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Shams + Scams | Glossary
You have finally decided where to get the car fixed, and have an idea as to the type of person you’re going to be dealing with. But before you go on over to the facility, you’ll need to gather more information to get prepared. One of the first things you should do is collect as much service information about your car as possible, such as when it last had a tune-up, when the oil was changed last and warranty in formation (especially if you’re going to a dealership). Above all, read your owner’s manual and determine the recommended maintenance intervals for such things as inspections, oil changes, tire rotations, brake jobs, etc. Why? Because no matter what the problem is, you’re going to be pressured into buying extra service. That’s the first and foremost job of a service manager or service writer—to sell you as many parts and as much service as he or she can. If he absolutely recommends an oil change, and you know that it was just changed 1500 miles ago and know it isn’t due for another 2,000 miles according to the manual, then you’ll be able to tell him no, you don’t want it done. So before you head out the door, read over all of this paperwork so you’ll be prepared.
Many repair facilities, just like salesmen, classify their “targets” and group them into stereotypes. How you are treated depends on how you are viewed. There are definite exceptions within every category, but these are observations based on my own experience as a service manager and mechanic. Let’s take a look at some of these stereotypes, and see if you fall into any one of them.
High on the list of preferred customers are family men. A family man is more likely to follow the “book,” when it comes to periodic maintenance and repair. If his vehicle is new or near new, the family man is more inclined to follow the recommendations of the manufacturer, and more often than not take the car to the dealership every time.
The problem is, the service managers prey on this sense of regularity and loyalty. They will often use the line “well—it is recommended by the manufacturer,” when selling the family man service he hadn’t thought of. Also, because he is a family man, he is often told that “he should have the brakes done or the tires changed for the safety of his family.” With thoughts of brake failure occurring while negotiating a mountain incline with a car load of his kids, the family man often will sign for the additional brake inspection or tire rotation without giving it much further thought.
Oddly enough, senior citizens are taboo with the dishonest repair facility. Like the family man, they are also inclined to be prompt and reliable customers, and it's not uncommon for them to remain with a car repair facility for years, as long as they feel they are being treated fairly and with honesty. They generally never miss an oil change or tune-up interval. One miss in the engine and they head straight for the shop.
Service managers and mechanics generally avoid pulling anything on seniors because seniors are often well-versed with the service intervals and manufacturer’s recommendations in the manual. They know the book, and are likely to question everything, especially prices because many live on a fixed income. When told their car needs additional service, a senior is much more likely to demand concrete proof before signing the repair bill than other stereotypes.
Seniors are also more likely to follow through with a formal com plaint or lawsuit. There are exceptions, of course, but most managers and mechanics have learned that it's unwise to outfox the wise.
The service manager, on the whole, does not have a lot of patience with teenagers. For one thing, the feeling has always prevailed that the teenage driver has just about enough coin to put in his gas tank, never mind for a serious or light car repair. And, if I were a teen, I would do everything to perpetuate this myth. I would not, under any condition, let the service manager or mechanic know that my parents were helping out with the repair bill. In fact, I would make sure that they knew I was paying for it regardless. If a manager or mechanic knows for a fact that the kid isn’t paying for it, then they are much more likely to sign him up for the maximum service.
Teenage boys, in particular, are difficult to fool, because unlike most teenage girls, who at best might have a passing interest in the mechanics of their car, boys are generally passionate about every nut and bolt.
In fact, most teenagers, especially boys, take their cars to a repair facility as an absolute last resort. Even girls will probably have had a boyfriend try and fix it first. They’ll fumble and falter, and if it still isn’t right, finally take it to a shop. Then, the mechanic is often confronted with homemade repairs made with homemade tools that need to be fixed before the real problem can be solved. Many teens try to install their own stereos, and end up making an electrical mess of the wiring. Quite often they’ll modify the engine with aftermarket performance items such as camshafts and superchargers or add tires and rims that are too wide. Then the teenager ends up paying much more than he or she would have if they had gone to a repair shop right away.
