While some auto maintenance requires a lot of know-how and experience with the inside of a vehicle, amateur mechanics can still do take preventative action to catch problems early. One thing that's easy to do is inspect all of your belts and hoses, as these are among the most problematic issues for a car owner. Many breakdowns are the result of a belt or hose slipping off or cracking, but the owner who spots these things early can avoid ending up stranded on the side of the road.
First, be sure your engine is completely off - especially before getting near a belt while it's running. Also give the engine some time to cool down, as the hoses are usually carrying coolant and can get quite hot after driving.
The reason inspecting belts and hoses is relatively easy, even for people who don't know anything about cars, is that it's simple things that drivers need to look for. You don't need a master diagram of the engine to spot a hose with a large crack in it. Be careful handling hoses, but also make sure to inspect them closely for wear.
Hoses are responsible for carrying coolant, but coolant on its own is naturally corrosive. There are chemical inhibitors within the coolant that prevent it from doing damage to parts of the vehicle. Over time, however, these inhibitors get used up, which is why its important to regularly change out your coolant. Look for signs of corrosion near the areas where the hose is clamped to parts of the vehicle. Squeeze the hose at these points - it should be somewhat pliant, but relatively firm. If the hose is soft or mushy in this area, it's time that you change out your coolant, as further corrosion will lead to a leak.
Speaking of leaks, you'll be able to immediately spot one if you see a crack. Use your sense of smell as well - coolant has a sweet aroma to it. If you notice this smell but don't see a crack, it might be a good idea to have an expert take a look at the car, as the leak may be tough to spot.
Hoses aren't meant to last forever. If you've noticed wear or they feel like they've begun to corrode, it might be a good idea to consider replacing them early. This is a lot easier than dealing with a coolant leak later on and can save you money in the long run.
Belts have a different job than hoses, but the same general principles apply - you're looking for wear and tear, cracks, or frayed parts. Be sure to twist the belt in order to see both sides. Also look to see if the belt is slick or glazed at all - this is a sign that the belt may begin to slip soon.
These parts also need to be checked to ensure that they're on correctly. Inspect the pulleys for rubber buildup, as this often causes a belt to fall off. Ensure that the belt is lined up correct with the pulleys. Also, find the center of the belt and push your finger into it to check the tension - it should give no more than one inch. It's possible to manually adjust belts, but those with numerous cracks or other issues might be better off being replaced outright.