Is the mechanic ripping me off?
December 30, 2008 4:54 AM   Subscribe

What would you charge to diagnose a check engine light and replace the thermostat in a 2003 Toyota Highlander?

My check engine light came on, and I worried about damaging my engine, so I'm going late to work while I wait for repairs.

They charged $89 to "diagnose" the check engine light, and $189 (parts and labor) to replace a faulty thermostat.

It seems to me that it would take 2 minutes on an OBC-II reader (which, coincidentally, cost $89), and that a thermostat would be a $5 part. But then again, I'm the one at the dealership because I have no idea what was wrong.

Is $275 reasonable for this, or is this $265 profit on $10 parts an work?
posted by fogster to Travel & Transportation (13 answers total)
Best answer: The answer is yes to all your questions. Yes, even something as simple as hooking your car up to the diagnostic computer and popping in a new thermostat will run you quite a bit. Yes, your mechanic is ripping you off. The guy/gal down the street will rip you off as well.

The dealership may cost more than other mechanics. This is in part due to their parts having to come from Toyota. Other mechanics get their new and rebuilt parts from parts dealers and manufacturers or used parts from junk yards.

Incidentally, the Toyota software for the OBD-II may have cost $89 (anually updated at least) but the computer itself cost a few thousand dollars, not to mention the cables and attachments to make it fit your car.
posted by Pollomacho at 5:10 AM on December 30, 2008

Don't ever expect to walk out of a dealership for less than $200.

The question isn't "is it reasonable" the question is "is this typical"...the answer is "yes".
posted by HuronBob at 5:11 AM on December 30, 2008

Best answer: It's not all about the cost of parts.

You have to consider the work the person did to be able to diagnose the problem in the first place. That's a lot of time spend learning how cars work and are put together. Plus the mechanic had the experience to know that it wasn't something else.

There might also be a charge in there for taking the time to do something so small and potentially losing out on a bigger job because the mechanic is busy. I know when I take my car in for something serious I'll take it to another mechanic if they can't promise me that they'll get to it that day.
posted by theichibun at 5:11 AM on December 30, 2008

Best answer: FWIW, since diagnosing the light is about 2 minutes of work, I've known many mechanics to do it free in order to build good faith should the light actually indicate something is wrong, which it often doesn't. Last time my check engine light came on, it was an oxygen sensor warning. Removing a bunch of leaves from my air intake solved it. Total cost to me: $0.00.
posted by rocketpup at 6:01 AM on December 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Many national shops (like PepBoys) will diagnose an engine code for free. They'll pull the code and tell you what it means. It's a simple lookup.
posted by Thorzdad at 6:08 AM on December 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

It may have been possible to read the code with an OBD-II scanner, but the $89 model is not what the dealer uses. The dealer is using a several-thousand-dollar machine capable of doing diagnostic work that the cheap scanners can't do, and you're helping pay for that machine whether your problem is a difficult one or not. It's akin to bringing in an electrician to change a light bulb.

Look around at almost any dealer's maintenance facility and you can see why it's more expensive than a neighborhood garage. Their mechanics have more specialized training, the shop has more specialized equipment, they only install OEM parts, and the whole place is sparklingly clean -- all of this because speedy repairs and the appearance of the maintenance area impacts the dealership's ability to sell more cars. Dealer mechanics are all about convenience and comfort, not economy. This feels luxurious when the work is done under warranty since the costs are hidden in your monthly car payment, but it's much less satisfying after the warranty runs out, which, perversely, makes another new car seem like an even better idea.

I avoid dealer garages whenever possible, but I recently paid a VW dealer $89 to diagnose a CEL because the OBD code that a local garage had read for me for free had not pointed to a particular faulty part. The diagnosis I got for my $90 was incorrect, and they wanted to R&R a part I'd just replaced myself. To do this unnecessary work they wanted another $90, even though the part costs $20 and can be replaced in 2 minutes or less without tools. So yeah, what happened to you was both absurd and completely normal.
posted by jon1270 at 6:13 AM on December 30, 2008

seconding jon1270: in a vw passat changing the headlight is an involved process. i tried my best myself but ended up going to the dealership. cost just shy of $200: _to change a lightbulb_
posted by iboxifoo at 6:26 AM on December 30, 2008

I had to take my van in for a check engine light problem and paid almost exactly $89. As pointed out above, the machine they use costs far more than $89.
posted by drezdn at 6:39 AM on December 30, 2008

You can find a simple OBDII scanner for ~50 bucks that will tell you what error code is setting off your check engine light. This, however, does not diagnose the problem - it usually just tells you which sensor is seeing something out of whack.

