How To

How to Avoid Unnecessary Car Costs

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Photo: Simon Blackley

A guy walks into a mechanic and asks for a tune-up.

“Looks like your car needs a lot of work,” says the mechanic. “After a quick inspection, I estimate about $1000 worth of services.”

It may sound like a joke, but car owners are often hit with an unhappy diagnosis like this. Many of us have little-to-no car expertise. We feel helpless at the sometimes-merciless hand of our mechanic. After all, who are we to say when a spark plug needs changing or steering should be flushed?

Jon Bartunek, owner of his family’s Union Street Garage in San Francisco who has worked in the car repair business since he was ten years old, has some empowering tips and guidelines to offer.

“Many car repair shops are in the business of selling auto repair, not the business of repairing autos,” says Bartunek. “Keep in mind that any good shop is a combination of both, but you want the mechanic you work with to have your best interest in mind.”

Read on to find Bartunek’s words of wisdom to help you through the car maintenance and repair process without spending an unnecessary, exorbitant amount of money. Bartunek shares his knowledge on how to be informed before and after service, the common traps car repair shops will use to get more money from you, and what you absolutely must require of any mechanic who performs work on your car.

A reputable mechanic should provide:

ASE [National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence] or AAA [American Automobile Association] certification, and/or a state license, which is required in many states

  • A clean garage, free of empty cans, dirty rags, and old tires
  • A friendly, polite staff that communicates well
  • Before service: an itemized bill with a written estimate for repair work
  • After service: a detailed invoice of work done and parts supplied

How to approach a new mechanic

Get a recommendation. Ask someone with a similar income level and car type if they have a good relationship with their mechanic. Don’t ask a friend who has a car or lifestyle that’s very different from yours because they may work with someone who’s not suitable for you.

Use the owner’s manual. This manual is your most valuable defense tool when visiting the mechanic. You should never, ever walk into a mechanic like the guy in our opening example and say, “I need a tune up.” This is way too vague and your professional may see this as an open invitation to charge you up to $1000 for miscellaneous unnecessary services such as spark plug replacements when you don’t need them. Bartunek advises, “Cars don’t need tune ups like they did years ago. Go by the services in your owner’s manual. Most list the necessary services according to the mileage you have on your car. Just saying something as simple as ‘I need my 30,000 mile service,’ shows your mechanic you are informed and not someone he can easily take advantage of if he is so inclined.”

Get an estimate. Before service, make sure your prospective mechanic gives you a detailed parts-and-labor estimate so you’ll know exactly what he plans to do and what went wrong if you have a post-service failure. Never accept a verbal estimate or a sheet of paper that says something unspecific like, “Fix Car – $800.” Make sure you sign the itemized estimate and walk away with a signed copy.

Ask questions. Never be afraid of asking questions such as “Do I really need that?” or “I don’t see any symptoms of failure. Is work on that part absolutely necessary right now?” If your mechanic makes a generalization like, “The part is old,” ask for details. Find out if it’s leaking, losing pressure or what the specific problem is. Then ask to see the part. A good mechanic should be able to physically show you the problem with the part on your car or explain it to you by using a removed car part. Similarly, if the price quote sounds expensive, tell the mechanic what you were hoping to spend and ask him if you can get by safely with a less expensive job.

Finally, if you think the job sounds expensive and your car seems to be working fine, get a second opinion.

Common traps

Drastic statements like, “We need to tow your car out of here because we don’t want to be responsible for you driving it,” are almost always a scam. Bartunek has seen many car owners succumb to these warnings and end up paying an arm and a leg to get their car back from the mechanic in “driveable” condition. He advises, “If you drove your car into the mechanic with no issues, most likely you can drive it away from any threatening advice without any problems.”

Coolant and power steering flushes are common services some of the larger mechanic chains will propose in order to make money. Check your owner’s manual to see how long your fluid is supposed to last so you know if your mechanic’s suggestion is warranted.

Do your research before having a catalytic converter or other emissions part repaired. Some of these pieces have a very long factory warranty including free replacement of covered parts.

A muffler that lasts a lifetime does not exist. Many of the larger companies give you free replacements and make their money on expensive exhaust system repairs.

The $55 brake pad job is also a scam nine times out of ten. No shop can make money on a $55 dollar brake pad replacement job. It’s an excuse to suggest the replacement of other parts such as brake rotors when you don’t need them.

Keep up on car maintenance

In addition to being a savvy buyer of proposed services, it’s important to keep up on regular car maintenance to avoid unnecessary breakdowns or repair costs. Here are Bartunek’s suggestions:

Get regular fluid changes as per your owner’s manual. This includes oil as well as brake, windshield and coolant fluids.

Replace the air filter when needed or suggested in the owner’s manual.

Keep tires inflated properly for your safety. Check once a month and before long car trips to make sure your tires have a little bit less than maximum pressure.

While all these warnings and rules may be overwhelming at first, there are some great mechanics out there. If you remember these tips, you’re much more likely to find a helpful professional than a wallet-draining scam.

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