insurers can quickly become overwhelmed with claims. Bellarosa, for instance, has gone weeks without a final settlement for her totaled Jetta despite almost daily calls to her adjuster.

And if you don't have comprehensive coverage, check your homeowner's or renter's policy. In some cases, it may cover disaster-related damage to your car.

Depending on the scale of the natural disaster, you may also be eligible for assistance, typically in the form of a loan, from one of a number of state and federal agencies. Check DisasterAssistance.gov to see what help is available to replace your car.

Document Your Case
As soon as it's safe to do so, grab your camera or cell phone and snap some photos of the damage. Make sure to get shots from various angles — front, back, side, above and below — as well as pictures from inside the car, including the trunk and engine bay. Resist the urge to start cleaning up the mess immediately; it's best to get photos of the car as you found it. Clear evidence like this can help your insurance company understand the nature and extent of the damage — and whether it makes sense to attempt a repair.

Diana Dyckes, another Sandy victim from Hoboken, returned to her 2011 Subaru Legacy the day after the storm. Inside she found small ponds of floodwater in the cupholders and residue on the seats and roof lining. She snapped photos of what, to some, might appear to be light damage. But these signs of exposure to brackish water demonstrated to her insurer that the car was a total loss. Her later discovery of a flooded trunk and a failed ignition bore that out.

A car is typically declared a total loss if the anticipated costs of repairing it exceed approximately 70 percent of its estimated replacement value. Make sure your car is given its proper due in this equation by using an online appraisal tool like Edmunds.com's True Market Value (TMV) ® . The tool allows you to create your own estimate, which you can then compare to the amount determined by your insurer.

Remember that your car's specific odometer reading as well as its trim, options and condition all affect its value, so make sure that any estimates have accounted for these details correctly. If you happen to have any clear "before" photos of the car, maybe from that Sunday afternoon you spent washing and waxing it, these can help you verify the car's actual condition prior to the incident.

Stand Your Ground — and Escalate if Necessary
By following these steps, you may be pleasantly surprised at how easy it is to reach a comfortable settlement with your insurer. But that's not always the case, of course.

Hunter, a veteran of the insurance industry, recommends keeping a record of all interactions you have with your insurer after making a claim, including the date and time, the person you spoke with and what he or she told you. Having a detailed record of these conversations can come in handy if there are any issues with settling your claim.

Know that you aren't required to accept the first settlement offer you get, says Hunter. Ask the adjuster to be specific about how he or she determined the settlement amount. If it doesn't seem fair, make your case using the evidence you've gathered in the steps outlined above.

"If you still have trouble," says Hunter, "complain." And don't just ask for your adjuster's immediate supervisor. Talk instead to the claims office manager, who will likely be more motivated to wrap things up both quickly and to your satisfaction. If that doesn't work, push it a step further by seeking out the vice president or director of claims at the insurer's home office.

You can also file a complaint with the insurance commissioner's office in your home state. Most offices have online forms you can use to file the complaint along with your supporting documentation. Keep in mind, though, that resolution via this path usually takes longer than working directly with your insurer. The paperwork involved with settling complaints made to commissioners' offices is burdensome to insurers, so simply threatening to file one may by itself motivate your insurer to act in your favor.

If all else fails, your last resort is to contact an attorney. Insurance companies take legal action quite seriously, in part because of the public relations problems they have the potential to bring.

Ready, Set, Whoa
Let's say you're happy with your settlement and you've got a check in hand. All that's left now is to hit the dealership and buy your new car, right? Not so fast. Tempting as that may be, it's important to take your time and do the proper research beforehand, just as you would with a purchase under normal circumstances.

In fact, taking your time may be even more critical in the wake of a disaster. Edmunds.com analysts estimated that in the immediate aftermath of Sandy, the price of a used car in affected areas jumped as much as $1,000, due to damaged dealer stock as well as interruptions in the supply chain.

If you're in desperate need of a set of wheels, try borrowing a car from a friend, joining a carpool at work or signing up for a car-sharing plan like Zipcar . Or consider renting a car for a week or so while you navigate the purchase process. This expense can pay for itself and then some, since it buys you time to evaluate your options thoroughly and find the best possible deal.

Once you finally have a moment to think, check out our Car Buying Guide for top picks of new cars in every type and price range. Try the strategies outlined in our "Quick Guide to Buying a New Car" to streamline your purchase. If you know what you want, you can buy a new car in a day .

Folks shopping the used-car market should review Edmunds.com's Used Car Best Bets and our "Quick Guide to Buying a Used Car."

