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How Auto Mechanics May Be Overcharging You

Jan. 29, 2015
Managing Money, Personal Finance
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Karen Hennessey knew something wasn’t right when a local tire shop recommended more than $1,000 in repairs to her nearly brand-new Toyota Camry.

Hennessey, a mom of two and small-business owner in Melbourne, Florida, had just taken her car to a dealership for an oil change three days earlier. They said everything looked great. Once she told the tire technician as much, he “started mumbling and changing his story.”

“I told him I was disappointed I was being taken advantage of and I would never do business with them,” Hennessey said. “I warn everyone about that place.”

It’s safe to say many consumers put getting auto repairs right up there with going to the dentist. It hurts. It’s not fun. And you know you’re probably going to pay an arm and a leg.

While many mechanics are trustworthy, there are always those bad apples looking to make extra money off people’s ignorance. Here’s a look at some ways auto mechanics may be overcharging you and what to do about it:

Unnecessary flushes

Engine flushes. Transmission flushes. Power steering flushes. Coolant flushes.

There’s a lot of them. And many, if not most, aren’t needed when your mechanic says they are.

“Most people don’t realize that there is a manufacturer’s scheduled interval for changing out specific fluids. Many places will recommend flushes and unneeded services when you take your car in for a ‘discounted’ oil service,” Jill Trotta, certification manager at auto repair estimate site RepairPal, says.

Early brake jobs

Yes, brakes are really important to maintain. But when your mechanic comes to you concerned because your brake pads are worn down to 50%, don’t fall for it. Instead, wait until they’re worn to about 15% to 20% before scheduling a replacement, according to

Up-selling services

For many repair shops, an oil change is never just an oil change. It’s also a chance to sell you on services such as brake repairs, a transmission flush or tire alignment. Just say “no,” and read your owner’s manual to learn what services your car needs.

“If you have a new car with less than 50,000 miles on it, you probably don’t need something like an engine flush or fuel injector cleaning,” says Tony Molla, vice president of communications with the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence.

Overstating labor time

Depending on how the shop charges for labor, you could be paying for time your mechanic didn’t spend on your car. Some shops charge based on estimates from the manufacturer, while others bill for how much time was actually taken. In the latter case, it can be easy for mechanics to overstate those hours.

What you can do

First and foremost, educate yourself.

Read your owner’s manual and find out what your car’s manufacturer recommends as far as oil changes and other upkeep. Get quotes from multiple shops, and ask friends and family for shop recommendations.

“An informed consumer can’t be taken advantage of,” Molla says.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions, and if you still don’t understand, ask again. Then maybe get a second opinion. Also, ask for a written estimate before agreeing to any work, AAA technical services manager Mike Calkins suggests.

Visit car repair estimate sites like RepairPal and AutoMD. That way, you’ll know the price range for certain repairs on your vehicle before going in, RepairPal CEO Art Shaw says.

Of course, doing it yourself is always an option. Buying your own vehicle diagnostic code reader from an auto parts store can help you troubleshoot a “check engine” light without a mechanic. Just plug it into your car’s computer system, and interpret the trouble code readout. Some shops offer a free “check engine” light diagnosis, but then try to sell services you don’t need once you’re in the door.

It also pays to get to know a repair shop and the people who work there.

“Nobody is going to take advantage of someone they like,” Molla says.

Image via iStock.