Can I get my money back?
August 24, 2009 9:27 AM   Subscribe

The AC of my Mercedes Benz 2002 stopped working so we took it to a well known Used Car Dealership for a check up. They charge me $150.00 just for the check up and gave me an estimate of about $3,000 to fix it (basically they said all the system had to be replace it). I didn’t want to spend that kind of money so we took it one of those ‘basic repair shop’ chains and they fixed it by changing a $25.00 sensor. I want my $150.00 back, I live in Florida and don't know if I am entitled to a refund? If I am, what is the best way to ask for it? I’m pissed at them but I want to behave civilized and effective.
posted by 3dd to Work & Money (23 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
This is not legal advice and I am not your lawyer.

On what basis do you think you should get your money back? Did they not tell you they were going to charge you $150 before the consultation?

If they told you the price in advance and you, nonetheless, had them assess your car, I don't think you are entitled to your money back just on the basis that their estimate to fix the car was grossly overstated. Or is your allegation that they did not give your car a check up at all and instead just made up a diagnosis?

In any event, it sounds like you would need to take them to small claims court, but I can tell you, it will surely not be worth the aggravation for just $150.

You can also report them to the Better Business Bureau.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 9:41 AM on August 24, 2009

Yeah, seconding the BBB, unless the check-up also included them checking up other stuff, and maybe refilling some fluids (steering, windshield washer, etc)...
posted by Grither at 9:47 AM on August 24, 2009

I think you should ask them for your $150 back simply because a dealership's advice should be better than that of the town moron. They have a responsibility to give you accurate advice, no? It is like paying your local deli for Parmigiano-Reggiano and having them sell you Styrofoam. Convince them that you intend to create $1500 worth of bad publicity if they don't give you a refund--if only to prevent this happening to the next guy.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 10:01 AM on August 24, 2009

The worst of it is that this kind of thing happens all too often. And they may know exactly what's wrong.
Then they'll change the sensor and tell you that they replaced the system.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 10:04 AM on August 24, 2009

Have you tried writing a letter to the owner, manager and service manager detailing your experience, and your dissatisfaction? Don't offer threats, just facts. "I brought my vehicle in, and the $150 service I paid for grossly misdiagnosed the service and would have cost $3,000 in repairs that were unneeded." Have you even talked with them to discuss your dissatisfaction? Did you pay with a credit card? While you did "pay for an evaluation", you did so at a dealership that you assumed would give accurate and concise information -- not a horribly inaccurate evaluation.

While I doubt the dealership is legally obligated to refund you; its something that is morally questionable -- and I would want a refund.

A nasty gram "I am going to tell everyone" probably wont be effective; though a final "I am going to contact the local TV station" letter might.

If that doesn't get you anywhere -- assume you arent going to see that $150. How much of an issue do you want to make it? You could spend hours calling TV stations, writing editorials, creating bad press that will hurt them for more than $150.
posted by SirStan at 10:09 AM on August 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

Reporting to the BBB is a consequence; the BBB will not get involved and negotiate a refund on your behalf AFAIK. Reading between the lines, I am guessing you want to ask for the $150 back because rather than doing the promised accurate diagnosis of the problem, they defaulted to an either negligently or willfully incorrect and inflated repair need. If that is your viewpoint, I, too, would ask for a refund (although I wouldn't feel too great about my chances for receiving it).

A couple of things I would suggest trying:

1. Write a concise and clear, unemotional, strong but civil letter to the owner of the dealership. Mail it in a way that you can prove receipt, i.e. Fed-Ex or USPS return receipt requested AND fax or email it. In the letter, state exactly the problem and state the precise thing you are asking for - a refund. Feel free to explain that a coupon for a free service or whatever would be insufficient based on the extreme nature of their "wrongness" in diagnosing the problem. Word it more professionally than that.

