Protect Thyself -- What to Do When You’ve Been; Ripped Off; Tips to Save Money

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The time will come one day when you are confronted with an auto repair bill that defies common sense. Or there will be a time when your vehicle has not been repaired properly or is worse than it was before you brought it in for repair. You could find yourself broken down on some lonely stretch of highway that's nothing more than a rabbit trail on the map, way out in Boonesville, and your only hope of salvation comes from some greasy shyster in a grimy service station truck.

There will be other times when you are in a jam and need your car and the mechanic has you over a barrel with an outrageous repair bill. And there will be times when an estimate will make you feel ill, wondering if your car is worth the expense of repair. Don’t panic; try a few things first.

FAIR EXPENSE

If you are in a shop and the repair cost seems high (which is almost always the case), you can ask the manager to check his shop labor cost manual, or his flat rate manual, to find out what the book says about tear-down and repair time.

Or if you see that the actual repair time (from start to finish) conflicts with the labor costs they have marked on their labor cost placard, tell this to the service manager, stating how much time you witnessed the job to take. Sometimes the labor cost or flat rate book indicates a specific labor time for a particular job, only many mechanics “beat” this time and finish the job in half the time period. (This is very common since tools are much improved and mechanics work much faster than they once did.) However, you will still be charged for the full rate stated in the flat rate manual. This leads to what is known as the “hood-up” syndrome. This is a scam where a mechanic finishes the repair early, but leaves the hood up or your car on the lift the entire time to give you the impression they are still working on it. You should rightfully insist, for example, that if you’re being charged for 1.8 hours of labor time to perform the job, then the mechanic should spend that entire block of time on your brake system if he finished early. Either that, or you should only be charged for the actual time spent on the car, and not the time set by a self-serving flat rate manual.

FALSE OBLIGATION

Many customers feel they are obligated to follow through with a recommended repair once their car has been torn down or visually inspected. This show of “good faith,” especially if it's with a first-choice shop, is needless. You might say, “but they took the time to find the problem, and for nothing! So why shouldn’t I show them that I trust their judgment?” My answer to that's to find out the charge before you cough up so much loyalty. Generally, a repair estimate over $150 for most remove and replace work should convince you to start thinking logically instead of emotionally. Can you get a better deal down the street? Would the parts be cheaper? What is the flat rate labor charge at the other shop? Would the diagnosis even be the same? Are the mechanics more qualified at the other facility? These questions are relevant to second opinions, and if you are thinking like this you are on the right track.

USING THE RIGHT CHANNELS

If anything can dissuade you from a physical fight, hollering match, shoving contest, temper tantrum, tears, or any other sign of emotional aggression or deterioration, LET IT! Don’t get into a row, or heated disagreement with the repair staff if you feel that you have been mugged by Mr. Bum Wrench. If you haven’t paid the bill yet, and you refuse to pay it, you have several options.

THE BAR

If you live in California, you can call the Bureau of Automotive Repair (BAR). The number should be displayed right there in the service center. Just by saying so, you might scare the manager or mechanic into re-examining the repair order and within seconds it will be reduced. That’s when you know they’ve been shining you on.

But if that doesn’t happen, call the local BAR and ask an operator or referee what to do. He, or she, will probably tell you to pay the bill anyway and report to the office immediately, or set up a date for an appointment. If you don’t pay your bill, remember that the facility has your car keys and you won’t be able to leave the premises.

The BAR office will have you fill out a form and explain all the details of the work that was performed on your vehicle. Be certain to bring all of your receipts and anything related to the case as evidence to the BAR office. After an extensive review, they will make a decision to either deny your claims that you’ve been ripped off, or they will intervene and serve as an intermediary between you and the repair shop for the purpose of refunding your money, or reaching a compromise for both parties concerned.

THE BBB

While you are at it, you could also telephone the Better Business Bureau (BBB) and explain your case to them. They can look up the records of the shop and determine how many complaints have been logged with them in the past, whether the cases were resolved and what kind of attitude the shop had in treating its customers. This information from the Better Business Bureau would be secondary ammunition that you could take to the Bureau of Automotive Repair.

OFF TO COURT

If you are unsatisfied with the results of the BAR or the BBB, you can file for a small claims suit and proceed to take the matter to court. You must bring all pertinent information with you that has a direct bearing on your case: all receipts for work performed, evidence of phone calls that you had with the repair facility (notes of the calls made, when and by whom), names of the auto repair staff who dealt directly with you, the shop name, your registration, pink slip and any other documents that would serve as evidence in your case. Though going to court is a hassle, it may well be worth the effort to gain damages for personal inconvenience, lost wages and emotional suffering. And we all know that a botched auto repair job or an outright rip-off can have each of those effects on us.

