Don’t Let Costly Auto Repair Estimates Get You Down

by Silicon Valley Blogger on 2010-10-2816

There’s nothing more intimidating (and frustrating) for a woman than being treated as if we aren’t smart enough. Unfortunately, some of this thinking prevails, particularly in male dominated settings.

How many of us feel truly confident with a visit to the mechanic? Do you really know what they’re doing under the hood? Are there things you can do to keep yourself from being ripped of when you take your car in for service?

I pride myself on being a highly intelligent, rational-thinking human being who can tell the difference between a legitimate problem and a snow job in most cases. However, over the years I have become increasingly wary of unscrupulous mechanics and the likelihood that I will eventually fall prey (or have already) to schemes geared towards separating me from my hard-earned money as quickly as possible. Of course, this may come across to some of you as paranoid behavior, but I firmly believe that the best way to protect yourself from auto repair fraud and deception is to simply put yourself in “the know”.

Costly Auto Repair Estimates

Tips for Avoiding Pricey Auto Repair Estimates and Costs

1. Get to know your car and its needs.
How many women out there know the process involved for changing the oil in a car? Almost all of us know that it has to be done every 3,000 to 5,000 miles — whether or not the little sticker is up in the right-hand corner of your windshield.

But, did you know that there are different types of oil out there? There’s conventional oil, which has to be changed every few thousand miles, and then there are synthetic blends and full synthetic oils, which are WAY more expensive, and in most cases, unnecessary for your everyday driver to use.

Did you know that there really isn’t much difference between using a store brand oil filter and a name brand one (other than price)? And how about add-on auto repair services like fluid checks, air filter replacements, etc.? Unfortunately, not all car owners have this type of information down pat (well, including me). Most of us don’t pay that much attention to this kind of stuff, but when you stop to think that there could be as much as a $20 to $30 difference in the price of your auto service, it might actually be beneficial to start learning the ropes. Knowing how much it costs to own your car would be a start.

Some useful online resources for those interested in auto care or maintenance:

2. Have the right attitude.

Auto Mechanic

As with most things in life, a good attitude at the car shop will take you far, while a bad attitude could land you a huge auto repair bill. If you’re shy and offer little resistance to suggestions and “recommendations” being made by your auto mechanic, you can almost bank on paying more for your auto repair costs than you bargained for. On the flip side, being too aggressive or arrogant will also cost you. The ideal demeanor is cool, calm, friendly, and confident. This will send a message to your auto mechanic that you trust him to do what needs to be done, but you will catch him the instant he tries to pull the wool over your eyes.

3. Review a mechanic’s work order carefully.
One of the most important things that you can do to dodge an outrageous auto repair bill is to avoid signing a blank work order. One favorite money-making technique used by several garages I’ve visited entails giving the customer a verbal estimate for auto repairs and having them sign a blank work order. This gives the mechanic the ability to add anything they want to the repair bill, which by the way, has to be paid in full before the garage will release your car. Legally, the mechanic has the right to place a lien on your car in order to secure the money for the auto repairs. If you fail to meet your obligation, he gets to keep and/or sell your car to recoup his money. I actually had this happen to me after taking my husband’s boat in for repair. The original “verbal” quote was for $1,800. I ended up paying $3,950 to get the boat back. I didn’t authorize any of the extra charges; however, they all showed up on the blank work order I had signed earlier in the week. Don’t you think that a blank work order is pretty much like handing a blank check over to the service provider?

4. Use your credit card as a buffer for your payments.
Finally, if learning a little bit about car maintenance and service is a little intimidating to you, then take someone along with you to the garage who knows a thing or two about cars and who can sniff out an auto repair scam as it’s being hatched. And use a gas credit card or cash back credit card whenever possible to pay for auto repairs. This ensures that you’ll get your car back, gives you an out (through the chargeback process) in the event that things aren’t on the up and up, and earns you money on purchases that you can use towards pricey auto repairs. And if your car is on its last…ahem…tires, the Internet has some incredible car buying websites where you can research your new (or used) car online!

Copyright © 2010 The Digerati Life. All Rights Reserved.

{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

Holly October 29, 2010 at 2:12 am

I have a good auto place that does NOT B.S. me. However, I recently had an ‘issue’ with having my gutters replaced.