Also, in the aftermath of any widespread destruction, be wary of unscrupulous sellers who may be trying to unload flood-damaged cars . Telltale signs include stained carpets or upholstery, electrical glitches or musky odors. As always, if the deal seems too good to be true, it probably is.

Car Incentives to the Rescue?
Be aware that some manufacturers and dealers may be offering incentives specifically for disaster victims. Bellarosa, for instance, found an excellent deal while shopping to replace the Jetta she lost in Hurricane Sandy. She loved her old car but couldn't pass up the employee pricing and discounted financing that Nissan has offered to those within federally designated disaster and emergency areas. She now drives a brand-new Nissan Altima .

Other manufacturers offered similar deals, as well as relief plans for owners having trouble keeping up with their car payments in the weeks after the storm. Meanwhile, some dealerships in the area were advertising "hurricane pricing" as well as perks like on-site insurance adjusters or a free generator with every new car purchase.

Remember to research the details of a disaster-related incentive just as you would any other, using tools like Edmunds.com's car Incentives & Rebates page. It's important to stay informed. Bellarosa, for example, shopped carefully and left one dealership after being "steps away" from purchasing a car.

"The salesman was less than forthcoming about the deals that were available to me regarding Sandy when he knew from the beginning that was why I was in the market for a new car," she says.

Moving On
Both Bellarosa and Dyckes, who lost her Subaru to the storm surge, are moving on with their lives now. But they are not likely to forget Hurricane Sandy any time soon. Bellarosa is finally behind the wheel of a new car, but she still hasn't received an insurance check for the old one. Most recently, she found that a strongly worded e-mail to her adjuster garnered an apologetic reply — but still no specific details on her settlement.

Dyckes, on the other hand, received a swift settlement from her insurance company, the highly rated USAA . However, she has decided to forego replacing her car for now. "I take a ferry to work," she says of her daily trips into Manhattan. And on days off, whenever she's needed to get somewhere, she's been able to rely on public transportation or simply her own two feet.

In the future she may consider a car-sharing program where, when you've finished using the car, you can simply return it and walk away.

Coincidentally, her hometown of Hoboken offers just such a plan, called Corner Cars , in partnership with Hertz. Unfortunately, a number of their cars were also damaged in the storm.

Every time you walk up to your car, that scratch on your driver side door looks like a hideous, gaping sore. You'd like to have it repainted but you don't have the time or money to take it to a body shop. What are your touch-up paint options?

With a little elbow grease and a few inexpensive tools, you can do it yourself with a spray can or, depending on the type of damage, a bottle of touch-up paint. If that seems too intimidating, you can hire a mobile paint-repair technician to do the job for a fraction of what body shops charge. Either route you take, you will likely be pleasantly surprised with the result.

I went the DIY route to repaint several areas on my family's second car, a 2000 Nissan Sentra GXE. And I spoke with the owner of a 2009 Porsche 911 who hired a professional technician to retouch the road rash on his hood. The results in both cases were better than expected, and the price was much lower. Here is a description of both repairs, starting with the repair to my Nissan.

The driver's door on my Sentra had multiple scratches. Also, the paint on the side mirrors was oxidized into a white-ish blob in a shape that looked like an undiscovered continent on an ancient map. Then there was the bumper: It looked as if it had been parked against a barbed wire fence. We don't drive this car much, but when we did, it was an embarrassment. It was time for action.

My first stop was the Nissan dealership. But I found only touch-up paint in tiny bottles, as if it were fingernail polish. This definitely wouldn't do the job. I bought touch-up spray paint from a chain auto repair store and just eyeballed the color. That made the scratch so much worse.

Turning to the Internet, I found a number of companies selling paint they claim to be factory-matched, based on the vehicle's paint code, including Automotivetouchup.com in New Orleans. I ordered an aerosol spray paint can, a prep kit and a handle that attaches to the spray can and makes spraying easier. My total cost was $79, plus shipping.

Once my paint and tools arrived, I was eager to see how well the color matched, so I sprayed some on the door with little preparation except for wiping down the area. Even so, the result was impressive. At a glance, it is impossible to spot the repainted areas. The gaping sore of damage that irritated me every time I saw my car was gone.

I was curious to know how much better the paint job could have been if I had been more diligent in reading the directions, or watching the how-to videos on the Automotivetouchup.com Web site or on YouTube. So I called the company's owner, Jeremy Thurnau.

"Without trying to brag, I will say the results can be as good as a body shop," Thurnau said. "Most body shops do great work but you can't get your bumper repainted for $100."

Thurnau says the paint his company sells is high quality, costing from $200-$800 per gallon. Compare that to the $20-per-gallon paint in the "shake and shoot" spray cans sold at auto-parts chain stores. Furthermore, Thurnau's site helps car owners find their vehicles' paint codes, which can be difficult to locate. Using the paint code, rather than eyeballing the color as I did, helps get a good color match.

