Five Ways to Save Serious Money on Car Repairs
If you drive, there's probably little you hate more than getting your car repaired. It's usually an expensive, time-consuming hassle no one looks forward to. Even so, it doesn't have to be so bad. Here are some solid ways to save as much money as possible on your car repairs, and hopefully make the whole process a little easier, too.
Whether it's just dealing with mechanics who try to upsell you on unnecessary work, the inevitable toll on your wallet, or being out of your expensive-and often only-means of getting around while you wait for the work (and the bill), car repairs can be a hassle some of us avoid more than going to the dentist. Still, you'll have to go eventually, regardless of your skill level. Let's look at some ways you can make the whole affair as easy as possible.
Find the Best Garages and Mechanics Near You, and Stick with Them
The most obvious tip comes first: If you find a mechanic or a repair shop that you trust and treats you like an intelligent human being who also happens to be their valued customer, you stick with that shop like glue. Find someone who deserves your business and reward them handsomely for staying in business. The good guys need all the help they can get.
Now, the "good guys" aren't always your mom and pop mechanics. Sometimes you'll find them in a suburban dealership. Other times you'll find them in a gas station garage. If you hear someone tell you to avoid "X type of establishment" at all costs, reject their advice unless they have a specific place they suggest you go. Instead, here are some places to check out and cross-reference to find a trustworthy mechanic:
- Consider a AAA Car Care Center or a AAA approved auto repair shop. If you're a AAA member, consider visiting a shop that's either operated by or approved by the organization you pay membership dues to every year. Plus, you'll get a discount on the work you need done.
- Make sure the shop is ASE Certified. The National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (ASE) is the major certifying body for automobile mechanics in the United States. Don't take your car to a shop where the mechanics aren't ASE certified unless you know them personally and trust them unconditionally-and even then, think twice.
- Check Yelp for reviews. While Yelp definitely has a bit of a "people only rate mechanics to complain" vibe about it, it can still be a great way to find out whether a place has a track record. Also, you'll be able to see if a garage has a specialty or is better with certain types of repairs. Take reviews with a grain of salt though, and trust general trends, not necessarily specific opinions. Remember, happy customers usually don't leave reviews-but if you find a four-to-five star mechanic on Yelp, that's a really good sign.
- Call or visit before you get work done. This is something too few people actually do. Swing by the lot before you actually have repair work that needs to be done. You should see cars in good condition-not parted out junk that looks like it's been sitting around for ages. Turnover should be pretty high too, people should be coming and going. The shop should be at least relatively welcoming, and even if you can't see into the work area, the place should be relatively clean. Talk to the staff-ask them how long they've been in business, whether they specialize in specific repairs or types of cars. Ask them what their labor guarantees are like, what parts they use, and how long they warranty those parts. Turn up your BS sensor, and evaluate how you're treated.
- Check car forums and review sites for recommendations. If you're not familiar with or a fan of the deep world of auto boards and enthusiast forums, it's okay. AutomotiveForums.com is host to forums for specific makes and models of cars, and it's often frequented by mechanics themselves looking for second opinions or help diagnosing issues. Ask around for garage suggestions based on your type of vehicle and your location. Edmunds' forums is another great place to look. If you're willing to spend money, check out Angie's List, which will certainly help you out, but it costs money to join. If you're not into car forums, try RepairPal, a service we've mentioned before
that does the legwork of finding a good mechanic for you. Give them your car's make and model and the type of repair you need done, and they'll do the rest.
- Don't underestimate the value of word-of-mouth. Check with your neighbors and see where they go, and if they'd recommend their mechanic or garage. If you have a community bulletin board, apartment building website, or even a local Facebook group, ask your neighbors. They'll likely be able to give you some solid options, and there's nothing like hearing first-hand experience to help you pick a good mechanic.
Finding someone you're comfortable taking your car to before you leave the house-or before you need something fixed-will go along way. Plus, you won't wind up stuck and desperate to try anyone just because you have work that needs to be done.
Get Estimates and Shop Around
Even if you've found a reputable garage or mechanic, that doesn't mean you can't shop around or get a second opinion if you think you're being fleeced, or if your BS sensor is going off. We've discussed the best way to do this before
If you like to play hardball, you can whip out the original estimate and see if the second mechanic is willing to undercut, has any ongoing specials, or willing to negotiate a lower labor rate or discount. You can even take the second opinion back to the original garage and see if they're willing to work with you. Be careful though, that kind of thing can easily backfire, and while you can save money on labor just by picking a shop with lower labor or parts costs, it shouldn't be your only consideration.
If you want a semi-objective opinion on how much a repair should cost, head back to those car forums we just mentioned and ask the community there. You'll probably hear some stories from mechanics who have actually done that type of work, and are willing to tell you how much a good shop should charge. You can also check out previously mentioned
Get Your Own Code Reader and Do Your Own DIagnostics
There's a huge market for simple OBD-II (On-Board Diagnostics), the built-in diagnostics and reporting technology built into most modern cars) scanners you can use at home or with your smartphone to diagnose your own problems. When a light goes up on your dash, or your car starts beeping like crazy, there's usually an OBD code associated with it. These tools will take those codes and beeps and translate them into real language so you understand what's wrong. Many of them let you do your own health checks on your car, and others will even record data while you drive and help you figure out if there's a problem before it becomes a serious issue.
There's a whole category of OBD-II code readers and scanners at Amazon, but you don't even really need to buy a dedicated unit. A Bluetooth dongle and a smartphone app will do just as well, and costs less. Over at OppositeLock
Just make sure that the app you download will help you diagnose issues and perform diagnostics. Many are aimed at enthusiasts who want to keep track of their fuel economy and performance while they drive-which are great-but may not be what you're looking for. Look for an app that will help you check your car's health periodically, report issues early, decipher warning beeps or lights on your dashboard, and most importantly, tell you what the real problem with your car is before you take it to the shop to be worked on.
Do the Work Yourself
Speaking of taking the DIY approach, there are some repairs that you really can do yourself, regardless of your abilities
Obviously, the first step to doing your own work is to believe you can do it. Like our friends at Jalopnik have said, "Stop being a coward and fix your own damn car
Give yourself some time, get a few tools, and soon you-like me-can move out of the world where you just paying someone else to do everything and waiting hours or days for the privilege. With time, you'll find yourself in a bright new future where you can change your own oil in minutes instead of waiting for hours, or replace your own brakes instead of spending hundreds for someone to hold your car all day for a job that takes about an hour.
Get Educated So You Don't Get Fleeced
Finally, know when to dispute your bill
Use some of the sites we mentioned, like RepairPal, AutoMD, DriverSide, and ALLDATAdiy to help you understand how much different repairs should cost so you're not surprised when you get the bill. Research in advance is best, but if you're sitting in the waiting area for work to be done, look up the work being done on your phone while you wait. You'll have plenty of time to educate yourself, and you're right there in case you need to talk to someone.
At the end of the day, the more research you do in advance to find a great place, the more you learn about how car repairs work and how much they cost, and the more you can do yourself without ever going to the mechanic, the more comfortable you'll be about the whole car repair process. Plus, if you do your homework, you'll save hundreds-probably thousands-of dollars over the life of your car, just by being a smart, engaged car owner-preferably one that's not afraid to get his or her hands dirty now and again.