Minnesota Attorney General's Office
1400 Bremer Tower
445 Minnesota Street
St. Paul, MN 55101
M - F 8 am - 5 pm
The Car Handbook
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.
Your Rights When Your Car Is Repaired
Minnesota’s Truth in Repairs Act spells out the rights and obligations of repair shops and their customers for repairs costing more than $100 and less than $7,500. 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 a part must be returned, you still have a right to inspect it for a period of 5 days before it is returned.
How to Choose a Repair Shop
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.
How to Find the Best Technician
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.
Estimate the Damage
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.
When to Get a Second Opinion
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.
Get an Invoice
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
Staying on the preventive maintenance schedule recommended by your owner’s manual may 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!
Resolving Disputes Over Repairs
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 by reviewing the Minnesota’s Truth in Repairs Act at the beginning of this chapter.
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.
The Car Handbook
10. Don’t sign the purchase contract unless you’re absolutely sure you want to own the car and can make the necessary payments. Always read the fine print on any contract. The contract is binding: There is no three-day cooling-off period. You can’t return the car after you’ve bought it!
9. Have a mechanic and body shop inspect a used car thoroughly so you know the condition of the car and any repairs you may have to make if you buy it.
8. If you’re considering buying a used car, always review the car’s title history first, which will allow you to verify odometer readings before committing to the purchase. Check the past history through CarFax (www.carfax.com) or a similar company, which may give you information on accidents, past lemon law buybacks etc.
7. If you’re planning to trade in your current car, don’t mention it to the dealer until you’ve agreed to a price for a new car.
6. Remember, a dealer’s highest markups are on the back end of the sale: options, extended warranties, rustproofing, credit life insurance and the like, so be a firm negotiator and don’t pay for unnecessary services.
5. During a test drive, drive the car as you plan to drive it after you buy it: Merge into freeway traffic, stop quickly, stop on ice and snow if possible, make U-turns in a parking lot, and so on.
4. Price is important, but it isn’t everything. Ask about the service a dealership will give you if you buy there.
3. Shop as diligently for a good seller as for a good car.
2. Comparison shop for makes and models by visiting the library and looking up objective car reports before you talk to sellers.
1. Decide on your needs and wants in an automobile. Don’t be swayed by friends or salespeople to buy something that you don’t want.
The Car Handbook
What are you going to use the car or truck for?
(Check as many as apply.)
_____Going to and from work
_____Going to and from activities (biking, skiing, etc.)
Based on that, what type of car makes sense?
(Check one or more to research.)
_____Sporty two-door coup
_____Truck (small, medium or full-sized pickup)
_____Sport utility vehicles (four-wheel drive*)
_____Two-wheel or four-wheel-drive car
*Four-wheel-drive vehicles get better traction on snow and ice than two-wheel drive cars, but they cost more.
What standard features and options do you want?
(Write choices in spaces provided.)_____How many cylinders and valves? A four-cylinder engine will get better fuel economy than a six-cylinder engine. Three valves per cylinder is common in older cars; most new cars have four valves per cylinder to increase acceleration with no fuel economy loss.
_____Carburetor vs. fuel injection. Fuel injection is standard in newer cars and improves fuel economy and acceleration.
_____Automatic or manual transmission. If you buy an automatic, having an overdrive option will save on fuel costs.
_____Air bags: Driver and/or passenger.
_____Seat belts: Shoulder straps attached to the post next to the door are safer than those attached to the door.
_____Anti-lock Brake System (ABS): This is helpful only if you use the system properly. Do not pump your brakes in an emergency stop.
Body design:_____Side-door intrusion beams. These protect you in side accidents and are mandated for 1997 cars.
_____Full perimeter dual door seals. These help keep doors from popping open in a collision.
_____Front and rear "crumple zones." These help absorb impact in a collision.
(Check as many as you want, but remember, most options are sold in packages.)
_____Power windows and locks
_____Tilt steering column
_____Interior trunk and hood release
_____Cruise, or speed, control
_____Rear wiper (on wagons)
_____Front bucket seats
_____Front bench seats
_____Good head room
_____Extra leg room
_____Large trunk size
_____Sound system: radio, cassette, CD player and number of speakers
_____Built-in cup holder(s)
The Car Handbook
Copy this worksheet and use it to compare prices of cars that are the same year, make and model sold by different sellers; cars of different years, makes and models; or both.
Vehicle A (year, make, model):_________________________________________________
Vehicle B (year, make, model):_________________________________________________
Vehicle C (year, make, model):_________________________________________________
|Item||Seller A||Seller B||Seller C|
|Discount off sticker/sale price:|
|Options (list and price)
|Other options you’re considering:
(or extended warranty)
|Credit life insurance|
|Credit disability insurance|
- Does the seller offer maintenance service?