Thurnau says most simple automotive repainting jobs take only about two hours, including prep, sanding and painting. Most of the hard work and time involved is sanding the old paint and then waiting patiently for the coats of paint to dry.

Common problems Thurnau sees are customers forgetting to order clearcoat, which is a nearly transparent protective coating. They also fail to test the color match before applying paint to the vehicle. Another mistake is taping off and repainting just a tiny square. This makes it difficult to blend the new paint with the factory paint.

Southern California Porsche owner Alec Barinholtz preferred to put his car in the hands of a professional. Flying rocks and debris had pitted the black paint on the nose of Barinholtz's 911, leaving highly visible white specks. He called in mobile touch-up technician Steve Bode, owner of the unusually named Quinn the Eskimo . Barinholtz also asked Bode to repair a deep, "nasty" inch-long scratch in the passenger door.

Working out of a Ford Transit Connect minivan, Bode uses and sells paint from DrColorChip.com , which is specially formulated for filling scratches and pits. Bode applies a small puddle of paint to the car and then squeegees it across the area, filling the tiny depressions. He wipes off the excess paint with a special solution.

Many of the cars Bode works on are exotics. "I'm pretty well known by the Porsche crowd," he says. But he'll also repair less exotic daily drivers. And if you want to try your own hand at this, you can buy the materials from Bode or DrColorChip.com and Bode will advise you on how to use them.

Before attempting it yourself, check out Bode's blog .

And, by the way, Bode isn't a fan of paint pens — he's often called in afterwards to fix what he refers to as "paint bombs."

He doesn't try to discourage people from fixing their own cars. "I'm more interested in making cars look pretty than making a lot of money," he says. He calls it a "no-mistake process." However, after working on more than 15,000 cars, he's seen just about any injury a car can sustain.

For most jobs, Bode charges from $150-$225. The DIY kits from DrColorChip.com are about $65. A body shop would charge up to $700 per body panel for repainting. Scratches that are too large for Bode can sometimes be repaired by a mobile spray paint technician. Those companies charge about $300 per panel.

"The results are pretty impressive," Barinholtz says of Bode's work on his car. "Small pinholes from road rash pretty much disappear," and the scratch is "much improved." He adds that Bode's price was $175, compared to the $2,000 quote he got from a body shop.

"I'm a perfectionist, but at that price, I can live with the fix to my factory paint," Barinholtz says.

It's amazing how even little scratches in your car's paint can be such eyesores. And it's just as remarkable that an inexpensive repair can greatly improve the look of your car. But it's important to know your options and make the right choice for your repair.

Fogged headlight lenses not only make your car look tired but also restrict the amount of light illuminating the road ahead of you. Headlight restoration kits are cheap and can produce dramatic results.

Money Saved: About $40

Time Required: 30 minutes to 1 hour

Tools Required:
Latex glove
Electrician's tape
Buffing wheel (optional)
Sponge

Materials Required:
Headlight restoring kit
Newspapers
Water



In the photo above are two different headlight restoring kits, the Turtle Wax Headlight Lens Restorer (typically sold for about $10) and Sylvania's Headlight Restoration Kit , selling for about $20. There are many other kits available at different prices, including some that include a buffing wheel to eliminate the manual labor.



Most headlight restoration kits include an abrasive compound and sandpaper (in grades of varying roughness) to remove the outer layer of yellowed, oxidized plastic and clear the lens. Some include a buffing wheel that can be attached to a power drill. One YouTube video even shows headlights being cleaned with toothpaste (which is slightly abrasive) and a clean cloth towel.

One difference between the two kits — and probably the reason for the price difference — is that the Sylvania kit includes a glove, tape and a liquid "UV Block Clear Coat" to protect the lens from refogging once it has been cleaned. I have one gripe with the Sylvania kit, because the clarifying compound comes in a little packet that can't easily be stored. This means this kit will probably be a one-shot deal. The Turtle Wax kit doesn't have the extra goodies, but the pads can be reused and the bottles contain a larger amount of the clarifying compounds.



To be clear (so to speak), what we're actually tackling in this project is the plastic lens covering the headlight bulbs, as shown on this 2001 Acura TL. This plastic lens protects the headlight from dirt and debris blown around on the road. Over time, these lenses become scratched, pitted and clouded by exposure to the sun. Replacing the lenses is expensive, so many car owners opt just to clean them.

The following steps are an overview of the ones I took with these two kits. Whichever kit you use, make sure you follow the included directions carefully. Use the products in the correct order and keep in mind that the headlights won't look clear until you are finished and the residue is washed off.



