Need to know if the auto repair guy is ripping me off! help!
April 16, 2011 10:53 AM   Subscribe

Check engine light came on this morning. Auto repair guy is giving me a very large estimate and an offer to just buy the car off my hands. I know next-to-nothing about cars, so can't tell if he's robbing me or not. People who know cars, help me figure this out?

I have a 96 honda civic with 144,000 miles on it. The check engine light came on this morning, I took it in. He says both the oxygen sensors have crapped out, and that the catalytic converter is marginal, and is likely to come up dead, though he can't be sure until replacing the oxygen sensors. Also, when I opened the hood the damn handle snapped off, and he says replacing the hood release cable is expensive too.

He's giving me a total estimate of $1,700 for everything, including replacing the catalytic converter, the oxygen sensors, the check engine diagnostic, the cable, and fixing an o-ring oil leak that I already knew about. Of that, ~750 is the catalytic converter, so it might not have to happen.

Given that this is more than says the car is worth in "fair" condition," I'm tempted to just get rid of it. He's offered to take the car off my hands for $500 + waive the diagnostic fee. I paid 3k for it off craigslist about a year and a half ago. It's kind of scratched up, some of the less important things don't work perfectly (e.g. defroster is glitchy).

(If I get rid of the car, I'll probably just use zipcar: I can arrange my life so I drive rarely enough that it's economical, especially with crazy gas prices.)

Do you think he's trying to rip me off? I'm suspicious because $250 of that estimate was for replacing the hood cable, but googling suggests that cables are pretty cheap (30 bucks here), and also that it's a relatively easy repair, so I wonder if he isn't inflating the repair estimate to get me to sell the car to him for less than I could get otherwise?

But I'll have to pay $110 just to take it out of the shop for the check engine light diagnostic, so it's expensive even to get other estimates. Kinda at a loss here, don't know what to do. Save me, mefi?
posted by paultopia to Travel & Transportation (28 answers total)
On a lot of Hondas, the hood latch cable routes though the fender, so you have to take the fender off to replace it. However, if it's *just* the handle, there's little labor involved at all. Hard to tell until he digs into it.
posted by notsnot at 10:57 AM on April 16, 2011

I would take it somewhere else and get another opinion. That will probably mean another diagnostic fee, but hey, that's better than someone potentially conning you out of your car.

Also, if your car is still drivable, why not just ride around in a for awhile?
posted by elder18 at 11:00 AM on April 16, 2011

Get a second opinion, even if it costs you $110. I'd try to argue that price down also as all he did was plug in a scanner and read the code, something you can get done at many auto parts stores for free. It's literally not more than 10 minutes of work.
posted by bizwank at 11:00 AM on April 16, 2011

Best answer: It's too late now but if you take your car to an auto parts store they will probably read the check engine code for free.

The car runs right? Any car that runs is probably worth at least $1000, I think he's trying to rip you off.
posted by ghharr at 11:01 AM on April 16, 2011 [3 favorites]

The estimate sounds in the ballpark for a cat. converter and sensors. On my car, a new cat. converter installed is $1000.
posted by zippy at 11:04 AM on April 16, 2011

My dad's old mechanic did this a couple of times, and I have various reasons to believe that he was milking my poor credulous father for every possible penny, so the whole topic leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

Do you have a Carmax in the area? They'll give you a quick offer for the car with no obligation, just to give you a second point of reference (and I got blue book from them for a car with significant body damage and a barely-functioning transmission.)
posted by restless_nomad at 11:07 AM on April 16, 2011

Response by poster: Sadly, I don't have a carmax w/in a hundred miles.
posted by paultopia at 11:09 AM on April 16, 2011

Carmax won't buy a car that old. I'd take it somewhere for a second opinion. If it's still running OK, I'd Craigslist it for $1,000 to $1,500. Unfortunately, you're probably stuck with the cost of the diagnosing -- close to $100 is a pretty standard cost for plugging in the code reader at ripoff chains like Firestone.
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 11:25 AM on April 16, 2011

You may try taking the gas cap off and putting it back on. (yes, really!) The lack of pressure created by the cap not being on correctly could cause the check engine light to go on. It sounds like a dumb thing, but it might be worth a try.

Also, doesn't it seem odd that a mechanic would offer to buy the car for $500, yet that same car has an estimate of $1700 in repairs? Why would he want a car worth so little, especially after inspecting it, yet expect you to pay so much for repairs?
Inflating the estimate may be done to put the cost of repairs SO out of reach that anyone not aware of this "game" would just give in and decide there's no other option but to let them take the car off their hands.

Don't fall for the Sucker's Choice. This has SHADY written all over it.

Take the car to another mechanic and get another estimate - I like to consult Yelp! in my city for good referrals if no one you know has one.