The installer’s first words to me were, “You know if we need to replace any of the underlying wood it will cost more.”

My response was, “yes, I understand BUT all wood replaced MUST be given to me so I can have my carpenter check it out.”

RESULT: No wood needed to be replaced.

They also DEMANDED to be paid $50 in cash for cutting off a dead obstructing tree limb. I told them I do NOT keep that much cash on hand. Guess they had ‘plans’ for some after work goodies; on MY dime.

Bargain Babe October 29, 2010 at 9:39 am

I was recently in the same situation: my car needed major repairs and I wasn’t sure how to find a good mechanic. I started at the dealer, where I had had oil changes and occasional tune ups. They gave me a written estimate for six repairs that my MINI needed and answered my questions about what each repair entailed and why it was needed. The estimate came to $4,500 – half of what my car was worth at the time!!!

I paid them $82 for the mechanics review and drove home. I was lucky enough to have reader recommendations for two reliable MINI mechanics in my area. I got verbal estimates over the phone from each for all six repairs. I compared prices and schedules and made my choice.

But before I turned over my car, I got a written estimate with prices for each repair. They matched what the mechanic had given me over the phone. I dealt directly with the owner, who, despite the reputation mechanics have, seemed honest and upfront. I picked my car up a few days later and could feel the difference. It has been driving wonderfully ever since.

Thanks to those reader suggestions and about 45 minutes of pre-drop off phone calls, I saved $3,100!

Silicon Valley Blogger October 29, 2010 at 9:47 am

@Holly & Bargain Babe,
Thanks for your stories! It’s interesting how while many of us do a great job finding the best prices for the things we normally buy, we don’t nearly spend as much time shopping for good service providers. The fact is — this is where the big savings could be made! There is so much variability with the pricing across different agents that the discrepancies can be pretty incredible sometimes. Especially when we’re not talking about a $50 savings here, but instead, thousands of dollars in savings.

Unfortunately, a lot of customers tend to “trust” someone who comes across as the expert on something and we take their word for it. But if we are to save money, this is one major area where we have a lot of room to work with! (ex. plumbers, roofers, cleaners, painters, mechanics, etc.)

Kosmo @ The Soap Boxers October 29, 2010 at 11:34 am

Don’t be afraid to ask a friend if a repair seems reasonable. I happen to work in an office with some guys who know a ton about cars (I know enough to get by, but not a whole – I could change oil and filter myself if I really wanted to) … but the odds are that you know at least one person with enough knowledge to detect the more obvious BS.

I’ve had good luck with two local Goodyears (as with any change, your experience may be different). In both places, I have seen them actively talk people out of repairs, when the person got into (are you sure X doesn’t need to be replaced). One of them refused money from an elderly woman one time (I’m assuming whatever they did wasn’t particularly time consuming, but still, free service?).

Recently, our 98 Contour had some (more) emissions problem. They mentioned that fixing one particular part may or may not fix the problem. Well, when I left, the check engine light was still one. I scheduled an appointment with the trusted shop the next day to have the other (more expensive) part replaced.

The next day, after 5 minutes, they told me the car was ready (it was supposed to take more than an hour). The mechanic sheepishly admitted that he hadn’t attached things perfectly tight the day before – and this was causing the check engine light to remain on after that repair.

They easily could have just replaced the part and charged me. I was expecting them to do exactly that – but their ethics trumped their desire for profits.

I’ve noticed a disproportionately high number of minorities frequently the place. My city isn’t exactly lily white, but it’s not exactly a melting pot either, so the diversity of clientele at this place is fairly obvious. My suspicion is that they’ve gained a reputation for not discriminating against people.

And they’ll draw pictures to illustrate a problem, talk to people’s dads on ocassion (in cases where someone admittedly has no clue what they are talking about and want someone with more knowlege to participate in the discussion). Just a good place to go.

Chris October 29, 2010 at 4:30 pm

While synthetic oil is more expensive it’s not good to say it’s not what normal drivers need. Considering most synthetic oils can stretch oil changes out to 12-15,000 miles (even for heavier driving) your cost per oil change might actually DECREASE. They also typically have even better cleaning and wear properties so possibly (I’m not an oil engineer here so YMMV) increase the life of the engine.

