Much of the expense of owning a car comes after you buy it. You'll need quarterly oil changes and filter checks, periodic tune-ups and new tires every few years. After three or four years of average, non-destructive driving, the muffler may roar, the brakes may grind, the windshield wiper fluid may leak, the radio may go out. Slowly but surely, your vehicle will begin to show signs of age. And Murphy's Law says the really big repairs will be needed just after the warranty has run out!
For many people, the worst part of having a car break down is that they don't know what makes a car go in the first place. Read your owner's manual for an overview of the routine preventive maintenance your new or used car will need. Then consider investing in a simply-written car repair book.
Know your rights before you take your car in for repairs:
* You have the right to receive a written estimate for repair work, if you request one.
* Once you receive this estimate, the shop generally may not charge more than 10 percent above the estimated cost. A shop may impose an additional charge for disassembly, diagnosis and reassembly of the item in order to make the estimate if the customer is told about the charge before the estimate is issued.
* The shop is required to provide you with an invoice if the repairs cost more than $50, and/or the work is done under a manufacturer's warranty, service contract or an insurance policy.
* The shop cannot perform any unnecessary or unauthorized repairs. If, after repairs are begun, a shop determines that additional work needs to be done, the shop may exceed the price of the written estimate, but only after it has informed you and provided you with a revised estimate. In this case, if you authorize the additional work, the shop may not charge more than 10 percent above the revised estimate.
* Before the shop actually begins repairs, you have the right to ask for and receive replaced parts, unless those parts are under warranty. In that case, they must be returned by the shop to the manufacturer, distributor or other person. You may pay an additional charge for retrieving parts because the shop usually could have sold them.
If you have a service contract, you may be required to take your car to the dealer for repairs. Check the contract. Many service contracts require that the company issuing the service contract give prior authorization before a repair begins. If you don't get this, your service contract may not cover the repairs.
If you're not obligated to repair your car at a particular repair shop, look around for a good repair shop before you need it so you can avoid being rushed into a hurried decision. The following are some tips for selecting a repair shop:
* Ask for recommendations. Word-of-mouth is often the best way to find a good technician. Ask friends, family members and others to recommend repair shops or technicians they trust.
* Ask the Better Business Bureau how many complaints they've received about the repair shop.
* Be sure the repair shop is capable of performing the repairs needed.
* Shop around for the best price on repairs. Price, however, shouldn't be your only consideration in choosing a shop.
A friend's or relative's referral can guide you to a trustworthy, able technician. If you don't have a referral, some objective signs of excellence can help you choose a good technician. Look for shops that display certifications such as the Automotive Service Excellence seal. Certification indicates that some or all of the technicians have met basic standards of knowledge and competence in specific technical areas. Make sure the certifications were obtained recently.
Also, ask the technician if he or she has experience working on your make of vehicle. Neither the technician's nod nor a certificate of excellence guarantee good service, but they offer a baseline for making your own judgment.
Once you've selected a shop, get an estimate for the work no matter how trustworthy the technicians seem. Here's what you want to know:
* Written estimates. Always get a written estimate for work to be performed. Make sure the estimate specifically identifies the condition that is to be repaired, the parts needed and the anticipated labor charge. Often tax will not be included.
* Extra charges. An estimate is not an exact price. It's a good guess of what it will cost to fix your car. Make sure the estimate states that the shop will contact you for approval before performing any work exceeding the estimated amount of time or money.
* Labor charges. Some shops charge a flat rate for labor on auto repairs. This published rate is based on an independent or manufacturer's estimate of the time required to complete repairs. Other shops charge on the basis of the actual time the technician worked on the repair. Before having any work performed, ask which method the shop uses for figuring the cost of labor.
Ever taken your car in for a minor repair only to be told the transmission is dying, or the U-joints are going, or some other equally traumatizing news? If you haven't, you probably haven't owned a car for long.
So how do you know if this unexpected bad news is true? Get a second opinion. For an objective opinion, consider taking your car to a repair shop that only does diagnostic work. There, a technician will figure out what work needs to be done. And since they don't actually do the repairs, they don't have any reason to inflate the price or the problem.
Actually, car repair shops should give you more than an invoice when repairs are complete. They should give you a complete breakdown of what they did, including the cost of each part, labor charges and the vehicle's odometer reading when the vehicle entered the shop and when the repair was completed.
An Ounce of Prevention
Stay on the preventive maintenance schedule recommended by your owner's manual to forestall large repair bills. Some repair shops also offer their own maintenance schedules that call for more frequent servicing than the manufacturer. If this is the case, ask a repair technician to explain the reasoning behind the recommendations.
Since many parts of your car are interrelated, ignoring maintenance can lead to failure of other parts or an entire system. For example, neglecting to change the oil or check the coolant can lead to poor fuel economy, unreliability or costly breakdowns. Neglecting maintenance can also invalidate your warranty!
Billing, the quality of repairs and warranties all can lead to disputes. Don't let it be "my word against yours." Keep written estimates and bills. Write down your experiences along with dates and names of the people you dealt with. And know your rights!
If you have a dispute over a repair or charge, try to settle the problem with the shop manager or owner first. Some businesses have special programs for handling disputes. If this doesn't work, you may want to seek help from the Attorney General's Office. Or, a low-cost alternative dispute resolution program may be available in your community. In addition, you may want to consider filing a claim in small claims court (also called conciliation court), where you don't need a lawyer to represent you.