Is a timing belt a DIY job? Find out.

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | Mar 01, 2009

Dear Tom and Ray:

I have a 2002 Hyundai Elantra with 97,000 miles. During the state inspection this week, the mechanic told me that I will soon need to replace my timing chain. He also said that the hose running from the pump housing to the rack-and-pinion steering has a small leak. But he said the timing chain is a top priority. My son worked as an apprentice auto mechanic in a former life, and has taken helicopter-engine repair in the military. He does all his own work on his Jeeps, past and present. He feels that he can do this job for me, and told me to buy the repair manual. Since I cannot afford the more than $900 that the mechanic wants for both jobs, I'm considering his offer. Bottom line: Should I let my son do this? And how long would my car be "in the shop" if I let him do this for me? -- Arlene

RAY: Well, your car doesn't have a timing chain, Arlene; it has a timing belt. And that's unfortunate, because a timing chain -- which is supposed to last the life of the engine -- would have been covered by your 10-year, 100,000-mile warranty.

TOM: The belt, on the other hand, was supposed to be changed at 60,000 miles by you, as part of your regular maintenance. And if you neglected to change it back then, you can't reasonably expect Hyundai to cover its failure at 97,000 miles.

RAY: So the question is, Can your son handle this job? I'd say there's a 75 percent likelihood that he can do it -- that is, complete the job in about a weekend, and do it so your car will still run when you get it back.

TOM: Those aren't bad odds, Arlene. Our percentage is only 80!

RAY: But there are two reasons why you might not want your son to tackle this. First, the parts for this job are relatively expensive, and there's at least one special tool (a puller) he may need to buy to remove the camshaft pulley. So even if you get the labor for free, this job is still going to cost you several hundred dollars.

TOM: But more importantly, because of the nature of this repair, there's a risk of catastrophic failure if he happens to do it wrong. So, in the worst-case scenario, you save $300, but he bends all of the valves, and it costs you $3,000 to rebuild the engine so you can drive the car again. Plus it costs you $300 in legal fees to write him out of your will.

RAY: So here's what we'd recommend: Bite the bullet and have the dealer (or an independent, professional mechanic, who will be cheaper -- but will still guarantee the work) do the timing belt.

TOM: While he's at it, make sure he changes the belt tensioner, and have him replace your water pump, too. Those are inexpensive parts that require almost no additional labor to replace while the timing belt is off. And they can ruin your engine if they fail down the road.

RAY: Then, have your son fix the power-steering leak, which certainly is well within his abilities. And make him a nice spaghetti dinner, which surely will soothe any bruised feelings. Good luck, Arlene.

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