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8 ways women can make sure they don’t get ripped off at auto repair shops

Auto mechanic Ramsingh Ramsooksingh admits women get ripped off at repair shops. But he says it has nothing to do with boobs.

“It’s not about women in particular, it’s about people who don’t want to understand,” says Ramsooksingh, who’s been a mechanic for 50 years. If you don’t know the basics about your car, you’re a target for an unscrupulous mechanic.

Most women, however, would rather go to the dentist, according to a recent study conducted by AutoMD.com. It found just 12 percent of women say they had a positive experience at the auto shop, and 83 percent felt they’d been overcharged.

I reluctantly admit: I’m one of those women.

I’m 22 and have a less-than-healthy 2005 BMW. So when it was time — well past time — to visit my local shop for an oil change, I resolved to do it without getting called “honey” and being ripped off.

Here’s what I learned…

1. Open the owner’s manual

If you’re a car owner, there’s a book with your name on it. And it’s within easy reach. It’s your owner’s manual.

Lauren Fix
Lauren Fix

“Pull out that book in the glove box underneath all the napkins and ketchup packs,” says Lauren Fix, who has written three books on car care and been featured on Oprah.

I listened to Fix, and she was right — I actually had napkins and one ketchup pack in my glove compartment. I found my manual and in 10 minutes, I learned several lessons that’ll keep me from getting ripped off in the future.

For instance, if a mechanic tells me I need to change my oil, I know exactly how many miles before I really do.

“Your best defense is to read your owner’s manual,” says CEO of female-friendly auto advice site AskPatty.com, Jody DeVere. “You’ll save oodles of money because most vehicles are made to last a couple hundred thousand miles.”

Fix is more specific on those savings than just “oodles.”

“If you do all the basic maintenance that it says in your owner’s manual, you can actually save up to $1,200 per year by taking care of your car properly because you won’t have those expenses,” Fix says.

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Jody DeVere

2. Make routine maintenance part of your routine

I bought my car last year. I had the oil changed two weeks ago — for the first time. My excuses included not enough money and free time. In April, it started leaking oil. I ignored it, which irked Fix.

“If you had a leak in your roof, you wouldn’t leave it,” she admonished. “You would take care of it right away.”

But I’m apparently a typical driver — 45 percent of women (and men) surveyed by AutoMD.com admitted doing no preventative maintenance, waiting until something was really wrong to take it to the shop.

Problem is, that means paying more later. I’m already facing a bigger bill for that oil leak, which I’m saving up to get fixed.

3. Do the easy stuff yourself

Straightforward replacement parts — wiper blades, air filters, and batteries — are available at your local auto parts store for low prices. Some, such as Advance Auto Parts, will even install the parts for free.

“Let ’em do it,”  Fix advises.

Most garages offer free check-ups like those outlined in your manual. It’s a good idea to use these check-ups as a way to build a relationship with a garage, so when you need a major repair, you feel more comfortable than walking into a garage as a total stranger.

4. Ask around

Where do your friends get their cars done? Be nosey.

Fix also suggests calling three local shops for a quote before deciding on a place. And you can search for online reviews and comments.

Then there are some websites you can check out…

  • AskPatty.com  — A female-friendly resource for all things car-related.
  • LaurenFix.com —  This female automotive expert, known as The Car Coach, has car care articles, how-to videos, and a lot more.
  • CarCare.org — Explains the different areas of your car, displaying what they are, what problems can occur with them, why, and what should be done.
  • Repairpal.org — Asks you to enter the year, make, and model of your car, along with whatever problem you’re experiencing, so you can get a rough idea of how much a repair will cost.

I also used The Car Care Council to figure out where I should go. The site lists the ASE (Automotive Service Excellence) certified technicians in your area. An ASE stamp is the best available proof you can get of a mechanic’s expertise and experience.

I found a few possibilities for my BMW, all of which specialized in fixing European cars. The one I chose was also highly recommended by a friend. I paid $64.20 for a synthetic oil change — down from $90 I was quoted elsewhere.

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5. Pay attention to detail

Before going for a tune-up, get in tune with your car.

“Listen to your car kind of like a baby,” DeVere recommends. “Most women, if they have children, know that cry. When they cry this way they’re tired, when they cry this way they’re hungry. Cars are like that, too.”

Fix recommends using all five senses: “Maybe not taste. But you could kiss your car if you’re really serious.” A good mechanic is a good listener, Ramsooksingh says, so be descriptive. Think about…

  • What do you hear? Maybe you hear a clicking noise when driving around a parking lot.
  • What do you feel? Maybe you feel a vibration under your seat when you reach a certain speed.
  • What do you smell? Maybe you can smell something like rotten eggs, which could signal a problem with the exhaust.
  • What do you see? Maybe there’s a weird green drip underneath the front of your car, meaning something could be up with the radiator.

Jot down the details, because if you arrive armed with nothing more than “I don’t know,” you’ll be paying for the mechanic to drive your car until he figures it out.

“Once you use all those senses and you start communicating with the technician, you save yourself money right out of the box,” Fix says.

Otherwise, Fix says, it’s like ordering a burger at a restaurant, then getting upset because there’s cheese on it: “Well, you didn’t tell me you didn’t want cheese on it. You said a burger, it comes that way. Do just the same type of thing when you order food.”

6. Go in with the right attitude

If you act clueless, you’re going to be treated like it — and you might get ripped off.

“Do boobs make me stupid?” Fix sometimes wonders. “Apparently. In the eyes of a lot of people they do.”

When I walked into the garage for my own oil change, I made sure I was smiling.

“One of the problems I hear a lot is that sometimes women come in with a chip on their shoulder, looking for a fight — like, ‘I know you’re gonna rip me off,’” DeVere says.

If you pick a fight with a mechanic, you’ll lose. And lose money. Don’t assume every mechanic is a scam artist.

“There are a lot of really good people in our industry,” Fix says. “I would just say the bad ones make the rest of us not look so good.”

7. Ask questions and don’t panic

As I had suspected, more was wrong with my car than could be fixed with an oil change. As the mechanic explained the details, I forgot most of the jargon within moments of him saying it. And I couldn’t recall what I read in the owner’s manual a few days earlier.

But I remained calm and remembered Ramsooksingh’s advice: “Don’t go pretending you don’t know. Say, ‘Look, my brake light is on. I want to know why.’”

I confidently asked my new mechanic to show me what was wrong with my car. (“Show me” is one of Fix’s favorite sayings.)

I also asked him to write it all down so that I’d know for future reference. To my surprise, he cheerily went to his computer and typed it all up for me. He didn’t roll his eyes or sigh

8. Trust your gut

Lastly, if you feel uncomfortable at any time, leave! There are plenty of other places that want your business. Never feel obliged to stick around for a repair if you don’t feel right about it.

And you can try to look for a female mechanic, but realize the odds are long. In 2010, this country had just shy of 100,000 “miscellaneous vehicle and mobile equipment mechanics, installers, and repairers,” says the U.S. Department of Labor.

How many were women? Exactly 792. That’s 0.8 percent.

Weirdly, more women than men have driver’s licenses in this country, says a recent study. Women also represent the majority of customers at repair shops, according to the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence.

And that’s good news for you.

“This is power of the purse,” says Fix. “The auto industry repair business gets $62 billion a year, and everybody wants a piece of the pie. The only way that’s going to happen is if you start treating women appropriately. Look us in the eye!”

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