Save Money on Car Repairs by Thinking Outside the Box

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Perhaps more than any other expense I have to pay, I most dislike (OK, despise!) paying for car repairs. It’s not that I expect our cars to run maintenance and repair free, year after year, but I can’t stomach the idea that every time we bring one of the cars to the shop we get hit with charges of $500-$1,000. But something I’ve learned over the years is that you can save money on car repairs by thinking outside the box.

We just had a recent experience with this, and I stepped out of character and went the full price repair route to handle it. Maybe I need to do that from time to time just to remind myself why it is I’m always looking for a better way.

Now, be forewarned, I’m not a “car guy”. My interest in car repairs is strictly from a financial standpoint. Cars are one of the biggest expenses the vast majority of us have, and I’m always looking for- and experimenting with- ways to save money here. But back to the story…

The dreaded “Service Engine Soon” warning light

Save Money on Car Repairs by Thinking Outside-the-Box
Save Money on Car Repairs by Thinking Outside-the-Box

The “Service Engine Soon” light was on in my car, conjuring up visions of some dreaded evil overtaking my engine. This one could be well over $1,000, I dared to think. But while I did consider going the alternate repair route, instead I went for speed and brought the car into the shop for repair.

$791.80. That’s what I paid in my haste, and as you’ll note, it fits nicely in the middle of that expected $500 to $1,000 range mentioned at the outset. That means it merely comes under the category of a run-of-the-mill repair. Nothing special, right?

The knock sensor needed to be replaced and the EGR ports had to be cleaned. And there are still at least two dozen similar widgets on the car that could go anytime.

But as disgusting as this episode was, let’s take a look as the alternatives, how they could have fit into my situation, and some other things you might want to consider if you plan to keep your car around for more than five years but don’t want to get hosed on the repair costs.

FREE diagnostics – the cornerstone of thinking outside the box

One of the problems with car repairs that really spook us non-car types is that we usually don’t know specifically what’s wrong with a car that stalls, dies or flashes warning lights. Not only does this make do-it-yourself repairs seem daunting, but it also leaves us vulnerable to exaggerated repair shop work orders.

But knowledge is power, and even if you don’t do the repairs yourself, you’re giving yourself a tremendous leg up if you can go into a repair shop knowing what the problems are in advance. And there is a way you can do this — before spending any money!

Before bringing the car to a repair shop, and while I was still thinking of going “alt repair”, we brought the car in for a diagnostic check to find out what the problem was. Autozone offers these for free! They hook your car computer up to a mini-computer that tells you where the problem is. Now the system they use at Autozone isn’t as sophisticated as the ones at the fancy repair shops, but I can tell you this: the Autozone diagnostic revealed the same EGR and knock sensor issues that the mega computer at the repair shop did.

The difference? The repair shop diagnostic was $100, the Autozone scan was free.

Finding out what’s wrong with your car is half the problem if you want to repair it yourself, and you can do that at Autozone. They do this as an inducement for you to buy their parts of course, which leads me into the next topic…

Buy car parts direct and save — a ton!

The same Autozone that does the free diagnostics on your car, can also save you a bundle on car parts. Again an example from my recent repair experience…

After getting the diagnostic at Autozone, we priced the parts needed. A new EGR valve would be $124, a new knock sensor would be $99.

For comparison sake, the repair shop charged $268 for the knock sensor. Clearly, not only are they charging us for labor, but they’re adding a mark-up — a very healthy one at that — to the parts they’re installing in the car. Had the repair shop purchased the part at Autozone, they’d have made a $169 profit, or 169%, just on the part itself. My guess it that they get it for less since they’re a national chain and can buy in bulk, but I digress.

If the EGR valve needed to be replaced (it didn’t), they would have charged “over $300” for the part alone. That’s about two and a half times the actual price of the part!

Do you see now why even routine repairs to your car can run upwards of $1000???

Moral of the story: either make the repairs yourself, saving on labor and the massive parts mark-up, or find a mechanic who will let you buy your own parts! Either way you’ll save hundreds of dollars on a typical repair job just by doing this.

(Note: I don’t intend for this post to be an advertisement for Autozone; that’s just the parts dealer we chose to use and have had excellent experience with. You could get similar savings on parts at Advanced Auto Parts, Pep Boys or any number of suppliers.)

Do you want to save even more on parts?

A few months back I did a post on a website/network called Car-Part.com, a national network of salvage parts dealers all over the U.S. and Canada.

If your car is more than a few years old, it can be more cost effective to replace worn out parts with used ones rather than new. The savings can be enormous. This is especially true if you need body parts for the car.