So teenage boys end up putting a service manager in a difficult dilemma. Here’s a repair that requires additional time to fix, which means extra “flag time,” and a bigger ticket. But who’s going to pay for it? In my experience as a manager, the young service customer will openly argue over the smallest repair bill, believing that he has been taken, or rooked in the deal somehow. Sadly enough, there is a practice too often used by the manager to rid the shop of a disgruntled teen who lacks funds, or has brought a modified wreck to the shop. He simply tells the customer after the inspection that the car is beyond “specs,” “too modified,” or “flunks” in some area. “Nope. Our policy won’t cover it. Sorry, we’re not licensed for that. None of my mechanics will touch it. Why don’t you try so and so down the road...” These are stock phrases commonly used to avoid performing any repairs the teenager may not be able to afford. My advice to teens is to consult with a repair facility before attempting any modifications or repairs. With modifications, you may run into legal problems when it comes time a smog check. Many types of modifications will cause a car to fail a smog test.
Unlike the teen who might be deliberately flunked out of a shop, a woman will face an entirely different problem. Though I have always tried to dispel the rumor that women are “stung” more often than any other customer in the auto repair industry, it's my conclusion that they are still prey to the mechanic and manager, although the single, young professional male is gaining more prominence as a “pigeon.”
It used to be that women were openly taken advantage of in the auto repair industry—terribly so. But it's becoming much more difficult to try and pull the wool over their eyes. New research has shown that single women are much more discriminating and more informed when it comes to auto purchase and repair than are most men. But most women don’t want anything to do with it physically. The degree of their distaste for the occupation can be keenly gauged by an observant service manager. A woman’s dress and her attitude, can be a determining factor on how much she will ultimately pay for her repair. I’m not talking about a reputable and honest repair shop; I’m talking about the repair shops that would “scalp” women. A woman who walks daintily into a repair shop, wearing a business suit or dress, with high heels, a Louis Vuitton purse, custom nails and hair, who quickly signs an inspection invoice, saying “Gee, something’s funny when I step on the brake,” then rushes of to go shopping, is asking for a financial pummeling. A woman who projects this image, plus hands over her car keys, signs an estimate, and runs off because she does not like the atmosphere of the shop nor its inhabitants, runs the risk of being treated like a lady. And if this lady has flashed plastic (credit cards) at the service desk, she’s likely to get more than a lady-like bill.
By dressing down and appearing more casual you can avoid the impression that you should pay more. A woman should not give the impression that her car repair is a major inconvenience that she doesn’t want to deal with, nor that she is overly concerned with its probable expense.
In the worst cases, I’ve seen mechanics who blatantly rip off women more than any other type of customer, believing still that they know nothing about their car, and don’t want to know. By projecting an image that you are concerned, informed and on your guard, you’ll be much better off.
SINGLE MALE PROFESSIONALS
Single, young, male professionals, sometimes referred to with the “Y” word, are another favorite target. Only with some obvious variations. Bachelors, particularly if they are executive and successful types, need to play down their airs of high status and importance when approaching a repair facility. Successful bachelors often have a life style that consumes many priorities at once. Their indifference or preoccupation with business can stand in their way of monitoring their car repair. The businessman who is always in a hurry sets himself up for a high repair invoice because he’s telling the manager that he doesn’t have the time to deal with this problem and he just wants it taken care of no matter what it costs. If you’ve got the money to burn, fine, but you probably wouldn’t be reading this book if that were the case.
As with women, it’s not a bad idea for him to familiarize himself with the working parts of his car, to thoroughly read the owner’s manual and even a few repair manuals. A little knowledge and understanding goes a long way when confronted by a mechanic who is trying to sell you extra service by using confusing auto jargon.
Dressing down when visiting an auto repair shop applies to the bachelor as well. A three-piece suit is a little on the over-kill side for a Saturday visit to the repair shop.
GETTNG AN ESTIMATE
Okay, you’re waiting in line to see the service manager, and when called, you step up to the counter. Your first task is to describe to him the nature of your car’s problem as accurately as possible. A good service manager will prompt you with questions to try and pinpoint what is wrong. He should be listening carefully and taking notes. He should not be taking personal phone calls or interrupting you and stepping into the back room every few minutes. In fact, he should be adopting the professional attitude of a doctor who is trying to determine your illness (And why not? He charges almost as much, right?).
