Most common cons:
Scams of disreputable service centers contain one or both of two elements: (1) Charging you for work that was never done, or (2) Convincing you of the need for unnecessary and often overpriced repairs. Here are four different types of scams you could run into and ways to avoid them:
Unnecessary replacement of parts.
If the mechanic says your car needs a replacement part, ask to be shown which part needs replacing and use a marker or some means to distinguish it later. Always let the mechanic know that you want the old part back--this way you know the item was actually replaced. If you're still mistrustful, you can always have the part looked at by another mechanic to make sure it was defective.
Charge for unauthorized work.
Always request a repair estimate or work order that itemizes everything you've authorized. Don't sign a work order unless it's completely filled out and you understand what it says. Generally the cost of the repair should vary above the original estimate by no more than 10%. Before authorizing even more work, make sure you know the exact dollar amount. Never tell your mechanic, "Do whatever is necessary."
You can poll other shops to find out how much mechanics in your area are charging for common repairs and maintenance.
Charge for unnecessary work.
Beware if your mechanic's idea of "scheduled maintenance" bears little resemblance to the recommendations in your owner's manual. Some shops "build the ticket" (translation: pad the bill) by recommending extra and often unnecessary procedures, such as engine and transmission flushes, or by scheduling some tasks prematurely. Some hawk high-priced "generic" maintenance schedules that may omit procedures your car needs.
Be especially concerned if the shop makes every recommendation sound like an emergency
Misdiagnosis of a problem.
When a mechanic provides a diagnosis of your car's problem, ask questions. Make sure the diagnosis agrees with the symptoms. If your engine alert light is on, ask what causes that problem. Check temperature and oil pressure warning lights immediately. If you're unsure, read your owner's manual and don't continue driving until you understand the warning's significance.
A good defense against virtually any scam, and particularly for any expensive repair, is to get a second opinion. This is particularly important when it comes to automatic transmission repairs where it's difficult to tell if the mechanic is being honest about repair work. If you can still drive the car, just take it to another shop and see if you get the same diagnosis. If the second shop suggests a different repair, you should ask about the repairs recommended by the first shop--it could be a case of something being overlooked by the first shop, the second one, or both.
Even the best shops can make mistakes, so every bad repair isn't necessarily an attempted rip-off. If you suspect you're being "taken for a ride," the first step is to ask for the manager if there is a definite chain of command. When problems don't get resolved as quickly as they should, it's best to avoid angry confrontations. Be certain to let the right person know that you're following the proper procedures and have been frustrated in your efforts.
Make the mechanic justify the initial repair. Even if it was an honest misdiagnosis, the shop should refund the amount of the first repair or discount the next one. If the mechanic gets the diagnosis wrong again, stop replacing parts and replace the shop.
How to talk to your mechanic
Getting the right repairs at a fair price depends partly on communicating with your mechanic. Here's what to say and to expect:
- Describe the problem fully. Provide as much information as possible. Write down the symptoms and when they occur. If possible, talk directly to the mechanic who will be working on your car.
- Don't offer a diagnosis. Avoid saying what you think is causing the problem. You may be on the hook for any repairs the shop makes at your suggestion, even if they don't solve the problem.
- Request a test drive. If the problem occurs only when the car is moving, ask the mechanic to accompany you on a test drive.
- Ask for evidence. If you're not comfortable with the diagnosis, ask the shop to show you. Worn brake pads or rusted exhaust pipes are easy to see. Don't let the mechanic refuse your request by saying that his insurance company doesn't allow customers into the work area. Insist on evidence anyway.
Choosing a Repair Shop Checklist
Here are some tips from the nonprofit National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (ASE) on finding a good repair establishment:
- Start shopping for a repair facility before you need one.
- Ask friends and associates for recommendations; consult local consumer organizations.
- Arrange for alternate transportation in advance so you will not feel forced to choose a shop based solely on location.
- Look for a neat, well-organized facility, with vehicles in the parking lot equal in value to your own and modern equipment in the service bays.
- Look for a courteous staff, with a service writer willing to answer all of your questions.
- Look for policies regarding labor rates, diagnostic fees, guarantees, acceptable methods of payment, etc.
- Ask if the repair facility specializes or if it usually handles your type of repair work.
- Look for signs of professionalism in the customer service area such as civic, community, or customer service awards.
- Look for evidence of qualified technicians: trade school diplomas, certificates of advanced course work, and certification by ASE.
- Reward good service with repeat business and customer loyalty.