If you’re looking for cheap auto body shops, be careful what you wish for — car body repair done cheaply is not always done well.
“Modern cars are so complex that body repairs are often much more challenging than what it might look like on the surface,” says Michael Calkins, manager of technical services at AAA. However, quality auto body work done for a reasonable price is available if you know how to find it.
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If an insurance company is involved and handling a claim for you, it might try to steer you to a shop with which it has a relationship. But generally you can choose your own, and you may want to. Here's how to make the decision.
What type of auto body shop do you need?
To get the right repair at the right price, you’ll first need to select the right type of shop — the best business to fix a dime-sized dent may not be the one you’d choose to correct a mangled bumper. Here’s a rundown of the various options.
Dealership repair shops specialize in your brand of car, and while they are pricey, there are reasons you might want to choose one.
Dealerships use parts from the manufacturer, called original equipment manufacturer, or OEM, parts. This means they’ll be the same quality as the one being replaced and should seamlessly match the car.
The parts are readily accessible, which can reduce repair time
Dealership technicians are held to high standards and receive regular training on a particular brand, though this probably translates to higher labor costs
Independent body shops are cheaper than dealerships, and though quality varies widely, you’ll have more options to choose from.
Independent shops can likely get new or used OEM parts or cheaper aftermarket (non-manufacturer) parts, giving you more choice and possibly saving you money
Depending on the shop, experience and expertise of technicians will vary
You’ll likely have better access to the person working on your car to discuss the work that was done
Specialty auto body shops include those that work only on luxury cars, classic cars, high-end sports cars or specific brands.
If your damaged car is your baby, or if it’s rare, this may be your best option because technicians are highly specialized
Similar to dealerships, parts are readily accessible
Paintless dent repair is an option for small- to medium-size dents where the paint isn’t damaged. A technician uses special tools to massage dents away. These specialists will usually come to your home or work at your convenience.
Also called paintless dent removal, the process is relatively affordable because there’s no need to repaint the damaged area, and mobile technicians don’t have the overhead costs of a traditional body shop
Costs start around $100 for small dents on some parts of the vehicle
You can probably send a photo for an estimate and compare providers before choosing one, rather than take your car into shops
Should you choose the insurer’s preferred auto body shop?
If your body repair is tied to a car insurance claim, the insurer will no doubt have an opinion on where you should go: a collision repair shop they have vetted and contracted with. They have an interest in sending you to their preferred or “direct” repair shop, but you’re free to go elsewhere, with few exceptions.
Many independent auto body shops participate in insurers’ direct repair programs, so compare the preferred shop alongside others you research if you’re asked to use one.
Choosing a shop on your own
No matter what, it’s wise to research more than one auto body repair shop.
You could go from place to place, getting several estimates, but let’s be real: Time is money and that could take all day — maybe several days.
Instead, narrow it down to two or three car body shops you’ll get estimates from. Word of mouth can be your best friend here. Whittle down your list by:
Asking for referrals from friends, family and other locals. Be sure to ask specifics about what they like, the quality of work and time it took to repair the damage.
Checking Yelp, Angie’s List and Google reviews. Even the best shops will have an occasional unhappy customer, so focus on trends within reviews. Look for any overall positive ratings for shops you haven’t heard of, and check for trends in negative reviews of shops you’ve been referred to.
Call your finalists to ask about their estimating process and schedule — if one is booked out for weeks you may not want to wait. Additionally, estimates for serious damage can be labor-intensive, says Calkins. “So, some shops charge for estimates due to the time and labor that’s involved,” he adds, noting that they might deduct the cost of the estimate from the final bill if you authorize the work.
What to look for and ask at auto body shops
Once you have your shortlist of shops, start with the front-runner; you might feel good enough about the first shop that you go ahead without getting a second estimate.
Promising visual cues at an upstanding shop, according to Calkins, include:
Clean, modern facilities
Technicians’ training certificates on the wall
Certificates, which indicate the shop has met stringent standards, such as these: AAA’s Approved Auto Body Repair, I-CAR Gold Class, ASE Blue Seal of Excellence and NSF Collision Repair
Before you agree to having any work done, be sure to ask:
Does the shop guarantee its work or offer lifetime warranties? Not all do, but the warranty reflects the quality of materials and paint. “There’s nothing wrong with a cheap paint job if you have a cheap car and just want it to look better,” says Calkins. “That’s probably not the goal if you have a 2-year-old car.”
Will they use OEM, aftermarket or used parts? This will heavily affect cost — but you might not want to scrimp here. Though OEM parts are expensive, some experts recommend them for collision and other auto body repairs.
Can they itemize your estimate? Separating the costs for parts and labor can help you compare in an apples-to-apples manner.
Can they match estimates, within reason? If two estimates are very different, however, compare them closely — the cheaper shop might be cutting corners.