2. Wait a reasonable time for a response. If you don't get one - and you probably won't - call the person to whom you addressed the letter. They will probably profess non-receipt. Advise them that so-and-so signed for it on x date at x time. Request that they go to so-and-so and obtain a copy of the letter and respond within 3 business days. For good measure, request their direct email address so you can email a copy directly to them for convenience, but politely note that in any event you can prove the dealership received it.

3. Wait the 3 business days for a response. If you don't get one - and you probably won't - escalate. Send a second certified letter (with copy by fax or email), that encloses the first letter, and advises that you will escalate the issue if you don't receive a response. Advise that you will notify the local paper,, the BBB and any local Mercedes-owner online forums you can, that the dealership seems to lack the professional knowledge, ability and experience to service Mercedes. Again ask for a response within 3 business days.

4. Wait the 3 business days for a response. If you don't get one - and you probably won't - do the things you said you would do.

Keep copies of all correspondence, notes on all telephone calls, etc. You'll be sinking a lot of time into the project, but your likelihood of success is exponentially lower without it. Never jump right to consequences - always start with "I want X because of Y situation, or I will apply Z consequences". Remain polite, above all.
posted by bunnycup at 10:14 AM on August 24, 2009 [6 favorites]

Would I trust any auto dealership? No, but there's no way to know what they did or whether the problem is truly fixed now.

Just because they were able to make it function with a $25 sensor, doesn't mean that's all the system needed. It's possible the thing is leaking slowly. The shop may have fed it enough R-134a to get the system to power on, or perhaps the $25 switch was one of multiple things wrong and was enough to tip it back towards working for a few days. Blah blah blah.

True or not, that's what you're going to hear out of the dealership's mouth, so steel yourself. Consider writing a nastygram to MB North America.

$150 is a cheap way to learn this lesson: if your car isn't under warranty, NEVER go to the dealer, particularly with a European vehicle. Find a local independent mechanic that knows German cars. The dealer is a ripoff 90% of the time. Repairs to my '91 BMW cost easily twice as much at the BMW dealership as at my local indy shop.
posted by paanta at 10:16 AM on August 24, 2009 [2 favorites]

they fixed it by changing a $25.00 sensor.
Do you still have your invoice? What's the name of the sensor they fixed? Since it's a "basic" repair chain, I seriously doubt that they have a scanner that'll interface with the Benz A/C system. I think they're likely the ones pulling a scam, although it's a cheap one. Don't be surprised when, a month or two from now, your A/C stops working again. I think it's pretty likely they just threw some new R134 in and sent you on your way.

If you agreed to the $150 before they diagnosed it, you're kind of on the hook for that. If you still have the invoice or estimate, I'd be happy to review it with you to see if it's actually reasonable. The thing is with A/C, certain kinds of failures can result in many components requiring replacement. A bad compressor, for instance, can ruin many parts as its destroyed internals are circulated through the system.
There are also components, like the reciever/drier, that MUST be replaced after the A/C system has been open. It's job is to remove moisture from the R134a and, when exposed to the moisture of our atmosphere when the system is opened, it's completely ruined. So, the labor in replacing that, plus the part might make it seem like they're "just replacing the whole system," but there's some stuff that's mandatory for the quality of the repair.

And the OP didn't take this to the MB Dealership. They took it to a Used Car Dealership. That's the primary mistake. A Used Car Dealership will charge dealer prices without having the dealer expertise. I would take it either to a Benz specialty shop or a strictly Benz dealer.

Realistically, any good repair on your 2002 Benz is going to cost lots of money. It's an imported luxury car that requires imported luxury parts and highly trained specialists to make quality repairs. This car will continue to cost money and, if you're not prepared for that, financially, you should consider getting rid of your car. I work at an Audi dealer, and I see this happen all too often. Many people fail to consider the entire cost of vehicle ownership. When owning a luxury car, you need to be sure that you can afford the initial cost and all subsequent costs. Short of that, you would be wise to obtain an extended warranty. The repair bills for this car will do nothing but increase. And it's either worth it to you and you love the car or it's not. Look, there'll always be someone who can rig something up for cheap on your Benz, but it will become a crappier and shoddier car every time you take the cheap path out of a repair.

posted by Jon-o at 10:56 AM on August 24, 2009 [7 favorites]

From the sound of it, the dealership didn't do anything strictly illegal, so you can't get them on those grounds.

