Car Handbook

Get Square on Repairs

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, and 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:

Repair shops must tell you which parts will be used to repair your car. The price and quality of parts can vary widely. You might see the following:

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:

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 competency 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:

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.

Keep Good Records
Save all your repair receipts during the time you own the car and put them together in a file. This way you have some recourse if the fixed part breaks in short order. You also have proof of your good maintenance of the vehicle when you decide to sell it.

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 Minnesota’s Truth in Repairs Act above.

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 Minnesota 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.

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!

If you suspect your car has a problem beyond normal wear and tear, call the NHTSA Vehicle Safety Hotline (888) 327-4236 or TTY: (800) 424-9153. NHTSA can tell you if the model has a manufacturing defect. NHTSA tracks the following:

United States Department of Transportation
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
1200 New Jersey Avenue, SE
Washington, DC 20590
(888) 327-4236
www.nhtsa.govexternal link icon

What to Do If You Break Down on the Road