Scare Out of Auto Repair
best way to avoid auto repair rip-offs is to be prepared. Knowing
how your vehicle works and how to identify common car problems is a
good beginning. It's also important to know how to select a good
technician, the kinds of questions to ask, and your consumer rights.
How to Choose a Repair
What should I look for when choosing a repair shop?
- Ask for recommendations from friends, family, and other people
you trust. Look for an auto repair shop before you need one to
avoid being rushed into a last-minute decision.
- Shop around by telephone for the best deal, and compare
warranty policies on repairs.
- Ask to see current licenses if state or local law requires
repair shops to be licensed or registered. Also, your state
Attorney General's office or local consumer protection agency may
know whether there's a record of complaints about a particular
- Make sure the shop will honor your vehicle's warranty.
How to Choose a
Is one technician better than another?
- Look for shops that display various certifications - like an
Automotive Service Excellence seal. Certification indicates that
some or all of the technicians meet basic standards of knowledge
and competence in specific technical areas. Make sure the
certifications are current, but remember that certification alone
is no guarantee of good or honest work.
- Ask if the technician or shop has experience working on the
same make or model vehicle as yours.
Unlocking the Mystery
Before you arrange to have any work performed, ask how the shop
prices its work. Some shops charge a flat rate for labor on auto
repairs. This published rate is based on an independent or
manufacturer's estimate of the time required to complete repairs.
Others charge on the basis of the actual time the technician worked
on the repair.
If you need expensive or complicated repairs, or
if you have questions about recommended work, consider getting a
Find out if there will be a diagnostic charge if
you decide to have the work performed elsewhere. Many repair shops
charge for diagnostic time.
Shops that do only diagnostic work and do not
sell parts or repairs may be able to give you an objective opinion
about which repairs are necessary.
If you decide to get the work done, ask for a
What should a written estimate include?
- It should identify the condition to be repaired, the parts
needed, and the anticipated labor charge. Make sure you get a
- It should state that the shop will contact you for approval
before they do any work exceeding a specified amount of time or
money. State law may require this.
What should I know about the parts to be
repaired or replaced?
Parts are classified as:
- New - These parts generally are made
to original manufacturer's specifications, either by the vehicle
manufacturer or an independent company. Your state may require
repair shops to tell you if non-original equipment will be used in
the repair. Prices and quality of these parts vary.
- Remanufactured, rebuilt and reconditioned
- These terms generally mean the same thing: parts have been
restored to a sound working condition. Many manufacturers offer a
warranty covering replacement parts, but not the labor to install
- Salvage - These are used parts taken
from another vehicle without alteration. Salvage parts may be the
only source for certain items, though their reliability is seldom
What do I need after the work is done?
- Get a completed repair order describing the work done. It
should list each repair, parts supplied, the cost of each part,
labor charges, and the vehicle's odometer reading when you brought
the vehicle in as well as when the repair order was completed. Ask
for all replaced parts. State law may require this.
What are the consequences of postponing maintenance?
- Many parts on your vehicle are interrelated. Ignoring
maintenance can lead to trouble: specific parts - or an entire
system - can fail. Neglecting even simple routine maintenance,
such as changing the oil or checking the coolant, can lead to poor
fuel economy, unreliability, or costly breakdowns. It also may
invalidate your warranty.
What maintenance guidelines should I follow
to avoid costly repairs?
- Follow the manufacturer's maintenance schedule in your owner's
manual for your type of driving.
- Some repair shops create their own maintenance schedules,
which call for more frequent servicing than the manufacturer's
recommendations. Compare shop maintenance schedules with those
recommended in your owner's manual. Ask the repair shop to explain
- and make sure you understand - why it recommends service beyond
the recommended schedule.
Protecting Your Auto
What warranties and service contracts apply to vehicle repairs?
- There is no "standard warranty" on repairs. Make sure you
understand what is covered under your warranty and get it in
- Be aware that warranties may be subject to limitations,
including time, mileage, deductibles, businesses authorized to
perform warranty work or special procedures required to obtain
- Check with the Federal Trade Commission or your state or local
consumer protection agency for information about your warranty
- Many vehicle dealers and others sell optional contracts -
service contracts -issued by vehicle manufacturers or independent
companies. Not all service contracts are the same; prices vary and
usually are negotiable. To help decide whether to purchase a
service contract, consider:
- Its cost.
- The repairs to be covered.
- Whether coverage overlaps coverage provided by any other
- The deductible.
- Where the repairs are to be performed.
- Procedures required to file a claim, such as prior
authorization for specific repairs or meeting required vehicle
- Whether repair costs are paid directly by the company to the
repair shop or whether you will have to pay first and get
- The reputation of the service contract company. Check it out
with your state Attorney General's office or local consumer
How do I resolve a dispute regarding
billing, quality of repairs or warranties?
- Document all transactions as well as your experiences with
dates, times, expenses, and the names of people you dealt with.
- Talk to the shop manager or owner first. If that doesn't work,
contact your Attorney General or local consumer protection agency
for help. These offices may have information on alternative
dispute resolution programs in your community. Another option is
to file a claim in small claims court. You don't need an attorney
to do this.
HEADING OFF PROBLEMS
The more you know about your vehicle, the more
likely you'll be able to head off repair problems. You can detect
many common vehicle problems by using your senses: eyeballing the
area around your vehicle, listening for strange noises, sensing a
difference in the way your vehicle handles, or even noticing unusual
Looks Like Trouble
Small stains or an occasional drop of fluid under your vehicle may
not mean much. But wet spots deserve attention; check puddles
You can identify fluids by their color and
- Yellowish green, pastel blue or florescent orange colors
indicate an overheated engine or an antifreeze leak caused by a
bad hose, water pump or leaking radiator.
