Even if it doesn't come with 470 HP and Wi-Fi connectivity, your car is the biggest and most expensive gadget you own. And unless you trade your vehicle in as often as your MacBook, keeping that ride in peak operating condition is absolutely vital to keeping repair costs down over its lifespan.
That's not to say that every repair will be inexpensive—timing belts and heater cores, for example, are notoriously expensive to repair regardless of the make or model—but here are a few ways to make sure that $120 brake job doesn't turn into a $1,800 leak in your checking account.
The most fundamental and essential element of not getting ripped off by your mechanic is to only do business with an honest shop. That sounds obvious, but it's easier said than done. From shade-tree mechanics to nationally-branded repair centers and dealerships, many shops can be less-than-completely-ethical when it comes to billing for repairs and service. But to find an honest shop, you should first ask around.
Survey your friends and family for suggestions, especially those that drive a similar make, model, or year of vehicle. Automotive repair businesses thrive on word-of-mouth advertising; it's easily the biggest driver of new customer traffic for independent and local shops. That also makes it the most reliable method of narrowing down your search. It's safe to assume that people won't refer you to someone who screwed them over.
If you've just moved to a new town and don't know anybody yet, check out Cartalk.com and RepairPal for free local referrals to quality shops. Avoid reviews from sites like Yelp, as they are written almost exclusively by disgruntled customers.
Independent shops should also get some added consideration over the big-box shops, because the business model dictates they build long-term relationships with their customers. Any shop that routinely overcharges customers risks damaging that relationship and could quickly find itself on the wrong end of negative reviews. An added benefit of this long-term customer service is that an independent shop will be better able to develop and maintain a full service history for the vehicle, which will help guide scheduled maintenance (and looks great when you want to resell it).
When checking out an unfamiliar mechanic's shop for the first time look for the following:
- A clean lot with plenty of turnover: Quality mechanics take pride in the appearance of their shops and rapidness of their repairs. If the shop's lot is clean, the work floor tidy and bright, and there aren't a bunch of half-repaired clunkers lined up out front, that's good.
- A knowledgeable Service Writer: The service writer is the guy that sits behind the shop's front counter and produces the estimates and repair bills. He's the one that you'll be primarily interacting with while your car is in the shop and is responsible for answering the questions you have. If he's reticent or not very helpful, that's a huge red flag.
- Talk to the mechanics: If possible, talk to the guys that will actually have their hands under the hood. Get a feel for their age and expertise. Some older mechanics will be whizzes at fixing classics but may not be as sharp when it comes to scanning the on-board diagnostics of this year's 5-Series. Also ask about how long they've been with the shop. A high turnover rate is very, very bad. If the shop's been there for more than a year but none of the mechanics have been there longer than six months, bail.
There's nothing a shop loves hearing more than "Do whatever's necessary." This is the goose that lays the golden crankshaft seal job, a licence to steal, and the four words that should never, ever exit your mouth in the presence of a mechanic. Instead, take control over what's being done to your car—and how much you're paying for it.
For each problem discovered with your car, have your shop generate a separate written estimate with the total cost of parts and labor—not parts and labor "plus fluids," the total cost. So, for instance, an A/C recharge on a '97 Ram 1500 may only be $75 parts and labor "plus refrigerant," but the extra two pounds of R-134A at $2.75 an ounce will run you an unforeseen $44. A thermostat replacement on a late model BMW is expensive enough with the $65 OEM thermo and a half hour of $120/hour labor, but could wind up costing another unexpected $35-50 when the mechanic tops off your fluids with BMW's uber-expensive, proprietary coolant blend.
Don't let them suddenly tack on more work than you came in for, either. Several states have consumer protection laws requires that a written, itemized estimate be issued to and signed by the customer for any service or repair beyond what was authorized when it was dropped off before that work can commence. Whether or not your state is one of them, get one. Don't sign it until you understand exactly what is being done and, more importantly, why. Have the service writer explain how the repairs he's suggesting will alleviate the symptoms you've brought it in with. The final bill will likely vary slightly from the number you were quoted, but it should never be more than 10 percent higher than what you were told.
If the shop is suggesting scheduled maintenance, which occurs at specific mileage and chronological increments as the car ages, check the scheduled maintenance services outlined your owner's manual against the itemized list you (should have) gotten from the shop. If the two don't match up, ask why. Scheduled maintenance is set by the manufacturer for each make and model and generally shouldn't be deviated from unless there's a good reason (i.e., there's no need to check a car's rotors at the 30,000 miles service if you'd brought it in the previous month four wheel brake job; the inspection would have been completed then.)
If you've been jumping around from mechanic to mechanic for a while, you'll do well to keep all of your service records and receipts—preferably in a waterproof envelope in your trunk. Seriously. Since you don't have a single shop tracking your vehicle's service history for you, you'll have to do it yourself. It is worth it.
By maintaining a solid service history, you'll be able to check these records when a new mechanic tells you that, say, your steering is shot while replacing a couple of brake lights and verify that a pair of tie rods were replaced recently. This doesn't imply that the new shop is run by crooks, mind you—the last shop could have bungled the installation, the replacement parts themselves could have been defective, or you could just drive like an ass and go through steering joints every half year—but even knowing that it was done will prevent you from blindly shelling out cash for unnecessary repairs.
On a related note, if something does go wrong with a recently replaced part, know your shop's warranty policy. Know how long and how many miles it lasts. Some shops will warranty a part for more than a year or 10,000 miles, others will offer brake-light warranties (the warranty ends when they can no longer see your car's brake lights). Also make sure you know if warranty repairs cover just the cost of the replacement part or if they include the associated labor as well.
It's tempting for unscrupulous shops to swindle uneducated customers because it's really, ludicrously, painfully easy. If a shop calls you up and says that the CEL is bouncing back a "code G7: inoperable bailiff, reading out of range" and that you need a $1500 TCP/IP sensor and fluid flush to fix it—and you pay for it—you deserve to get ripped off. Ask them to explain what any confusing words mean in a way that non-mechanics can understand. Don't get off the phone or sign any work order until you have a good grasp of what exactly being done to your car in plain English. Even then, tell the shop you'll think it over and get right back to them. Then, get a second opinion.
Call a couple of other reputable shops in the area and request a quick estimate for the same job. It doesn't need to be written but should discern part costs from labor. If your shop's price is significantly (25 percent or more) higher than what's being quoted, take that price to your mechanic and ask what's going on.
What's more, always request to see the broken parts when they're removed and have the mechanic show you where and how they broke. This will facilitate a better understand of how the giant rolling gadget you're driving actually works, and will help you keep it running smoothly for many more miles.
Any other tips? Let us know in the discussion below.