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How much do people hate going to auto repair shops? A new survey says 41% of Americans would rather do their taxes — by hand! — than head to a garage for car repairs.  And why not? About 60% say they think they’ve been ripped off by an auto repair shop.

The survey also found that three-quarters of Americans think repair shops are condescending to women, and are more likely to overcharge them.

A website named RepairPal is hoping to tip the scales back toward consumers with a simple online tool and app called RepairPrice Estimator. Drivers enter their ZIP code and service required, and it returns a price range and additional notes about potential repair costs.

For example: A driver in suburban Seattle who needs a new water pump for a six-year-old Jeep Liberty will find the price should range from $263 to $368, and should include coolant, a gasket, and hose clamps. The estimate also includes a warning that drive belts may require replacement as part of this procedure, particularly if a leaky water pump has spilled coolant on a belt.

RepairPal said the estimator is fueled by technicians and analysts, who spent 75,000 hours analyzing the cost of labor and parts for various repairs alongside ZIP codes across the country.

I love tools that give you price ranges, such as FlightAware’s new airline route comparison tool. It tells you the median cost paid by consumers flying between two cities, by airline, giving fliers a chance to see if they overpaid.

There are other estimators online, such as these from Napa, AOL Autos, Consumer Reports, and AutoMD. Napa and AOL Autos license RepairPal’s data, so those tools produce the exact same results. AutoMD’s tool offered additional results, comparing dealer prices with independent repair shop prices and do-it-yourself costs. Consumer Reports asked for relevant information about a car, but after filling out the web forms, wouldn’t show estimates until users paid for a subscription.

RepairPal announced this week it has a partnership with AARP, which grants discounts to that association’s 37 million members at repair shops around the country.

“RepairPal and AARP share the same core principles of building value through trust, quality, transparency, and savings,” said Art Shaw, CEO of RepairPal. “Finding a quality repair shop is a difficult and often uncomfortable task.”

The survey, conducted earlier this year by Harris Interactive, shows seniors are no strangers to that ripped-off feeling. It found 56% of Americans over 55 felt they’d been ripped off at a repair shop.

But the survey also found the younger the driver, the more likely they would feel ripped off. Among those 18-34, 73% said they thought they’d been overcharged or paid for unnecessary repairs.  That’s not a surprise – younger consumers generally are less familiar with hands-on auto repairs than their parents or grandparents.

Red Tape Wrestling Tips

A cost estimator can’t help stop unnecessary repairs — it simply lets you know if the cost of such repairs are consistent with what other shops nearby are charging. As with most consumer purchases, the only real way to make sure you aren’t paying too much is to shop around and get multiple estimates for a repair. With auto repairs, it’s common to receive estimates that vary by $500 or more, as mechanics often disagree about “necessary repairs,” and are often compensated by nudging consumers to replace parts prematurely.

In truth, many drivers are in a poor position to shop around. When your car breaks down and won’t run, it’s hard to do comparison shopping. That’s why it’s important to find a trustworthy shop while conducting regular maintenance, before a real crisis hits. It also helps to be a member of a discount program, such as AAA, so you can have a car towed from one shop to another for a second opinion if major repairs are recommended.

(Editor’s Note: It’s also important to build up an emergency fund so pricey car repairs don’t turn into unwanted debt that you may be paying off for months. Even if you have wiggle room on your credit cards to charge expenses, adding a large debt like a car repair to your account can raise your credit utilization ratio and hurt your credit score. You can check your credit for free using the Credit Report Card, a tool that updates your credit scores monthly, to see where your credit utilization currently stands.)

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