I’m not bragging here, but I just did it again – I cut my car repair bill in half. And I’m hoping that the information I’m sharing here will be of some benefit to you on your next car repair episode.
Car repair bills are a major part of the stealth expenses that are raising the cost of living significantly. Not only do they often seem to come out of nowhere, but the cost is constantly going higher. The cost for an ordinary repair typically runs between $700 and $1,000. If you’re on a tight budget, that kind of expense can be a real budget-buster. And if you’re ever going to attain financial freedom you’re going to have to find ways to spend less for what you need to have.
I learned a few years ago that in most cases you don’t have to pay those prices. And you don’t have to be a master mechanic yourself to make that happen.
Here is my most recent car repair episode – just last week – and it joins a growing list of similar episodes where I decided to take charge of the situation, and to not pay the “going rate” for my repairs. And believe me, I am not car guy in any sense of the term.
I’ve been having problems with engine stuttering on my 1999 Nissan Maxima. I brought the car to a chain repair shop, and they diagnosed the problem as valve cover gaskets leaking oil onto the spark plugs.
The Cost of Going the Repair Shop Route
Of course, they can fix it – cost: $810.
My reaction: not gonna happen!
Those were the exact words I said to the shop manager. In fact, I’ve been down this road enough times that I even said it with confidence. Me – a guy who knows precious little about all things automotive – playing hardball with the shop manager. I could do it because I knew I wasn’t bluffing.
Now I have to confess, that at the moment I made my declaration, I was short on specifics as to exactly how the repair would be provided for substantially less money. I am a certified automotive idiot, but if it’s one thing I’ve learned in my life, it’s this: the less you know, the more questions you need to ask.
That’s my usual routine, and it would work again in this case.
My Solemn Promise to Myself to Never Pay Full Price If I Can Avoid It
One of the best side benefits from my career crisis a few years ago was learning that there is always a cheaper way to do everything. When you don’t have the money to pay for things, you learn to find cheaper alternatives. As a result of that experience, I promised myself never pay full price if I can avoid it.
In most cases, that is entirely possible. It’s even more important with large expenses, like car repairs. Finding a cheaper way to fix my car is now second nature to me.
The Plan B Repair Strategy
I paid the chain repair shop $48 for their diagnostics, evaluation and estimate. Though I was fully prepared to go in completely different route, I wasn’t exactly sure of the specifics at that point.
Changing the spark plugs was easy, and something I can do myself. The valve cover gaskets, on the other hand, seemed intimidatingly complicated. I know a lot of people who know about cars, and I even have a backyard mechanic available for the tough stuff. I didn’t know if he would get involved in changing out valve cover gaskets.
Remember, I’m in automotive idiot who doesn’t know much about any of these things.
My “Backyard Mechanic” to the Rescue
I contacted my backyard mechanic, and he asked me to send him a copy of the repair estimate. He took a look at it and said that he could do it, at a cost of $250 for the labor.
As is our typical arrangement, I would buy the parts in advance. Since they were already listed on the estimate, that part was easy.
Buying the Parts Directly – Saving a Small Fortune
There’s something critical that I’ve learned about car repair shops. In addition to the exorbitant fees they charge to fix your car, they also typically double the RETAIL cost of the parts they use to make the repairs. Yes, double, and sometimes it’s even worse.
Now, the word “retail” is capitalized in the above paragraph, because I want to highlight the absurdity of being able to buy car parts in a retail shop for 50% of the cost of the car repair shop will charge. And it is virtually certain that the repair shop is purchasing those parts at a wholesale price. It’s highly likely then that we are being charged at least triple what the shop is paying for the parts they’re putting into our cars.
So in this episode, I paid $72 – retail – for car parts that the repair shop was going to charge me $138 for.
Right there I’m already $66 ahead using my hybrid DIY repair strategy. It’s an outcome I’ve seen again and again.
And for what it’s worth, the repair shop markup always seems to be higher on more expensive parts. In the case of this particular repair, it was just six spark plugs, and a couple of valve cover gaskets. On more expensive parts the markup is much more dramatic.
When I was in the mortgage business there were constant charges against the industry of padding fees to generate more income for the lender; I now believe that’s happening in most businesses. The car repair industry is banking on us being scared to death of car related malfunctions.
The Payoff – I Cut My Car Repair Bill in Half – Again
So here’s the final outcome:
Repair shop diagnostic: $48
Backyard mechanic labor: $250
Car parts: $72
Total cost: $370
The repair shop wanted charge me $810, so I’ve saved $440 – or a little bit more than half of the shop bill – with my hybrid DIY car repair strategy.
If we gross that up for income taxes, that is, if we measure it in terms of how much money I would have to earn to pay that bill after income taxes, I really saved something closer to $700.
Now I’ll confess that this strategy didn’t come to me overnight. It also means you have to be prepared to get on the phone – or to go in person – to buy parts and talk to mechanics about repairs. But given that I know so little about cars, I’m prepared to say that if I can do this, anybody can.
The cost of living is getting progressively higher, and there are so many expenses that we have little control over. But that’s why we need to get better control over the ones that we can. Car repairs is certainly one of them.
There’s also something very liberating about not being completely dependent on expensive car repair shops to do your work.
As a side note, I’m a strong advocate of driving older cars, since doing so means that insurance costs and ad valorem taxes are lower than on late-model cars. And of course, there’s no monthly payment. If you can develop strategies to repair your car for less than the going rate, the advantage of driving an older car is even greater.
What strategies do you use to reduce the cost of car repairs?