What’s a car owner to do when his trusted auto mechanic leaves the business to run a funeral home? Such was the unlikely scenario I found myself facing a few years ago. I had been seeing the same mechanic almost since I bought my first car in 1992. But as strange as it may sound, the guy also owned a funeral parlor a few miles to the west of town. And at a certain point, he decided that the dead people biz was better than the dead car biz.
Good for him. But very, very bad for me.
You see, this was the Honest Abe of mechanics, a guy who really took the time to find out what was going on with my car and then made only the requisite repairs — at least as far as I could tell. There were no attempts at upselling me. There were no delays in getting the car back. But there was always smart, free advice: I’ll never forget how he talked me out of buying a used car with an old-school carriage roof because he sensed it might make me the laughingstock of my street. (He was right, my buddies down the block later concurred.)
But with Honest Abe out of the picture, it’s been one horror story after another. There was the dealership that hit me with countless surprise “materials” and “miscellaneous” fees. There was the dealership that pushed an unneeded $200 maintenance item (I had already gotten the same work done a year earlier at a different place). And there was the independent mechanic who charged me for a nice new set of Michelin tires, only to slap a no-name brand on the car in their place.
I’m probably not alone in my frustration. The auto repair industry — dealerships and independent mechanics alike — is a $135 billion behemoth, and the independent side alone has been growing at a respectable 3.2% annual clip in recent years, according to market researcher IBISWorld. The industry is probably being bolstered by the advancing age of the average vehicle on the road: In 2013, it was 11.4 years, according to R.L. Polk & Co., another research firm; in 1995, it was 8.4 years. The rough winter has also potentially added to the industry’s bottom line, since many costly repairs are weather-related.
And yet, Americans don’t appear to be all that happy with the quality — or pricing — of the repair work they’re getting done. In fact, a 2012 Consumer Reports survey found that 27% reported gripes with their mechanic — meaning about one out of every four customers is walking away dissatisfied. It’s hard to think of another industry with such a bad reputation.
Inveterate cheapskate that I am, I’ve learned a few things over the years about how to get repair work done for less (and done right, I should add). And I recently spoke to several industry insiders and experts about what car owners should know about the repair business in general. Short of convincing my old mechanic to get back into the game, I plan to keep these points in mind when I go in for my next oil change.
Looking for a Reputable Mechanic? Begin by Asking (or Searching Online)
At the risk of stating the obvious, if you don’t know a good mechanic, one of your friends, colleagues or relatives probably does. The proof: When I mentioned I was writing this piece, my boss chimed in with a suggestion of his favorite local repair shop. But even if you can’t get a recommendation, Yelp can help — and I have to kick myself for not reading in advance the reviews for a ridiculously overpriced place where I once brought my car. (Granted, I was in a pinch, but something tells me I wouldn’t have ignored some of the typical comments — i.e. “PLEASE for the sake of your car, time, wallet and sanity DO NOT GO HERE, EVER!!!!!” – if I read them before deciding to pay a visit.)
Another trusted, if predictable source to consider: the Better Business Bureau. (It gives that same ridiculously overpriced shop an “F” rating — again, I’m still kicking myself for not doing the research beforehand.) Oh, and it doesn’t hurt to see if the mechanic is certified in some way: ASE certification is considered an industry standard.
It Also Pays to Understand Why Your Repair Bill May Have Gotten so High
You know the drill: You bring your car in for that cheapie $20 oil change, but you walk away paying $200 on maintenance or repair items. The charges could be legit, but industry pros say if there’s one reason to be suspicious, it’s this: At some service places, staffers (service writers, techs, even managers) are paid partly on commission. That naturally means there’s a strong incentive to find those extras to suggest.
“It’s all about profit,” says Earl Stewart, a South Florida Toyota dealer who has championed industry reforms. (Stewart also advises car owners to insist on a written estimate for all repairs, noting that in his state, the final charges cannot exceed the estimate by more than 10%.) And speaking of oil changes, it also pays to understand why they may be so cheap: Repair shops often treat basic services (oil changes, tire rotations, wheel alignments) as loss leaders to attract customers, so they can sell the extras, industry pros add.
