What To Know Before You Visit An Auto Repair Shop

VIDEO: How to protect yourself the next time you go to the auto repair shop.
ABCNEWS.com

You don't have to know that much about cars, as long as you know the rules of car repair. Here are some key pieces of knowledge that will smooth your ride.

5 Methods of Overcharging at the Auto Shop

1. Add on repairs: Fixing your problem but also doing additional work that you don't need.

2. Phantom repairs: Charging you for repairs they don't do at all.

3. Bait and Switch: Advertising great specials, then pressuring you to buy more services once you're in the door.

4. Periodic maintenance: Selling elaborate maintenance packages well beyond what the manufacturer recommends.

5. Warranty items: Charging you for work that's covered by your warranty.

5 Ways to Find a Trustworthy Mechanic

AAA-certified auto repair facilities: AAA-approved shops are required to offer members a 12-month, 12,000-mile warranty on their work. Their estimates are guaranteed. And if you still have a problem, AAA will investigate your claim and resolve it. Use the link above or visit AAA.com to find a member mechanic in your area.

Automotive Service Association:: Another source of shops is the Automotive Service Association, ASA. It's a voluntary membership organization. When shops join, they pledge to uphold high ethical standards.

Automotive Service Excellence: This organization tests mechanics' knowledge and recognizes "Blue Seal" shops, where most of the mechanics have earned their ASE certificate. Just be sure the individual tech you work with has earned certification in the type of repair you are getting.

Better Business Bureau: If a shop joins the Better Business Bureau, that's no guarantee they're good, but it means they have pledged to uphold a code of ethics and if you have a problem, the BBB will mediate for you.

CarTalk: Click and Clack have retired, but their hilarious talk show "Car Talk" continues. Car Talk listeners swap mechanic referrals with each other and there are now more than 30,000 listings on the show's website, so you can check out what your fellow customers are saying. Just be sure to read between the lines in case shops have reviewed themselves!

5 ways to Check Out A Shop Before You Go There

Better Business Bureau: The BBB keeps records of consumer complaints against companies. You can look up the info in two minutes online.

Attorney General: Some state attorneys general investigate automotive shops and may provide a complaint database you can check.

State Consumer Protection: If the attorney general in your state does not get involved, another state agency may. Use this link to find it.

County Consumer Protection: If you're really lucky, you live in a county that has its own consumer protection office. Click here to find out.

The Internet: And finally, Google 'em. Google the name and city of the shop with words like "scam," ripoff" or "complaint" and see if anything comes up.

5 Ways To Make Sure You Get a Fair Shake at the Shop

Written estimates required: Most states require mechanics to give you a written estimate. Insist on it. 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 10 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 10 percent."

Get a Second Opinion: Once you find a trustworthy mechanic, stick with them -- with one exception: If your mechanic tells you you need a repair that's so expensive it's a financial hardship for you, seek a second opinion. Mechanics, like doctors, can diagnose more than one problem from the same set of symptoms. Getting a second opinion is simply a check-up, a cross reference, before you spend a pile of money. If the second opinion confirms the first, you can return to the original shop to get the work done.

Know the labor rate: Most states require shops to post their hourly labor rates and are required to charge each customer that same rate. From there, they usually consult a computer program called a "labor table" that tells them how many hours a particular job should take. Your estimate will likely be based on book time, though the shop's actual time doing the work could vary. But there are three major labor tables. And sometimes they cite different times! So if your labor estimate seems high, ask the shop if it has access to another labor table that may be lower. I find this confusing. Labor rates can be negotiable.

Ask for your parts back: In most states, it is your right and a way of verifying that new parts were, indeed, installed. Just informing the shop that you want them back puts the mechanic on notice that you know what you're doing (even if you don't!). If it's a major, expensive repair, ask whether the parts have "core value," which means they can be rebuilt and sold on the secondary market. If the mechanic wants to keep them, ask to be compensated for that value.

You may not have to pay: If you take all the steps above and still run into problems, there are two -- legal-- ways not to pay the shop for the work. First option, put the bill on a credit card. You can then dispute the charges through your credit card company. Company policies differ, but you may not have to pay the bill while the matter is being resolved. Option two, in some jurisdictions, you can go down to the local courthouse and post a bond for the price of the repairs. The law varies from place to place, but either you or the mechanic must then file a small claims suit over the money. In some states, if the mechanic doesn't bother to file, you automatically get your money back.

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