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Avoid Repair Shop Scams

Mar 25, 2008
Few things in life can fill us with as much mystery and anxiety as automotive service. Any number of questions can arise when something is wrong with your car or even when you just bring it to the dealer for its regular maintenance

My car only has 11,00 miles on it, so why do the brakes shake?

When I brought my car to the dealership for its 15,000-mile service, the service advisor showed me a list of things to be done that was a lot more than my owner's manual called for. Do I go by the book or take the service advisor's recommendations?"

As with most things in life, the more you know, the better off you are. A little homework and street smarts will go a long way toward saving your pocketbook from dirty service practices. Yes, we know that not all dealerships and mechanics are out to cheat you, and there are a lot of them who take pride in their work ethic. But let's not be naive, reputations don't just materialize out of thin air, either. Can you fully trust that the service team at the dealership or the mechanic down the street is going to give you a fair shake? Maybe, but it wouldn't hurt to arm yourself with some knowledge to guard against those who are out to scam you.

That said, here are a few tips and secrets for dealing with repai circumstances:

Needed repairs:

1) If the problem is something that affects safety or seems to be a common manufacturing defect (such as shuddering brakes on a relatively new car), chances are you can get the problem taken care of for free. What you want to do is find out if a recall (which is when the manufacturer openly acknowledges a defect) has been issued for that problem. Oftentimes you'll get a letter in the mail (a "recall notice") that will tell you what the problem is (even if you haven't experienced it) and urge you to make a service appointment to get it taken care of. But if you feel you have a problem and haven't received any notice in the mail, go to the NHTSA site and click on "Recall Searches by make, model, year." Under "Select the TYPE of search" you'll want to go with the already selected "Vehicle" category. You then enter the information that's requested to obtain the recall notice(s) that have been issued for your vehicle.

2)Along with recalls, there are also "TSBs"(technical service bulletins) or "Service Bulletins"), which are similar to recalls except that the defect(s) haven't cropped up in enough vehicles for a recall to be issued. In other words, only a small amount of people have discovered and complained about the problem. The manufacturer lets the dealership's service department know about the problem, and if someone brings in a vehicle with said problem to check for a possible TSB on your vehicle, again go to the NHTSA site only this time click on "Service Bulletins" and then click on "Search Technical Bulletins." You then enter the information on your vehicle as you would when looking for a recall. Note that you can also find service bulletin and recall information for your car by using the Edmunds.com Maintenance Calculator.

3) When you've picked a repair shop and are dropping your car off, tell the person handling your car that you want to be given an estimate before they perform the repair(s). Tell them to call you with the estimate and get your authorization before they do anything else so you can decide whether you want them to do the work.

4) While youre there, ask the shop managers if the technicians they employ are "ASE" (Automotive Service Excellence) certified, and in what areas (such as brakes,engines, electrical, etc.). Obviously, you only want ASE technicians working on your car.

5) Once you've gotten the description of the necessary repairs and an estimate, it wouldn't hurt to quickly call another repair shop (that also have good credentials) to get an additional estimate for the work. Be certain that you make it clear to them exactly what you need done to your vehicle. What you're looking for is some consistency - estimates that are a lot lower than the average might not be real, whereas ones that are a lot higher could indicate a shop trying to take your money.

6) If the shop that already has your car seems to have a fair estimate for the work, call them back and authorize them to make the repairs. Ask them for a written warranty. You might want to tell them that you'd like to have the old parts back - as confirmation that the repairs have indeed been made. Use your best judgment on this one; if you're getting a new exhaust system, for example, you can simply look under the car to check that a new one has been installed). Finally, don't forget to ask them when the car will be ready for pick up.

7) After the repairs are complete and you've gone to the shop to pick up your car, first scrutinize the bill to make sure the agreed-upon work was done and the cost is in line with the estimate. If anything looks awry, ask about it right then and there.
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