I use the electrician's black tape from the Sylvania kit to protect the paint around the headlights from the abrasive compound and to ensure I don't accidently scratch the paint with sandpaper. The electrician's tape is particularly good for this task because it pulls off easily when you are finished without leaving any sticky goo on your car's paint. You might also consider using extra protection and tape some newspaper onto the car to protect the finish. Once you start getting into the project and the how-to zeal takes hold, the compounds tend to fly onto painted surfaces.7



I have used the Turtle Wax kit on the left headlight and the Sylvania on the right. I applied the Turtle Wax products in two stages, rubbing on the lens-clarifying compound first to see if that did the job.



If the clarifying compound doesn't get results, you spray on the lubricant and use the abrasive pads. I use both chemicals for this test.



With about 10 minutes of work, here's what the left headlight looked like. Not bad.



The Sylvania kit called for washing the headlight lens with a surface activator. Then I applied the clarifying compound from the packet to the different levels of sandpaper for sanding and polishing the lens. Finally, I applied the UV Block Clear Coat.



Here's what the headlights look like after applying the products from the different kits and sanding each one for about 15 minutes.



I then tried the Sylvania kit on another car with more seriously fogged headlights.



I spent more time reading the directions this time and the results were better.

Clearing your headlights is easy, inexpensive and the results are satisfying. Once you do it and see how it sharpens up the look of your car, you'll find yourself recommending it to all your friends with older cars. Even better, there might be a little more from your headlights when you're driving at night.

You have a hot date or an important appointment and you rush outside, only to find that your car looks like a hazmat zone. Luckily, you still have five minutes to do something about it. But where do you start?

Take a tip from used-car salesmen and give your car "curb appeal" — a good overall first impression. When you can't make use of a car wash, even little things can make a world of difference.

The folks at Meguiar's Inc. know a lot about making cars look good. The company's core market is enthusiasts who lavish attention on their cars. But Mike Pennington, Meguiar's director of training and consumer relations, was willing to talk about the gray area between a few swipes with a car duster and a full-on Saturday morning "bucket wash."

"We don't want to tell people not to wash their car anymore," he says. "But if you are willing to put a little time into it, you'll be surprised at how good your car can look."

Over at Turtle Wax Inc. , Michael Schultz, senior vice president of research and development, says car finishes are more durable and the chemistry of waxes and car-care products has changed. This means that for minor indiscretions — think fingerprints, bird droppings and light dust — you can use a spray detailer to sharpen up the look of your car.

But one expert, who used to prepare cars for photo shoots, sounded a note of caution: Be careful of too obviously cleaning just one section of the car. It might draw attention to how dirty the rest of it is.

Here are six tricks you can use to keep up the good looks of your car between car washes. Think of it as triage for a dirty car.

Triage Tip 1: Clean horizontal surfaces with a spray detailer. You don't have to clean the whole car, just the obvious surfaces that catch dew or light rain and leave water marks. The eyesore areas are the hood, trunk and rear bumper.

Schultz recommends cleaning these surfaces in sections, using a spray detailer and microfiber towel, which is finely woven and makes better contact with the car's surface. For example, divide the hood in quarters and clean the four sections individually. He estimates you could even clean the entire car this way with spray detailer and only four towels.

Many car enthusiasts worry about scratching or putting swirl marks in the car's finish. The spray detailer is designed to avoid this by lubricating the dirt so it can be wiped up with a towel. But Schultz stresses the importance of flipping the towel often so you don't grind dirt into the clear coat — the transparent finish covering the car's paint.

Triage Tip 2: A clean windshield is (almost) a clean car. Glass is easy to clean and it sparkles like a jewel once you remove the haze and grime. Visibility is a huge safety factor, but a clean windshield also just makes you feel better about your car. When you're finished with the outside of the windshield, clean the driver-side window and side mirror, too. And for bonus points, clean the inside of the windshield and rearview mirror.

Keep a bottle of glass cleaner in your trunk, along with a roll of paper towels or the aforementioned microfiber towels. A foam spray cleaner also works well. For the really lazy folks, there's a squeegee. In addition to cleaning, a squeegee works well in the morning when there is dew all over the windshield. Squeegee off the morning moisture and your glass won't be left with those horrible drying marks.

Triage Tip 3: Take out the trash. It's a car, not a dumpster. Pull up next to a trash can somewhere and throw away papers, food or other junk that dates from the second Bush administration. Better yet, put a small trash bag in your car and empty it often, Pennington suggests.

While you're shoveling out your car, you might find a couple bucks' worth of change. Use it to buy a car deodorizer. Pennington says car interiors can absorb smells, but there are new products that actually absorb dreaded foul odors rather than just mask them. We've tested a few and they seem to work.

