Back the Truck Up: How to Avoid Car Repair Rip-Offs

By Tisha Tolar on 7 December 2010 (Updated 3 February 2011) 3 comments
Photo: sjlocke

The colder temperatures and inclement weather may signal the need for a checkup at the mechanic shop. Auto repair shops are infamous for overcharging customers who don’t know any better and only want their vehicles to operate reliably and safely. (See also: Safety Tips for Holiday Driving.)

While not all shops deserve a bad reputation, there are quite a few with a history of taking people for more money than necessary. Just recently, my 2004 Kia acquired a hole in the exhaust system. The noise coming from the car resembled a loud motorcycle, and I was embarrassed every time I turned on the ignition. We finally had to break down and visit the repair shop for an estimate. We were told after a brief "look-see-listen" that the part alone would be close to $1,000 and with labor, we may face a bill of $1,300 or more. We made a scheduled appointment to bring the car back, and in the meantime consulted with a mechanic friend. He told us he thought he could repair the part rather than replace it, and eventually we only had to pay a total of $124 for the weld job. Thank goodness we had someone on our side.

While not every mechanic is out to intentionally swindle a customer, there are still some precautionary measures one should take when dealing with auto repair companies in order to save money. Here are some tips to prevent being overcharged, underserviced, and scared into services you don’t even need.

Find Reputable Shops

You want to select a mechanic shop that is licensed in the state and certified by the ASE or AAA. Get referrals from friends and family too.

Check It Out

When you get to the shop, check out the condition of the equipment in the garage, and how the garage looks in general. An outdated, unkempt garage may be a red flag for the competency and expectations of the shop. If you come across a shop owner who says he doesn't need the latest equipment to get the job done, you might want to consider finding someone else to do the work.

Refuse to Sign Blank Documents

For any type of work you plan on having done, make sure you only sign off on work orders that have specific job instructions and price estimates. Any work outside the scope of the original order should have to go through you first. Never sign any forms that are blank or that don’t contain pertinent information.

Don’t Fall for Dramatics

If you are told by the mechanic that essentially your car is on its last leg when you are pretty sure the problem is only minor, you should reconsider your choice in mechanics. If you are not mechanically savvy, find a friend who can accompany you to the appointment to make it less likely you’ll get suckered into paying for services your vehicle doesn’t need. Some unprofessional individuals will use scare tactics and "family safety" points to hook you for more services and money.

For Big Jobs, Consult with the Dealer

If you find that something major is wrong with your vehicle such as the emission system, it is a good idea to check back at the place you purchased the vehicle to find out about the warranty. Some parts of vehicles' major systems are covered by long warranties, and in some cases, part replacement is required by law to be free.

Get a Second Opinion

After you have received a rough idea of how much it will cost to get your vehicle fully operational, it never hurts to get a second opinion. If you do seek another’s advice, make sure to keep your lips zipped about your previous estimates and work order. You never want to influence your back-up opinion provider.

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Guest

If there's a job I need a repair shop to do, I also prefer to buy the parts myself from somewhere like Auto Zone and bring the parts to the repair shop. I save a lot of money by doing that since I bypass their markups.

Guest's picture

I thought about doing this. I need an oxygen sensor replaced, and found the part $75 cheaper online. Do most shops make some money on the parts as well? Will they charge more for labor to make up for that lost income?

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vickie

In most cases, you void the shops labor warranty by buying your own parts. This is not a scam by the shop to make more money. The suppliers they buy parts from will reimburse the shop for labor cost from a defective part they supplied, but only if it was bought by the shop and not by the customer. If you bought the part yourself and it is defective, you will have to pay the shop labor again to replace it. If the shop bought it, you're only out time.
Also, a reputable shop does not just "mark up" the parts. They sell them at suggested retail. When you find it cheaper yourself, it doesn't mean they are trying to scam you. It may not be the same brand and you may be skimping on quality. Before jumping on a cheaper part, talk to the shop about what you have found.
They can explain the differences in aftermarket brands and what should be used on your car. If it's a matter of affordability, they can go with a cheaper part, and you still keep your warranty. If they are not willing to discuss it, find another shop.