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.”
1. Fanning “check engine” light fears
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.
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.
3. 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
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
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.
6. 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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Don’t get scammed on car repairs
When the mechanic tasked with diagnosing your car’s latest issue tells you that he can fix the problem for $1,000 – or thousands of dollars – you may simply pay with a credit card and resign yourself to one more debt. But what if you could spend less for auto repairs?
By devoting time to research and preventive maintenance – along with treating your car, truck or SUV like a friend rather than a metallic beast of burden – you may be able to save money that you’d otherwise spend on expensive auto repairs.
1. Ask around for mechanic recommendations
Unless you’re stranded on the side of the road in an unfamiliar town, you likely have many mechanics from which to choose.
Rather than just picking the auto repair shop or dealership closest to home, ask friends, family, and coworkers to point you towards honest, knowledgeable and skilled mechanics. If you’re on a neighborhood Facebook group or online forum, ask there, too.
2. Stick with a good mechanic
When you find a good mechanic that you trust is honest, stick with him. Not only will he know more about your car and its history than a mechanic who’s looking at the vehicle for the first time, but he’ll also appreciate the recurring business and opportunity to develop a business relationship based on trust.
Unlike some disreputable mechanics, someone you have an established relationship with isn’t as likely to rattle off a long list of unnecessary repairs needed. And if he does, an honest mechanic will give you a realistic timeline for which repairs you should take care of immediately and those you can put off longer.
3. Perform troubleshooting research
When your car makes grinding, roaring or other noises, you can glean helpful information on causes from auto forums, especially those focused on your vehicle’s make and model. You can also narrow down possible issues on an auto diagnosis site such as AutoMD.
That way, you’ll have a bit of knowledge before you take the vehicle to a mechanic. Be careful, though. Not everything you read online is accurate.
4. Get a second opinion
Unless you have no choice but to get a high-priced repair from an unfamiliar mechanic, it pays to get a second or third opinion. If you can drive your car to another mechanic for diagnosis, that’s best. But even if you can’t, you can still call around to find out if the price quoted is close to average for your area.
Check sites such as RepairPal to find the typical cost in your area for a specific repair.
5. Read online reviews
Check reviews on Yelp and other review sites to get a feel for the auto repair shop’s expertise and honesty. Keep in mind that review sites always have at least one person with a gear to grind, so try to look at the overall satisfaction level.
6. Drive like you care about your car
Riding the brake or clutch wears auto parts out faster. Racing over potholes can damage tires, wheels, suspension and steering. Switching from reverse to drive without stopping can wreck the transmission. And running with low fuel on a regular basis can hasten the need for a fuel pump replacement.
7. Follow maintenance schedules
Read your vehicle owner’s manual for recommended maintenance schedules and replacement of certain parts. Even if you can’t afford to replace a part on schedule, putting that potential expense on your radar allows you to save up or set aside enough for new brakes, tires, timing belt or chain or other parts that wear out eventually.
8. Get regular oil changes
Changing your oil regularly is one of the best things you can do for your vehicle. That’s because when your engine runs, bits of metal, dirt and carbon get into the oil, causing greater wear on your engine, according to automotive marketplace CarGurus.
“The non-synthetic oil that was traditionally used in the past always had a 3,000-mile rule of thumb, but most cars today run on synthetic, which can safely last between 5,000 and 10,000 miles, depending on the type,” according to CarGurus. Consult your owner’s manual for suggested frequency.
9. Buy your own parts
Purchasing auto parts yourself may not always be possible, and some mechanics may not allow it. However, if you can buy parts from an auto store or reputable online dealer, you may pay less than a dealership or auto repair shop would charge.
When it comes to small parts like brake light bulbs and windshield wipers, don’t pay a mechanic for parts and labor that you or the auto parts store employee can easily install for minimal cost.
Save money on car maintenance
Some of the most common car repairs happen to be some of the easiest to do yourself, which can save you the steep bill from the auto repair shop. Read your owner’s manual for the when, what, and how to maintain your vehicle. Visit Youtube for your specific make and model if you are a visual learner. Not only will you save some green you’ll feel the pride you did it yourself!
Here are the most common repairs needed, how much they cost, and how to do them at home…
1. Change your air filter
A clogged air filter affects your car’s gas mileage, slows it down, and may cause strange noises when your car is idling. Fortunately, changing the filter yourself is easy to do. Experts recommend changing the filter every 10,000 to 15,000 miles.
Level of difficulty: Easy
Time required: 10 minutes
Cost: $15-$20 for a new air filter
Instructions: Open up the black plastic case with metal clips on the sides underneath your car’s hood. Flip the clips downward. Pop out the filter, which is a rubber ring surrounding a bunch of folded-up paper. Make sure you take note of how the filter is sitting in the housing and put the new, clean one in its place.
2. Fill up your windshield wiper fluid
Everyone hates that annoying moment when you’re driving through a dust cloud and reach for the windshield wipers to clear the dirt away, only to find that your fluid is either low or gone.
Level of difficulty: Easy
Time required: 5-10 minutes
Cost: Less than $5
Instructions: Lift the hood of your car and look for a cap that displays a windshield wiper near the front of the engine. Take the cap off and pour the windshield fluid into the container, using a funnel if need be. Fill the container to the line and you’re all done.
3. Change your oil
One of the most fundamental car service checkups is changing your car’s motor oil. Check if your oil is low by pulling out the dipstick, wiping it clean, dipping it back into the container, and checking whether it’s between the two markers on the dipstick, which may or may not be labeled.
Level of difficulty: Moderate
Time required: 1 hour
Cost: $13-$30 for a 5-quart container of motor oil, $5-$15 for a new oil filter
Instructions: First, apply your car’s emergency brake. Then, open the hood and pull out the dipstick. This helps the oil drain better. Crawl underneath your car. Locate the engine’s oil pan and the oil drain plug, which is a long bolt head at the bottom of the pan. Get a container large enough to hold the old oil and place it under the drain plug. Loosen the drain plug using a wrench (remember: lefty-loosey, righty-tighty), making sure the container is placed directly underneath the plug. Let it drain for an hour or until you’re confident most of the oil has drained out.
Once the oil has finished draining, fasten the drain plug back on. Then locate the oil filter (check your owner’s manual if you aren’t sure what it looks like, since the location varies with the make and model of the car.) Remove the oil filter, carefully draining out any old oil still there in the process. Take out your new oil filter, and lubricate the rubber seal with fresh oil before screwing it on by hand. Then pour in the new oil, making sure you don’t overfill it. Run the engine when you’re finished to make sure everything is running smoothly.
4. Add coolant
This can be easy to overlook, but it’s important – your car can drastically overheat and cause a mechanical breakdown or engine failure if your coolant levels are low.
Level of difficulty: Easy
Time required: 10 minutes or less
Cost: Anywhere from $10 to $30 for one gallon, depending on which brand you buy
Instructions: Raise the hood and locate the radiator overflow tank. It will be right next to the radiator with a cap labeled “coolant” at the top. Pour in the coolant until it reaches the “line,” indicating it’s full enough.