“With great power there must also come great responsibility.” A popular catchphrase popularized by Stan Lee in an August, 1962 edition of Spider Man. Sometimes we can learn life lessons, even from comic books. Perhaps auto repair facilities can too.
When discussing vehicle repairs, the ‘power’ rests in the more than 165,000 establishments employing 720,000 automotive service technicians and mechanics. These facilities take in an estimated $85 billion annually from the car and truck drivers of America. But is all that money collect by honest means?
Not on your life. And I’m not going to sugar coat it either by saying that most vehicle service shops are honest and wouldn’t pad the bill or make suggestions on repairs you wouldn’t need. I simply believe that this is a regular occurrence at most repair facilities. When repair shops have knowledge and power, they can easily and seamlessly leverage fear and manipulation upon the unsuspecting car and truck owners. Small costs, big costs, little lies, big lies…it’s all dishonest.
It should come as no surprise that vehicle repair problems make up the largest group of consumer complaints. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that consumers lose tens of billions of dollars each year due to faulty or unnecessary vehicle repairs. This is due to a number of reasons such as relatively low cost of damages, difficulty proving the necessity of repairs, and the intent of the perpetrator.
Vehicle repair fraud, inclusive of deceptive trade practices is a national epidemic that literally flies under the radar. This is because most drivers don’t have the inclination, time, or persistence to hold unscrupulous mechanics and dealers’ feet to the fire. Ignorance costs money and some people would prefer to stay ignorant rather than taking the time to properly prepare and gain power in the transaction.
Okay future customers…let’s get some knowledge and leverage. First off, when you go into most medium to larger sized vehicle repair facilities, you are dealing with a service advisor rather than with a mechanic. Most service advisors or service writers may be or may have been mechanics, but are now salesmen for the company.
And you guessed it – most of these individuals are paid on straight commission based on labor time and parts sold. This means that their chief allegiance is geared more toward selling products and services rather than looking out for you as the customer. From this point forward, please assume that service advisors are not to be blindly trusted or that they are a caring friend looking out for you. The worst that can happen is that you’re wrong and they’re honest.
Auto mechanics in these same facilities work a bit differently. Sometimes they make straight commission that totals between 35-45% commissions on their labor. This is where cases of ‘padding the time’ comes in. How can a mechanic fit two 2-hour jobs in 3 hours? You figure it out. How would you know when you’re in the customer coffee break anyway?
In other cases, mechanics are paid on a flat fee per job type. In other words, their inclination is to get through as many jobs as possible in a day. Whether this means that the mechanic didn’t spend enough time on all their repairs is a suspicion that is certainly up for debate.
Key Sights and Strategies:
1. Make sure the facility displays both an up-to-date state license AND certification, from either ASE9 or AAA.
2. If it’s engine problems, the facility must have a good engine analyzer/scan tool, instead of relying on “their experience”
3. If you are going to a shop for a second opinion, DON’T tell them it’s a second opinion visit and DON’T tell them what the other facility said. Let them figure out and price it themselves – the compare notes.
4. If you are getting new tires ask to be shown the BUILD DATE. Some tire companies offer great deals because you are buying tires that are actually several years old.
5. If you purchased the car from a dealer, even some time ago, call and consult them. Often times, an item may still be under warranty and the dealership will be paid by the manufacturer for the repair.
Attention! The most common scams, according to many vehicle repair whistle-blowers and vehicle trade organizations:
- Changing the transmission fluid too early and frequently
- Premature replacement of spark plugs
- Finding “new problems” during a simple oil change
- Misreporting wear and condition on brake pads toward selling replacements
- Commencing repair work on your vehicle without first getting your authorization to perform the repair work
- Representing that work and services had been done or parts had been replaced in your vehicle, when, in actuality, the work and services were not done and the parts were not replaced
- Charging customers for parts that weren’t used, as well as charging for the labor required to install the non-existent replacement. It’s a double rip-off!
- Adding labor time
- Cutting the rubber boots that cover your axle and charging you an expensive repair.
- Alignments done every 5,000 or 10,000 miles
- Fuel injection cleaning service
- Adding on shop supplies and disposal fees
Now that I’ve done my best to drag down the vehicle repair industry, let me give my politically correct statement by saying that there are many reputable auto repair facilities, service advisors, and auto mechanics. There – done. Now for my suggestions to combat situations which will most likely happen so long as you drive a car or truck.
