Friday, April 20, 2007

Where to get your car repaired -- and not get scammed


One of the most common questions I hear is, "Where should I take my car to get it fixed?" My answer is to take it to a repair facility that (1) has a good reputation (ask friends and neighbors where they take their vehicles), that (2) is affiliated with a group such as AAA and/or has ASE certified technicians, and (3) appears to be clean, friendly and competently managed. The shop should also adhere to the Code of Ethics and repair standards put forth by the Motorist Assurance Program (MAP).

Most repair facilities are honest and are NOT trying to take advantage of you. Sure, there are some bad apples in the the repair business, but there are crooks in every kind of business from home repair scam artists to top business executives. From what I have seen, most auto repair problems are due to misunderstandings or miscommunication between the motorist and repair facility (they thought you wanted one thing and you got something else, or they misunderstood your problem), or they misdiagnosed your vehicle and the technician replaced the wrong part(s). In other words, they did not try to rip you off or cheat you. They misunderstood you or did not perform the correct repair.

As long as your vehicle is under warranty, you can return to your new car dealer for free repairs (for parts that are covered under warranty). Almost all new cars and trucks today have a 3 year/36,000 mile bumper-to-bumper warranty that covers ANYTHING that goes wrong. All new vehicles also have a federally mandated emissions warranty that covers the engine computer and catalytic converter for 8 years/80,000 miles (longer in California). The vehicle manufacturers may also offer an extended powertrain warranty that covers major repairs to the engine, transmission and drive axles. Items that may NOT be covered under warranty include common wear items such as filters, brake pads and tires.

Once your vehicle is out of warranty, you can take it anywhere you please for repairs. In fact, you are NOT required to return to the dealer for maintenance or repairs while the vehicle is under warranty (you can take it to ANY repair facility). But the vehicle manufacturer will usually NOT pay for any repairs performed by any unauthorized repair facility -- except in rare emergencies where a vehicle has broken down too far away to be towed to the nearest dealer.

As a rule, independent repair shops are generally less expensive than new car dealers. Franchised repair facilities such as muffler shops (Midas, CarX, Merlin, etc.), tire dealers (Goodyear, Firestone & independents) and retailers (PepBoys, Sears, etc.) are also very competitive with their pricing.

As for repair competency, it can vary a great deal from one repair facility to another. New car dealers have access to the latest factory authorized training and tools, and specialize in the brand(s) of vehicles they sell. But big dealerships are also less personal. You rarely deal directly with a technician. Instead, a service writer talks to you, hears your problem and writes up a repair order. Miscommunication sometimes happens and you do not get the right repairs or service. The service writer is also a salesman who will probably try to talk you into buying additional services you may not need (your 50,000 miles scheduled maintenance, for example, which is nothing more than an oil change, some new filters and a quick inspection of a laundry list of things that should always be checked every time your vehicle is serviced or repaired).

Independent repair shops and specialty repair shops (those who only work on imports or specialize in alignments, brakes, transmissions, air conditioning, electrical, etc.) tend to be small family-owned and run businesses. You are usually on a more personal level with these people, and may even talk face-to-face with the technician who works on your car. Many independent shops are highly skilled and work on ALL makes and models. This requires a much broader range of expertise than a dealership -- and more diagnostic equipment and tools. Some shops, though, are behind on the learning curve and may not be up to speed on the latest technology. Or, they may not have an up-to-date scan tool or other special tools that may be required to service your vehicle. Even so, such a shop may be fine for basic maintenance and repairs.

The kind of repair facility to avoid is one that is NOT concerned about their reputation or repeat customers, and are only out to scam as many people as fast as they can. These shops are not in the repair business for the long haul. They are only in it to make a fast buck. They probably have not been in business very long. They are typically located in "high traffic" areas where they can snag a lot of drive-by customers. They may be located near an expressway where out-of-towners are apt to break down. They usually have high employee turnover and typically hire beginners or less experienced technicians. They often use "scare tactics" to sell parts and services, or try to pressure you into agreeing to major repairs. They are NOT affiliated with any reputable service organizations such as AAA, ASE, their local chamber of commerce or local repair shop organizations. They do not invest any money in training their employees or buying new equipment. The facility itself may or may not be clean and neat (you cannot judge competency and honesty by appearances alone). And they offer no guarantee or a very limited warranty on the work they perform. Avoid these kind of places at all costs!

General Advice for finding an honest and competent repair facility:

Patronize a repair facility that has been recommended to you by friends or family.

If you are satisfied with a repair facility, give them your repeat business. Build a lasting relationship.

Do NOT pick a repair facility at random or based only on advertisements or price specials.

The repair facility should follow the Motorist Assurance Program (MAP) Standards of Service. You can obtain copies of these guidelines from the MAP website at Give the shop a copy if they do not have one.

Always ask for a written repair estimate BEFORE work begins. (This is required by law in many states.)

The final repair bill should NOT exceed the estimate by more than 10 to 20%. (this is also dictated by law in many states, though circumstances may justify a higher final bill.)

Make sure the estimate lists all parts and labor charges. (and ask for an explanation of any items you do not understand or have a question about.)

If you have any doubts about the work performed, ask for your old parts to be returned. (you may need them as evidence if you have been scammed.)

If you have a dispute with a repair facility, take your problem up the chain of command, then contact your Better Business Bureau if you cannot get the matter resolved. Take legal action as a last resort.

Pay your repair bill with a credit card (if allowed) (You can always dispute the charges later when your credit card bill arrives.)

Larry Carley is a well-known automotive technical writer with 27 years of automotive writing experience. He writes for professional automotive trade magazines, and has his own automotive website at