Also, you probably can't count on the goodwill of the dealership, if they were trying to rip you off.

However, one thing you can always count on is their self-interest.

Having worked with car dealers for years, however, I guarantee you that the following will work:

1.) Grab a broomstick and two pieces of large (2x3) thick white cardstock paper. In large, neat lettering, write "xxx Auto Sales Ripped Me Off!" on both sides.

2.) Dress neatly/professionally, go to the dealership and talk with the owner. In a calm and courteous manner, explain to them what happened and that you feel you have been ripped off. Show them the receipt for the sensor repair. Offer to show them the now-functioning AC of your Mercedes. Explain to them clearly why you feel you deserve a refund, and let them know that if they keep your money, you feel it is your responsibility to inform the community about what kind of dealership this is. Do all of this with the picket sign in your hand.

3.) If the dealership still won't budge, go to the public sidewalk on the corner of the dealership most exposed to traffic, and start walking up and down.

This will freeze all business at the dealership. I guarantee you that no-one is going to buy a car from them with you walking up and down with that sign. It will take 15 minutes, max, before the dealership gives in and gives you your money back.

And yes, I've done this myself, and it worked.
posted by dacoit at 11:21 AM on August 24, 2009 [10 favorites]

I agree with Jon-O.

I can't even imagine a sensor on a Mercedes A/C system that costs $25. Use Autohauz Arizona to check it, if you have an invoice.
posted by luckypozzo at 11:34 AM on August 24, 2009

Also: mention the Better Business Bureau and a dealer will laugh. The BBB is a pretty meaningless institution.

Mention the state Attorney General's office, on the other hand ... and they will stop laughing very quickly.
posted by dacoit at 11:34 AM on August 24, 2009 [2 favorites]

Yeah... try the stuff mentioned above, but mostly... just learn that dealerships are based upon a model whereby all ALL efforts are based upon an estimate of time spent on a car... everything has a cost EVERYTHING and it always factors in overhead (lights, heat/AC, water, rents, debts, salaries, advertising, etc) of the dealership.

You want a .50 cent fuse changed = it has a charge based upon a book with how many minutes of time it "should" take multiplied times their "rate" which includes most of the overhead... then there's often a base charge added (or just a minimum applied).

Dealerships SUCK... I've had many many heated discussions about business models of dealerships with their lackey's and apologists... I have never been swayed that one should pay through the nose for repairs that are "authorized" by a dealer.

Find a good repair shop (plenty of sources on how to do this on the inter-tubes) and avoid dealerships for all but the most specialized of repairs - sometimes one must just suck it up and go to a dealership, as manufacturers will occasionally create a system whose diagnostic tools cost so much, that only dealerships can afford them (a way of ensuring the dealerships will get repair biz and appear to be "the only ones" who can fix a [fill in make of car here]).

best of luck with this.
posted by Jiff_and_theChoosyMuthers at 11:50 AM on August 24, 2009

Jon-o's got it. You weren't ripped off by the Mercedes dealer. You were ripped off by the 'basic repair shop' chain. There's an easy remedy for not being able to afford owning an 8 year old Mercedes. Sell it.
posted by torquemaniac at 11:51 AM on August 24, 2009

just noticed Jon-o's presumptive response that all cars of a certain price carry with them some mystical element of cost/ quality... reasoning that only certain special people who charge more can fix them. Nonsense. learn more about [fill in blank] or settle yourself with paying more FOR ANYTHING IN LIFE.

