How to Deal With Your Mechanic

Last week on ABC News Now's "Good Money" program, I talked about how to find and get a fair deal from a mechanic. After I got off the set, I realized there were so many more things I wanted to cover. So here they are.

I've written in the past about how to find a good mechanic. So I want to jump right into what to do once you're at the mechanic, handing over your keys and hoping you won't have to hand over your life savings.

The Approach

First step: when you tell them what sort of problem you're having with your car, be sure to describe symptoms, not diseases.

For instance, say, "It's stalling at stoplights," not, "I think there's a problem with the alternator." Remember, you're not the mechanic! You don't want to end up paying for some goofy repair that you dreamt up yourself. You want an estimate based on the mechanic's own expert assessment of the problem.

The Estimate

Labor is one factor that makes up the estimate. Although labor is often negotiable, mechanics rely on three major labor tables (now computerized) to estimate how long a repair job will take.

Amazingly, the number of hours for the same job can vary drastically from table to table. Bill B. of Maryland learned this the hard way when his Cadillac blew a water pump. Since he was on a Christmas road trip, he made a beeline for the first shop he saw and agreed to pay the book rate for labor. It was a simple job, so he was shocked when the shop charged him for three and a half hours. Other shops later quoted him anywhere from one hour to four hours! Turns out, each shop was using a different labor table.

If your labor estimate seems really high, ask the shop if it can try a different labor table. Alternatively, ask if the mechanic will do the job for whichever is lower: the actual number of hours he spends or the hours listed in the labor table. Remember, labor can be negotiable.

Parts are the other "part" of the estimate. For big jobs, be sure to ask if the shop plans to use new or rebuilt parts and the price difference. New parts may give you peace of mind, but rebuilt ones could bring a big savings. If you have chosen your mechanic well, they are now a trusted advisor and you can ask if it's a critical repair that should have the best possible parts, or whether rebuilt ones will do.

Second Opinions

If your mechanic says your car needs major work with a major price tag, then forget the "trusted advisor" concept for a minute and seek a second opinion. I'm not saying your mechanic is lying to you. It's just that mechanics, like doctors, can diagnose more than one problem from the same set of symptoms. So, pick a price threshold that's comfortable for you and resolve that you will get a second opinion for any repair over X dollars.

Mark L. of Florida noticed that his car was pulling to the left. The first shop he visited recommended complicated, expensive repairs to the tune of $1,400. Since Mark was skeptical, he decided to get a second opinion. He took his vehicle to another mechanic who simply recommended new tires for $400. He saved $1,000!

Get it in Writing

Most states require mechanics to give you a written estimate. Be sure the estimate lists the symptoms to be repaired plus the parts and labor needed for this job. You don't want an estimate that just lists the repair that the mechanic is going to make. The reason? You want the mechanic to be obligated to fix the root problem rather than performing some specific procedure that may be off-base. On the flip side, avoid estimates that are just long laundry lists of parts, because who's to say those parts will fix the problem?

Up Charging

Red alert! The number one problem people have with car repair is when they expect to pay the price the mechanic estimated, and then the price goes up -- way up. In many states, it's actually against the law for the mechanic to perform the extra work without your approval, but it happens all the time. You can avoid this by knowing the law. In most states, once the shop gives you a written estimate, it's required to contact you if that estimate is going to rise more than ten percent.

If your state doesn't require shops to ask your permission before doing additional work, take the law into your own hands. With a pen. Write on the service ticket either "not to exceed X dollars" or "mechanic must contact customer if price is going to rise more than ten percent."

Test Drive

Another hot tip that I learned through personal experience: always test drive your vehicle before you pay.

Soon after I bought my second car, it started to shake and shudder every time I changed gears. I was convinced it was a transmission problem, but the dealer said it was something minor and claimed to have fixed it. During the post-mortem test drive, the car did its crazy sputtering, stuttering routine again -- with the service tech right there beside me. He was forced to admit that there was a major transmission problem and fixed the problem for real with three days left on the warranty!

Ha! How often does that happen? I was so lucky! But really, when it comes to car repair, you can make your own luck, by making the right moves.

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