What to Look for When Reviewing a Car Repair Estimate

1945 Repair Bill
This car-repair receipt from 1945 notes a transmission overhaul charge of $15 – not a bad deal!

Unless you enjoy turning a wrench, car repair and maintenance is a necessary evil. Car repair estimates always seem so unfair and often include repairs that didn’t really seem necessary. The whole experience is taxing, but with this list of suggestions, we can help shrink your repair bills, ensuring a better experience and a well-running car for years to come.

If, like 80% of vehicles, yours is out of warranty, odds are you spend more money with your mechanic on a yearly basis than your dentist, and hopefully with far less pain. But the stigma of the unscrupulous mechanic persists – many people would rather have a tooth pulled than get their car repaired. To be sure you’re in a good shop, look for a mechanic who will take time to explain your vehicle repair needs and dissect the estimated costs in detail prior to the repair.

Maintenance Pays Dividends

Some repairs are unavoidable, but if you anticipate your vehicle’s needs by regularly maintaining it, like cleanings at the dentist, you’ll stave off more costly repairs in the future. Oil changes, new tires and brake fixes are just a few basic vehicle repairs that you will need to have done over the course of the life of any car. You could save time and money by planning in advance, so when there is an emergency you’re not searching for roadside assistance, then at the mercy of the garage to which you’ve been towed. Before maintenance or a breakdown is looming, look for a trustworthy mechanic, and get those items checked and fixed, if necessary.

Perhaps the easiest, most relatable example of the importance of maintenance is the oil change, which typically costs between $30-60. Depending upon the type of oil your car takes, you should get an oil change every 3,000-10,000 miles. If you never had your oil changed, and never checked its levels, your engine could seize due to a lack of oil. What happens then? You’d have to spend thousands of dollars on a used or new engine. Regular vehicle maintenance is money in the bank.

Labor Rates: Weigh Quality vs. Expense

We all want to have a good job done at a reasonable cost, but what does that really mean? If a repair shop or car dealer’s labor rates are $150 per hour, is the work performed twice as well as the shop down the street that charges $75?

Most dealerships charge an upper-end labor rate because of the training their technicians receive and the special tools for the car line in which they specialize. Oftentimes, you’ll be able to find an independent shop near you that specializes in your certain make or type of car, and that will have equivalent training and tools. Thanks to the Internet, virtually everyone has access to highly specific vehicle make and model information, so neither a dealership nor an independent shop would hold an advantage there.

On the other hand, a bargain hourly rate could backfire. The car repair industry has few requirements or licenses. You don’t want a cut-rate ‘technician’ repairing your car with a broken hammer and a butter knife. Always choose a shop which has good customer reviews and whose techs are ASE certified. And deals on labor rates aren’t necessarily a bad sign — if a repair shop is new to the area and in need of extra work to fill its open bays, a low-hourly-rate promo could be a helpful way for it to acquire new customers. Just do your homework.

If your repairs require extensive labor, look into it. A shop could be charging more hours of labor for the same job or add in an extra charge or two in hopes it might go unnoticed. But information is on your side – industry-standard repair times are published in various online catalogues, such as Alldata and Mitchell, and they indicate the average time an appropriately skilled technician will need to complete a job. Most shops will add a few tenths of an hour to a job on older cars due to rust and corrosion, which is acceptable. Watch out for shops that unreasonably inflate labor times, especially for basic jobs, such as brakes or suspensions. Ask to see the published labor rate for the job, or arm yourself beforehand by researching your repair time on the Internet. Review the bill item by item. Make sure the total matches the quote.

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Fees: Which Are Legit & Which Aren’t?

Occasionally, a shop will include disposal fees or shop fees at the end of your car repair estimate. Those may cost you up to $30 more than the original quote.

Some of the fees are legitimate – it costs money to safely dispose of oil or old tires. Other fees, such as shop fees, can be shady ways to gain a few more dollars for no extra service. All fees should be included in the original quote, rather than quietly folded into the final bill. Be sure to request any vehicle repair estimate in writing, and ask for it to include the breakdown of parts, labor, any additional fees and taxes. When you’ve got that in hand, pay only for what you were quoted and be firm.