There's nothing special here... some parts made in Germany, some parts made in Japan, some parts made in US, etc. on these cars... just like all others! Nothing different. you just need someone who works on them regularly, has a full set of repair manuals for the make... and all the specialized tools required for the make/model/repair in question... sure Dealerships always have these things... but Dealerships ALWAYS cost more, because you have to support the owner's coke habit, new [exotic car], expensive looking building, advertising campaign, etc.

just my .02 (plus a couple bucks).
posted by Jiff_and_theChoosyMuthers at 11:57 AM on August 24, 2009 [3 favorites]

Did the basic repair shop replace the pressure switch in the air conditioning system? This is a switch that cuts out the compressor if the system pressure is too low or too high, and the price of these is about what you paid. Calling this a "sensor" is kind of glorifying it -- it's just an on/off switch that is activated by pressure.

No fancy scanner is needed to diagnose this particular problem, either, just a continuity tester and a set of gauges to confirm that the pressure is really OK. If this is what they did, then you didn't necessarily get "ripped off" by the basic repair place, if a faulty switch was really the only thing wrong.

And it's possible the dealer did use their fancy scanner and it told them the A/C system pressure was too low, so they assumed the system had leaked out and needed extensive cleanup. I have had that problem at dealers before, where they rely on what their scanner says rather than actually checking anything directly.
posted by FishBike at 1:04 PM on August 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

Quick note: I had a chronic overheating problem in a German car, that two shops couldn't fix after hundreds of dollars of effort. I then found a third place -- real hole-in-the-wall -- that fixed it for an under-$25 sensor, and it stayed fixed for years until I got rid of it.

Last week, I had a termite inspection from a place found by a past contractor (to verify a water leak they caused didn't attract termites.) Guy insisted there was old but active damage elsewhere under the house likely requiring reinforcement, and wanted to charge $2200 for the eradication (then offered a $200 discount.) Went to Angie's List, got a termite inspector recommendation, and their verdict was old damage, may or may not be active, but let's scrape everything and wait three months to see if there's new activity -- $225 for the scraping, and if there's new activity, the $225 gets applied to the $550 total charge for eradication.

In both cases, and in yours, it could be malice, could be incompetence, but that's why people hate getting cars fixed and work done...because unless you're a mechanic or contractor, it's impossible to tell the difference -- and why "well-known" is a poor criteria for selecting a mechanic or a contractor. Always go with personal recommendations from satisfied customers, and always get more than one opinion.

If this sounds like I'm suggesting you won't get your money back, you're right; if the money is tight enough that you need that $150, there are good suggestions upthread, but if you can swallow it (or just don't want to deal with the stress you're going to have as this place tries to claim incompetence or the same "it might not really be fixed" as you're seeing upthread) chalk it up to a learning experience -- but report them to the BBB, and make sure everyone you know is aware of the experience you had (don't claim to know their motives, as that opens you to a lawsuit possibly, but certainly tell the story in facts.)
posted by davejay at 1:17 PM on August 24, 2009

I once got money back from a Ford dealer for a somewhat similar situation. The windshield wipers on the car wouldn't retract, but would instead, when turned off, sweep up into a fully-extended position. Rather than fixing the problem, they put the wipers into a mode where they would not try to retract. Problem "solved," except now the wipers don't retract at all. Basically, they'd charged me $50 for flipping a switch. Wrote a polite letter to the dealership's service department explaining why I felt I didn't deserve to be charged, and they sent me a full refund. Anyway, that's what I did, and it worked, so it's what I'd suggest to you. I am sure they will send you a refund; they can just take it out of the last unnecessary $3000 repair they did.
posted by kindall at 1:29 PM on August 24, 2009

What I'm saying is that the cheap shop probably just jumped the small AC low pressure switch, saw the AC work when the switch was bypassed, assumed it was bad, charged it up and put a new switch in, totally overlooking the REAL problem that cause all of the refrigerant to leak out in the first place. It's not really a rip off, it's just a cheap repair from a cheap shop. No routine repair shop is going to want to invest time and labor into searching for a problem in a high-end car. They want quick, easy work like brake jobs or AC top ups.
Even though AC pressure switches can be small and cheap, many European cars are moving to more advanced sensors that are more than just a switch. Our newer AC switches at Audi incorporate some solid state electronics that sends a digital signal to the AC control head. It don't merely interrupt the compressor clutch circuit anymore. But, in 2002, it could go either way.

