Oct. 1, 2007 -- So this week I crashed my car. I'm perfectly fine and so is the other driver. But my car has some ugly "injuries" and suddenly I have to try to follow the advice I give to consumers all the time. Getting in a car accident is bad enough, but some consumers feel like fate comes crashing down on them a second time when they go to get their car repaired.
Shoddy work. Junkyard parts. Insurance-company influence. But even if your car is a tangle of metal, like something from a bad dream, getting it fixed doesn't have to be a nightmare. The key is in choosing the right auto body shop. It's an important choice because for most of us our car is our second biggest investment after our home.
Insurance companies are not supposed to force you to use their chosen shop. That's called "steering." But most insurers keep a list of approved shops that they've worked with in the past. And it's one way to narrow your choices down. Once you have that list, ask friends, colleagues -- your mechanic -- if they can recommend any of the shops on the list. If not, maybe they have another strong recommendation.
Next, check out the reputations of the shops people have recommended by calling or going online. Contact your local Better Business Bureau (BBB), your county consumer affairs office (if there is one) and your state consumer protection office. You should be able to find out the number of complaints, the nature of those complaints and how they were resolved.
Find out whether the body shop belongs to any professional organizations. For example, shops that belong to the Automotive Service Association (ASA) pledge to uphold a code of ethics. You can call (800) ASA-SHOP for a referral. Some auto body shops also belong to ACRA -- America's Collision Repair Association. See if the technicians are certified to do body work by ASE -- Automotive Service Excellence.
Some insurance companies allow certain shops to do their own adjusting work, rather than waiting for an adjuster from the insurance company to come out and look at your car. This could save you time. Plus, since the auto body shop wants to make money and wants to do a thorough job, if they do their own adjusting you may get the better benefit of the doubt.
Once you go to the shop, make sure it has a professional appearance and works on newer, nicer cars. Ask the shop if it regularly works on your make and model and has the equipment recommended by your vehicle manufacturer.
Some insurance companies pressure customers to accept generic parts. Auto body experts say most of these parts are of lighter weight than the originals. If you must use generic body parts, ask about the CAPA seal of approval. CAPA is the Certified Automotive Parts Association, a group that tests auto parts.
You may also run into junkyard parts. If your car is fairly new, don't accept junkyard parts. If you have an older car, it's not as much of a problem.
When it's time to pick up your car, study it carefully. Test every single button, switch and lock in the car to make sure it works -- even the stereo. Make sure the doors, hood and trunk open and close smoothly. Examine the paint in bright sunlight to make sure the color matches. I once had to have major body work on a car after somebody fell asleep at the wheel and plowed into it as it sat parallel parked on the street. For three months afterward, I discovered additional problems because I didn't test every last thing before I left the body shop.
To Be a Savvy Consumer:
Carefully choose which collision repair facility will work on your car.
Don't feel pressured to accept generic parts or junkyard parts. Remember, the body shop works for you, not your insurance company.
Put your car through its paces before you take it home.
Where to Complain:
If you're unhappy with an auto body shop, report them to any professional organizations they belong to and file a complaint with your county or state consumer protection office. Also file a complaint with the BBB.