Avoiding Underhood Quackery

Don’t get ripped off by a mechanic. Here are some thoughts on how to avoid this whatever your car trouble might be.

Be sure the guy turning the wrench is competent

Deliberate rip-offs are less common than incompetence. Not knowing how to diagnose and troubleshoot problems, especially electrical problems. Which in a modern car is pretty much everything — from the engine to the power windows.

What you want to avoid is a parts puller. The guy who “thinks it might be” this . . . or that. But doesn’t really know.

This is the dude who will “fix” things that don’t need to be fixed while not fixing the thing that does need it. Your car remains perpetually not working while your wallet gets progressively lighter.

So, how do you establish that the guy is competent?

First, know that a fancy-looking credential doesn’t necessarily mean the guy knows his business. It only means he passed a test and got “certified.” Which is fine, but it doesn’t means he’s not a quack any more than the fact that someone made it through medical school is by definition a competent doctor.

Ask friends for recommendations — word of mouth about a good (and honest) wrench is worth a lot more than a certificate from the ASE, in my book. Ask friends who they avoid. This is worth even more.

Ask whether the wrench will guarantee his work — refund all your money (or not charge you in the first place) if he isn’t able to find and fix the problem. An honest and competent wrench will be glad to offer this assurance. Beware one who will not.

Drive the car before you pay for the car. Make sure it’s fixed. It’s easy to mask a problem — for just long enough to get you a few miles down the road. For example, anyone with an OBD scan tool can temporarily clear codes and turn off the “check engine” light on the dash. But if the problem that triggered the codes and turned on the light hasn’t been fixed, the light will come on again after about 10 minutes of driving.

For big repairs, get a second opinion

Unless you have absolute trust in your wrench, get the opinion of another wrench before you commit to a major, high-dollar repair such as replacing the transmission. Sometimes, catastrophic-seeming symptoms mask a relatively minor issue — once again, especially with modern/computer-controlled vehicles.

I was driving a brand-new Mini Cooper press car a couple of years ago. After doing some shopping, I tried to drive home but the gear shifter (automatic) was locked in Park. If you didn’t know about the emergency manual release that’s under the shifter trim plate, you could be sold a bill of goods about the need for a new transmission. This same car also later would not shift out of first gear. But the transmission wasn’t broken; there was a software glitch that involved no mechanical repairs to the transmission. A small thing — that seemed awfully big (and potentially expensive).

It is critical not to get emotional or panicky when your car acts up. If you do, you may fall victim to fear-mongering and give in to exhortations about the need to get it fixed right now — and right here.

Remain calm. It is not an emergency. Worst case, you will need to rent a car or bum a ride for a little while.

The value of getting a second opinion is two-fold: First, if the second shop confirms the opinion of the first shop as far as the problem is concerned, you can be reasonably confident that the first shop was being honest and competent about what’s actually wrong with the car.

Two, if you get a second estimate, you will have a much better idea as to what constitutes a fair price for the repair. If the second shop’s quote is much higher, you can go back to the first one. Or ask the second shop why their estimate is so much higher than the first shop’s. If the two estimates are about the same, you can feel secure you’re not being taken for a ride.

Trust (but verify)

The rheumy old fraud’s formulation is just as applicable to car work as it is to ’80s-era missile treaties.

If, as a for instance, you’ve taken your car in to get the tires rotated, it’s a smart move to discretely mark one of the tires with some white chalk or magic marker or whatever comes to hand, in a place no one would notice unless they knew where to look. Then, when you pick your car up, you can check to see whether the shop actually did rotate your tires.

Similarly, pull the dipstick immediately after an oil change to make sure you got what you paid for — fresh oil. It should be honey-colored and nearly translucent, not brown or (worse) black. If you can, mark the oil filter just as you would the tires — so that you can be certain a new one was actually installed.

You may have read about asking to see olds parts that have been allegedly replaced as evidence the work was actually done. Be aware this can be easily gotten around by the simple expedient of picking up a grimy old part off the shop floor and presenting it to you as “your” old part. The only way to be sure the item came off your car is to mark the part before it gets removed. Then check to see whether the part you’re shown has that mark on it.

Pre-shop repair shops

For the same reason it’s good to know something about the doctor who’s about to cut into your chest, it’s a smart move to look for a shop before you need one.

There are excellent dealers and excellent independent shops — and there are also terrible dealers and equally bad independents. Don’t assume that just because it’s “the dealer” that it must be a safe bet. Or that an independent shop isn’t just as good as a dealer because it doesn’t have a Toyota or Ford sign on the door.

Do some drive-bys of the shops you’re thinking about doing business with. Be wary of places where you see the same cars sitting for weeks — or much worse, months — on end. This could indicate a glacially slow work pace or unhappy customers who’ve had to keep bringing their vehicle back for “service.”

Visit the office/waiting area of shop you’re looking over and note whether the employees are friendly — or hostile and sullen.

Cleanliness doesn’t necessarily mean goodness, by the way. It’s a repair shop. You want substance, not superficiality.

Never accept being taken

Your final bill should always be within a few dollars of the written estimate you got prior to authorizing repairs — unless you agreed to additional repairs after the original estimate was given to you. In which case the estimate should have been adjusted in writing to reflect this.

Never tolerate a final repair bill that’s significantly (more than about 5 percent) higher than what you were quoted or agreed to. Discuss the cost of the repair with the wrench/shop owner and have everything clearly stated in writing.

Including a statement that you do not agree to or authorize repair work/expenses not clearly stated on the estimate.

This ought to cover you.

It is both unethical and illegal to perform repairs not authorized — and to bill you for them.

Do not authorize open-ended repairs — unless you are okay with open-ended bills.

Worst case scenario, you may have to haggle it out in small claims court. But assuming you have a written estimate with the shop owner’s signature, you ought to have no trouble getting both your money and your car back — possibly plus a little extra for the hassle, which the court may well see fit to toss in as a way to teach the shop a lesson.

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