So, yeah, you can find out what code your car is spitting out, but it doesn't tell the whole story. More troubleshooting generally needs to be done to figure out what exactly is wrong with the car, and that is where the value of the $89 comes in (hopefully).
posted by PFL at 7:14 AM on December 30, 2008

Best answer: There's an old joke about a guy taking his car into the mechanic. The mechanic opens the hood, finds the whatsit, and taps it with a wrench. The car starts right up. He then hands the guy a bill for $100. "What? $100 to tap the whatsit? I could have done that!" So the mechanic rewrites the bill.

"Tapping the whatsit: $1. Knowing where to tap: $99".
posted by chazlarson at 7:55 AM on December 30, 2008

I've heard too many stories of "The dealer wanted x, but a friend suggested a mechanic who did it for a whole lot less than x," or "The dealer wanted to do all these things and a recommended mechanic said I only needed half of 'em." I'm pretty done with stealerships.

If I've moved to a new area, I've always been well served by asking colleagues, neighbors, etc., for non-dealer mechanic suggestions--and these days we have things like Yelp--and going to the suggested shop for an oil change when it's needed. While there, I've asked the other people waiting about their experiences with the shop, heard things like, "I've come here for 15 years with every car my family's had and they've always been competent, honest and reasonably priced."

That said, putting aside the OBD test, unless the Highlander is unusual in that it's hard to access the thermostat, $189 sounds real high.

Oh, much as dealers will use parts from the manufacturers, part of an independent shop being good and reputable is their making sure they don't use crummy parts; they may not be made by the manufacturer, but they'll be fine.
posted by ambient2 at 9:53 AM on December 30, 2008

Best answer: It's not just the two minutes to plug in the computer. It's bringing in the car. Plugging it in. Reading the codes. Asking the guy in the next bay, "Hey, tommy, O2#4 is the one on the left *behind* the cat on the 2003 model, right?" Then finding you in the waiting area and explaining it to you. At 120/hr with all the overhead, that's about 45 minutes. Sounds about right.

A little guy has a lower overhead, might be 90/hr.

Now, on a thermostat, it depends on the car. An el cheapo thermostat for my 70 impala is eight bucks. dual-stage 'stats for newer model cars, esp foreign cars, can run 40-50 even before markup. On the labor side, almost every repair, on every vehicle, is listed in a big book of hours. They have a little bit of fudge time in case something goes wrong, but not much. When I was doing ten-fifteen brake jobs a week, I could knock one out in 1.5 hours, even though the book called for 2.1 on a particular car. I've put enough timing chains on 1.6 Hondas that, excepting a few with fucked up motor mounts, I can beat the book by about fifteen minutes, if I have no distractions. My point is, There Is A Book. every shop I know of uses the book hours, times their shop rate, to give you a price. Sometimes they get hosed because a bolt strips out; soemtimes it's a walk in the park. Thermostats, depending on the car, can be a real motherfucker to change (my crx...which is why my thermostat is stuck open on that car...for example). 1.5-2 hours sounds pretty good. You have to pull the radiator hose, catch all the fluid, pull the housing, clean off the old gasket, set in a new gasket, put the housing back on without the gasket going askance, then hook up the cruddy old radiator hose, and refill the coolant. Depending on the system, you may have to run the car to get bubbles out of the coolant system, or bleed it. Coolant on newer cars - esp OEM coolant - isn't cheap, and on a v6 there's a lot of it.
posted by notsnot at 10:22 AM on December 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

It's worth noting that automobile maintenance is an important profit center for car companies these days. There's a reason they don't make 'em like they used to.
posted by JHarris at 1:08 AM on December 31, 2008

« Older Kraftwerk is just out of my reach!   |   VOIP and Lifeline Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.