Let’s face it — most people who walk into a car repair shop aren’t experts on cars.
So for those who didn’t grow up working on cars or spending summers apprenticing master technicians, what's the secret to not getting ripped off at the car repair shop? We asked our experts to weigh in.
“We have some customers who know a lot about cars and know how to change their own air filters, for example, and then customers who don’t know what an air filter is,” says Bob Hrovat, co-owner of Rainbow Muffler & Brake, a chain of auto repair shops in Cleveland. “We believe that our shop should be an extension of the customer’s garage. Everyone should feel comfortable that they can come in and trust us to help them.”
Tip#1: Find a car repair shop that makes you feel comfortable.
The most important thing is to find a shop manager you trust.
“Some of the busiest shops are the most honest shops,” says Hrovat, who has hired over 2,500 people throughout his career. “The manager and technicians in a shop should make you feel comfortable.”
In bigger box retail shops, technicians are often instructed to cross-sell services to customers, regardless of what originally brought them through the door. You could go in for a standard oil change, for example, and the technician tries to pressure you into buying five additional services.
Find a shop with honest technicians who only recommend the services that are truly necessary.
Tip #2: Ask for a complete inspection of your vehicle.
You should always ask for a complete inspection of your vehicle and a copy of the printed maintenance schedule.
A reputable shop should be able to show you the inspection report, so you can check it against the repairs they say you need. They should also be able to highlight what is important to maintain over time, so you can budget your maintenance costs over the next year.
A complete inspection can also reveal potential repairs that can save you money down the road. For example, not replacing a spark plug could exacerbate other things, causing a chain of events that could end up costing $1,000 down the road.
Tip #3: Build a long-term relationship with your shop.
A repair shop that can serve as a “one-stop shop” for a wide range of repair services enables you to develop a relationship with your technician over time. By choosing a shop you trust for preventative, routine maintenance like oil changes and filter replacements, a you establish a trusted relationship for when a bigger repair is needed.
And if it’s a repair or service your shop doesn’t offer, you can trust your technician to recommend you to someone who specializes in the repair.
“No one shop does everything, but if you trust your shop, you can usually trust them to send you to the right place,” says Hrovat. “In our shop, we know who to send customers to for body or transmission work. This business isn’t run on referral fees and kickbacks. We know who to trust and who does great work.”
Tip #4: Understand the levels of repairs.
There are different levels of repairs. Make sure your technician can explain your various options.
For example, a “good” brake repair might include replacing the brake pads and rotors, for example, whereas a “better” repair might also include calipers. The “best” repair might include all that plus a complete fluid flush.
Some shops may not explain the levels of repair, so you get less — or even more — than you need. The “best” option isn't best for you if it includes repairs and replacements you don’t really need. Sometimes "good" is the best fit for you, and your repair shop should tell you that.
Also, look at warranties. Some shops advertise a lifetime warranty on parts, but the warranty only applies if surrounding parts are replaced at the same time. You'll save money if the shop only replaces what is necessary.
Tip #5: Make sure scheduled maintenance is based on the car's condition — not the calendar.
Many services and systems on a car have recommended maintenance schedules.
When you should get an oil change, when to rotate your tires and when to have brake pads replaced are all examples. But the manufacturer’s maintenance schedule doesn’t always dictate what is best for your particular vehicle.
“Just because your car has 5,000 miles on it and the technician says it’s time for something to be replaced doesn't make it true. There should be warranted damage before you decide to have the service done,” says Hrovat. “Don’t just take their word for it — ask for an inspection and documentation to back up the claim.”
And a full replacement isn’t always the best or most economical choice. Creative neighborhood shops can often provide a custom replacement that big box shops don’t have the capacity to build.
“Rather than create a custom pipe, they will tell you everything in your exhaust system needs to be replaced,” says Hrovat. “By the time they are done, rather than a $50 repair, it’s an entire $1,000 replacement.”
Your technician should always be able to show you the car and explain everything that's wrong with the vehicle. If they can’t explain what is wrong, they can’t know what really needs to be repaired and replaced.