Triage Tip 4: Shake out the floor mats. When time is tight and you don't have a vacuum, you can simply grab your floor mats and shake off all the gravel, loose dirt, sand or — heaven forbid — used ketchup packets. The mat on the driver side probably is secured, so you'll have to work it off the anchors first. But the other floor mats are unattached and you can simply whisk them out for a quick flapping.

Triage Tip 5: Clean the wheels and tires. Pennington says that having dirty wheels on a clean car is like wearing old shoes with a new suit. So it makes sense to make the "shoes" look as sharp as possible.

The absolutely laziest way to go is just to use a cotton rag to wipe off the flat center section of your rims. (There's too much dirt on the rims for one of your microfiber towels to handle.) If time allows, work the rag into the spokes or crevices. You also can use a brush for the hard-to-reach areas.

As tires degrade, the rubber takes on a brownish hue that makes them look dull, Schultz says. So after you're finished cleaning the wheels, apply tire black with a sponge. Easier still, just use a spray product to get a quick shine.

Triage Tip 6: Clean anything you touch or look at. When you're in the car, you spend a lot of time looking at the gauges, the dashboard and the center console. So take that microfiber towel you used on the car's exterior and quickly clean off a few strategic areas inside the car. The plastic covering for the gauges is a must. Then, wipe the dust off the dashboard and sweep the fingerprints from the center console. Our experts recommend keeping car cleaning wipes in the glove compartment for quick interior touch-ups.

Now that you're finished, here's one more suggestion to make your life easier: Be very careful where you park. Sprinklers can undo all your hard work. And if you leave your car under the wrong tree, you might return to find it looking like a rock in the Galapagos Islands.

One of the hardest parts of changing your own oil is disposing of that pan of hot black goop. But in recent years, this chore has gotten a lot easier, thanks to motor oil recycling programs sponsored by cities, auto parts stores and designated collection sites.

Some cities, such as Long Beach, California, offer curbside pickup for used motor oil and old oil filters. Residents call first to request a pick-up. Then city workers take away the old oil. They also leave replacement containers and plastic bags for filters. In other communities, such as Berkeley, California, recycling centers will pay 16 cents per gallon for oil.

More than 30 percent of motorists change their own oil, generating between 43 and 62 million gallons of used oil annually, according to a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) survey . The EPA says recycling protects public health by keeping used oil, which contains heavy metals and toxins, out of groundwater supplies. It also saves energy. One gallon of re-refined motor oil produces 2.5 quarts of lubricating oil. It takes 42 gallons of crude oil to produce the same amount of new oil, the EPA says.

Most major auto-parts stores have recognized the importance of being the places where do-it-yourselfers can recycle their old oil after a change. Both Pep Boys and AutoZone , two of the nation's biggest auto parts franchises, accept used motor oil. AutoZone recycled 9.5 million gallons of oil in 2010, according to its Web site.

Despite the increase in recycling locations, getting used oil from here to there can still be a messy affair, particularly if you're unprepared or lack the right materials. Here are some tips to make recycling your oil quick and easy:

Before beginning an oil change, check your community's Web site to see if it offers curbside oil pick-up. If not, check your local auto parts store or the Web site 1.800.recycling.com , which will help you find recycling centers.

Choose an oil drain pan that can be tightly sealed for easily transporting the used oil to a recycling center. The center will dump the oil into a large bin and return the drain pan to you for future use.

Wear plastic gloves while you're doing the oil change and transferring the old oil into containers. Keep plenty of rags handy for wiping up spills.

Make sure the oil containers do not have other liquids inside, such as antifreeze, that could contaminate the oil and make it unfit for recycling.

Put a drop cloth or newspapers under the drain pan while you're changing your oil. Transfer the oil to containers on this surface.

Consider using an oil extractor . An extractor minimizes the chances of dripping oil and makes it easier to transfer the old oil to recycling containers.

Cover your car's floor mats or trunk with a plastic bag and old newspapers before loading your oil container. Newspapers will absorb small spills and the plastic bag will prevent the oil from soaking into your floor mats.

If you spill oil during recycling, use cat litter or an oil absorbent to soak it up. Sawdust will also work to soak up small spills.

Even in this age of computerized automotive systems and engines hidden from view beneath plastic covers, there are simple upkeep tasks that you can do that will save time and money. And this means you — ordinary, old, non-mechanical you.

This list of projects requires few tools and no experience. If you've hung a picture or pounded a nail, you can tackle any one of them. "Taking care of the small things now can add up to a big difference in your wallet later on," says Charlie Podner, category merchandising manager for AutoZone , a large auto parts retailer.

