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:
- 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 ten 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 ten 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 five days before it is returned.
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:
- New Auto Parts. These parts are generally made to the manufacturer’s specifications, either by the vehicle manufacturer or an independent company.
- Remanufactured, Rebuilt, and Reconditioned Parts. All of these terms mean about the same thing: Parts have been restored to a sound working condition. Many manufacturers offer a warranty covering replacement parts but not the labor to install them.
- Salvage Parts. These are used parts taken from another vehicle without alteration. Salvage parts are the only option for replacing parts on some older cars. Their reliability is seldom guaranteed.
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 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:
- 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.
- Diagnostic Charges: Ask if the repair shop has a diagnostic charge. Many repair shops charge for the time they spend figuring out what’s wrong with your car.
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:
- Recall information. NHTSA will let you know if your car was recalled for a defect. When you buy a new or used car, the dealer should check to see if there’s been a recall. Also remind mechanics to check for recalls and service bulletins whenever they service your car.
- Early warnings on potential defects. Since all reported defects are reviewed by NHTSA, you can find out if NHTSA is investigating a problem with your model of car. If not, your reporting of a defect may open an investigation that could lead to a recall.
- Crash test information. Find out how vehicles fare in annual crash tests.
United States Department of Transportation
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
1200 New Jersey Avenue, SE
Washington, DC 20590
What to Do If You Break Down on the Road
- Try to get the car as far off the road as safely possible.
- Set out flares or reflective triangles.
- Stay in the car until help arrives.
- If the car must be towed, check the owner’s manual for towing instructions.
- Inquire about costs before allowing the car to be hooked up to the tow truck.
- Remove all valuables from the car if you leave it.