- Does the seller offer loaned cars or transportation in case of repairs?
- If it’s a used car, is there a warranty?
- If it’s a used car, who was the last owner? (Call the owner for information on how the car held up and was maintained.)
The Car Handbook
Where you will keep the car_________________________________________________
|Driver(s)||Age||Sex||Marital status||Violations and accidents
(last 3 years)
Vehicle (year, make, model): _________________________________________________
Miles driven to work: _______________________________________________________
Annual mileage: ___________________________________________________________
Miles of principle driver: _____________________________________________________
|Level of coverage||Company A||Company B||Company C|
|Bodily injury liability/
|Personal-injury protection ("PIP"):|
|Uninsured/underinsured motorist ("UM/UIM"):|
|Other (misc. coverages):|
Minnesota requires you to carry the following minimum insurance: $30,000 per person and $60,000 per accident for bodily injury and $10,000 for property damage liability; $40,000 for personal injury protection (PIP); and $25,000 per person and $50,000 per accident for uninsured/underinsured coverage.
The Car Handbook
10. Be careful with extras. Does the lease include a charge of hundreds of dollars for rustproofing or an extended warranty? You’re only going to drive the car for a couple of years, so think about whether you really want to pay for these items.
9. Learn the jargon involved in leasing and brush up on the math involved. That way you’ll be confident that you’re getting the best possible deal.
8. Make sure that your trade-in and any other credits you should receive are listed on your leasing contract so that you are getting full credit for them.
7. Choose a make and model that traditionally holds its value. Lease payments should be lower on a popular model that will have a good re-sale value.
6. Understand the up-front costs. If a dealer offers a “zero down” lease, you should not have to pay anything up front other than tax and license fees. Otherwise, you might have to pay the security deposit, a down payment and the first month’s payment at the beginning of the lease.
5. Shop around. Visit several dealers and compare their offers.
4. Examine all of the fees you’ll pay in addition to the monthly payment. This helps you compare “apples” to “apples” and figure out your total financial obligation.
3. Negotiate the price of the car as if you were buying it. If, during negotiations, you switch from buying the car to leasing it, the dealer should still base your lease payments on the same negotiated price. Some don’t. Some revert to the sticker price, which is usually much higher.
2. Don’t just look at the monthly payment. Most of the time the payment will be lower when you lease than when you buy a car, but remember: you won’t own anything at the end of your lease, whereas when you buy a car it’s really yours when you make the final payment.
1. Most importantly — be sure leasing is right for you before you sign a leasing contract. Remember — there is no three-day cooling off law that allows you to return a car once you’ve signed a contract!
The Car Handbook
Anti-lock brakes: Brakes that automatically pump for you when you slam your foot on the brakes in an emergency stop. They may keep you from skidding while you try to turn to avoid an accident.
“As is” warranty: If you buy a car sold “as is,” you must pay for any and all car repairs. There is no warranty. “As is” must be checked in the buyer’s guide displayed in the car window at the dealership. In Minnesota, a car can only be sold “as is” if the Used Car Warranty Law doesn’t apply to it. (See Used Car Warranty Law, page 56.)
Auto broker: Someone who you can hire to help you shop for a car. An auto broker may work for a handful of dealers or a single dealer.
Blue book: The National Auto Dealers’ Association’s Used Car Book, listing estimated used car prices based on model, make, year and mileage. The pocket-sized blue book is actually orange.
Buyer's Guide: A double sided form that the dealer fills out to tell you whether the vehicle comes with a warranty, and, if so, what the warranty includes. The Federal Trade Commission requires all dealerships to display the buyer’s guide in the vehicle’s window.
Cooling-off period: While a “cooling-off” period sometimes applies to the sale of products, allowing you to return a product and get your money back, no such cooling off period law exists in car sales. Once you sign a contract to buy a car, the car is yours. Some dealers will offer a cooling off period as a marketing tool.
Credit life insurance: Your finance company may require this. It ensures the finance company loaning you money to buy your car will be among the first creditors paid if you die before you pay for your car.
Credit disability insurance: Your finance company may require this along with credit life insurance. It ensures the finance company loaning you money to buy your car will be among the first creditors paid if you are disabled and unable to work to pay off your car loan.
Curbstoner: An unlicensed professional used car seller who poses as a private individual selling his or her own car. Curbstoners sell used cars “at the curb,” not at a dealership. They specialize in taking advantage of unschooled buyers.
Dealer: A car dealer is anyone who sells more than five cars in a year. A dealer must be licensed and abide by all laws that apply to dealers, including the state’s Used Car Warranty Law.
Dealer invoice: This is often represented as the price the dealer pays the manufacturer for the car. However, holdbacks and other incentives almost always reduce the dealer’s cost.