It's difficult to attach cost savings to some items on our list. Others have a wide range of costs, depending on whether you drive a luxury car or a beater. The Edmunds.com data department estimated the time it would take a mechanic to complete each task and calculated the labor cost for Southern California. But doing these jobs yourself will have rewards above and beyond saving a buck or two, and we've noted such benefits, too. You might just like the hands-on experience enough that you'll move on to other DIY projects .

1. Check Your Tire Pressure and Inflate Your Tires
Money saved: A tire-pressure check and inflation is usually combined with other routine services, but the estimate for the shop cost of this alone is $22-$30. The biggest savings, however, is the increased fuel economy that comes with properly inflated tires: $112 a year in gas, according to an Edmunds.com study of its employees. According to the same study, the savings could be as high as $800 for drivers with severely underinflated tires. If the nearly 250 million registered passenger vehicles in the United States were only 7 percent underinflated and owners brought their tires up to the specified level, the overall savings would be about $23 billion per year, according to a 2005 Department of Transportation study.
Time required: 15 minutes, once a month
Parts required: None
Tools required: Tire pressure gauge, air pump (usually free at a gas station)

Why DIY: Keeping your tires properly inflated is important for three reasons, according to Matt Edmonds, vice president of Tire Rack , an online tire retailer. As Edmonds tells us, properly inflated tires improve safety (your car handles better during emergency braking and cornering), prolong tire life (tires wear more evenly) and reduce fuel costs. "You never notice an underinflated tire until you have to slam on the brakes or swerve around something on the highway," Edmonds says. "That's when the underinflated tire can really affect performance."

How to do it: Follow the steps in "How to Check Tire Pressure and Inflate Tires" and watch this video .

2. Rotate Your Tires
Money saved: A tire rotation in Los Angeles ranges from $43-$60. For a person driving 12,000 miles a year, that's two tire rotations. Doing it yourself could save $120 annually.
Time required: One hour
Parts required: None
Tools required: Jack stand, tire iron and your car's jack

Why DIY: Front tires often wear faster than rear tires because braking and cornering is more demanding on them, according to Tire Rack's Edmonds. By rotating your tires, you help ensure that two tires won't need replacement prematurely. The Tire Rack Web site offers common rotation patterns, but Edmonds recommends sticking to the pattern in your car's owner's manual . Furthermore, when you perform the rotation yourself, you can closely inspect the tires for defects and premature wear. You might spot a nail that's stuck in a tire and is slowly deflating it, Edmonds says.

How to do it: This article gives complete instructions for the way to rotate your tires.

3. Change Your Air Filter
Money saved: Mechanics charge $19-$60 just for the labor involved in changing an air filter.
Time required: Five minutes
Parts required: New air filter
Tools required: Screwdriver

Why DIY: Sales guys at quick-lube places love to upsell customers on air filters because the filters take very little time to replace and bring a nice profit. Changing one yourself only takes 5 minutes, keeps dirt out of your engine and improves fuel economy, according to AutoZone. In areas with lots of dust, change the air filter more frequently, the retailer recommends. If you learn where the filter is and how to change it, it's an easy way to extend the life of your engine.

How to do it: This story explains how to change your air filter.

4. Replace Bulbs and Fuses
Money saved: Mechanics charge from $17-$132 to replace bulbs and fuses, depending on the make and model of vehicle.
Time required: 30 minutes
Parts required: Replacement bulbs and fuses (usually sold in a box of assorted sizes)
Tools required: Screwdriver

Why DIY: Headlights and taillights are essential safety items. It doesn't cost much for a mechanic to change a bulb or a fuse, but do you really want to schlep to a garage, wait around and maybe pay the 50 percent markup dealers charge for parts? That's the average, according to this service advisor in "Confessions from the Dealership Service Department." Instead, pick up the bulb or automotive fuses at an auto parts store and crack open your owner's manual.

How to do it: The hardest part of changing a headlight or taillight is reaching the bulb. Review the instructions and scope out the access first. If it looks as if threading your hand in there will remove too much of your skin, let a pro change the bulb . The fuse compartment, on the other hand, is easy to reach. Finding the right fuse requires reading the electrical chart in the owner's manual. Here is more about how to change a fuse .

5. Change Your Own Oil
Money saved: Quick-lube shops and dealership service departments in the Los Angeles area charge $39-$60 for an oil change.
Time required: One hour
Parts required: Engine oil, oil filter. Sometimes it's a good idea to replace the washer for the drain plug, too.
Tools required: Jack, oil pan for catching the old oil, socket wrench, oil-filter wrench, recycling bottles, mechanic's rubber gloves and plenty of rags.

