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11 Tips For An Accurate Vehicle Repair Estimate.

My car knows when I get paid. Like clockwork it demands a new repair with every paycheck. As a result, I’ve had to gather estimates for such big jobs as replacing the timing belt, repairing all four brakes (including replacing pads, shoes and rotor).

Much to my chagrin, I learned that although a timing belt costs just $55, estimates for replacement ran as high as $850. Why so much? Because two out of three shops recommend also replace the water pump, front engine seals, drive belt, idlers and tensioners.

Likewise with the brakes. One quickie brake shop said I had to replace pads, shoes and rotors on all four brakes. A visit to CarTalk.com revealed they may have been trying to take me for a ride.

1. Get Recommendations

The best referrals usually come from family and friends who have had positive experiences with a repair facility. Ask the mechanic for references and follow through. There are several places you can check online, including your local Better Business Bureau and (my favorite) NPR’s Car Talk “Mechanic Files,” which includes customer reviews by city and state.

2. Get It In Writing

If repair work will run over $100, make sure you get a written price estimate. Deal face-to-face with the facility, not over the phone. Research prices on Internet auto-repair database to make sure you’re not being overcharged. Once you receive an estimate, the repair shop legally can’t charge you more than 10 percent above the estimated costs without your prior approval.

3. Estimates Should Include

* Vehicle Information: Including year, make, model, mileage, etc.
* Car Parts: Including description, quantity and price. This portion of the estimate also should detail whether replacement parts will be new, used or rebuilt (see #4).
* Labor: Work is usually charged in 15-minute increments. Ask about the estimated speed for each shop. You don’t want to end up paying more because of the shop’s slow repair speed.
* A Clear Explanation: Many work descriptions are poorly written and difficult for the layman to understand. According to the Car Guys, A clearly written estimate should read something like, “Performed 30,000 mile tune-up in accordance with manufacturer’s specifications. Changed oil, oil filter and air filter. Installed new cabin filter and performed all necessary checks, controls and procedures, including road test (miles 30,123 – 30,125). Performed lubrication services and confirmed proper operation of the vehicle. Set tire pressure and checked fluids, belts and hoses. Note: car pulls slightly to the left. Needs Alignment.”
* Summary of Charges: This is the total cost for all labor and parts. Check the math to make sure it’s accurate.

4. Parts

Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) parts usually are the most expensive as they’re designed for your specific vehicle. Aftermarket parts are manufactured by a third party for use in a variety of vehicles and usually are less expensive. If you’re vehicle is an older make, used or rebuilt parts are even cheaper and could last the remaining life of the car without trouble. Just make sure you won’t experience bigger problems down the road with the cheaper options.

5. Miscellaneous Charges

These costs may include but are not limited to shop supplies, including chemicals, rags, hazardous-waste disposal, waste oil, etc.

6. Flat Fees

Flat Fees are services not broken down into parts, tax and labor, making it difficult to compare prices. While most flat fees are competitively priced, mechanics also might use flat fees as an opportunity for “menu selling.” In other words, a tune up might be listed at $100 or a transmission flush at $90. Ask what is involved for each item and confirm the shop will actually provide the service based on the car manufacturer recommendation.

7. Warranty & Recall Coverage

Ask if the repair might be covered by an existing warranty or recall and, if the repair shop won’t honor these terms, shop around or go directly to the dealer. You’ll still want to get a written estimate for any costs not covered. When having recall work performed, make sure you won’t be charged if the recommended remedy doesn’t work. Ask in advance if there is a diagnostic charge for which you’re responsible.

8. Avoid Open-ended Questions

Ask some shops, “Do I need a tune up?” or “Do I need a new starter?” and the answer will always be yes. Such questions imply you don’t know your car and may be open invitations for unscrupulous mechanics to recommend unneeded services. Check the vehicle manual for the manufacturer’s recommended schedule of tune-ups, oil changes, tire rotations, etc.

9. Is it Necessary?

Is the recommended repair really necessary or could it be postponed? Some fixes are necessary for safety reasons or to prevent future problems. If your car may well go to the scrap heap before the repair truly is necessary, then why throw away the money? When in doubt, follow this list of priorities: Engine and suspension work first; tires second; extras like stereo and air conditioning next; and appearance (minor dents and dings) last.

10. Don’t Be Forced

Even if you had your vehicle towed to one shop after it died, make sure you get an itemized estimate from a second shop. You may find another mechanic offers a better price and will tow your car to the second shop for free.

11. Know Before You Leave

Make sure you understand exactly what work will be performed on your car before you leave it at the shop. Never provide carte blanche to do any work they find necessary; you might as well hand some mechanics a blank check. Provide the shop with your contact information and ask them to call you if they run into any problems not listed in the estimate.


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Comments (21)

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  1. PA Mom says:

    Regarding #8:
    8. Avoid Open-ended Questions
    Ask some shops, “Do I need a tune up?” or “Do I need a new starter?” and the answer will always be yes.

    =====================

    That is definitely NOT the case if you have a good, trustworthy mechanic. Our guy at the local STS will tell us what HAS to be done now, what will probably need to be done soon (this is getting worn, so keep an eye on it), what can wait awhile (heads up, this maintenance will be due at xx miles).

    We very often walk out of there with $100 or less in repair/maintenance bills and our cars are far from new.

    FYI to anyone who owns a Toyota Corolla (ours is a 1996 and still going strong), after market brake pads don’t work well (noisy). We’ve had to go with manufacturer parts for those.

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  3. Finding a couple of honest mechanics is the key. A lot easier said than done.

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  8. Wow That is way more than I ever think about. Every time I have to get my vehicle repaired, I just kind bite the bullet. I know it’s going to cost me and arm and a leg before I even go into the shop. We have “a guy” at our local shop, who “takes care of us”, but still, it’s SO expensive…

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  10. Ted says:

    We have an awesome, honest, great mechanic. We have found that every time they fix it for a good price. And, since we keep going, they remember us, we also have had our car checked over for free a few times. When we bought a car- they gave it a good once over for free. Now, I just drop it off and say, call me when you figure out whats wrong or its done. It makes fixing the car smooth and easy.

  11. The face to face thing is a key.

    You can really get screwed by supposed mis-communications over the phone, and these conversations are rarely recorded.

    This is the voice of experience, by the way.

    Pep Boys really took me for a ride recently.

    It was an expensive lesson learned.

  12. David says:

    Yea, they really took you for a ride alright. It’s enough to make me want to always avoid them!

  13. David says:

    That is the key, and in 20 years of owning cars I only ever had 1 I trusted. That’s sad!

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