Good luck!
posted by Cookbooks and Chaos at 11:31 AM on April 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

Do you smell rotten eggs when you travel up hills or any other time while driving the car?

That's my test for knowing its time to replace the catalytic convertor (that is - unless you live in a state that requires emissions testing for automobiles).

I would have the oxygen sensors replaced (at another repair shop), replace the hood release handle myself, and then drive the car for another 60,000 miles before getting rid of it...
posted by cinemafiend at 11:36 AM on April 16, 2011

Also, doesn't it seem odd that a mechanic would offer to buy the car for $500, yet that same car has an estimate of $1700 in repairs? Why would he want a car worth so little, especially after inspecting it, yet expect you to pay so much for repairs?

The mechanic (likely) isn't looking to repair it, but part it out instead. But yeah, nthing getting a second opinion if possible.
posted by xbonesgt at 11:41 AM on April 16, 2011

Jesus, what a rip-off. You can get the catalytic converter for $250. An 02 sensor is about another $50. Routing a hood cable through the dash & firewall isn't that bad, labor-wise. If you were feeling particularly generous I'd offer $500 for all the work, or just take it someplace else. The whole "but I'll take it off your hands for you" line stinks to high fucking heaven. A '96 Civic that's in good condition can be fixed up by even an incompetent shade-tree mechanic and put back on the road for peanuts if you've already got a reliable parts supplier; likely the repair shop just wants to buy it because they know they can fix it for cheap and re-sell it for a few easy grand.

They're trying to rob you.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 11:56 AM on April 16, 2011

Oh, also

But I'll have to pay $110 just to take it out of the shop for the check engine light diagnostic, so it's expensive even to get other estimates.

Forget the $110, that's a sunk cost now. Since you know what's wrong just call around and ask places what they would charge to do the work and/or just drive the thing until it quits. I wouldn't pay this guy for any more work just on principal for the diagnostic ripoff, even if his other prices turn out to be in the right ballpark.
posted by ghharr at 12:00 PM on April 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks everyone. The people at a vaguely shady-looking auto buyer company gave me an estimated offer of "700-1200" over the phone, which, dubious, but at least is information that his 500 bucks isn't that good an offer. So I choked down the $110 and am going to take it to a reliable guy on monday. Saved by mefi!
posted by paultopia at 12:13 PM on April 16, 2011

Partially seconding cinemafiend - replace the O2 sensors, replace the hood release yourself (or cheaply somewhere), and then just ignore the cat converter unless you would fail emissions otherwise.
If the engine is working well, don't get rid of it. Drive that puppy into the ground.
posted by aloiv2 at 12:18 PM on April 16, 2011

The only way the car knows the cat is bad is via the downstream O2 sensor. If that is bad, how does he know the cat is also bad? He is either trying to rip you off, or giving you the worst case scenario so you don't freak out when the $400 job turns into a $1200 job.
posted by gjc at 12:24 PM on April 16, 2011

Best answer: If you are living in California, the likelihood that your 1996 Civic, with 144,000 miles on it, doesn't need a replacement catalytic converter to pass emissions testing is pretty low; at that kind of mileage, most California Civics are ready for their second cat converter. However, a lawsuit settlement by Honda extends the factory emissions system warranty considerably for some mid-90s model Hondas with "one piece" exhaust manifold/cat converter assemblies. It's worth checking with a Honda dealer to see if your car is covered; you'll need to provide your VIN when you call.
posted by paulsc at 12:45 PM on April 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

And if you live in many other states that are not Oregon or California, you might not even need a catalytic convertor. All cars come with them, because CA mandates it, but most states do not require them. Here is a fuck-the-environment move, but so is owning a car: cut off the cat and straight weld a pipe on her. Any muffler and brakes shop should do this for 50-120 bucks.

I recently had my catalytic convertor stolen (stolen! tweekers!) and I had to replace it. I considered doing the thru-pipe, but in the end I had the money and desire to get a new convertor. It's cost, including installation? 292.00. On a 86 toyota. 750 for a catalytic convertor seems, er, high for an older car.
posted by special agent conrad uno at 1:58 PM on April 16, 2011

Oxygen sensors are at various points along the exhaust system and are electrical. It's not unheard-of for a wire to get knocked off by road debris. Slide up against the car with a flashlight and see if there are any wires dangling. If there are, it's a fair bet that Honda didn't engineer the car with that feature. You'd still need to have someone competent to pick the car up and reconnect it. Don't try just using your jack, you could get seriously killed if the car falls on you!
posted by Itinakak at 2:04 PM on April 16, 2011

Best answer: Hey, I have a 96 Honda Civic with bad oxygen sensors too! My check engine light has been on continuously for something like 3 years now. It's no big deal, unless you're in a state with emissions testing, I guess.

