You’re taking your car over to the shop for a much-needed repair, hopefully under your own power instead of on a flatbed. Your first concerns are understandable: how much? and how long? That’s the bottom line of the potentially awkward conversation you’re about to have with the service desk. Do a little research beforehand, if you can. Openbay is a good place to start. An educated customer is a better customer, right?
Here’s what you need to keep in mind when reviewing your car repair estimate:
First off, always get a written car repair estimate before you approve any work. The law requires your signature on the repair order before work commences. That way, both you and the repair shop know exactly what’s expected. Refusing to provide a written estimate is a big red flag.
Don’t be intimidated when you look at the estimate. Take a few minutes to go over it line-by-line. Similarly, you should go over the car repair estimate after the work is performed, when there may be more information available.
Generally, car repair estimates will be divided into two sections: labor and parts.
Reviewing Your Car Repair Estimate: Parts
Hopefully, there will be a line-by-line list of parts (maybe even including the part numbers) for the repair. Actually, the part numbers may not be on the initial estimate, because the service writer may simply not had time to look them up. And if you’re getting some routine work done, like a brake service for example, the shop’s advertised price may simply include any parts that may be needed. Routine brake repairs are an example, with new pads, minor hardware, disc surfacing and labor all bundled into one fixed price. Other more complicated repairs may require some diagnostics before a firm estimate can be made.
Auto parts come in three flavors: dealer-sourced, aftermarket and used.
- If you’re getting your car repaired at the dealer, you’ll be getting dealer parts bearing the logo of your car manufacturer, often at a premium price. Aftermarket repair shops may use parts they’ve gotten from the dealer, or they may use parts from aftermarket suppliers. Rest assured, many of these aftermarket parts are actually identical to the ones from the dealer, differing only in the label on the box and the price. Other more common parts may be more generic, and you’ll need to trust the shop to use what’s appropriate. Expect to pay somewhat less for aftermarket parts compared to dealer parts.
- Used parts have the potential to save you a substantial amount of money, at least initially. The willingness of any shop to install used parts is a function of their availability (is there an auto recycling center, sometimes referred to as a “junkyard” nearby?), the type of clientele, and your level of desperation. Generally, used normal-wear items like brake discs, shocks, alternators and starters are not an overall savings long-term. On the other hand, if you’re traveling through a remote part of the country with an oddball car, a used part might get you back on the road sooner. Generally, your best value isn’t a used part because you really have no idea of its history, or how long it will last once its installed on your car.
Reviewing Your Car Repair Estimate: Labor
Sometimes the technician will need to do some poking around or testing before he’s able to make a diagnosis. If so, the initial car repair estimate will only be for the initial diagnosis—and should clearly state so. Don’t sign an open-ended repair order. Once the technician has a firm diagnosis, the service desk can prepare a more accurate, detailed estimate for your approval. If you trust the shop, that approval could come over the phone, if you’re not still drumming your fingers and still riffling through year-old copies of Field&Stream in the waiting room…
After the repair is finished, the repair order should have a full accounting of the diagnostic procedures performed and the specific repairs made. Read through it line-by-line. Don’t be afraid to ask the service rep for an explanation. Any reputable shop will be happy to walk you through the bill. Every labor charge should be itemized, although some procedures may be included in others. For instance, replacing a water pump means that the cooling system must be drained and refilled. The labor rate to replace the pump doesn’t necessarily include flushing and refilling the system. Ask.
What is flat-rate billing?
Most repair shops work from the “book”, a listing of the time it should take to do any particular repair on your vehicle. It’s called a “flat-rate” book, because the labor is charged at a flat rate, regardless of that actual time the technician spends wrenching. Generally, this works to your advantage: if the technician is having a bad day, if parts aren’t available instantly or there’s a minor problem getting some rusty bolts out, you’re not on the hook for additional labor time. Many shops pay their mechanics by the flat-rate book time as well, while others keep them on salary. Either way, you won’t be charged more than the estimate. Bear in mind that you won’t be charged less, either.
Many shops add a flat charge to the bill to pay for their overhead. That includes sundry like used oil and filter disposal, recycling tires and batteries, shop rags and the maintenance of the parts washer. This charge may or may not be included on your estimate, only on your final bill.
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