The best way to avoid auto repair rip-offs is to be prepared. Knowing how your vehicle works and how to identify common car problems is a good beinning. It’s also important to know how to select a good technician, the kind of questions to ask, and your consumer rights.
According to the Federal Trade Commission, the American Automobile Association, and the National Association of Attorneys General, this kind of information about your automobile may help you keep a lid on mechanical mistakes.
What should I look for when choosing a repair shop?
Look for an auto repair shop before you need one to avoid being rushed into a last-minute decision.
Shop around by telephone for the best deal, and compare warranty policies on repairs.
Ask to see current licenses if state or local law requires repair shops to be licensed or registered. Also, the state Attorney General’s office or Northeast COMBAT may know whether there’s a record of complaints about a particular repair shop.
Make sure the shop will honor your vehicle’s warranty. Is one technician better than the other?
Look for shops that display various certifications, like an Automotive Service Excellence Seal. Certification indicates that some or all of the technicians meet the basic standards of knowledge and competence in specific technical areas. Make sure the certifications are current, but remember that certification alone is no guarantee of good or honest work.
Ask if the technician or shop has experience working on the same make or model vehicle as yours.
Before you arrange to have any work performed, ask how the shop prices its work. Some shops charge a flat rate for labor on auto repairs. This published rate is based on independent or manufacturer’s estimate of the time required to complete repairs. Others charge on the basis of the actual time the technician worked on the repair.
If you need expensive or complicated repairs, or if you have any questions about recommended work, consider getting a second opinion.
Find out if there will be a diagnostic charge if you decide to have the work performed elsewhere. Many repair shops charge for diagnostic time.
Shops that do only diagnostic work and do not sell parts or repairs may be able to give you an objective opinion about which repairs are necessary.
If you decide to get the work done, ask for a written estimate. What should the estimate include?
It should identify the condition to be repaired, the parts needed, and the anticipated labor charge. Make sure you get a signed copy.
It should state that the shop will contact you for approval before they do any work exceeding a specified amount of time or money. State law may require this.
What should I know about the parts to be repaired or replaced?
New — These parts generally are made to original manufacturer’s specifications, either by the vehicle manufacturer or an independent company. The State of Maine requires repair shops to tell you if non–original equipment will be used in the repair. Prices and quality of these parts vary.
Remanufactured, Rebuilt and Reconditioned–These terms generally mean the same thing: parts have been restored to a sound working condition. Many manufacturers offer a warranty covering replacement parts, but not the labor to install them.
Salvage — These are used parts taken from another vehicle without alteration. Salvage parts may be the only source for certain items, though their reliability is seldom guaranteed.
Get a completed repair order describing the work done. It should list each repair, parts supplied, the cost of each part, labor charges, and the vehicle’s odometer reading when you brought the vehicle in as well as when the repair order was completed. Ask for all replaced parts before the job is started. By law, you have the right to examine the parts that were replaced before you pay the bill. Unless the shop has returned the parts to the distributor or manufacturer, the mechanic has to return them to you if you want them. If he refuses, he is breaking the law.
What are the consequences of postponing maintenance?
Many parts on your vehicle re interralated. Ignoring maintenance can lead to trouble: specific parts or an entire system can fail. Neglecting even simple routine maintenance, such as changing the oil or checking the coolant, can lead to poor fuel economy, unreliability, or costly breakdowns. It also may invalidate your warranty.
Follow the manufacturer’s maintenance schedule in your owner’s manual for your type of driving.
Some repair shops create their own maintenance schedules, which call for more frequent servicing than the manufacturer’s recommendations. Compare shop maintenance schedules with those recommended in your owner’s manual. Ask the repair shop to explain, and make sure you understand, why it recommends service beyond the recommended schedule.
There is no `standard warranty’ on repairs. Make sure you understand what is covered under your warranty and get it in writing.
Be aware that warranties maybe subject to limitations, including time, deductibles, business authorized to perform warranty work or special procedures required to obtain reimbursement.
Check with the Federal Trade Commission or Northeast COMBAT for information on your warranty rights.
Service Contracts. Many vehicle dealers and others sell optional contracts, service contracts, issued by vehicle manufacturers or independent companies. Not all service contracts are the same; prices vary and usually are negotiable. To help decide whether to purchase a service contract, consider:
its cost; the repairs to be covered; whether coverage overlaps coverage provided by any other warranty; the deductible; where the repairs are to be performed; procedures required to file a claim, such as a prior authorization for specific repairs or meeting required vehicle maintenance schedule; whether repair costs are paid directly by the company to the repair shop or whether you will have to pay first and get reimbursed.
How do I resolve a dispute regarding billing, quality of repairs or warranties?
Document all transactions as well as your experience with dates, times, expenses, and the names of the people you dealt with.
Talk to the shop manager or owner first. If that doesn’t work, contact Northeast COMBAT or the Attorney General’s Office for help. Another option is small claims court. You don’t need an attorney to do this.
Consumer Forum is a collaborative effort of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast COMBAT. Send your questions to Consumer Forum, Bangor Daily News, P.O. Box 1329, Bangor 04402-1329. COMBAT is a membership organization with basic dues of $10 a year. For membership information write to the above address. Please enclose a large, stamped, self-addressed envelope.