Several chapters of the American Automobile Association (AAA) offer their members a diagnostic service The member brings his car down to the center and an AAA certified mechanic will inspect and diagnose the car The AAA mechanic will give the member a printout listing the problem, and the recommended parts and ser vices needed to correct it, but will not perform the actual repairs The member can then take the printout to a repair facility and request that the recommendations be followed on the printout This policy certainly helps to reduce the chances of unfair practices If you are a member of the AAA, check with your local chapter to see if they provide this valuable service.
If you’re not treated with courtesy and respect, if the manager is disinterested or too casual about your problem, then you should take this as a sign that you may not have chosen well.
So now the manager scribbles some more, hands you a slip of paper, tells you the charges and when you can pick it up. So you sign on the dotted line, right? WRONG! You are entitled to an estimate and visual inspection first. The manager should ask to see your car. He should listen to it, or examine the general area, even test drive it before he starts writing up charges on the repair order (the exceptions would be a simple lube, oil and filter change, smog check or other regular maintenance procedure). If he doesn’t offer it, demand it. If he still doesn’t move from behind the counter or have a mechanic do it, then thank him very much for his time and go somewhere else.
Inspection—If the mechanic or service manager agrees to inspect the car, go with him if at all possible. Don’t wait in the lounge for him to come back. Watch him as he inspects every inch of your car. If the inspection is in the service bay, stand outside the yellow line and watch the inspection take place. Part of a mechanic’s or service manager’s job in this inspection is to spot other areas they can sell you service on, or to “find” something wrong. Don’t take the service manager’s word for it when he says he looked at your tires when he was looking at the muffler and decided you need a tire rotation and balance for an extra $40.00. Ask him to show you the evidence (for more on tires, turn to section 4).
Furthermore, this inspection should be free of charge. Remember, this is not a diagnosis, for which you may be charged, but an estimate of what it will cost to find and fix the problem. Don’t panic if the manager or mechanic writes up an invoice anyway. It is standard procedure for many places to account for every vehicle that comes into the shop. If they find the problem and you agree to come back later (always say you will come back later even if you don’t intend to), he will release you with an “N/C” on your invoice. This means no charge and it's very common. If under the same circumstances a different shop charges you $25.00 for a few minutes inspection/diagnosis time, I would refuse to pay it unless they had specified the charges up front before they looked at your car. I would also never return to that shop again!
Pressure—Each area of R and R (Remove and Replace) repair has its own set of common shams and scams. For specifics, turn to the appropriate sections. But there are some general tactics often employed to get you to sign for a high repair bill at this stage.
For instance, if the manager has quoted you a price, and your car is sitting up on the lift in the service bay with the wheels off, the manager is apt to say, “If you’ll just sign here, we’ll get started, heck the car’s already half apart, we might as well get going.” Or, the manager might say, “I’d take care of it right away if I were you. If you drive it any more, the problem’s going to get worse and then it’ll be even more expensive to fix.” This may be true if you’ve got a severe oil leak or pre-ignition (detonation) problems, or possibly a broken wheel bearing or snapped tie-rod where the wheel’s likely to fall off, but not so with most R and R problems. Don’t fall for this tactic. If the car made it to this facility, it will get you to the one down the street. Don’t be intimidated by the heavy sighs and groans the service manager (often referred to as SM) will emit, making you feel as though you’ve really ruined his day by making him put those wheels back on (which you didn’t ask to have taken off, by the way) because you won’t sign the repair order. There is nothing written that says you have to commit to repairs because the shop performed a free inspection.
THE REPAIR ORDER
Commonly called the “R.O.” the repair order (or work order, “W.O.”) is a legal document, a contract that says you are authorizing the facility to perform the repairs listed and that you agree to, and will be held liable for, the charges and rates listed. It also says the repair facility will perform those repairs as stated. If you have any doubts about the work to be done and how you’re going to be charged for it, now is the time to ask questions, before you sign.
The repair order should list the following: a very accurate description of the problem; the list of replacement parts to be used and their actual charges; the amount of labor time estimated to complete the job and the rate charged per hour for the labor; any and all machine work to be performed; your name, address and phone numbers where you can be reached.