You can go on the site, enter the part you’re looking for, and it will bring up dealers in your area that you can either visit or order by mail—there are literally thousands of dealers in the network. Not only will this be cheaper than relying on a repair shop or body shop for parts, but it will give you more control over the specifics. We’ve saved hundreds of dollars using this network, and I can strongly recommend it to anyone.

Find a “backyard mechanic”

This is my favorite of the alternate car repair tactics! If you’re a car guy, this doesn’t apply to you, but if you’re like me, this is the crucial link.

We all know people who know a lot more about cars than we do, and that can be a real advantage at repair time. At a minimum, having someone who can point you in the right direction is significant in itself. But having a link to someone who can also do the repairs is downright liberating! You’re free from the repair shop robber barons.

Carlos is a close friend of mine, who happens to know a lot about cars. When he doesn’t know something, he knows someone who does. For me, he’s the guy who ties all of this together. He’s a big part of the reason we’ve been able to keep two (paid for!) older vehicles.

Do you know anyone like this? Perhaps a repair shop employee whose looking to make some money working on the side and will charge a lot less than the hourly labor rate at the shop? And just as important, one who will let you supply the parts?

A discount mechanic, in combination with direct buying of new or used parts, can easily chop a repair bill from a $1,000 to only $300 or $400.

Would that make keeping your car a few years longer – or buying a used car instead of a new one – worth it to you?

 

What are some money saving secrets you use or know of, to save on car repairs? Have you used any of the suggestions above? What was your experience?

( Photo courtesy of BrownGuacamole )

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30 Responses to Save Money on Car Repairs by Thinking Outside the Box

  1. Great article, Kevin!

    I’ve done several car repairs myself and always look to learn something when I can’t do it myself. I figure I’ve saved myself a good bit of money this way.

    I also have a father-in-law who’s great with cars. I like him anyway, but this is a nice bonus! 🙂

    I think taking the time to learn skills like car repair (or anything else that can be expensive to pay someone else to do) almost always pays off. Unless you’re able to make a ton of money at your regular job, you should invest some time in learning maintenance and repair skills.

  2. Paul, I agree on learning repairs. I’m not so good at that myself, but I think I need to be.

    A lot of the reason the cost of living is so high today (apart from inflation) is that we’ve become accustomed to paying other people to do work that people used to do for themselves. We may not be able to make all the repairs on our cars, but there are a lot we can make, and the savings will be substantial.

    We talk a lot about being debt free on PF blogs, and often advise owning your car free and clear. But that usually means an older car (used or one we drive for more than 3-5 years) and the cost of doing that is mainly in repairs. If we can find less expensive ways of doing that, it’ll make it a no brainer.

  3. no such thing as a $50 car repair these days. My truck is 9 years old… every time something breaks it’s $300 minimum… 7 months ago I had to rebuild the transmission. That was $2,750. 🙁 That one really hurt…

    Oh, when My check engine light came on recently, that cost nearly $300 to get it to go out.

    guess I’ll be paying for car repairs for a long time… I am never having another car payment ever again…

  4. FB – In place of car payments, there are repair payments. On a vehicle over 5 years old, you can pretty much expect to pay $2000/yr for repairs. But compare that to $5-6-7000/yr in car payments.

    A blown transmission or valve job is a killer though, and there aren’t too many ways around paying full price for it, unless you have a lift and a mechanic who’ll work at a reduced rate. Still, if we can save a few hundred a year on the easier stuff, it can make a difference. Saving $400/yr on repairs for 5 years is an extra $2000 in the bank account!

  5. I’m with you, Kevin: the car is one of those financial black holes that can spring up without notice.

    When I was in collge, I would buy parts for basic repairs and maintenance (brake pads, filters, oil, etc.) Now I’m at that point in life where I value my time more and would rather pay someone else to do the basics. What always gets me, though, are the bigger repairs when I don’t know enough about cars to tell if I really need to do it.

    Thanks for the idea about buying our own parts and taking them to the mechanic. I recently did that on a very small item (headlight) – took the bulb to the shop and had them make the replacement because I couldn’t get the headlight casing out to do it myself – and the mechanic didn’t have a problem with it.

    I wonder if – when all costs are considered – it would be less expensive to go back to horses… Thanks for the post!

  6. Derek – We don’t (and shouldn’t) have to resort to doing all of our own repairs, but saving a few hundred here and there really adds up, and makes owning a paid vehicle that much sweeter.

    I’ll be the first to admit that there are repairs that need to be done in a full service shop for expertise and safety reasons. But most fall short of that and that’s where we have options.

  7. Kevin,

    I usually fix most of the things I possibly can on our cars. We drive older vehicles and it’s way too painful to take them to the shop every time they need something. I’m passing these skills onto my son, since they no longer teach auto shop in high school.

    One thing that has been extremely helpful is to Google up “how to” fix certain car problems. Usually, I can find a comment thread or a YouTube video showing how to fix things. This saved my bacon on the electric window of my wife’s Pontiac and my nephew’s Jetta brakes that wouldn’t retract.

