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
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?