Skill Level Matters

Shops and dealerships will bill you their hourly rate regardless of the skill of the technician on the job. Ask about the technicians the shop employs, and if they are fully ASE or factory certified. Don’t be afraid to ask to see the certifications or talk with the technicians. Some shops claim to be ASE certified, yet have only one certified technician out of the multiple technicians employed.

A poor technician will cost you money and time, and more than you think. Beyond the standard repairs, many car problems require a decent amount of diagnosing. Skill and experience will save time on labor rates. Rather than test to confirm the issue, some disreputable shops and technicians will just throw pricey parts at a problem until it is solved. An unskilled technician will guess the issue and attempt to repair it. A good technician will offer facts about the problem, be willing to show you what’s wrong, and create a solution.

If you find yourself making multiple visits to a shop to fix the same problem, you might be in the wrong place. Sometimes, it’s worth an extra $10-$20 per hour in labor rates for an experienced technician. The one who’s “seen it all” will be better able to diagnose and fix your car properly the first time, and put you back on the road within the original car repair estimate.

Parts Are Important, Too

You should know the quality of the part installed in the car and feel you paid a reasonable price for it. Parts are not created equal, so ask about the brand that will be installed on your car. Unless you drive a clunker, look for the same brand as the one supplied by your vehicle’s manufacturer (OEM, or original equipment manufacturer) or one of equal quality. Many companies that produce parts for the factory also sell the same part under their own name, and could cost less money. Avoid any generic or low-quality store-brand part, if possible, unless the price is acceptable and ownership of the car is short-lived.

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Markup on parts is inevitable. Most shops mark up parts anywhere from 50-200% over the wholesale price. So if you find a part that costs $100 at a car parts retailer, don’t assume your shop is overcharging you if they charge you $200 for it – after all, they’ve got to cover overhead costs like rent, utilities and health insurance.

You do, however, need to beware of being gouged on low-cost, low-quality parts. Many shops will charge the going rate for a job, but install cheap parts that are marked up 200%. Before committing to a job, find out what part the shop offers and spend time comparison shopping for alternatives. Use other stores’ prices to negotiate a better deal. Or better yet, ask what the shop would charge if you were to provide your own parts. Most shops won’t do it – imagine a chef’s reaction if you brought your own steak to a restaurant! – but if you demonstrate a real need and find a sympathetic repair shop, you might be in luck.

If you constantly feel the price is unfairly high or that you must negotiate each and every time a repair is done, you probably have the wrong garage. Look for a good garage that will install the same or equivalent parts that came with the car and that will charge a fair rate.

Do It Yourself or Just Know Thy Car

The back-yard repair is a tough task for those of us who aren’t trained mechanics. Cars have become more complicated as they have become more compact. Open a hood on just about any model these days, and even finding where to check the oil may be a daunting task. This is intentional. Many vehicle manufacturers want their products serviced by dealerships, rather than do-it-yourselfers, in order for their cars to have a better chance of running better and longer.

A more productive approach would be to take time getting to know your car and what it will need and when. You’ll get more bang for your buck by keeping regular track of your vehicle’s maintenance schedule than tending to the repairs yourself.

Know when to change the oil (many cars do not need oil changes every 3,000 miles), know when to rotate your tires, and when to change the spark plugs. Be informed, so that when the shop calls to recommend a coolant flush or transmission fluid, you’re able to confidently decline, knowing that service isn’t needed until 100,000 miles. The owner’s manual is a great starting point – pay particular attention to the recommended-maintenance section, which outlines what your vehicle needs to run better and longer. To create brand loyalists, it behooves the manufacturer to control vehicle repair costs.

Trust Your Gut

Most people aren’t familiar with cars, and don’t have unlimited funds, so it’s understandable that most people have a negative association with vehicle repair. A good automotive technician should take time to explain what’s needed now and in the future, what you’re paying for, and why it’s important. Explain your concerns and seek honest advice so the shop techs may better understand your needs. Potential customers rely heavily on online reviews, and it’s in every shop’s interest to create happy customers who feel well-informed about their inevitable regular visits for car repair and maintenance.


Image credit: Peter Schinkel, Flickr.com

This article was written by Rob Infantino, founder and CEO of Openbay, for Credit.com, where it was first published, then syndicated to Tampa’s ABC Action News, among others.