Deductible: A car warranty usually specifies a “deductible” amount, an amount you must pay whenever you have a warrantied part on your car repaired.
Depreciation: The reduced value of a car after you buy it. A brand new car can lose or “depreciate” between several hundred and several thousand dollars in value the minute you drive off the dealer’s lot.
Extended warranty: This is also referred to as a service contract. It is an option you may purchase on a new, and some used cars. The extended warranty should cover car repairs over a longer period than the manufacturer’s warranty, which comes with the car. Beware that it is a high-profit item for a dealer. Check to see exactly what it includes, and remember that you can negotiate the price.
Fabric protection: This is one of the extras you may choose to have when you buy a new car, and may be expensive because of high dealer mark-ups.
Holdback: An amount the manufacturer pays the dealer each time the dealer sells its make. Also referred to as a “kickback.”
Lemon Law: Minnesota’s Lemon Law requires that a car seller repair or replace a motor vehicle with defects or problems covered under the warranty, which the vehicle owner reports within the warranty period or within two years after delivery of the vehicle, whichever comes first. Read about the law in Chapter 5 to see if it applies to your car.
Leasing: This is like long-term car rental. You make monthly payments for the opportunity to drive a car, but the leasing company owns it. For a glossary of leasing-specific terms, see page 48.
Options: These are extras you can have added to a standard vehicle, and usually come in packages. They often include air bags, anti-lock brakes, power locks and windows, rear wiper, rear defroster, and such comfort items as velour or leather seat coverings.
Paint sealant: This is one of the extras you may choose to have when you buy a new car, and may be expensive because of high dealer mark-ups. Whether it actually makes the new paint shine longer is unknown.
Prior salvage: If a car was totaled and then rebuilt anytime after June 1993, the car’s title must be marked “prior salvage.” It may not be structurally as sound as another car after being rebuilt.
Recall: If a car model has a defect, a manufacturer may issue a “recall” notice, meaning that the defect will be fixed at the manufacturer’s expense.
Repossession: If you don’t make your car loan payments, you risk having your car “repossessed” or taken back by the finance company that gave you the loan. Always contact the finance company immediately if you aren’t going to make a monthly payment. The company may be willing to work with you to set up a payment plan.
Rustproofing: Meant to hold off body erosion, rustproofing is a popular extra on new cars. A type of rustproofing called galvanizing is used by manufacturers and comes with a new car. You’ll pay extra for aftermarket rustproofing, and there is controversy about its worth.
Service contract: Also called an “extended warranty,” it supplements the manufacturer’s warranty, which comes with a vehicle you purchase. A service contract is a high-profit item for the dealer. Make sure it offers substantially more than the standard warranty.
Title: The title shows a vehicle’s ownership history. It is important to check the title of a used car and to contact past owners listed to verify the mileage and inquire about the car’s maintenance.
Used Car Warranty Law: A state law that protects used car buyers. It says that used car dealers must provide basic warranty coverage for most used cars and small trucks sold to Minnesota buyers. Read more about the law in Chapter 8.
Warranty: All new and many used cars come with warranties. A warranty offers a guarantee that certain mechanical and body parts will be repaired if they aren’t in proper working condition. The warranty is typically limited, so find out what the limitations are.
The Car Handbook
Consumer Questions or Complaints
The Attorney General’s Office answers questions regarding numerous consumer issues. The Attorney General’s Office also provides mediation to resolve disputes between Minnesota consumers and businesses and uses information from consumers to enforce the state’s civil laws.
If you have a consumer complaint, please contact the Attorney General’s Office in writing:
Office of Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson
1400 Bremer Tower
445 Minnesota Street
St. Paul, MN 55101
TTY: (651) 297-7206
Citizens can also receive direct assistance from a consumer specialist by calling:
651-296-3353 or 800-657-3787
TTY: 651-297-7206 or TTY: 800-366-4812
(TTY numbers are for callers using teletypewriter devices.)
Additional consumer publications are available from the Attorney General’s Office. Contact us to receive copies or preview the publications on our website: www.ag.state.mn.us.
- Citizen’s Guide to Home Building and Remodeling
- Conciliation Court
- The Credit Handbook
- Credit Reports
- Guarding Your Privacy: Tips to Prevent Identity Theft
- The Home Buyer’s Handbook
- The Home Seller’s Handbook
- Landlords and Tenants: Rights and Responsibilities
- Managing Your Health Care
- The Manufactured Home Parks Handbook
- Minnesota’s Car Laws
- Private Mortgage Insurance Fact Sheet
- The Phone Handbook
- Probate and Planning: A Guide to Planning for the Future
- Reducing Unwanted Calls and Junk Mail
- Senior’s Legal Rights
- Veterans and Service Members
- Other Consumer Bulletins