First, as I wrote earlier, the very best thing you can do is find an auto repair center that is an AAA Approved Auto Repair facility, or is a part of the ASE “Blue Seal of Excellence Recognition Program”. Among other things, these companies need to go through a background check, have a strong community rating with the BBB, and employ ASE (Automotive Service Excellence) technicians. For mechanics, ASE certification is achieved only after rigorous training and testing.
Second, get several recommendations from your friends, family, and co-workers; then match up the recommend facilities with the AAA list. When there is a match, do a Google, BBB, and/or Yelp search to make sure there are no consistent complaints out there. There are always a finite amount of complaints when dealing with large numbers of customers, but in this way, the general checkout and feeling will be positive.
Finally, open up your vehicle manual to get an idea of when scheduled maintenance products need to be addressed. Oil changes are typically done at 5,000 miles, not the 3,000 that is pushed by your local oil change franchise. Changing a timing belt is usually done with 100,000 miles and not the 60,000 that is suggested by the service manager during your oil change. Get the picture?
Arriving at the Repair Shop
Now you’re at the vehicle repair shop. Something has happened to your car or truck that needs fixing, or perhaps you’re simply maintaining it. My final important points for you:
1. BE AWARE. Remember when I first spoke of knowledge and responsibility? It is true that that an educated consumer is the deceitful repair shops’ worst nightmare. Unsavory repair shops strive to give off a façade of intimidation and fear, which works extremely well when most of their customers have no real knowledge or want of knowledge regarding their vehicle.
They use all types of tactics involving manipulation, deception, and intimidation because they know that for perhaps every twenty or thirty targets, they will find difficulty with one. The odds are stacked in their favor, considering most disgruntled customers will simply leave or pay the bill with a threat of following up, are typically followed by little or no real action.
Remember, not all auto repair fraud is obvious or high in price. Perhaps during your tire replacement, there’s an extra $110 for an alignment not needed. What about a $50 shop supplies bill for a half of can of lubricant and two rags, or $80 for two brake pads not needed for another 10,000 miles? Why scare someone away with a surprise $1000 charge when something lesser noticeable can be repeated with ease so many times?
2. ASK QUESTIONS
Any reputable repair facility should not become irritated at questions. If they do – leave. If they don’t give you clear answers – leave. If what they are recommending doesn’t sound kosher – leave. If they seem perturbed – leave. You’re not an easy mark – get the hint?
3. ASK FOR A WRITTEN ESTIMATE BEFORE HAVING THEM START REPAIRS
You need to get a written estimate that includes prices for parts, labor, and miscellaneous charges such as shop supplies and disposal. On the estimate should be the warranty length and if it includes parts and labor. Finally, the estimate should include whether the parts are OEM, aftermarket, new, or used. Make sure the shop understands that if charges are going to exceed the estimate, they need to contact you first to receive approval.
4. SIGN FORMS CAREFULLY
This is imperative as there are typically two forms you have to sign. First is the authorization for inspecting the car and determining the problem. Second is the authorization to perform repairs. These should not be on the same page. Make sure you always date everything you sign.
5. ASK IF REPAIRS ARE GUARANTEED
Repairs should be guaranteed, including parts and labor.
6. REQUEST TO KEEP THE BOXES AND OLD PARTS
Tell them that you want to keep the boxes of the new parts, as a standard practice. Ask if they can put the old part(s) in the new boxes as well. You don’t need to explain to them because it is your right in all fifty states. However, just between you and me, it’s because you want to make sure that when they say they are replacing a part, they are doing it.
7. CHECK ON EXISTING WARRANTY OR RECALL
This is a great resource. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has a free tool, which allows you to check make, year and model for any recalls, investigations or complaints. Here is the link. You can also determine if your call needs a repair for any recalls over the last 15 years, by clicking this link. Having all parts and labor covered, is always better than spending your weekend getaway or summer vacation money.
8. ALWAYS ASK TO SEE THE DEFECTIVE PART
At the very least, it shows that you want them to prove the problem to you. If they say they don’t let customers in the shop for insurance reasons, have them explain why you need the repair and how dangerous it would be to not repair the item.
9. CHECK WEB RESOURCES
Before authorizing any work, the web offers tremendous resources to help determine if the quote you are getting is reasonable or not. There are a number of online resources, though I like http://www.automd.com/repaircost, where you type in your vehicle’s year, make, model, and proposed auto repair. Napa also carries a good site at http://www.napaautocare.com/estimator.aspx.