Don’t let unnecessary car repairs crank up more credit card debt.

4 minute read

If you’re like many consumers, you probably don’t have extensive knowledge of the parts and pieces that keep your car running smoothly. When your vehicle starts making clunking noises or alarming notices light your dashboard, you probably visit a mechanic to find out what’s going on.

Most mechanics are honest, but some are not as trustworthy, so it helps to know what to look out for when it comes to rip-offs favored by mechanics out to jack up your repair bill.

“The best way to avoid auto repair rip-offs is to be prepared,” advises the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). “Knowing how your vehicle works and how to identify common car problems is a good beginning.”

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1. Fanning “check engine” light fears

Engine check light on car dashboard. 3D rendered illustration

When the “check engine” in the dashboard lights up and stays on, it’s easy to imagine the worst. Is your engine going to leave you stranded on a highway or in the left turn lane at a busy intersection? Do you need a new engine?

The check engine light could signal anything from a loose gas cap to a misfiring engine, according to Consumer Reports. But a dishonest mechanic may take advantage of your worst engine-light fears.

The good news is you can probably get an idea of what’s going on with the check engine light by taking a trip to your local auto parts store. Stores such as Auto Zone will hook up a diagnostic machine that can detect engine misfires or other issues, so try that before scheduling an appointment with a mechanic.

Find out: 9 Ways to Save Money on Car Repairs

2. Slippery oil change upsells

It may be tempting to use the coupon received in the mail for a cheap oil change at the tire place down the street. However, the business offering the coupon probably won’t make a profit from your cheap oil change, so a dishonest technician could try to sell services or repairs you don’t need to come out ahead.

Instead of searching out the cheapest oil change in town, find and keep a mechanic you trust and have him change your oil, along with other regular vehicle maintenance.

Find out: 10 Easy Ways to Save Money on Cars

3. Non-itemized estimates

Non-itemized estimates

If you ask for a written estimate of repair costs and the mechanic or dealership prints an estimate that isn’t itemized, ask for a breakdown of parts and labor costs so you can see what you’re paying for.

An itemized estimate should identify the condition to be repaired, parts needed and anticipated labor repairs, according to the (FTC).

It’s easy to look up the cost of parts online to find out if an estimated price is fair, and you can even find the typical cost in your region for a specific repair at sites such as RepairPal.

4. Padded parts costs

Padded parts costs

Some mechanics may mark prices for parts up 10% to 20% to make a small profit, but if the markup is outrageous – 200% or 300%, for example – that markup has rip-off written all over it.

While the cost of auto parts may seem like a mysterious land that only mechanics may enter, it’s surprisingly easy to find auto part prices online.

Just search by your vehicle make and model number at auto parts stores or other auto parts websites. Ask the mechanic for the names of parts needed to make repairs and then look them up to make sure the prices he’s charging are fair.

5. Premature scheduled maintenance

Premature scheduled maintenance

If a mechanic insists you need to replace spark plugs and change the engine coolant on your car that has only 20,000 miles but the vehicle owner’s manual recommends those maintenance services at 100,000 miles, he could be selling you services you don’t need.

Automotive resource Edmunds.com recommends consulting your vehicle owner’s manual and bringing along the manufacturer’s scheduled maintenance charts when you visit the mechanic.

Find out: 8 Ways Your State Lemon Laws can Help You When Your Machine’s a Dud

6. Suspect front-end work

Suspect front-end work

The average person doesn’t know much about how the front-end suspension on a vehicle works. So if you take your car in to get checked for a slightly vibrating steering wheel and the mechanic says you need expensive front end work, don’t be too quick to okay pricey repairs.

If a mechanic you don’t already trust says your car needs tie rod ends or ball joints and your car is still controllable and not making unusual sounds, seek a second opinion at another repair shop before paying for potentially unnecessary repairs, recommends automotive resource AutoWise.

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About the Author

Deb Hipp

Deb Hipp

Deb Hipp is a full-time freelance writer based in Kansas City, Mo. Deb went from being unable to get approved for a credit card or loan 20 years ago to having excellent credit today and becoming a homeowner. Deb learned her lessons about money the hard way. Now she wants to share them to help you pay down debt, fix your credit and quit being broke all the time. Deb's personal finance and credit articles have been published at Credit Karma and The Huffington Post.

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