Parts—You should question the service manager as to whether the parts used are in stock or must be sent out for, and whether or not they are generic replacements or factory original parts. Ask what the price differences are between the two. You want to make sure you’re not being charged for factory parts when generics are going to be used. Second, make sure the repair order states that the parts to be used are covered under some sort of warranty. Most reputable repair shops will offer some sort of warranty, the usual being 90 days.
Labor—Quite often, the amount per hour for labor varies with the type of work. For instance, the charge for body repair work may be higher than that for a tune-up. The facility should have a “rate” card listing the different charges for different types of work. If this is how they operate, then make sure you compare the work to the rate listed to make sure you’re not being overcharged. Furthermore, every repair facility is supposed to estimate the amount of time a certain job should take, based on a “flat rate manual.” A Mitchell Flat Rate Repair manual is the most common one used. If something seems to require an inordinate amount of time, question the service manager about it and ask to see his flat rate manual where it says so. If he gives you the runaround, thank him for his time, take the estimate and tell him you wish to think about it, and motor on down the road.
The shop flat rate manual, which contains maximum allowable shop labor costs for individual repair services can be, and still is, a devastating device used by most repair facilities to obtain the highest labor costs from the consumer. For example, a dealership flat rate manual can stipulate that a brake job will be 2.5 hours of time, and at their labor charge of $42.00 an hour the total labor (less parts) will be $105.00. What they don’t tell you is that the mechanic almost always finishes such a repair in 3/4 or 1/2 the allowed time, but you are still charged the full flat rate cost prescribed by the book. Hence, with the development of new tools and techniques, the mechanic is finishing much faster, but you are still obligated to pay their “full time” labor cost. The “hood-up” syndrome is a direct by-product of this practice (finishing the work too early).
Other Services—Repair or maintenance work other than what you specified has a nasty habit of creeping into a repair order that's too quickly signed by a rushed customer. Look at the list of work to be done very carefully. Question any procedure that's written in confusing “auto-speak.” Refer to the glossary at the back of this guide to check out some of the words. The manager should clearly explain each one. If you didn’t come in for an oil change, then make sure you don’t see “L.O.F” (lube, oil, filter) on the repair order. Once you sign for the work and it's done, it’s difficult to get out of having to pay for it.
Machine Work—You should only be charged for additional machine work if it's farmed out to another facility. If the shop has the equipment in-house, like a brake lathe machine for turning drums and rotors, but you’re being charged an extra price for it, question the manager about it. If the facility advertised a $49.95 brake job that included turning drums and rotors, how come you’re suddenly being charged an additional $25.00 for machine work?
Troubleshooting—Aside from the dealerships, most repair facilities don't charge for diagnosis or “troubleshooting,” especially for simple “R and R” work. Let’s face it, if you drive in to the repair shop and your car sounds like a tank, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that you need a new muffler. Don’t allow yourself to be charged for troubleshooting simple remove and replace items.
On the other hand, troubleshooting charges may be warranted for a mystical electrical problem that will require several hours of checking wire leads, grounds, fuse boxes, transistors, etc. to locate.
Authorization—The repair order should state (generally in fine print) that the facility will perform only the work specified on the repair order unless authorized by you to perform any other additional repairs. In other words, they can’t just decide to fix something else if they should find it without first contacting you to get your okay. If that’s not stipulated loud and clear, then write it on yourself before you sign.
If you receive a call from the repair facility stating they found something else and recommend repairing it, I would proceed with caution. If possible, tell them that you’ll be over to discuss the problem with them. If it’s a damaged part that needs to be replaced, tell them you want to see it first. Ask how much the additional charge will be. Ask how necessary the repair is at this time. If you can’t go over, and the repair is not absolutely necessary, then I would tell them you don’t want to have it done right at that moment and ask them to proceed with the authorized repair only. Then jot down this conversation on a note pad in case you need it later.
