41 Autos: Car Repairs

Despite faithful maintenance, cars break down eventually. When it’s your turn to seek repairs, follow these strategies.

41.1  Ditch the Car

You don’t have to worry about repairs if you never own a car in the first place (see Chapter 44).

41.2  Perform Preventative Maintenance

Usually the cheapest way to limit repair costs (see Chapter 40).

41.3  Check for Warranties

Some warranties extend deep into a car’s life, including those for emission systems, power train components, and hybrid batteries. Don’t schedule repairs without first checking your car’s paperwork—you still might have coverage.

41.4  Avoid Dealers

Dealerships are pricey. Avoid them except in narrow situations:

  • Warranties. Warranty work is FREE, so schedule it with a dealership. Beware: having the work performed away from the dealer might render the warranty void.
  • Recalls. Recall work is also FREE. Schedule it with the dealership.
  • Specialized Repairs. Some repairs require complicated techniques that dealers can handle, but most shops can’t. One solution: contact a shop that specializes in your make of vehicle. It might have the know-how.
  • Special Offers. If a dealer issues coupons that undercut your local shop, by all means, hire the dealer. Just don’t hold your breath for this to happen.

41.5  Find a Good Repair Shop

Locate someone honest and competent before your car needs work.

   41.5.1  Ask Around
The best source of recommendations: those you know.

   41.5.2  Ask the Oracle
Read online recommendations at AngiesList.com, CarTalk.com, or AAA.com (over 7,700 AAA approved shops nationwide).

   41.5.3  Ask the BBB
The Better Business Bureau steers you clear of shops with high complaint volumes. Visit BBB.org.

   41.5.4  Look for ASE Certification
The National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (ASE) certifies technicians, not shops, so the sign outside doesn’t mean that the person who does the work is ASE certified. When you schedule repairs, ask for someone certified to do the specific work you need (e.g., brakes, A/C, or engine overhauls). For a list of shops with ASE technicians near you, visit ASE.com.

   41.5.5  Seek Warranties on Parts and Services
Mechanics should stand behind their work. AAA shops provide a 12 month/12,000 mile limited warranty on parts and labor.

   41.5.6  Test Drive a Mechanic
For starters, try basics like oil changes and tire rotations.

   41.5.7  Consider Specialty Chains
They often offer discounts that undercut generalist shops.

41.6  Participate in the Diagnosis

If you help diagnose your car’s troubles, you cut the risks of anyone taking advantage of you.

   41.6.1  Use Online Diagnostics
Several sites help interpret strange noises and shudders. Visit AutoMD.com or Car-Trouble.com.

   41.6.2  Ask an Online Mechanic
Experts answer questions for FREE. Visit JustAnswer.com/car/, FreeAutoMechanic.com, 2CarPros.com, and DriverSide.com.

   41.6.3  Visit Your Car’s Chat Room
Someone who owns your model probably has written about your problem, or, if you post a question, will respond in detail.

   41.6.4  Decode Engine Lights for FREE
Many chain stores—including AutoZone and Pep Boys—lend handheld units that decode “check engine” lights.

   41.6.5  Always Ask About Repair Options
Maybe there’s a way to fix your vehicle for less. It never hurts to ask and a short conversation often uncovers better choices.

41.7 Compare Before You Repair

Once you know what needs fixing, seek quotes.

   41.7.1  For Small Repairs, Check Online Cost Estimators
Find guidance about repair costs at RepairPal.com, DriverSide.com, AutoMD.com, RepairTrust.com, InstantEstimator.com (body work). Price parts at RockAuto.com.

   41.7.2  For Big Repairs, Get Written Estimates
Ask for hourly rates, estimated times for each stage of the repair, part charges, and extras such as environmental disposal fees.

   41.7.3  Know When to Replace Your Car
If the repairs cost more than your car is worth, it might be time to shop for a replacement. To assess your vehicle’s value, visit Kelly Blue Book (KBB.com) or Edmunds.com.

