1. You might be in the wrong garage.
There are many choices as to where consumers can take their car when it s in need of maintenance or repair. Those include going to the car dealer, a department or chain-store franchise, or an independent mechanic at a service station. Where you should go depends on what type of repair your car needs and its age and condition. But in most cases, mechanics in each type of repair shop may try to convince you that they re the best ones for the job.
Work under factory warranty should go to the dealer, says Mark Eskeldson, founder of CarInfo.com, which provides consumer-protection advice to car buyers and owners. That s where you ll find some of the best-trained mechanics who are trained to fix problems that pop up with new car models, he says.
But because dealer overhead is high, expect to pay top dollar for repairs not covered under your warranty.
Before leaving your car at an independent mechanic s shop, find out if the mechanics are certified and if they re getting training (e.g., at a community college) for repairs on new car models. Because most owners of new car models take them to the dealer for repair, it s likely that an independent car shop will be more experienced in repairing older cars, he says. Because independents don t have the high volume of a chain shop, they may be easier to establish a relationship with.
Chain and department-store shops often advertise free services for routine services like oil changes or tune-ups, but beware if their mechanic insists that your car needs major repairs after he inspects it. Get a second opinion to confirm it isn t a ploy to get you to spend more money, he says.
2. My fancy certificates might not mean very much.
The National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (ASE) certifies auto technicians (or mechanics) in eight specialties, including brakes, electrical systems, engines, and heating and air-conditioning. They also provide credentials for diagnostic and emission technicians. Although auto mechanics must have two years of hands-on work experience and pass an extensive standardized exam to become certified, an ASE sticker in your repair shop s window is no guarantee that the work will be done properly or that all of the technicians employed are ASE certified, says Tony Molla, a spokesman for ASE.
Most repair shops hire both certified and uncertified mechanics. And only 33% of ASE mechanics are certified in all eight specialties and earn master technician status. Be sure to ask who is going to do the work on your car and what areas that person is certified in. Also check to see when the certification expires. ASE-certified mechanics are supposed to recertify every five years.
In addition, look for repair shops that are endorsed by AAA with work being guaranteed for a minimum of 12 months or 12,000 miles. These facilities must meet rigorous standards and guarantee their work for all customers, says Robert Sinclair, a spokesman for AAA New York. Also, AAA agrees to arbitrate disputes between its members and approved repair shops.
3. I make unnecessary repairs.
You drop off your car at a mechanic s shop for routine maintenance or a repair only to find out that the mechanic made additional repairs that you didn t request but that he deemed necessary.
Recommendations for unnecessary maintenance are a common complaint among consumers, says Sherry Mehl, the chief of the Bureau of Automotive Repair (BAR) in California. (The bureau works to protect consumers within the automotive repair marketplace.) For instance, shops can suggest flushing a radiator or fluids, which can harm some cars, she says. (Car owners manuals specify if flushing will help.)
Consumer complaints about auto parts and repairs are on the rise, according to the Federal Trade Commission. For 2009, the FTC has 2,689 complaints, up from 2,438 in 2008 and 1,698 in 2007. It was dishonest practices that cost Santa Ana-based EZ Lube $5 million in a civil settlement for unfair business practices in December 2007. An investigation by the Orange County district attorney s office uncovered a pattern of unfair and deceptive business practices at several EZ Lube locations where consumers were being sold unneeded parts and services, according to the DA s statement. As part of the settlement, EZ Lube agreed to pay restitution to anyone with a legitimate claim over the past five years. (When reached for comment, a spokesperson for EZ Lube referred us to a company s press release on the matter, which reads: It is our goal to make sure all of our customers are protected by the highest safeguards in the industry when they bring their vehicle to one of our stores. )
Most unnecessary repairs are due to the fact that cars are so incredibly complex that often a shop ends up trying a few things in order to solve the problem, says Jack Gillis, author of "The Car Book" and director of public affairs for the Consumer Federation of America, a consumer-advocacy organization. When a repair baffles a mediocre mechanic, he or she will probably keep replacing suspect parts until the problem is finally solved. Many of the parts replaced may have nothing to do with the problem, but you ll probably end up paying for them anyway, he says.
4. You might be charged for work that hasn t been done.
It happens on purpose. It happens by mistake. Either way, it happens. Let s say you drop your car off at the garage to have the fluids, belts and filters replaced. But the garage is busy, the mechanic who works on your car is a new hire, and the station manager hasn t left very clear instructions. As a result, the belts never get replaced, but you drive away thinking you ve got brand-new ones. When Gillis worked at the Department of Transportation in the 1980s, he says it was one of the most common complaints, and that it remains so today.
A good way to avoid the problem of work that was supposed to have been done but wasn t: Ask to see the old parts. In some cases, mechanics can give you the parts they ve removed from your car. (One exception is if the warranty requires they be sent back to the manufacturer.) If you have a concern that a part was replaced when it shouldn t have been, you should ask for it back, says Mehl. (Rules vary by state; in California, for example, mechanics can give parts to customers.) California residents can contact BAR, and it ll send a representative to examine the customer s invoice and the part. If it s not faulty, we can take disciplinary action, she says.
