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Even With Car Repairs It PAYS to Shop

If you get a repair estimate of $1,000 on your car, do you sense desperation, turn the car over to the mechanic and tell him to do what needs to be done? If you do you could be making a mistake that will cost you hundreds of dollars. With car repairs it definitely pays to shop.

Most of us, I think, are a bit intimidated by car malfunctions, especially major ones. We don’t know a whole lot about cars — especially what makes them tick on the inside — and that makes us vulnerable not only to high charges, but even to repairs that are completely unnecessary.

Even With Car Repairs It PAYS to Shop

Even With Car Repairs It PAYS to Shop

For those of us who aren’t car experts, the solution may be to play one mechanic shop off against another.

Use several different shops — your own “panel” of car repair experts — and you increase the potential for savings.

We might like the idea of having a single shop to bring the car to when ever there’s a problem, but most repair shops these days are national chains run by business managers who know more about sales than they do about car repairs.

Why shopping between repair shops works

If you were facing major surgery, wouldn’t you get a second opinion to be sure you aren’t doing something unnecessary? Why wouldn’t you do the same for a major repair on your car?

If it sounds like it might be a hassle, consider what you get for your effort:

  • You can select the repair shop with the lowest price an any job at any time
  • You gain knowledge from talking to different mechanics about your car’s problem—you’ll learn and sound more intelligent, gaining the respect of the mechanics and the bargaining power that goes with it
  • After a few repairs, you can find that one shop is consistently more reasonable than the others
  • If the shops realize that they’re competing with one another, they may give you better pricing

The Car Computer Crap-out Caper

I’ve recently had a successful experience consulting with multiple shops. The onboard computer in my car had a “minor issue”—it stopped recognizing the code in my keys and wouldn’t allow the car to start. Initial action: get the keys reprogrammed.

Cheap and effective—but only for 30 days! The computer was “de-programming” the keys! In every other respect, it was functioning properly, but you can’t drive a car if the keys won’t start it, so I had a “complication”. The whole computer needed to be replaced.

$1200. That’s what the dealer wanted for a new computer. Due to the complexity of reprogramming the new computer for the car, my backyard mechanic wouldn’t tackle it, and neither would local repair shops. It looked like the dealer had me.

Yes, it looked that way, but I had my panel of experts! I called around to different shops, and dug to find out what I could. One morning, while having the oil changed at the quick oil change shop I go to, I asked the staff there if they could replace the computer (I didn’t think so, but I was there so I thought I’d ask).

They didn’t, but they knew a tire dealer who did!

I called the tire dealer and asked for the car computer expert I’d heard about and got him on the first try. Sure enough, he could handle the job and for a lot less than the $1200 the dealer shop wanted. The tire shop didn’t actually replace the computer, but they had an out of state facility that could reprogram the existing computer, rather than replacing it. (I had asked the dealer about this very thing, and they said it couldn’t be done.)

$765 was what I paid. That’s a savings of $435—just for asking a question! But the important thing was that I had multiple shops that I dealt with where I could ask the questions.

Building your own panel of car repair experts

You can build your own panel of car repair experts by enlisting one or more of the following:

Learn basic car repairs. If you have the time and motivation, take a course on car tune ups so you can handle routine maintenance yourself. Not only will this save you money, but it will also give you a greater understanding of cars and help you to navigate the car mechanics jungle to get the best repair deals.

Backyard mechanic. If, like me, you’re not a car repair type do some asking around and see if you can find someone who does car repairs on the side. They can do routine work like brakes, mufflers, belts and hoses and the like. And since they don’t have expensive shops to pay for, they’re a lot cheaper. You may even be able to work out a barter arrangement if you have a service to provide.

A reliable oil change shop. If you can’t find a reliable backyard mechanic, or if the backyard mechanic is slow to respond (which is a typical issue), an oil change shop can provide much the same function. Oil change shops do more than just oil these days. They’re reasonably priced, offer quick service, and as you see from my computer situation, they can be a good starting point to get information on where to go for the best deals.

Multiple full service repair shops. We need full service shops for the heavier jobs. But work with two or three, rather than relying on just one. If you have more than one shop to work with, not only can you shop them for the best repair prices, but you can use them to get a second opinion on a major repair bill. It may turn out that the repair recommended by one shop is totally unnecessary. Not only will that save you an entire repair bill, but it may expose a shop that’s less than honest.

Dealer repair shops. Sometimes there’s no way around going back to the dealer for a certain repair. But dealer repair shops are at the very top of my “use only when there’s no other option” list. If you have to go to a dealer and pay the highest price for a repair, make sure you’ve tried five or six other options before you go that route. The more you can avoid the dealer shop, the more money you’ll save.

Car repairs are a major expense, and we need to find ways to save money on them. There’s no need to go to a dealer shop and pay $100 for an oil change that you can have done at an oil change shop for $30. There’s no reason to pay a full service repair shop $300 for a brake job that a backyard mechanic can do for $150. But the only way you can avoid paying the higher prices is to have your own panel of car repair experts to shop between.

( Photo by Robert Couse-Baker )


8 Responses to Even With Car Repairs It PAYS to Shop

  1. Good post on a sometimes overlooked area of saving opportunity. I recently got quoted over $1,000 to fix a slow oil leak. I’m thinking I’m going to shop this around. I can buy a whole lot of motor oil for $1,000.

  2. Kevin M says:

    Andrew – Any repair that high needs a 2nd opinion. If it’s a slow leak, you may not need to do anything at least not immediately.

  3. Hi Kevin, I haven’t tried to shop around for a while. However, I haven’t had a real expensive car bill lately. My car is 10 years old but it has about 80K miles and it’s reliable. I will definitely think about shopping around the next time something breaks.

    I’ve had mixed success with the oil change places. I had one align my car, but they did such a bad job I went somewhere else to have it redone.

  4. Kevin M says:

    Jennifer – I’ve heard some horror stories about oil shops too, but I’ve also heard them about dealers and full service shops where the stakes are much higher. I try to narrow it down to finding a couple in each category that are reliable. They’re out there, and sometimes you burn through some cash trying to find them, but once you do, life is so much easier!

    I’ve also found that it pays to ask around to see who others recommend. Typically, if others have good experiences you will too. The reverse is also true (the lousy ones).

  5. Angela J. Shirley says:

    LOL, on the subject of “slow” oil leaks, sometimes it is best to get another car. My personal experience with this taught me to ALWAYS ask a “honest” repair person if it is time to put the car out of its misery. Yes, it may not be in your plans, but sometime you keep pouring in money into a “lemon”… Did that ONCE, the car had EVERYTHING new and I ended up getting about $20 from the junk yard for them to come get the “lemon”… This was about 20+ years ago and I will NEVER forget the “nightmare” of trying to get my then baby to the daycare and keep my job. It was like I was towing in the “lemon” every other day and of course my boss was OVER the situation. Just be CAREFUL with “some” repairs…

  6. Brake O Rama says:

    When choosing a shop, consider the authorized repair shop to carry out repairs under your warranty, if your car has one.

  7. Sammie Sawee says:

    For a slow oil leak, try a couple of the $3 oil additives. They sometimes work if it is a seal that is worn.

  8. Hi Sammie – Excellent advice, thanks for weighing in.

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