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How to Avoid Car Repair Gotchas

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A captive consumer is someone who isn’t in a position to bargain and, in turn, could overpay. For example, a traveler purchasing Wi-Fi on an airplane is captive because there’s only one option and a pay TV subscriber is captive if there’s only one cable company in the area, or if it’s difficult to install a competitive satellite service.

Drivers facing car repairs are often captive, too. When your car breaks down and you have it towed to a repair shop, you don’t have a lot of options but to get it repaired. And, for most drivers, pulling into a car dealership shop for “regular” repairs can create almost the same situation. Few consumers are car-savvy enough to know if they really need new brake rotors or a transmission fluid flush, so they end up doing what they are told by the expert, and paying the bill.


Car repair shops routinely attract a high level of complaints at state and federal offices related to overcharging and “gotcha” methods. (Read this guide to find out 7 ways to avoid getting overcharged by your mechanic.) Auto mechanics may work on commission or at an hourly rate, which may incentivize them to perform unnecessary repairs that can turn $40 oil changes into $600 bills. Plus, repair shops have the advantage of using the “safety” tactic in their sales pitch (as in, “Well, you don’t have to change your brake pads, but they are below 50%. I would, to be safe.”)

Consumer Reports’ chief mechanic John Ibbotson puts it this way: “High scare equals high profit.”

It’s hard to give anti-gotcha advice in the face of safety warnings – I have no intention of suggesting that you do anything to make you or your family less safe. But it is possible to do that and avoid ripoffs.

It’s Not The Nickels & Dimes — It’s The Dollars

You’ll probably end up overpaying for a repair at some point in the life of your car. That’s not the end of the world. What’s important is to not get routinely ripped off, and discover that you’ve spent $1,000 or more year after year on repairs that may not be essential. AAA reports the average driver pays $766 per year on maintenance and repairs, which of course can vary based on the age of the car. But if you are spending more than that, ask yourself why. And remember, the nice service manager at your repair shop is in the sales business. If your oil changes routinely end up costing $500, you may want to consider breaking up with the shop.

The Medium Bills Are What Will Get You

Transmissions fail and engines give up the ghost. It happens. Major repair bills often have as much to do with bad luck as anything else, so I’m not going to dwell on them. This repair tech at Edmunds.com revealed that shops often don’t make that much money on big, expensive and complex jobs. Where the real financial win comes into play for them are on the medium-sized jobs that are easy and can be done quickly. They make money on brake jobs, engine flushes, and so on. Keep that in mind for your next visit to the mechanic and you’ll likely have more confidence as a consumer, giving you an advantage.

“Service advisors are wary of customers who look like they know what they’re doing,” the shop worker told Edmonds.com.

Just Say No

Repair shops may tell you your bill is about to balloon, and get your permission, usually with some friendly language like, “You should really get this taken care of now.” But do you really need that transmission flush? There’s a big difference between dealer recommended service and manufacturer recommended service. A good rule of thumb is to follow the later, which you can find in service manuals and on carmaker websites.

Diagnostic Fees

One of the most popular and lucrative gotchas at repair shops is the dreaded “diagnostic fee,” a service charge for establishing the problem with your vehicle. Sometimes it genuinely takes an hour or two to diagnose a repair problem. But Kristin Brocoff of CarMD.com said that it is also possible for techs to plug into the car’s computer and get a diagnosis in seconds.

“It takes less than two minutes for the service writer or tech to use a scan tool on your car,” Brocoff said. “If the problem ends up being something simple like a loose gas cap, most shops waive or discount the diagnostic fee, but some charge upwards of $100. Ask a lot of questions and know what tests they’re running on your car.”

If you want to run a test yourself and compare your results to what a service tech is telling you, you can purchase a OBD2 reader that can read the car’s computer diagnostic codes. It’s important to note that the codes they generate don’t always tell the whole story, and they can be misinterpreted.

Brake for Second Opinions

Car brake repairs range from simple and cheap (brake pad replacement) to the really expensive (rotor and even caliper replacement). It’s easy for shops to say you need the expensive work when you could get away with the cheaper job. They might even show you what looks like a terribly dirty, worn rotor. But rotors can be repaired (turned) instead of replaced, for example. If a shop tells you that you need a full brake replacement, go to another shop and get a second opinion. The variety of quotes you’ll receive for repairs like this can be eye-opening. (Last time I replaced my tires, I was told I needed $500 worth of repairs on my front brakes. A month later, they were fixed elsewhere for $200.)

Smell, Listen, Look, Feel

This leads to perhaps the most important piece of gotcha-fighting advice. You have a relationship with your car. Treat it like a friend, and it’ll do the same for you. Listen to it; look at it; smell it; feel it. Listen to the sounds it makes. Hear a sound like an airplane landing when you press on the brakes? Take it in before a cheap repair becomes and expensive repair. See a puddle stain in your parking spot? Get help. Smell something unusual when you turn it off? Open the hood and look around. Feel a drop in performance when you accelerate on a highway? Notice a drop in gas mileage? Take it in. The most important way to avoid overpaying is to avoid the captive consumer situation. A good rule of thumb: You want to drive to a repair shop, not get towed there. Avoid letting things go until the situation is dire, and it’s not really possible to get second opinion quotes.

Question Line Items

When Popular Mechanics interviewed an anonymous repair tech a few years ago, he shared that many shops add annoying tack-on fees like “shop supplies.” That means you might be getting charged $20 for a shop rag. Feel free to ask and challenge the shop on these charges. Doing so is fair and can put the shop on notice that you aren’t a pushover.

Use Online Tools for a Reality Check

Finally, there are plenty of clever tools now that can give you a rough idea of what repairs should cost in your area. Consumer Reports has one; So does RepairPal.com. They won’t be exact, but you’ll have a good idea if the quote you are getting is fair. Also keep in mind that if the quote is too low, ask questions to help make sure your shop isn’t planning a bait and switch.

Even if you do avoid a car repair gotcha, it’s important to have an emergency fund so a pricey repair doesn’t turn into unwanted debt. Having outstanding or large debts can hurt your credit score and you’ll want a strong score in the event that your car is damaged beyond repair and you need to get a new one. Having a good credit score may make it easier to get approved for an auto loan with an affordable interest rate. You can keep an eye on your credit score by viewing two of your credit scores for free each month on Credit.com.

This story is an Op/Ed contribution to Credit.com and does not necessarily represent the views of the company or its partners.

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