41.8  Use a Haggle Script

   41.8.1  “Can You Match These Online Estimates?”
Listed in 41.7.1, estimators make good negotiating tools.

   41.8.2  “Can You Beat These Other Bids?”
Create some competition among shops and lower your repair bill.

   41.8.3  “Can you Throw in a Tire Rotation and Oil Change?”
When you schedule major repairs, the shop might perform some minor maintenance for FREE.

   41.8.4  “My Car Isn’t Worth That Much. Can You Go Lower?”
If you own a clunker, a shop might give you a deal because you’re likely to need help again soon.

41.9  Consider Ultra Low Cost Strategies

If you can’t afford to hire a local repair shop, try a cheaper option.

   41.9.1  Contact Your Local Community College or Vo Tech
You need repairs. Students need experience. Instructors supervise.

   41.9.2  Procure Your Own Parts
With Appendix 1, you might be able to buy reliable name brand parts for less than your mechanic can. Ask upfront whether this approach is acceptable. To price parts on the internet, go to RockAuto.com. To price salvage parts, visit eBay Motors or Car-Part.com. One drawback with DIY procuring: mechanics don’t warrant parts they don’t supply.

   41.9.3  Barter or Trade Services
If you have a pickup equipped with a plow and the guy down the road runs a garage, ask whether you can work out a snow removal for rotor replacement deal. As always, beware the tax complications. See IRS Publication 525.

   41.9.4  DIY
If you like to tinker, it pays dividends on car repairs. Then you become the one who exchanges rotor work for snow removal.

41.10  Avoid Pitfalls

The best way to avoid rip-offs is to find a shop with an established reputation for honesty and fair dealing. If you’re still paranoid about scams, consider these common rip-offs and the tactics to avoid them.

   41.10.1  Make Sure Parts Are Replaced
The scam: you’re charged for parts that are never installed. The fix: before the repair, place an inconspicuous scratch or mark on the items that face replacement. When you pick the car up, ask to see the removed parts and look for your mark.

   41.10.2  Make Sure Work Gets Performed
The scam: you’re charged for work, but it’s never performed. The fix: stay at the shop and watch over the repairs.

   41.10.3  Prevent Unnecessary Work
The scam: you’re told some expensive work is necessary, which in fact isn’t true. The fix: (1) participate actively in the diagnostics (see 41.6); (2) get a second opinion from another shop; or (3) take your car to a diagnostic-only shop that doesn’t do repairs, and thus has no incentive to deceive.

   41.10.4  Avoid Overcharges
The scam: you’re told the brake job costs $500, which is twice the going rate. The fix: before work begins (1) check internet repair cost databases (RepairPal.com, InstantEstimator.com, RepairTrust.com); and (2) obtain estimates from other shops.

   41.10.5  Sidestep Oversells and Upsells
This is more about aggressive salesmanship than an outright scam: you go in for an oil change, and the shop recommends an “upscale” oil or new air filter. The fix: politely decline the upgrade and stick to the schedules in your owner’s manual. If the shop suggests repairs that weren’t discussed upfront, seek a second opinion.

   41.10.6  Decline Cheap Parts
This isn’t a scam either, but neither is it a good idea. For most repairs, the biggest cost component is labor. So don’t skimp on parts. Instead, insist on brand names, especially when it comes to brakes, where a knockoff’s failure to perform can be catastrophic.

   41.10.7  Prevent Theft
The scam: outright theft of personal items. The fix: remove all valuables before you drop off the car.

41.11  Follow Up

   41.11.1  Keep All Repair Records
This paperwork helps if you resell the car, if a friend faces a similar repair, or if any disputes arise.

   41.11.2  Agree to Form of Payment
Discuss whether discounts are available for payments in cash. If not, pay with plastic and reap the rewards (but only if you pay the cards off every month).

   41.11.3  In Case of Disputes, Contact the AAA
If you’re an AAA member and have any disagreement with an AAA-approved shop, ask the local office to serve as a referee.

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