I learned from AskMe last summer that it's possible to read the check engine code yourself on this car, with nothing but a paperclip. See here for details on how. I do this now and then to make sure no other problems have cropped up.

I love my car - it's got 200,000 miles on it and runs like a champ, gets 30 mpg. No WAY would I sell mine to a mechanic for 500 bucks.
posted by beandip at 3:43 PM on April 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Thank the repair guy politely and either drive it or get it towed to another shop. While cats aren't cheap dude's trying to beat you, because the rest of the repairs certainly aren't worth $750, let alone the cat replacement at $1000. He wants to scare you into handing over your car for less than repairs that even if done through him certainly amount to less than half the value of your car. If you do hand the car over I'm sure he'll either fix the car and then sell it for perhaps $3500 or he'll drive it for another 100k+ miles. Nothing mentioned is a car killer if fixed, and even at say $1500 its a repair that is much less than buying a new car. Get the car fixed someplace else and keep on driving. All cars need something at some point, even Hondas. Good luck.
posted by chosemerveilleux at 3:47 PM on April 16, 2011

And if you live in many other states that are not Oregon or California, you might not even need a catalytic convertor.

Not to derail but if Oregon requires a cat, I'd be a little surprised - I've been here for ten years, three cars and zero emissions tests.
posted by codswallop at 6:47 PM on April 16, 2011

I thought 1700 sounds about right. On the high side if alright.

Shop around
posted by the noob at 6:49 PM on April 16, 2011

Catalytic convertors don't go bad unless there is something else wrong with the car. (Running to rich or lean, or a misfire.)
posted by gjc at 7:11 PM on April 16, 2011

"Catalytic convertors don't go bad unless there is something else wrong with the car. (Running to rich or lean, or a misfire.)"
posted by gjc at 10:11 PM on April 16

Eh, yes and no, depending on year of manufacture, and mileage. Mid-90's era catalytic converters often contained baffles and reactive bead media that could be blown out in regular service (being made or based on rustable alloys of steel), through simple aging processes like rusting of the baffle material, overheated/lean exhaust gas ratios, to say nothing of simple mechanical issues like small exhaust system punctures resulting from running over objects in the street. A lot of manufacturers, by 2001 model year, had switched to "all stainless steel" exhaust system construction, to ward off emission systems claims in later high mileage service, and had begun to provide insulated "shields" over their catalytic converters, to protect from road damage, to insulate the passenger compartment against "hot spots" over the catalytic converter itself, and to reduce the likelihood of accidental brush fires when vehicles were parked in high, dry grassy fields. Even if the catalytic converter on such vehicles is technically functional, emission inspections that check for leaks and heat guard integrity will fail a vehicle with sub-standard exhaust system components with a "failed catalytic converter" result, indicating the need for expert level repairs/replacement of exhaust system components.
posted by paulsc at 8:13 PM on April 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: O2 sensors often seem to go bad without really throwing a code. I make it a set policy to change the o2 sensors on any used car I buy and after two years on any car I own. About every other time i either clean or change the plugs. It seems to help mileage and how nice the car starts and runs. This may be my perceptions and not reality but they are pretty cheap and easy to change (usually) so why not? I think it unlikely to have a bad cat but if the o2 sensors have been bad long enough maybe. Just go somewhere else and get the 02 sensors changed. I bet the guy is offering you 500 so he can change the 02 sensors than sell the car for 3k. Used cars that get good mileage are getting a premium in the market right now due to $4 dollar a gallon gas. It screams a scam. Honda's of this age are usually reliable good cars so i wouldn't ditch it unless you have a shop you trust tell you and show why it is bad. I just changed a 99 prelude that wasn't running worth a damn to getting 30+ mpg by spending about 300 on 02 sensors, plugs, wires, distributor and cleaning the exhaust gas recirculation system (a known issue on those engines, which is not the engine in the civic). I would get the car fixed at another mechanic. Car talk website has the mechan-ix files that have recommendations.
posted by bartonlong at 9:38 PM on April 16, 2011

And if you live in many other states that are not Oregon or California, you might not even need a catalytic convertor. All cars come with them, because CA mandates it, but most states do not require them.

This is 100% false. All cars are federally mandated to come with a catalytic converter, and removing or bypassing federal emissions components from a car comes with a possible $10,000 fine, from the 1979 Clear Air Act. If you don't have inspections you'll probably never get caught, but it's more than just a CA requirement.
posted by hwyengr at 8:33 AM on April 17, 2011

Response by poster: Went to a reputable guy, who did the job for much less money.

This is a big mefi success story.
posted by paultopia at 12:37 PM on April 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

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