Whatever you decide to do, make sure that you are doing it because you believe it's just or fair. Wild claims of unfair treatment or damages that are not completely accurate can hurt you, especially in an auto repair suit. If there is a countersuit, and you lose, the aggravation can be multiplied. The important thing is for you to realize that you don’t have to take it lying down. If you can prove you have been wronged, your chances are excellent that you will recover your damages and maybe a little more to boot!

CHIN DOWN, GUARD UP

You might be the best haggler in town, or a stickler for detail, but it means nothing if you don’t carry the proper attitude.

You should appear dignified, informed, but friendly. You never want to lose one ounce of respect from the start. You can appear to be a fool and set yourself up for fool’s ticket if you annoy the staff. So employ a few don’ts.

1. Don’t ask shop personnel for a “little brake fluid” or power steering fluid, or “some extra oil,” because it's their job to sell you this merchandise. It annoys the hell out of the service manager and/or mechanic. The exception would be if you are paying for other, expensive repairs. If you’re having a major brake job done, then asking for a little free brake fluid wouldn’t be out of line.

2. Don’t ask to borrow tools. A customer who picks up loose tools and begins using them on his car is in for trouble.

3. Don’t walk into the shop and stand next to your car. Stand behind the yellow line or ribbon. If there is none, stand outside of the shop doors to watch.

4. Don’t approach your car without asking permission or until the mechanic flags you over to look at something. If you do, you’ll appear pushy and are liable to aggravate the mechanic or service manager.

5. Don’t be unprepared when you make a service visit. Know at least something about the part of your car that's going to be worked on so you can converse with the manager and explain the problem intelligently. If you know absolutely nothing about cars or repair, bring your owner’s manual with you and make sure the service manager sees it in your hands. You might nonchalantly place it on the service desk while you are signing the repair invoice. One woman told me that she takes a Chilton’s Motor Manual with her to the shop, sits in the waiting room, and begins flipping pages when the work is being done on her car. She admits she doesn’t know what she’s looking at, but the mechanics or service manager don’t know that!

DOING IT YOURSELF

I know of a story where a friend was driving on a freeway when the water temperature gauge suddenly zoomed right up to the danger zone. He immediately shut off the car and coasted to a gas station. He surveyed the engine compartment with the mechanic, and saw that the fan belt had disintegrated. The mechanic also showed him that the water pump had frozen solid. The car could not be driven unless it was repaired. My friend was in a hurry, a point obvious to the mechanic, but was stunned motionless when confronted with a repair estimate of $350! The pump was $100, the fan belt $20 and the rest of the charges were for labor (5 hours @ $39 per hour). When questioned why it cost so much, the mechanic stated the procedure was difficult because he would have to disconnect other items like the air conditioner. My friend, who was not a mechanic, nevertheless knew where the air conditioner was, and saw that it was nowhere near the water pump. When he challenged the mechanic with this, the mechanic looked at him and said, “Hey, do you want to do it yourself?” My friend looked him in the eye and said, “You’re damn right I do.”

So my friend pushed his car into a vacant lot, called a nearby associate who agreed to lend him a few tools and give him a ride to the nearest parts store. At the store, my friend purchased a rebuilt, generic water pump ($39.95), a fan belt ($6.00) and a Chilton Repair Manual for his car ($9.95). He went back to his car, and in full view of the mechanics, changed the water pump and installed the fan belt, filled the radiator with water, then drove right through their gas station honking the horn. Total time: Just under 90 minutes. Total cost: About $60.

Now obviously, my friend in the above example was lucky he had someone to call to lend him some tools. But do you see how much he saved by knowing just the location of some of his parts and by doing it himself? There is no reason why the typical vehicle owner can't perform some routine repair chores on his car at home. Obviously, some of the major services are outside the reach of the person with limited mechanical ability, i.e., complete valve job service, timing chain replacement, heavy transmission overhaul. However, some of the lighter jobs can be performed quite easily at substantial savings.

TOOLS

First, go to a parts store or a department store and get a Chilton manual for your car. They have a book for nearly every make and model automobile that has ever graced the highways. These manuals include all the service information, specifications and maintenance procedures necessary to repair your car.

