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.
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.