Price Haggling—Quite often the price offered for the repair is not what the facility will take. Most facilities do have some margin to work with. I know of a friend who went to a chain muffler facility to have the muffler replaced. After putting the car on the rack, the mechanic performed a quick inspection, then took my friend to look under the car and showed him the repairs needed. The car was imported, so the mechanic explained they would have to make a custom exhaust system consisting of three pieces and some additional hangers. The original muffler was a one piece unit connected to the tailpipe, and was only available as such from the dealer. The price was just under $200! My friend was stunned and told the mechanic that he simply couldn’t afford such a price. My friend also suggested he would have to take the car somewhere else. The mechanic told him to wait a moment in the front lounge while he worked with the figures to see what he could do. Ten minutes later, the mechanic reappeared and had adjusted the estimate, lowering the amount by over $50! However, my friend still didn’t sign because he knew he was being taken. In this case, all the facility had to do was cut off the old muffler and attach a new one with an adapter. This is a common scam pulled on import car owners that's covered in greater detail in section 5.
Don’t fall for one of the service manager’s favorite scams. Quite often, they may tell you that the estimate listed is high just in case something should happen, but he doubts very much that it won’t go that high at all. Rest assured that you’ll be told that “something did happen” when you come to get your car and the final amount is the same as the estimate.
Deposits—Some facilities demand a deposit, usually 10% of the estimate, when you sign the R.O. I think this is ridiculous. They have the keys to your car! How much more of a deposit could they possibly want! I would politely inform them of this, and if that wasn’t enough, take your car somewhere else.
Final Note—If you decide to go ahead and sign, make sure you keep a copy of the repair order with you at all times until the repair is finished. This is in case the shop should call to ask you about additional repairs, or to discuss the work they are doing. You’ll need the repair order as a reference. After the repair is done, file the repair order away along with all other service receipts for as long as you keep your car.
A SECOND OPINION
If the amount of the repair order still seems to shatter all common sense despite a thorough explanation from the service manager, and you’ve tried to haggle with the price without success, you still have an option—you can get a second opinion. Second opinions work extraordinarily well in auto repair because mechanics have an ironic habit of burning down another mechanic’s diagnosis, or dismissing it altogether. Mechanics often exhibit a “battle of wills,” and frequently compete against each other. A mechanic that performs a second or third opinion for you (once you’ve told him about your first diagnosis), is more inclined to find out what you really need, or how he can go about beating the repair cost of the previous diagnosis. He knows that if he can be honest with you and save you legitimate dollars, you might come back to him in the future. So his theory is, find that basic problem, do just enough to fix it, save the customer substantial dollars, and voila! That customer will be his, probably for good. How they treat you the next time might be a different story altogether. The important point is to let them show off, get that reduced deal, then vacate the premises with money in your pocket.
Let’s set up a typical scenario. Mechanic A has test-driven your vehicle, inspected it on the rack, and he has deduced that the slop in the steering wheel and the poor turning response, are due to a defective steering box gear. The gears are worn, and this is what’s giving you that extra play or “lash.” He says that the parts and labor will run about $350, and the wait for the part, since it's a dealer item, might be a few days. He’ll ask that you sign the repair estimate so they can get started because you don’t want to wait with such a dangerous problem. That should be your cue to politely ask for a copy of the written estimate so you can think about it some more, and that you need to make arrangements to leave the car, get the money, etc. Then head for another repair shop. You tell mechanic B what mechanic A told you about your vehicle. You will innocently proclaim that “it’s always a wise move to get a second opinion,” and that “I didn’t quite trust the other mechanic’s diagnosis.” You would like mechanic B to double- check the gear box and tell you what he thinks.
Mechanic B says, “Oh, those idiots down at that (expletive deleted) rip-off garage have made mistakes before.”
He then goes on to do the second inspection. He needs to impress you with his skill and reasoning so he will try very hard to refute the first claim. If he does find the gear box bad he will tell you so but probably beat the first price. Or, if you were being scammed, he might find the real problem.
Now, mechanic B says, “Just as I thought. It’s not the gearbox, but an adjustment to the gear box. I loosen this cap-nut, turn this screw and voila! It takes out the excess lash in the steering box. You see, that’s what the adjusting screw is there for. There’s no need to buy a whole gear box. Just a case of average wear.”
In this case, mechanic B just might send you off down the road after making a one-minute adjustment without charging you anything. He wants you to remember him—forever.