you just need someone who works on them regularly, has a full set of repair manuals for the make... and all the specialized tools required for the make/model/repair in question
You're talking about thousands upon thousands of dollars in special tools, manuals and training. The person who has invested their time and money in that enterprise is a "certain special person." You won't get the same quality repair from Joe Blow putting Brand X parts in your car as the specialist who has invested their life in specializing in a specific make who only puts OEM parts in your car. I'm not presuming that expensive cars require expensive repairs. It's a fact. Parts from Germany cost money. Skilled and experienced labor costs money. Yeah, someone could rig your car to work sort of fine, but it won't be the same as a quality repair with quality parts. See, even a specialist has the luxury of turning away your repair, saying "You need to take this to the dealership." The reason the dealer costs more is because the buck stops with us. We have to be prepared to completely fix every single vehicle ever made by our brand. Yeah, some dealerships, like any repair shop, can be crooked. But many of us aren't.

posted by Jon-o at 1:32 PM on August 24, 2009 [2 favorites]

You lost the money the second you agreed to pay $150 for them to look at it. Next time dont agree to it and drive away to your indie shop. Consider it a lesson learned.

Personally, I never, ever agree to these things. They'll make a lot of money off the repairs and Id rather go to a shop that doesnt play this game.
posted by damn dirty ape at 2:13 PM on August 24, 2009

One thing not mentioned: Mention a willingness to relate your experience on Yelp and similar, rate-companies sites (assuming Yelp or similar is active in the relevant area).

As an aside, I entirely disagree with the thoughts that these cars require the master experience and mega-bucks parts (that someone working at an Audi dealer related).

(If those premium-bucks parts are so great, why aren't they lasting for decades, like the a/c that's been on most of the time in a '97 Crown Vic? Trouble-free motoring at 160,000 and the a/c is cold enough to hang meat in the car.)

I've seen too many people with German cars get great, affordable service at Indy shops--from people who use good-quality, non-manufacturer parts... and I've seen too many people take their cars to dealers and get eviscerated.

There is something to the thought that there can be value in knowing a car's tricky tendencies and quirks (much as the high-$$ cars aren't supposed to have 'em), though cars are cars. I've seen a slew of non-dealer guys who can efficiently sort out anything.
posted by ambient2 at 7:38 PM on August 24, 2009

Go to your local tabloid news outlet. They'll pay you more than $150 for the story and bury these punks like they deserve.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 11:46 PM on August 24, 2009

Many American cars have had these "advanced" A/C pressure sensors for 20 years now, so the indie shops should be able to diagnose this.
posted by rfs at 1:43 PM on August 25, 2009

Advanced like they emit a pulse-width modulated signal to the AC control module which can then not just determine sufficient pressure (like an old switch) but actual pressure in millibar, with software built in to detect gradual operating pressure loss so it can store a diagnostic code specific to a leak related fault and not merely a vague "no system pressure" fault?
I'm pretty sure that American cars have not had that technology for twenty years. Mostly since the automotive electronics and CAN bus networking technology required of a system like that has only started taking off in a serious way over the past ten to twelve years.
Diagnosis of a system like that will require specific software that IS available to an indie shop. Hell, I have aftermarket VW/Audi software on my own laptop that's about 95% as good as the stuff I use at work. However, a general facility like a Firestone or Goodyear likely won't have that. But Han's Expert German Service will. For a high-end German car, you don't strictly need exclusive dealership service. You do need an expert specialist, wherever you can find them. Otherwise, you wind up with lots of repairs that involve trial and error, multiple visits, and half-way patchwork repairs.
posted by Jon-o at 7:02 PM on August 25, 2009

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