Next, get a basic set of tools. Most people have them anyway. This would include a basic socket set, combination open and box end wrenches, two screwdriver sets—Phillips and slot, a plier set, and other numerous pieces. Specialty items, or tools used for specific tasks, like tune-up and brakes, can be found and purchased at reasonable costs. Timing lights, tachometers, vacuum gauges, dwell meters, and compression testers can be found in complete packaged sets that come with handy suitcase containers. Automobile ramps can be bought for as little as $29.95, and you can own your own battery charger for not much more than that. Once you have assembled a good assortment of auto motive repair tools you can use them over and over again for the same chores and services. They will pay for themselves quickly.

CAUTION

Don’t ever crawl under a car without taking proper safety pre cautions. Make sure someone else is around in case the worst happens. If you’re using ramps, drive the car up, then put it in Park or in gear and set the emergency brake. Place a block of wood as added insurance under the rear wheels to keep the car from rolling. If using jack-stands, place them on level ground in a secure spot on the car frame. Keep the jack also under the frame. After letting it down on the jack-stands, rock the car back and forth to make sure it's steady and firm.

TUNE-UP

Substantial savings can be realized quickly with a do-it-yourself minor tune-up. As stated before, the complexity of this service is so overblown that it's known as a “quickie” in the auto repair business. With the newer cars equipped with electronic ignition, the procedure does not amount to more than replacing the spark plugs, distributor cap, rotor, fuel filter and air filter. If you can turn a wrench back and forth, you can do the above, then you can take the car to a mechanic and just ask them to adjust the carburetor, timing or fuel-injection, what ever the case may be.

OIL and FILTER

If you purchase a set of car ramps, you’ll find it possible to get under your car and unscrew the oil pan bolt, let the oil drain, put the bolt back in, remove the oil filter, screw a new one on, then pour in four quarts of high-quality oil that you paid $1 each for. After you do it once or twice, you could do this in about 10 minutes at a cost of about $10.

Lube—It is a struggle to lubricate the underneath part of the car’s chassis for the average home mechanic. The car really needs to be racked on the proper lift so that leverage and mobility can be used to service the different components and reservoirs. For that, it’s best to take the car to a quick stop or gas station.

BRAKES

Feeling a little adventurous? Ready to take the NIASE exam? A more advanced do-it-yourselfer could accomplish a very good brake job and realize tremendous savings. But the job is very time consuming, and the task must be performed with care and some special tools.

Pads and Shoes—You could purchase the necessary brake pads and brake shoes for under $30 in most cases.

Drums and Rotors—You can also remove the drums and rotors and take them to a machine shop, or an auto parts store and have them checked and turned. The cost here is generally less than $20. If the drums and rotors are too heavily worn or damaged, the next step would be to go to a junkyard and purchase them in good, used condition, then have them machined. Again, the savings over purchasing new drums and rotors would be tremendous.

OTHER SIMPLE REPAIRS

Starters and alternators are easily replaced by the home repair person. So are fan belts, fuses, switches, batteries and water, vacuum and fuel hoses. Headlights, tail-lamps and turn-signal lamps are also easy to repair yourself, often requiring just a Phillips-head screwdriver and the proper part. In some cases, especially with small foreign com pacts, the water pump can be changed, like my friend did in the previous example.

If you have an electrical short, pull out your owner’s manual and look for the location of your fuse box. Find it and pull out each fuse (there is an inexpensive, special tool to do this) to see if it's okay. An auto fuse can cost pennies, and a confounding electrical problem that could take hours to diagnose, (or set you up for an expensive rip off) may be solved by replacing a blown fuse.

Many people think that if they replace their own headlights they will somehow change the adjustment (the headlight pattern angle). This is not true since headlights are generally secured within their own socket.

By removing the hoop ring retainer—unscrewing three screws, turning the ring and pulling it off—the headlight will exit the socket (as far as its wire harness will allow it). By unsnapping the wire harness the headlight can be taken off and the new one installed. Just remember that the screws in the headlight socket that sit farther back in the seat and have springs behind them are not the headlight mounting screws, but the adjustment screws. You don’t want to touch these screws since it would change the headlight adjustment. (Only partially unscrew the mounting screws and this will allow the ring to be rotated and removed.)

GETTING YOUR OWN PARTS

If a repair shop has to “order out” for a part they’ve really nothing to do but sit back and wait for a part to be delivered knowing that its markup to the customer is unsolicited profit. Easy money. People can go shopping at a grocery store with discount coupons, and realize the full potential of the savings from packages they have bought. It’s different in auto repair. A terrific part found at a parts store does not mean that a repair shop will install it on your vehicle just so you can realize that savings. It is really up to the repair management as to whether they want to or feel like performing such a chore. And that's about as accurate a determining factor that the customer will face.

