Am I being totally unreasonable?
May 14, 2014 7:03 AM   Subscribe

Looking for feedback from others regarding a dispute with a mechanic over charges he made for repairs on my motorcycle.

I'll try to be as brief as possible to describe the situation. I apologize in advance if I left out any pertinent details.

Basically, the TL;DR version is that I don't think it took the mechanic as long as he said he did to fix the problems and then charged me for the full amount I authorized on the estimate. He's even claiming that he actually took more time with the bike and didn't even charge me extra for it.

The authorized estimate was $318 - 3 hours of labor @ $90/hr to diagnose and repair electrical problems and 1/2 hour of labor to replace the tire.The electrical problems were the alternator light would flicker on and off and one turn signal did not function properly. I tested the alternator myself to determine whether or not that was the problem. It wasn't. I have no issue with the amount he ended up charging me for the tire so it's not that relevant to my dispute.

When we spoke on the phone after the electrical problem was fixed he told me that there were a few connectors in the dash that were shorting out and just needed to be properly insulated. He tells me then that the total charge for the electrical repair and the tire is going to be $474. My first reaction was to think that was a lot of money to charge for that much work - fixing some loose connections, cleaning the front rim and replacing the tire. When I got to the shop to pick up the bike, I tried to ask him about why it took so long and he got very upset and deducted an hour off the final invoice and told me that I was no longer welcome there. When I tried to tell him that I would pay the whole amount if he indeed did spend that much time on my bike, he rebuffed me.

My question is whether or not I am being totally out of line here. Is 3 hours a perfectly reasonable amount of time to take to isolate and repair that kind of electrical problem? Did the mechanic get so upset because in his mind it was completely reasonable and how dare I question him? Or did he get upset because I was calling him out on some questionable business practices involving the compounding effect of rounding up partial labor hours or being legally entitled to charge the full authorized estimated amount even if it took less time to do the work?

Regarding my own background, I am fairly mechanically inclined and have experience restoring old motorcycles myself. I've had bad luck dealing with electrical work though and that's why I decided to take it in. Part of why I'm upset is that I didn't take more time to try to fix it myself. But the bigger part is that I feel like I got taken advantage of and would like to know if there is any justification in my feeling that way.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (19 answers total)
It's a little unclear whether he charged you the full amount you authorized on the estimate or more money. If he's charging you the full amount you authorized, I could understand why he'd be annoyed, because, well, you agreed with him that it would be reasonable to take that much time to make the repair and it was on the basis of that agreement that he went ahead and did it. After the fact, he doesn't have much leverage to renegotiate unless he wants to undo his work or, like, place a mechanic's lien on your motorcycle or something.
posted by alphanerd at 7:26 AM on May 14, 2014

You didn't say what bike it is. If it is a newer BMW with CANBUS, that's a different story vs. an older bike with a more traditional harness.

Electrical problems can be really easy or really hard to diagnose- depending on if there is one fault or multiple problems, etc.

The fact that he took off an hour right off the bat makes me wonder a bit but 3-4 hours does not seem unreasonable to me if he is not an expert on your particular make/model.
posted by gen at 7:28 AM on May 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

Without knowing more about the situation, all I can tell you is that the time-consuming part of repairs is often not the actual labor involved in doing whatever swaps / insulation / cleaning / whatever, or taking the machine apart and reassembling it; the time-consuming part is figuring out what the damn problem is. It's not hard for me to envision a scenario where he spent more time than expected on the process of elimination.

It's also not hard for me to imagine that he just padded out the time spent. Who knows.

He got upset because he felt that you were calling him dishonest. Either this upset him because you were right or it upset him because you were wrong. I don't think any of us could tell you without having been there.

You may have gotten taken advantage of. You may not have. Again, no way of knowing. Ultimately, it looks like he's probably not going to budge on this, so the situation is more or less resolved (though not satisfactorily). Normally I'd tell you that you should just not go to that place anymore, but he doesn't want your business anyway, so that's that. Since no one can tell you whether you're justified or not, my suggestion would be to let it go.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 7:32 AM on May 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

I can see both sides of it. Assuming you paid $474 for something that was estimated at $318 (i.e. none of the $474 was the tire, or any other part of this that I'm missing), he gave you a bill that was 150% of the estimate. And his taking that hour off and then firing you as a customer, no discussion, no negotiation, is a classic "soup nazi" kind of dick move that I see a lot in small businesses where the owner/operator doesn't plan or estimate well and winds up getting angry at his customers a lot. Unless he's something really special, he's not going to be in business long operating like that.

If he had estimated $474 in the first place, or called you and said it was going to take longer than initially thought, I'd say unequivocally that he was in a reasonable position and you shouldn't carp about what was done. I used to own a motorcycle, but I'm no mechanic. I have a friend who owns an auto repair shop and he doesn't even touch his own motorcycle to work on it. Everything's crammed into very small spaces and they're hard to work on - I know that much.