In addition, Gillis suggests taping to your steering wheel an itemized list of all the repairs you want made. That way the mechanic who works on it in most cases not the person you talked to when you drove in will have direct instructions from you.
5. You should get a second opinion.
Getting a second opinion is a must for major repairs, since it s a competitive business and prices can be all over the map. You may have to pay a few dollars more for an extra estimate, but the hundreds you could potentially save by shopping carefully will more than make up for it.
When exactly is it time to seek out a second opinion? A general rule of thumb is that you should get more than one mechanic s take on a repair if you expect to pay more than $200 for it, says Gillis. If your mechanic calls in the middle of a job with a laundry list of additional repairs, that s also a good time to seek another opinion of the problem and an estimate for the cost of fixing it. Beware of the mechanic who tries to stop you by saying that he s already taken apart the engine or the transmission. If you were able to drive the car into the shop, you should be able to drive it back out for a second opinion.
6. Rebuilt parts can be as good as new and less expensive.
When it comes time to replace a part on your car, you can save money by buying it used. But often you must specify that you want a remanufactured part or the mechanic will likely install an expensive new one.
However, recycled parts aren t right for every replacement. Customers may save some money, but buying a recycled part isn t so simple, says Chuck Sulkala, executive director of the National Auto Body Council and owner of a Boston-based car body shop. You need to make sure it provides exactly what you re looking for and what you need. For example, a customer who needs to replace a car s fender and gets a salvaged one could find that its moldings or side lights are different, he says, even if the fender comes from the same car model that s just two or three years older. Sulkala says: You can use it, but what good is the molding going to do if it s in the wrong location?
7. Your car is too high-tech for me.
Cars have become incredibly sophisticated over the past 10 years, but some mechanics haven t caught up. Car dealers are required by most manufacturers to buy the expensive diagnostic equipment needed to pinpoint the source of computer problems. That means their technicians are more likely to be factory-trained in these complicated repairs.
Still, not all mechanics are properly trained in the computerized systems found in most cars today, says Gillis. That could be because independent car mechanics have to bear most of the costs when upgrading their technology. Independent car technicians must make the same investment in sophisticated diagnostic equipment if they expect to be able to diagnose and repair these complex cars, says Molla.
If you drive an expensive European car, consider checking out specialty shops that focus on one or two foreign makes. Mechanics at these outfits are often as well or better trained than those at the dealer and they usually charge less. Meanwhile, most Japanese and Korean models are serviceable by independent repair shops, says Molla.
8. I may send your car somewhere else for repairs which will cost you.
Let s say you re taking your car in for several repairs at once replacing the battery and headlamps, changing the oil, and repairing the fuel-injection system. Some independent shop may not have the facilities or expertise to do them all in-house, and if so, it may pay another shop to do all or part of the work. This kind of auto-repair outsourcing can add significantly to the final price tag on the job, since your mechanic will have to charge a premium for the work he subbed out.
When you take your car in for repairs, ask if all the work will be done on-site before you agree to anything. If your mechanic tells you he needs to subcontract some of it, tell him not to do those repairs and take the car yourself to a shop that can handle the rest of the job.
9. The less you know about your warranty, the happier I am.
Confusion about your warranty is good for a repair shop. After all, it s not in an independent mechanic s best interest to tell you when a repair is under warranty because if he s mum, he can charge you for it. Dealerships, meanwhile, make little money on warranty repairs, so they look to get as much non-warranty work as possible.
The way dealership warranties often work is that if you get the car repaired somewhere else and something goes wrong as a result of that repair, the cost of fixing the problem will no longer be covered by the warranty. So say you get an oil change at a quick-service franchise shop and the mechanic does something wrong that eventually damages your engine; the dealer doesn t have to honor your warranty when your engine is finally repaired, says Gillis. But some dealers like to take it a step further by making it seem as if you have to bring your car to them for all repairs or risk losing your warranty protection.
Don t fall for it. Taking routine work such as oil changes, tire rotations, and even your 10,000-mile checkups to the less-expensive chains won t jeopardize your warranty in most cases. Nor will emergency repairs that would normally be covered under the warranty. Just be sure to keep all your receipts, says Gillis. That way, if the dealer tries to claim you have an engine problem because you failed to get an oil change, for example, you can prove otherwise.
10. You have more power here than you think.
If you feel you ve been wronged by an auto mechanic, you can take action. File a complaint with your state s Better Business Bureau and the attorney general s office. This will help unsuspecting consumers who check on the reputations of potential car mechanics to avoid shoddy repairmen.
In some states, you have even more recourse; in California, BAR will attempt to resolve each complaint it receives. To check if your state has a similar agency, contact your state highway department. Finally, if your auto-repair garage is endorsed by the AAA, contact the organization. If your complaint is egregious enough, or joined by others, the outfit may lose the AAA s seal of approval. This is an exceedingly rare event, says Sinclair. Shops work hard to obtain and retain their AAA certification and would bend over backwards to correct any problems that may lead to a loss of AAA s seal of approval .