In most auto repair facilities there is no God-like golden rule that prohibits them from installing out-of-shop or carry-in auto parts on their customers’ cars. Not surprisingly, they are very good at making restrictions on the spot, if this happens. The truth is most repair facilities have a flat rate manual or price policy which stipulates how much labor is required for any given part. By logic alone, you would think that if a part comes into their shop it's really no different from one they would supply so why should there be a fuss over installing it per request?

Well, the money factor is one excuse, but also many carry-in parts are just not the correct fitting model replacements; an adapter is missing or some gasket, nut, bolt, shim, or retainer has been left out. And this gives the mechanics headaches when having to scramble around the shop trying to find non-generic parts to custom fit your part to your vehicle. Also, a manager could say that the guarantee/warranty factor would be void if such a part were installed on your vehicle in their shop.

So where does the customer really stand with this carry-his-own- parts-in issue? A little hint: a smaller and slower shop might not frown at this request since they can’t afford to turn much work away. Service station mechanics might be a little bit more amiable and understanding, and also not as busy as a large chain. It goes without saying that a sweet smile, a pat on the back and a sugary attitude toward the mechanic or management might dissuade them from turning you down. The worst that could happen is you’d have to take the part back to the parts store for a refund.

Of course the bright spot will occur if you find a repair center that condones this practice. And if you did find one you could certainly realize substantial savings.

WARRANTIES

New car warranties vary from make to make, and their length of coverage depends on the manufacturer. Many people are unaware, however, of the different types of warranties that often come with the purchase of a new car. Knowing exactly how much coverage you have at any given time can help you avoid costly repairs that should have been performed for free.

TYPES OF WARRANTIES

A basic warranty usually covers parts and labor repairs due to defects in materials or workmanship, and it usually includes most of the car except tires and maintenance items. Tires have their own separate warranty offered by the tire manufacturer. Basic warranties vary greatly from carmaker to carmaker, ranging from 1 year/unlimited mileage (Volvo) up to 4 years/50,000 miles (Mercedes-Benz).

Powertrain warranties usually start after the basic warranty expires, and offer additional coverage on engine, transmission, U-joints, differential and axles. Some manufacturers, such as Chrysler, offer powertrain warranties for as long as 7 years or 70,000 miles. The average, however, is generally 3 years or 50,000 miles.

A corrosion warranty runs concurrently with the basic warranty and offers protection against rust.

An emissions warranty is mandated by federal law, requiring that carmakers ensure their cars meet clean air standards for 5 years or 50,000 miles. If your car fails a smog check within this time frame, you should be able to take it back to the dealer and have it repaired free of charge so it’ll pass. Emissions warranties cover all areas connected with emissions—including catalytic converters, engine computers and fuel injection systems.

Sometimes, there is a secret warranty offered by a manufacturer to cover a repair for a widespread defect in order to avoid a costly and damaging public recall. To protect their market image, manufacturers don’t always announce these secret warranties. Ford and Chevrolet offer technical service numbers that are available through dealerships, but to find out if your manufacturer does offer a secret warranty, contact the Center for Auto Safety. For the address, see the sidebar.

Finally, there are extended service contracts, which offer additional dealer coverage after the warranty has expired. Do you really need it? Compare the service contract coverage with your warranty and find out how much they really overlap before you decide.

Voiding Warranties—A warranty can be void if you use the car for any purpose other than its intended use—such as going off-road, racing, modifying or tampering with emissions equipment. Also, if a tree falls on the car, or it's wiped out by a hurricane, don’t look for warranty coverage.

Some warranties are void if you don’t perform regular maintenance procedures, such as change the oil. However, you don’t necessarily have to have the dealer perform regular maintenance repairs.

A survey by Fram, a manufacturer of oil and air filters, determined that an estimated 1 million new car buyers are told each year that they must have the dealership perform all repairs or the warranty would be void. The truth is, oil, brakes, wipers, headlights and all other simple R and R items can be repaired elsewhere without voiding the original warranty.

Read Your Warranty—If you don’t ask if your repair is covered under warranty, chances are this information won’t be offered. Be sure you study your warranty carefully. Too many people just throw the booklet in the glove compartment where it's soon forgotten. In fact, you should study the warranty before you purchase any car. Dealers must provide you with a written warranty upon request prior to the purchase of any car.

Next: Essential Books for Building Your Automotive Technical Skills

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