Why DIY: Changing your own oil will save money and help you to avoid one of the upsells that quick-lube salespeople or the service advisors tend to push during the oil-change process. While an oil change is more advanced than other items on this list, it is well within the ability of anyone with a little mechanical knowledge. After you master this task, you might feel like a real mechanic and you may find yourself bragging about it to your friends.

How to do it: There are two ways to approach this task: the conventional under-the-car method and the newer, neater, top-down approach . Dan Edmunds, our director of vehicle testing, made this video tutorial while he was changing the oil in a test car.

There's Help at Hand
When you're setting out to do any of these fix-it jobs, check with your local auto parts store for DIY support services they might offer. AutoZone, for example, advertises that it will help you find the right part , loan you tools , recycle your old oil and will print out instructions for getting the job done. Our how-to articles are also there to guide you.

A Vehicle Identification Number ( VIN ) is the string of 17 numbers and letters that an automobile manufacturer assigns to an individual vehicle. The VIN can reveal a number of things about a car, including its airbag type, country of origin, engine size, model year and trim level. The VIN also is key to car safety. By entering a VIN in the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's free  VIN Look-up Tool , you can see whether a vehicle is subject to a recall. Typically, the VIN is stamped into a plate that's mounted on the dashboard near the windshield or on the driver-side door jamb. It's also stamped on the engine's firewall.

The article "Making Sense of Your VIN" explains what each element of the VIN represents, but if you want to get a free, quick, personalized VIN readout, try the VinDecoder.net Web site. It is a search tool that can translate your VIN in a matter of seconds. You may have to deal with a few ads that surround the data, but the information is accurate and worth a look. We entered a few VINs from former Edmunds long-term test cars and found some interesting information.



First up was the 2013 Scion FR-S . There was one item that stood out. The VIN decoder shows the manufacturer is Subaru , not Scion . This is not an error. The Scion FR-S and its twin, the Subaru BRZ , are the product of a joint venture between Subaru and Toyota. Both cars are manufactured at Subaru's plant in Japan.



The 2011 Chevrolet Volt had a hidden bit of trivia in the fuel type. It erroneously says that the Volt can run on E85 ethanol in addition to gasoline. It can't and it won't any time soon .

General Motors originally intended to launch the Volt with a flex-fuel variant, but the emissions package was not ready for the first model year, according to the automaker. The E85 compatibility was apparently incorporated into the VIN data before GM decided a flex-fuel version wouldn't be ready in time for 2011. Since then, no flex-fuel version of the Volt has surfaced. It appears the plans have been scrapped.



We were curious as to what the VIN looked like on an electric vehicle so we decoded the VIN on the 2013 Tesla Model S . The information is pretty thin and goes to show that your results may vary, based on what the carmaker supplies. We might have stumped the decoder tool: It wasn't able to identify Tesla Motors as the manufacturer. It also doesn't show anything about it being an electric car.



The 2012 Fiat 500 is a reminder of just how globalized carmakers have become. Fiat is an Italian company that now owns Detroit-based Chrysler and manufactures the 500 at Chrysler's plant in Toluca, Mexico.

Notice that the 10th element in the VIN is "C." The letter represents the 2012 model year, but it could also mean 1982. Because the model year is represented by one character (letter or number) in the VIN and the VIN can only contain 17 characters, the code for model years has to be recycled every 30 years. So while one letter can represent more than one year, it should be pretty obvious whether the car is a 1982 or a 2012 — or 2042, for that matter.



Finally, here's the readout on a 2011 Ford Mustang GT . Notice that the manufacturer isn't listed as Ford Motor Company . No, Ford didn't get bought out like Chrysler. The Auto Alliance International, Inc. was a joint venture between Ford and Mazda that produced the Mustang and the Mazda 6 for a while, at the plant in Flat Rock , Michigan. Newer Mustangs correctly list Ford as the automaker.

Other VIN Uses
Other than using your VIN for deciphering your car's pedigree, you can use it for less entertaining but more important reasons involving its title, registration and insurance. Another critical use of a VIN is to obtain a vehicle history report for a car you're considering for purchase. Before you buy a used car (even if it's from a dealer), it's important to get the vehicle's VIN and use it to run a history report on sites like AutoCheck or Carfax . The reports can reveal if the car has been reported stolen or if it has a salvage title . There are several types of reports to choose from. Read "Which Vehicle History Report Is Right for You" to decide.

A VIN is also important for purchasing replacement parts for your vehicle. Bring it along when you buy. Vehicle parts are often specific to certain VINs and may not fit your car if you only go by its year, make and model.