    My dream is to own an electric car, like the Nissan Leaf or the Ford Focus BEV. This will dramatically lower my fuel and maintenance costs. In a few years, I won’t have to change my oil or flush the radiator.

  8. Hope to Prosper – Yes, Google is a part of this process I forgot to include! I’ve looked up various parts and repairs on Google in learning about what ever the part is and how difficult it will be to fix.

    One of the advantages of Google vs. published sources, is that it can offer the latest information, as well as write ins by people doing the work and you can learn from their experiences.

  9. Cars can certainly be a vexation to the spirit for those of us less mechanically inclined. Scouting for an honest mechanic therefore becomes an imperative for this household.

    When I (Steven) try to fix things on either of our cars, we usually end up with not only a broken car, but also broken wrenches and hammers. Yeah, I know…get a bigger hammer next time.

    Overall, we’ve been pretty successful in finding some ‘old school’ mechanics who seem disinclined toward fixing things that aren’t broke and who tend to look at the least expensive repair options first.

  10. Steven – On you’re last point, fixing things that aren’t broken, that’s something my guy, Carlos, in the post, has warned me about. He said repair shops–especially the chains–routinely recommend repair work that’s unnecessary, but people who don’t know much about cars often fall for it. A component may be wearing, but it can still have 10,000 miles before fully crapping out.

  11. I think most people would agree that saving money is something “easier said than done”. Personally, I believe it’s a mind-set that needs to be developed by creating good money-saving habits.

    Here are some things I’ve done to help change my spending habits:

    – Cook more at home ( Eating out is very expensive especially
    if you do it a couple times a week
    – Try shopping online ( You can find better deals than in the
    store and you save on gas (I recommend shoptivity.com)
    – Pay the full balance on credit cards each month ( Interest
    charge is like giving away free money
    – Don’t forget to pay yourself ( Set up an online savings
    account (they pay higher interest than a normal savings
    account)
    – Set a budget and goals ( It’s good to have your goals
    written down so you see them everyday and don’t lose focus
    on your ultimate objectives

    Again, saving money requires a lot of patience and hard work. However, you’ll thank yourself later on in life. Good luck everyone!! =)

  12. There are many car repairs you can carry out ‘DIY’ and save yourself some money in the long run.Simple things like car servicing,changing auxiliary belts,changing the coolant or even spark plugs.Obviously some cars are more simple and if you drive a car such as an M5 in the picture above you can be expecting to pay a mechanic for car maintenance and repairs on a regular basis.
    Buy a simple car and do the basics yourself.

  13. MCR – Thanks for the practical advice, especially on buying a simple car. As a rule the more expensive a car is, or the more complicated it is (options, extras, superflous gadgets) the more it will cost to maintain and repair. And often the less you’ll be able to do yourself.

  14. I think buying parts online is more practical for me. But I agree that we need to know some backyard mechanic so that it will be cheaper than the other.

  15. IC – It’s like two sides to the same coin, and you need both. You can save a lot of money buying parts yourself, but it can be tricky finding a shop mechanic who will accept your parts. If they do, they’re denying themslves the mark-up on them, and they may refuse to stand behind the work they do because you supplied the parts. So unless you can do the work yourself, having a backyard mechanic really completes the process.

  16. I couldn’t agree more with the buying a simple car option. The more features the vehicle has, the more components that may break down. With high end cars, the spare parts usually have to be official or manufactured by the car maker themselves thus leading to even greater maintenance costs. On the other hand, people who can afford Ferraris probably can afford the necessary spare parts for them.

  17. Michael – I think you’re right about people who can afford Ferraris, however in this the Great Age of Credit, a lot of people are “affording” what they can’t afford. Then once they have it, they get hit with the chain of other expenses they might not be able to borrow around.

  18. As a mechanic of 20 years plus- I am amazed that people are willing to TRUST a backyard mechanic with their LIVES. I have seen so many illegal repairs done on vehicles that in the end, I must charge for my labor to fix the mistakes and I don’t feel any regret in doing so.
    Lets blog about that for awhile.

  19. Verne – I think you’re making a good point. I wouldn’t use a backyard mechanic accross the board, but there are at least two instances in which a backyard mechanic can legitimately save you money:

    1) As an informed opinion when something goes wrong with a car–repair shops exploit our ignorance and having someone to consult levels the playing field, and

    2) On routine repairs, like brake jobs, muffler replacement, etc.

    Still another point is bringing your car into a shop and having them botch the job; I’ve had that happen on a couple of big jobs. What was amazing was how they wouldn’t stand behind their work.

    Car repairs seems to be a gauntlet, and we all need to find some sort of balance in it.