What have we learned here? Well, just maybe mechanic A knew what the real problem was only his receipts were low for that week, or his bonus figures didn’t look too good. So he was going fishing hoping that you would spring for the complete repair job. You didn’t believe his extravagant estimate, and instead paid a visit to mechanic B. Mechanic B will snag you as a customer and play it straight this time. That will show mechanic A a thing or two! Naturally, you don’t care about how the mechanics or shops feel about each other, only in getting the best possible, most honest repair job for your car. But in this instance, do you see how one played against the other and you came out on top? Try this method and see how well it works. Even third and fourth opinions are justified when you are confronted with a very high repair estimate.
A few shops have instigated a “clock In/clock out” method of determining shop labor costs. That means that a mechanic must punch a time card at the beginning of a labor service and at the end of it. The elapsed time on the card is truly what you pay in labor charges according to their hourly labor charge. Using the example of the brake job below, if the mechanic finished the repairs in 1 1/2 hours, the labor charge would be $63.00, or the “true” time that the mechanic spent on the repairs. You can see the dramatic difference in these two policies. There are not many shops that have the “clock in/clock out” policy, but you would be wise to call up beforehand to see if they did.
With no great pride I am going to divulge to you what has been a blot on the automotive industry since time immemorial. They have commonly been called “scare or boo tactics,” although there is nothing ghostly about the term. Basically, a “boo” tactic is a deceptive diagnosis used to frighten the customer into purchasing a part or service that he believes will either save his life, or prevent major expense in the future. Such a claim is hardly justified, especially when the manager warns you that if you don't purchase a certain part you are likely to end up in some horrendous accident as a result of your negligence.
Some of these claims are legitimate. But most of them are not. Most often they are employed when a mechanic has performed an inspection on your vehicle (in addition to prescribed work) and found something that's , or can be, a potential problem. What’s worse, if you are not standing around monitoring the work on your car, you are bound to get a “flash” (additional) inspection whether you like it or not. Even if you came in for an air cleaner, there is a good chance that your car will be racked, the wheels removed (to check brakes), the suspension scrutinized and your tires gauged. The cost of the air cleaner is chump change compared with what the manager would like to get out of you as a result of this flash inspection. A dishonest shop will employ a seek and destroy mission to find something wrong with a vehicle, and then blow the diagnosis way out of proportion and reason. The customer is relieved when he hears that there is nothing that he has done to make his car a hazard to humanity, but when told that the fatigue on his parts will sooner or later lead to mechanical failure or worse, most customers are scared right into signing an invoice for the additional work. The customer is apt to believe the diagnosis without question. The manager is counting on customer ignorance to get as much parts and service as he can.
Correct Warnings—Some of these warnings may be justified, however. For instance, if the steel belt of a radial tire is showing through the tire tread, (the sidewall area being most common), you do increase the chances of a rapid blow-out, which can lead to a life threatening accident. A severe leak of brake fluid in your master cylinder or wheel cylinder can cause a sudden loss of brake pedal pressure, thus leading to a collision. If per chance one of your front end parts is so worn that it approaches the point of breakage, this can cause an immediate loss of steering and lead to a collision. If your carb linkage is hanging up, this can lead to an unexpected full throttle condition that could send you speeding into another vehicle.
All these examples are legitimate and life-threatening concerns, but usually there is a warning of some type before they deteriorate or fail totally. Bad tires are visually discovered. Bad brakes are commonly found in the action of the brake pedal, or by a grating noise. Bad front end parts are usually felt in the steering response. Faulty carburetor linkage can usually forewarn a driver by abnormal acceleration or rpm’s (revolutions per minute, very high idle).
But don’t take the mechanic’s or service manager’s word for it! You have every right to demand a demonstration or to be shown the faulty part. If specifications are given, ask where those specs come from, ask to see them. If the mechanic or service manager hesitates, then it’s likely they’re leading you on.
Ironically, most managers don’t have the ability to pursue the reason for the diagnosis past a rehearsed line. If you question them further and in detail about a specific cause-and-effect there is a good chance they will either skirt the issue, hesitate or excuse themselves to go ask a mechanic. If you are doubtful about how essential a replacement part or service is for your car, seek another opinion. Don’t feel that you are obligated to agree with the shop staff simply because they make a recommendation to you. Use sound judgment and common sense. If you truly believe that a part can't wait, and as a result you will be in jeopardy without it, go ahead and okay the repair.
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