I do work with servers and computers, however, and used to repair small industrial machines in another lifetime, and 3-4 hours to isolate and repair a problem is nothing. You reduce it to "fixing some loose connections" -- well, if it was that easy you'd have done it yourself. figuring it out is what takes so long and drives you crazy.
posted by randomkeystrike at 7:33 AM on May 14, 2014 [6 favorites]

It isn't just the work on the bike itself. It is the time on the phone with you, etc.
posted by k8t at 7:33 AM on May 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm a vintage bike hobbyist and a part of the motorcycle industry: electrical issues in old bikes can be surprisingly time-consuming to chase down. Old bikes (and I'm assuming it's an old bike because you mention that you have experience restoring old bikes) have idiosyncratic wiring harnesses*, which are only complicated by hacks and kludges installed by Previous Owners.

It's possible that your mechanic fixed the problem in less than the quoted three hours, but it is not even slightly unlikely that he spent more than three hours on it. 30 minutes is a very reasonable charge to replace a tire, especially if an inner tube is involved.

His quote of three hours labor to resolve your electrical problem was a guess, not a guarantee, especially if your bike is old or has had several owners. I can't speculate on what led him to fire you as a customer, but his charges for this specific service do not seem unreasonable to me.

*witness my 1988 BMW R100GS, which has an alternator warning light in the dash. If that bulb burns out, it breaks the charging circuit. That's the first thing I fixed when I bought the bike, and now my repair will count as a Previous Owner Kludge for the next owner, whoever that will be.
posted by workerant at 7:59 AM on May 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

I am fairly mechanically inclined and have experience restoring old motorcycles myself. I've had bad luck dealing with electrical work though and that's why I decided to take it in.

I think this might be most of it. You're used to spending time working on it yourself. This is infinitely cheaper than farming it out. I've taken cars and motorcycles in for certain bits of work that I've wanted done 'right,' and I always feel ripped off, because I know the list prices of all the stuff, and really just tacking labor on there always stings. Decent work is expensive.

3 hours to diagnose an electrical issue is actually pretty goddamn fast, even for a minor problem like the one you're talking about. I know electrical systems pretty well, can read diagrams and have repaired electrical problems in friends bikes for pay many times….especially when it comes to electrics it takes a lot of time, and parts are basically nothing. It's not like an engine rebuild where its going to cost X in labor, because the guy has done it a couple dozen times and can gauge the labor needed better.

Personally, I'd pay the bill, and apologize with a case of beer. If he actually did good work, you want to keep your mechanic happy.
posted by furnace.heart at 8:22 AM on May 14, 2014

...I tried to ask him about why it took so long....

I think it all depends on how you asked this question. On its face it is, obviously, a reasonable question. If you asked it in good faith then this mechanic is a hot head and not worth dealing with. It gets more complicated if your wording or tone made your question sound more like a passive-aggressive accusation.
posted by mullacc at 8:35 AM on May 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

When I tried to tell him that I would pay the whole amount if he indeed did spend that much time on my bike

See, this right here probably pissed him off even more. He told you the total invoice and you indicated to his face that you didn't trust him, and then you say this. Like, did you think he wasn't sure how long it took, or what? How could he have made you believe, not just accept, but believe that he reported his time honestly? The quote above makes it very clear to him that you're only using the idea of him being dishonest to try to negotiate a lower invoice, and that is bullshit.

Bottom line is that you had a problem you were unable or unwilling to fix yourself, you took it to someone you knew could fix it, then argued about the cost by implying the service provider was dishonest. Dick move, man, dick move. The fact that you indicated in the quote at the top of this post that you were willing to pay the entire amount "if he indeed did spend that much time" on your bike tells your mechanic very clearly that you are just looking to haggle him down and devalue his work, and your first tactic was to imply that he is a dishonest tradesman. I'd ask you to take your business elsewhere too.
posted by Sternmeyer at 8:38 AM on May 14, 2014 [11 favorites]

My take on it is that you correctly caught him out for inflating the bill, hence why he lowered it so easily.

He doesn't want you back as a customer because you're not easily duped.

I deal with the public for work. I've dealt with many a car mechanic, too.

It's SOOOO easy for them to explain how something took X amount of time. In fact, that's part of their job!!

He flipped out because you caught him lying. You're fine. Move on....
posted by jbenben at 9:17 AM on May 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

Well said Sternmeyer. At the same time, there is always a non-trivial chance a person will get ripped off when dealing with asymmetric information. But you have to know that going in, and be at 'peace' with it, so to speak. You do your best to find a person/firm that you believe is trustworthy, and not including any particularly over-the-top issues, you pay the cost. In the end estimating the time for this stuff is hard, and it's not fair to expect the business person to take on that risk. I will often quote my boss 3 hours on a programming assignment, and it will take a full week. His potential mistake was perhaps not keeping you more up to date on the risks that you might be taking on, which to be fair, could be a big failure on his part.

I would say, ultimately, just accept this as part of the cost of doing business in an asymmetric field. Kinda how you go into a restaurant knowing you will pay 10-20% more for the tip.