Many new cars are also coming with synthetic oils, or blends, which have significantly longer change distances than 3-5k miles. CHECK YOUR MANUAL. Very few new cars spec 3-5k miles and most older cars can fairly easily get at least 5-6k on a normal oil.

GK Wallace October 29, 2010 at 11:44 pm

Great advice! And not just for women, either. Although a lot of us “guys” think we know what’s going on “under the hood”, with today’s technology, on board computers, etc. most of us are close to clueless, but ” hesitate” to admit it. The old “macho” thing, I guess. Know your auto, check the work order, use your credit card, and know your consumer rights, plus….don’t be reticent to complain to the proper people….assertively…and consistently. Thanks for a great post!

integrative remedy October 30, 2010 at 5:25 am

Thanks for the tips and warnings! Nice post and informative.

Kosmo @ The Soap Boxers October 30, 2010 at 8:48 am

Some auto parts stores will also check the code that is causing a “check engine” light to come on. I’ve had this done for free at Auto Zone, and I suspect that their competitors do the same thing. It just take a few minutes.

Consumermiser October 30, 2010 at 11:13 am

Great tips for dealing with car repairs. I definitely recommend getting a second opinion (or third) or shopping around when facing large repairs. Someone told me of a repair shop owner he knew well who would make repairs (or not) because he needed to feed his family. He would get the unsuspecting customer’s car running— he made money and rationalized that his customer was happy just to have his/her car back. This affirmed what I concluded about car repair places all along–if they can take advantage of you, they will, regardless of how unethical this is. By the way, I have a similar view of doctors (and dentists) despite the oath they take. So you should use a similar rigor in choosing your doctor and whether major procedures are really necessary.

@ Bargain Barbie. I like you strategy and congrats on the savings!
@ Chris. I agree that many cars do not need an oil change every 3000 miles.

Mrs. Accountability October 30, 2010 at 6:59 pm is a good place to check if you know what is wrong and what needs to be repaired. The site allows you to put in your zip code and your car model and year and returns an idea of what you can expect to pay. So you can at least get an idea if your mechanic is charging appropriately. My husband does a lot of our auto repairs but sometimes he uses a professional because it will take him longer to do the job since he doesn’t do it all the time, and his time is better spent working on his own business. Great tips in this post.

Squirrelers October 30, 2010 at 8:20 pm

It’s best to be prepared, no doubt. I suggest doing extra reading, research, and questioning of those who know. Ultimately, it just takes time before one gets a better sense of what is a must-replace vs what’s a nice-to replace issue. This does go for both men and women – as a guy, I agree with GK Wallace’s comment above.

Stella November 1, 2010 at 3:45 pm

As Holly mentions, it’s so worth it to establish a relationship with an honest mechanic. The place I go for oil changes costs a bit more than those Jiffy Lube type places, but I really trust this guy. I had him try to repair a leak which required me to bring the car in, have him fix a gasket or seal and clean up the frame and then bring it back again in a week or two. He must have tweaked things almost half a dozen trips until he told me that any further repairs wouldn’t be worth my while given the value of my car. Total cost = $60. Yup, only $60.

He also went above and beyond when I needed to pass the emissions test–even having one of his employees take my car to another repair shop to get the necessary part replaced and then shuttling it to another place for the smog re-test while I was at work. Total charge for his chauffeur services? $0.

I referred a co-worker of mine to him and she took her car in for an oil change and told him it was making a funny noise. He adjusted her car mats and voila! Noise disappeared. Many mechanics would have used a customer reporting a funny noise as carte blanche to unnecessarily fix stuff that didn’t need fixing.

James Presta November 2, 2010 at 9:03 am

Great information and article.

Dave@50plusfinance February 2, 2011 at 6:19 pm

It’s so hard to find reliable people to do any work. I am in the construction business and can count on one hand a l the reputable contractors I know.

Alex February 26, 2011 at 9:33 pm

So many great points! I love the idea that signing a blank work order is like signing a blank check. That’s exactly what it is. The repair order is a legal binding contract, and the shop can hold a mechanic lien on your vehicle. As you highlighted in the post, one of the most important things you can do is to educate yourself about your car and any repair you are presented with.

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