How to avoid getting ripped off on car repairs
Jessica Chou knows that stress — and how it can be compounded by gender stereotypes around car knowledge. When she was younger, she would fake a call to her father or boyfriend while at a mechanic in the hopes it would help her avoid overpaying for repairs. Eventually, Chou decided studying up on her vehicle might help her more.
She has amassed 30,000-plus followers on YouTube since she began posting videos in 2016 to document how she’s learned to work on her car. Now, Chou is director of brand marketing for RepairSmith, an auto repair company, and works with hundreds of mechanics. Due to her experience on both sides of the industry, Chou understands consumers as well as the behind-the-scenes work that goes into car maintenance.
“When I started my YouTube channel, I was frustrated, I was angry,” Chou said. “I didn’t bash mechanics openly on my channel, but I had this feeling that, ‘Oh, they’re always trying to take advantage of me, especially because I’m a woman.’ And that’s not the case.”
Mechanics may not be trying to rip you off, but a little knowledge about maintenance can help you save money and avoid stress. Here’s what you should know when you take your car in.
Don’t skip on the details
Even if you know nothing about the technical aspects of your car, you likely know more about the way it typically runs than a mechanic. A weird sound coming from a certain location can mean many things, but if you are able to explain when it happens, where it’s coming from and what it’s like, you can help the mechanic find the issue faster.
You can also make things easier by telling the mechanic when the problem began, Chou said. If you hit something, be honest about it.
“Mechanics aren’t fortune-tellers,” Chou said. “Diagnostics are required, and oftentimes places charge for diagnostics. It takes an hour, two hours, if not more to find where the issue’s coming from.”
It can also be helpful to tell the mechanic your car history, including problems you may have experienced and whether you have been putting off routine maintenance.
“Avoid pretending or essentially lying to them about whether you’ve taken care of your car or not,” Chou said. “Give them more helpful clues so that they can pinpoint the issue.”
When describing problems, try to refrain from diagnosing the issue, said California-based mechanic Rebekah Fleischaker. The best thing to do is give as much detail as possible, so the mechanic can properly diagnose and fix the problem.
“Going to a mechanic is like going to a doctor,” Fleischaker said. “One may know the symptom, but not the cause of the problem. In my experience, the more information you give your doctor or mechanic, the better and less costly (the) result.”
One of the best ways to avoid getting ripped off is to ask questions, Fleischaker said.
Some questions recommended to ask before maintenance include:
- What are you going to do? Can you explain why? “Asking the level of how complicated the repair might be will give you a better understanding of why they’re charging four hours for labor,” Chou said.
- What parts will you be using?
- Can I see the before and after parts? Sometimes mechanics will charge you for parts they did not replace, so asking to see the replaced parts can help you avoid overpaying, Fleischaker said.
- Can you explain what this part does? Why do I need it replaced?
Before paying, Fleischaker and Chou advise asking the mechanic to break down the charges for you. Doing so helps ensure you are only paying for the maintenance actually done on your car and will allow you to avoid hidden costs.
“I appreciate when people ask me, ‘So why is it so expensive?'” Fleischaker said. “Great, gives me an opportunity to break down why, and the why for me is different than other people.”
If you don’t understand the answers, don’t be afraid to ask follow-up questions.
“If the person who’s giving you the estimate cannot explain why the price is that, that’s not your person,” Fleischaker said.
Just remember to ask your questions respectfully and not be accusatory, Chou said.
“At the end of the day, mechanics are people, too,” Chou added, “and people love talking about themselves and what they do.”
Get a second opinion
Google is your best friend, Chou said. If you are afraid of being ripped off, you can use Google to match prices and find reviews of mechanics. Reach out for a second opinion.
“It’s OK to call around and talk to other shops and say, ‘Oh, I got a quote for $500, how much would you charge?'” Chou said. “A lot of people do that, and it doesn’t offend us. We want you to be able to afford the repair.”
When getting second opinions, make sure to compare apples to apples and not apples to oranges, Fleischaker said, adding it’s one of the reasons to ask exactly what mechanics are charging you for.
Learn the basics of your car
A way to avoid being ripped off is to know the basics of your car, Chou said. It can be helpful in general as well as save a trip to a mechanic.
You don’t need to be an expert, but foundational knowledge about your vehicle and an understanding of basic maintenance items can help you with mechanics, she added.
In case you don’t have time to memorize your owner’s manual, here are some basics, which can vary by make and model:
- What temperature your car runs at normally.
- What the parts and lights on your car’s gauge cluster and dashboard mean. It is good practice for drivers to look at their dashboard to check that their fuel levels and temperatures are normal, Fleischaker said. Drivers should also make sure that the check engine, air bag (sometimes reads as SRS), tire pressure, oil and ABS (anti-lock braking system) lights are not on.
- How often your car needs maintenance.
Once you’ve studied up, you might find there are a few things — such as inflating your tires and changing your air filters, windshield wiper blades, oil and spark plugs — you can fix on your own. But of course, there are many other repairs such as fuel leaks, battery installation, anything brake-related and electrical and engine work, you’ll want to leave to a professional.
“These areas, if not fixed properly, can lead to further damage,” Chou said, “and worse, make your car unsafe on the road.”