- A dark brown or black oily fluid means the engine is leaking
oil. A bad seal or gasket could cause the leak.
- A red oily spot indicates a transmission or power-steering
- A puddle of clear water usually is no problem. It may be
normal condensation from your vehicle's air conditioner.
Smells Like Trouble
Some problems are under your nose. You can detect them by their
- The smell of burned toast - a light, sharp odor - often
signals an electrical short and burning insulation. To be safe,
try not to drive the vehicle until the problem is diagnosed.
- The smell of rotten eggs - a continuous burning-sulphur smell
- usually indicates a problem in the catalytic converter or other
emission control devices. Don't delay diagnosis and repair.
- A thick acrid odor usually means burning oil. Look for sign of
- The smell of gasoline vapors after a failed start may mean you
have flooded the engine. Wait a few minutes before trying again.
If the odor persists, chances are there's a leak in the fuel
system - a potentially dangerous problem that needs immediate
- Burning resin or an acrid chemical odor may signal overheated
brakes or clutch. Check the parking brake. Stop. Allow the brakes
to cool after repeated hard braking on mountain roads. Light smoke
coming from a wheel indicates a stuck brake. The vehicle should be
towed for repair.
- A sweet, steamy odor indicates a coolant leak. If the
temperature gauge or warning light does not indicate overheating,
drive carefully to the nearest service station, keeping an eye on
your gauges. If the odor is accompanied by a hot, metallic scent
and steam from under the hood, your engine has overheated. Pull
over immediately. Continued driving could cause severe engine
damage. The vehicle should be towed for repair.
Sounds Like Trouble
Squeaks, squeals, rattles, rumbles, and other sounds provide
valuable clues about problems and maintenance needs. Here are some
common noises and what they mean:
Squeal - A shrill, sharp noise, usually
related to engine speed:
- Loose or worn power steering, fan or air conditioning belt.
Click - A slight sharp noise, related
to either engine speed or vehicle speed:
- Loose wheel cover.
- Loose or bent fan blade.
- Stuck valve lifter or low engine oil.
Screech - A high-pitched, piercing
metallic sound; usually occurs while the vehicle is in motion:
- Caused by brake wear indicators to let you know it's time for
Rumble - a low-pitched rhythmic sound.
- Defective exhaust pipe, converter or muffler.
- Worn universal joint or other drive-line component.
Ping - A high-pitched metallic tapping
sound, related to engine speed:
- Usually caused by using gas with a lower octane rating than
recommended. Check your owner's manual for the proper octane
rating. If the problem persists, engine ignition timing could be
Heavy Knock - A rhythmic pounding
- Worn crankshaft or connecting rod bearings.
- Loose transmission torque converter.
Clunk - A random thumping sound:
- Loose shock absorber or other suspension component.
- Loose exhaust pipe or muffler.
Feels Like Trouble
Difficult handling, a rough ride, vibration and poor performance are
symptoms you can feel. They almost always indicate a problem.
- Misaligned front wheels and/or worn steering components, such
as the idler or ball joint, can cause wandering or difficulty
steering in a straight line.
- Pulling - the vehicle's tendency to steer to the left or right
- can be caused by something as routine as under-inflated tires,
or as serious as a damaged or misaligned front end.
Ride and Handling
- Worn shock absorbers or other suspension components - or
improper tire inflation - can contribute to poor cornering.
- While there is no hard and fast rule about when to replace
shock absorbers or struts, try this test: bounce the vehicle up
and down hard at each wheel and then let go. See how many times
the vehicle bounces. Weak shocks will allow the vehicle to bounce
twice or more.
- Springs do not normally wear out and do not need replacement
unless one corner of the vehicle is lower than the others.
Overloading your vehicle can damage the springs.
- Balance tires properly. An unbalanced or improperly balanced
tire causes a vehicle to vibrate and may wear steering and
suspension components prematurely.
Brake problems have several symptoms. Schedule diagnosis and repair
- The vehicle pulls to one side when the brakes are applied.
- The brake pedal sinks to the floor when pressure is
- You hear or feel scraping or grinding during braking.
- The "brake" light on the instrument panel is lit.
The following symptoms indicate engine trouble. Get a diagnosis and
schedule the repair.
- Difficulty starting the engine.
- The "check engine" light on the instrument panel is lit.
- Rough idling or stalling.
- Poor acceleration.
- Poor fuel economy.
- Excessive oil use (more than one quart between changes).
- Engine continues running after the key is removed.
Poor transmission performance may come from actual component failure
or a simple disconnected hose or plugged filter. Make sure the
technician checks the simple items first; transmission repairs
normally are expensive. Some of the most common symptoms of
transmission problems are:
- Abrupt or hard shifts between gears.
- Delayed or no response when shifting from neutral to drive or
- Failure to shift during normal acceleration.
- Slippage during acceleration. The engine speeds up, but the
vehicle does not respond.
Car trouble doesn't always mean major repairs.
Here are some common causes of trouble and techniques to help you
and your technician find and fix problems:
- Alternator - Loose wiring can make
your alternator appear defective. Your technician should check for
loose connections and perform an output test before replacing the
- Battery - Corroded or loose battery
terminals can make the battery appear dead or defective. Your
technician should clean the terminals and test battery function
before replacing the battery.
- Starter - What appears to be a
defective starter actually may be a dead battery or poor
connection. Ask your technician to check all connections and test
the battery before repairing the starter.
- Muffler - a loud rumbling noise
under your vehicle indicates a need for a new muffler or exhaust
- Tuneup - The old-fashioned "tuneup"
may not be relevant to your vehicle. Fewer parts, other than
belts, spark plugs, hoses and filters, need to be replaced on
newer vehicles. Follow the recommendations in your owner's manual.