Still, how does having this knowledge help your bottom line? In my case, it’s led me to question charges I might otherwise have accepted as the basic cost of car ownership. Nevertheless, some industry pros counter that the commission situation doesn’t apply to every shop — especially independents — and that the business is peopled with plenty of Honest Abes. “I think there are very few dishonest car mechanics out there,” says Donny Seyfer, operations manager of Seyfer Automotive, a repair shop in Wheat Ridge, Col., and chair-elect at the Automotive Service Association.
There’s a Surprisingly Easy Way to Avoid Unnecessary Maintenance
You know that owner’s manual gathering dust in your glove box? Air it out once in a while. Better yet, let it become your bible when it comes to maintenance, pros say. Which means you should stick to doing what it says, but not feel compelled to go beyond that, especially if you’re not planning on keeping the car more than a few years. A case in point: Mechanics will often suggest flushes — for brake lines, transmissions, etc. — that aren’t listed in the manual’s maintenance recommendations. Sure, they might be nice for your vehicle, but there can be a gap of at least a couple of highway lanes between what’s nice and what’s necessary. As South Florida dealer Earl Stewart says: “Why drink distilled water if tap water is perfectly okay?”
It Never Hurts to Play Inspector General
If you don’t want to take your mechanic’s word that a repair or maintenance item is necessary, ask the mechanic to physically show you the problem, pros say. Granted, you run the risk of not fully grasping what they’re pointing out on the car, but their willingness to do so can be a sign of honest communication.
Similarly, if they replace parts, make sure they provide you with the old ones. It’s not that you’ll have much need for that used timing belt, but “you’ll have peace of mind knowing that the repair was done, plus you’ll be able to see with your own eyes if the belt was cracked, broken or worn,” says James Garnand, a board member with the Neighborhood Auto Repair Professionals (NARPRO), an Arizona-based marketing association.
But just as important as inspecting the car or the old parts is inspecting the bill, I’ve learned. That’s where unexpected charges pop up, after all. (And in one case, I found I was billed twice for the same item.) As for those “materials” or “miscellaneous” fees, they can often be successfully challenged, some pros say, despite the shop’s claims that it’s “just the price of doing business.” (Imagine a restaurant charging you for napkins.) At the very least, pros argue, a reputable repair shop will often fold the fees into any estimate they provide, even if they still appear as separate line items in the final bill.
Like the Song Says, “You Better Shop Around”
You can price-shop car repairs the same way you price-shop, well, cars. But it helps to know a few things in advance. For starters, a per-hour labor rate may not be an accurate measure, since you’re really shopping the overall job, including parts; plus, a more experienced tech may take less time to complete the work. Additionally, shopping certain basic services — like a wheel alignment — may be pointless since they’re indeed often priced artificially low so that the shop can sell extras. In the end, pros say your best yardstick may be a very specific, slightly costly job — say, a front brake-pad replacement — that can serve as a guide to a shop’s overall pricing approach.
Of course, cheaper is not always better. For example, dealerships typically charge more than independents, but they may also have more technical knowledge or resources at their disposal, since they have a direct pipeline to the manufacturer, pros point out. (And dealerships may be willing to haggle a bit on price or work with you on a possible warranty-related issue since they’re hoping to sell you another car down the road, pros add.) But if pricing is your biggest concern, it’s also worth considering a newer option — namely, getting online quotes for your job from various mechanics. Companies like Openbay and AutoMD are providing such a go-between service.
Finally, if the price isn’t right for the work that’s been performed, there’s often a simple solution: Complain to the owner of the shop. I’ve seen my bill reduced on a few occasions as a result of just voicing my dissatisfaction.
Charles Passy covers personal finance, consumer spending and all things food and drink for MarketWatch in New York. Follow him on Twitter @CharlesPassy. This article originally appeared on MarketWatch.com and is reprinted by permission from Marketwatch.com, ©2014 Dow Jones & Co. Inc. All rights reserved.