Don't beat yourself up though either, it sounds like your heart was in the right place.
posted by jjmoney at 9:18 AM on May 14, 2014

I've been told that there are set durations for most jobs in auto repair. E.g., change an alternator cap = 2 hours (or whatever). New mechanics maybe make less per hour because it takes them 4 hours while skilled mechanics can get the job done a bit faster than the standard time allotment. It sounds possible he thought you two had predetermined that this job represented 3 hours of labor. I don't know how your conversation went, but it could've seemed to him that then you had a fixed price contract for the work. Then he did the job, then you negotiated him down. I wasn't there, but could that be how he perceived things? He wanted to avoid a disgruntled customer, so he agreed to go down in price, but having that negotiation occur after the work occurred might feel like a risk he doesn't want to take for next time.
posted by salvia at 9:33 AM on May 14, 2014

The way your question is worded, it's not clear whether the $474 initial bill was all labor, or if it included the price of a new tire, so we can't even tell whether the initial labor charge for the electrical work was equal to or more than the 3-hour estimate.

My first bike had such severe electrical problems that it inspired in me a lasting paranoia so severe that for two subsequent bikes I made complete new harnesses from scratch, replacing every single wire, soldering connections that had been push-together terminals and encasing it all in shrink tubing. This was all a long time ago but I still remember how difficult it was to track down gremlins. Three hours or more doesn't seem at all implausible.
posted by jon1270 at 9:56 AM on May 14, 2014

Sternmyer makes some good points, but workerant I think has a major point.

Certain bikes are utter beasties to work on, and if you're troubleshooting electrical faults, you often have to disassemble entire subsystems just to get ACCESS to the thing you need to test, which may or may not be the gremlin. For example, to change a sparkplug on an '88-92 Honda Hawk GT, you have to remove the radiator. Huge hassle. On some other bikes, you have to remove a lot of plastic and/or the fuel tank to get to certain things. The time does add up and some electrical systems are fraught with peril even when you expose them.

Also, it's not clear from the post, but it almost sounds as if he cleared up/fixed some other stuff he found along the way that needed to be done in addition to the fault you reported.
posted by Thistledown at 10:11 AM on May 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

It's not possible to know how much time the repair took so it's not possible to say whether the original charge was reasonable or not.

In my mind it is not unreasonable to query about the additional time for a repair that apparently took nearly 2 hours longer than the estimate. My auto mechanic who I like and trust will unvaryingly proactively explain the issues that related to a repair exceeding the expectation by equivalent amounts (and alerts me in advance to anticipated costly repairs, giving me the opportunity to pull out and take care of it another way, when he can).

How you framed the inquiry may have had something to do with it.

At the end of the day it's a moot point, this individual has made it clear he doesn't want your future trade, and even assuming his billing was dishonest it seems clear to me that it wouldn't be worthwhile to pursue any further remedy beyond the discount he gave you. I personally wouldn't want to have an ongoing relationship with a service provider who reacted this way to inquiries about costs significantly outside of estimates (the original charge was almost 50% over after all) - provided the inquiries were made reasonably and politely.
posted by nanojath at 10:12 AM on May 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

This was alluded to, above but I want to reiterate that there is a master document used by auto mechanics that sets the standard labor time for every standard procedure on every model of car ever. The document stipulates (for example) that changing the timing belt on a 85 Stingray will take 1 hour whereas on a 93 Accord it will take 1.5 hours - that level of detail is laid out. It is this standard of efficiency that competent mechanics are assumed to meet, and this is the document used to establish the labor time for a given repair job.

If your guy is working at a proper shop this is the standard he should have used to give his estimate and also to charge. It should not matter how much time he actually spent, he should be charging hours based on the standard labor document. This insulates customers from dumbass mechanics and rewards efficiency in experienced mechanics - they can charge 10 hours labor for 7 hours work on a busy day.

Either way he's totally within his rights to ban you for being a pain in the ass. Speaking as a busy PC service guy, I've totally blacklisted customers for bitching with better cause than you are now. I've got lots of happy hassle-free work to accomplish and have no time to deal with folks dickering about the bill or questioning my integrity.
posted by BigLankyBastard at 11:42 AM on May 14, 2014

For a point of reference, I am a very competent mechanic and build electronic systems for my job, and it took me ~3 hours to find the intermittent circuit problem that was preventing my truck from starting yesterday afternoon. Extremely painful troubleshooting work.
posted by fake at 4:53 PM on May 14, 2014

The document stipulates (for example) that changing the timing belt on a 85 Stingray will take 1 hour whereas on a 93 Accord it will take 1.5 hours - that level of detail is laid out.

These are known procedures with no diagnostic content.

"X funny thing is happening to my electrical system" is a vastly different kettle of fish. It's entirely within the realm of possibility to spend hours diagnosing an intermittent electrical issue, and ten minutes fixing it. Standard charges are useless for situations like that.
posted by HiroProtagonist at 5:57 PM on May 14, 2014

He probably charged too much, you busted him, he didn't like that, but readily lowered the bill and decided to fish in other waters. Maybe he's got too much work.
posted by telstar at 6:33 PM on May 14, 2014

« Older Planning a trip to western equatorial Africa   |   "Durga Shakti" Singer? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.