  20. It’s according on how the driver drives in a way. If he drives like a maniac then yeah maintenance is pretty critical. Some cars are different than others. If he drives a lot, like work is a long distance every day then yeah. You rack up the miles and the car is used more meaning parts are wearing.

  21. Clive – That’s an excellent point! How we drive is a major part of repairs costs. Some I thought of while reading your comment include frequent jamming on the brakes at the last minute, squealing tires on acceleration or locking them with sudden braking, using the car for joy riding when it’s healthier to walk or ride a bike–there’s really a long list here and they all affect the cost of maintaining the car. Long commutes are only a part of it.

  22. That was a very good article Kevin!

    I do self repairing for my car as much as I can, but with limited knowledge for car part and maintenance, let it fixed by mechanic is the best option.
    However, to keep my car in good condition, drive it well and smart help me most and get it checked regularly by my self such as changing the machine oil regularly, check radiator level before going to drive and also check the tire, this was an important one.

  23. The best way to avoid repair costs is get rid of the darn thing! I voluntarily gave up driving 6 years ago when the next repair bill was gonna be over a thousand dollars.
    It was hard at first, but I never gave up biking as I grew up, so I had that to fall back on. I also break down and use the bus during the real snowy months usually Christmas to Saint Ptricks day.
    Not only do I save all the gas, maintenance, taxes and insurance; I can only carry so much at a time so I don’t spend near as much on groceries or luxury items.

    You can beat the addiction if you really want to! Live where you work and work where you live if you want to get control of your life.

  24. Hi Rick – I actually wrote a post about that exact topic (How Much Can You Save by NOT Owning a Car?). It’s a great strategy if you can make it happen. A lot depends on where you live (area served by public transportation, flat -easy to walk or bike, amenities in close proximity, etc.), and what your situation is (work at home or close to home vs. long commute to aren not served by publlc transportation).

    It’s really the ultimate solution to auto expenses, but it’s not for everyone.

  25. I’ve got a 2004 honda cr-v. At 137,000 miles the “maintenance required” light goes on. In the past, I’ve always taken my cars to the dealership for “maintenance”. What crap! Finally found a great “backyard” mechanic and took it to him. Here’s what he said and it worked. When those automatic, built-in “maintenance required” lights go on, do the following:

    While the car is off, hod down the odometer reset button, while holding that down, start your car. The “maintenance required” light will blink one time and then go off.

    Problem solved. There was no maintenance required (I had him check it out). This is a built-in b.s. trap.

  26. Hi Jim – I agree with you. I’m not sure if this statistic is an exaggeration or not, but I’ve read that 95% of the times the service engine light goes on has to do with the emission control. That’s the EGR valve and related issues. Usually, it just needs a cleaning, not replacing.

  27. I needed body work on a 22 yr old car that was rusting out badly in the trunk and around both rear wheel wells. I took it to the recommended (by my mechanic) “quality” shop and they scowled and said something like “no less than $1,500,” but would probably be more, and it’s a tough job, etc, etc….oh and that the work would only last maybe a year, tops, before it would be all rusted out again.

    I then took it to some guy I found in the yellow pages who works out of his own yard/shed (but it is a body shop business), he sniffed around the car for a minute and said, “$650”. And he would also do the bottom of all four doors as part of it. I agreed. He was a pain in the neck in terms of scheduling (he kept putting me off), but once it finally got done I picked it up, it looked quite good, the repairs were all done, I wrote him a check for exactly $650.

    That was over three years ago. The rust *has* started to come back, only recently, but it’s quite mild and can go probably a year or maybe 2 before it is even close to what it was back then. The $650 has extended my car’s life at least 4 yrs, if not more. I would have been in for no less than $1,000 more had I gone with the “quality” shop.

    (That I am now driving a 25 yr old car is another way to save money)

  28. Hi mc – I’ve found that the delay with a backyard mechanic is pretty normal, and the most irritating part of dealing with them. But if I can save 100s on a single repair, I’ll deal with it.

    A mechanic recently told me that they have customers who have – get this – over a million miles on their cars. They’re usually commercial vehicles, but paying $1500 – $2000 per year in repairs is less expensive then buying a new car with a payment every few years. As my friend says, it’s always cheaper to fix a car than to replace it.

  29. Excellent post! Doing car repairs yourself can definitely save you a lot of money, and since most auto repair shops charge a price that is equal to at least two or three times the amount that it costs them to fix the vehicle, you can pocket a large amount of money for each repair that you do on your own!

  30. Absolutely Daniel. Once a car hits five years old, you can pretty much bank on paying something approaching $1,500 in repair and maintenence. If you can cut that down by 2/3 you’re down to a very manageable $500. If you keep the car another five years, that’s a savings of $5,000.

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