More VIN Information

Is that rock chip in your windshield really starting to annoy? If you're not ready to spring for a new windshield, you might be able to fix that small chip yourself. And even if you can't make it perfect again, a windshield repair kit can often prevent the damage from spreading further.
We had stars in the windshields of two of our cars and wanted to see how well a do-it-yourself kit sold in auto parts stores worked. While it didn't make the damage completely disappear, it reduced the visibility of the crack and can ensure the break doesn't grow any larger. Since these kits are inexpensive Band-Aids rather than a complete repair, keep your expectations in check. The damage is unlikely to become invisible, but the small investment can buy some time before you need a new windshield.
Consider Your Options
Replacing a windshield can easily run $200-$500, and you can also hire a glass expert to come and fix cracks, bull's-eyes and stars for about $75. However, their method is only slightly better than what you can do yourself. The professional may use a diamond-tipped drill, and have a better "bridge" -- the guide that attaches to your windshield with suction to force resin into the crack.
There are a number of windshield repair kits on the market, including the highly rated Fix-A-Windshield , which contains a plastic bridge similar to those used by professionals. We tried the popular Permatex kit ($11.99) which uses a syringe to suck air out of the break and then inject resin into the area to seal the glass.
Tools and Repair Time
The kits come with almost everything you need for the repair, which will take about an hour to perform. In addition, we recommend that you wear latex gloves to keep the resin from contacting your hands, get a towel to protect your car's finish and put a roll of paper towels under the windshield wipers. Also, bring a bottle of glass cleaner for post-repair cleanup.
The first steps should not be done in direct sunlight and the windshield should not be hot to the touch. For the final steps of the repair, you will move the car to direct sunlight so you might want to pick a spot that has both sun and shade nearby.
Repair Steps
You should always follow the specific instructions of the kit's manufacturer, but here's a general overview of the process.

Clean the area around the break with an alcohol pad.
Using a push pin, dig out any loose chips of glass, making sure not to let the sharp particles come in contact with your hands. A professional glass repair worker would drill a small hole through the top layer of the windshield glass to allow the resin to better penetrate the break. Clean the area again with the alcohol pad.
Peel off one side of the backing of the doughnut-shaped adhesive and press it on the windshield so that it completely surrounds the center of the break. Firmly press the adhesive onto the glass.
Peel off the other side of the backing and press the "pedestal" onto the adhesive so that it angles straight up.
Snap or cut the tip off the tube of resin and empty about three-fourths of the tube into the pedestal. This is hard to do because you have no idea how much is in the tube. Just don't squeeze it too strongly. Put the cap back on the resin and set it aside. Resin will now be flowing into the broken glass area.
With the plunger pushed all the way in, put the syringe into the pedestal and push it into place so it forms an airtight seal. Draw the plunger back to the indent near the tip of the plunger and then twist it so it locks in this position. This will draw air bubbles out of the broken glass area. Leave the syringe in this position for 10 minutes.
Remove the syringe to break the vacuum and allow air into the pedestal. Now, reinsert the syringe so that it is airtight again. Holding the syringe in place with one hand, press down on the plunger with the other hand and lock it in the lower setting. In this step, you are using the sealed space, and the airtight plunger, to force the resin down into the break. Leave the assembly in this position for at least 20 minutes.
Remove the syringe and use a safety razor (included in the kit) to cut the adhesive doughnut and pedestal from the windshield. Some resin will flow down and be absorbed by the paper towels under the windshield wipers.
Move the car into direct sunlight. Put several drops of the resin into the center of the break. Place the plastic square over the resin and smooth out any air bubbles with the edge of the razor so that the resin evenly coats the area. Let it stand for 15 minutes (or an hour on a cloudy day). The ultraviolet rays of the sun will harden the resin.
Remove the plastic strip using the razor and scrape the resin from the glass. Spray the area with glass cleaner and wipe it down.

Repair Tips
Here are a few additional tips not generally found in your kit's instructions:

On large SUVs or trucks, reaching the break may be a problem. Make sure you have a secure step stool or small ladder to reach out over the hood.
Protect the area of the car you're leaning against with a towel to avoid scratching the car.
Look closely at the break and be sure you pick out any broken glass before you begin. It's important to do this so the resin will flow into the broken area.
If you use a syringe-type kit, make sure you understand the concept of sucking the resin out of the break (to clear air bubbles) and then forcing it back in with air pressure. Practice using the indented locks on the syringe before squeezing in the resin.
Be careful to press the doughnut-shaped adhesive onto the windshield firmly all the way around. When we didn't pay enough attention to this step, the resin worked its way through and trickled down the windshield.
To get the most out of your kit, watch a video of the repair process .