Paid for a car repair that failed, but mechanic is gone after surgery
May 28, 2014 6:41 AM   Subscribe

We started having trouble with our car almost a year ago. We paid $1500 for a repair that failed, and the mechanic tried twice more without additional charges. Now, it’s failed again, but the mechanic had heart surgery and closed down the shop, and I haven’t been able to reach him. Is there anything left to do, or do we just have to accept that we’re out the money without a fix, and start over with someone new?

The car is a 2002 Subaru Legacy with almost 100K miles. Here’s the history of the repair:
- Summer ‘13 - Check Engine light came on with an emissions-related code. The mechanic (who I’ll call Gary) replaced the catalytic converter, along with a pipe and muffler, for $1500.
- Fall ‘13 - The same code came back on. Gary swapped out the catalytic converter for another new one at no charge.
- Early ‘14 - The same code came on again. Gary changed the oxygen sensor(s?) at no charge.
- Spring ‘14 - The code came on again. We heard Gary was away from business for heart surgery, and then that he wasn’t coming back. We had another mechanic take a look, and he says that the code is P0420, that the catalytic converter is an after-market one, and that it's still/again the root of the problem.

It was our first time working with Gary, but he had great Yelp reviews, and he’d been in business for a long time. He also was somewhat of an oddball, with a grey beard a couple of feet long, a truck-sized mountain of soda and beer cans in his shop, and we later heard he’s long been a functioning alcoholic. He came across as well-intentioned, repeatedly trying to put the repair right. I feel badly for his health troubles.

I wasn’t sure whether it was cruel to pursue this when Gary might be seriously ailing. That said, he might be recovered, and I’m unhappy that we’ve still got the same car problem we paid to repair. So, I decided to at least inquire, but I haven’t been able to. I tried the shop, but Gary and his couple of guys aren’t there, no one’s picking up their voicemail, and a letter was returned as undeliverable. I asked the town for any way to get in touch, and they referred me to the state because the shop is incorporated, and the state didn’t have info, either.

We have a receipt for the first repair attempt, but not for any of the free follow-up. Is there any decent way to get either a repair that sticks or a (partial?) refund, or is it time to accept that money as gone and start over with a new mechanic?
posted by daisyace to Grab Bag (10 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Move on to a new mechanic and let it be with Gary. You didn't pay for a certain outcome: you paid for the work he did and the parts he used. He went above and beyond to give free service and parts the second and third times. If his first attempts were reasonable efforts to diagnose and fix the problems, he deserves to be paid for them. I would compare it to a lawyer: you don't pay to get a particular result in a dispute, you pay for a professional to use their skills toward that result. Sometimes it's successful, sometimes not.
posted by HoteDoge at 6:48 AM on May 28, 2014 [32 favorites]

2nding "Move on." If Gary had been out to screw you, he wouldn't have done free work afterward.
posted by Etrigan at 6:56 AM on May 28, 2014 [8 favorites]

Also some older Subarus seem to just do that - the check engine light in my 2001 Forester won't stay off - have replaced the O2 sensor that came up with the computer code, car runs fine but there's a short somewhere that keeps the light on. My mechanic has looked into it a number of times and says it's not a problem. 200K miles and still going... I don't know about your Legacy but I wouldn't be surprised if that's the case.

I agree that you're going to have to just move on re mechanic.
posted by leslies at 7:08 AM on May 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'd write it off, it sounds like Gary has closed the shop and that's that.

Take it to the dealer and pay the $100 to see what the computer says. The problem may be unrelated to the repairs Gary made.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:25 AM on May 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

You didn't pay for a certain outcome: you paid for the work he did and the parts he used.

This this this. He even hooked you guys up with free parts and labor. This guy was a good mechanic, or at least a good businessman, the kind you really wish hadn't retired or closed up shop. There are plenty of shops who would have charged you for each of those visits.

Keep in mind also, that these visits were spread out almost over a full year's time; that's enough time for multiple things to fail (and by my experience with a subaru, those exact same things).
posted by furnace.heart at 8:51 AM on May 28, 2014 [5 favorites]

He came across as well-intentioned, repeatedly trying to put the repair right.

This is absolutely true.

I’m unhappy that we’ve still got the same car problem we paid to repair

This is how cars work sometimes, especially when they are twelve years old!
posted by kate blank at 9:36 AM on May 28, 2014 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I'd just be wary of putting more money into this car at this point, period. You seem to have a car that is a lemon now, even if it wasn't when you bought it. If it isn't the catalytic converter it's probably something closely related (say, an EGR if your Sube has one). Or it could trace back to the engine itself somehow, or the fuel injection, or... you see how it goes. The thing is, it's the car, not the repair.

Either drive it into the ground, or unload it now as a 'parts' or 'project' car to someone who has more tolerance for poking and prodding than you do.
posted by dhartung at 3:06 PM on May 28, 2014

Best answer: Something's hinky with that Suby, because 100k miles isn't much for one. I'm thinking that at least running your car's history past the dealership mechanic, or perhaps a long-time Subaru-only or -mostly mechanic would be a good idea. (If it were me, I'd skip the dealership and go for a Suby-mech.)

(There is at least one more sensor that sometimes plays with check engine lights on various types of cars, doesn't really seem to affect anything except emissions (and whether or not it passes), but that isn't vital for a running car. And I can't remember what the name of it is.)

As for the what to do about Gary - agreement with HoteDoge.
posted by stormyteal at 11:49 PM on May 28, 2014

Response by poster: Thank you all. I'm surprised how universal the thinking is on this, and that helps me know to drop it, which I will. I absolutely agree that Gary sincerely tried to do this repair, and now I'm also glad to understand that he went above and beyond in following it up.

My own thinking on what I paid for was different, and it's kind of startling to realize what an outlier I am. In mulling it over, I wonder if it comes down to beliefs about the root problem. I'd unknowingly interpreted the presence of P0420, without other codes or visible problems, as implicating the catalytic converter in particular. I thought that the problem was always that I needed a good catalytic converter, and instead I got after-market ones without knowing that there was a choice or that those are a crapshoot, which I've since heard. (P0420 seems to clear temporarily when work is done, so if these catalytic converters ever worked, it was for a matter of weeks or several months at most.) But, I'm getting the sense from several of you that codes aren't as precise as all that.

I thought that once Gary took the minute to hook up and get that code, it was clear that all I needed was a functioning, installed catalytic converter, and that that's what I'd paid for. But it sounds like you all believe I actually needed "efforts to diagnose and fix" (thanks, HoteDoge) whatever unknown issues this car had and still may have, in which case it makes perfect sense to pay for that work, regardless of outcome.

Ruthless Bunny, I don't know if a dealer's computer would tell me more than the P0420 I already know. If you drop back in the thread and just missed that I already have that code, or conversely, know that dealers' tech is more specific, let me know -- otherwise, I'll ask a dealer.

leslies, we can't just leave this unaddressed as it sounds like you can. You're right that it's no problem to drive with it, but the code means the emissions aren't good enough for the car to pass inspection. If you faced the same problem, I'd love to know what you did about it.

Again, thanks all. Even though I still see two ways of looking at this, when dozens see it one way and only I see it the other, I know just what to do.
posted by daisyace at 6:44 AM on May 29, 2014

Living in Michigan we don't have to deal with emission testing and don't actually know how bad it is since - no testing.
posted by leslies at 6:38 PM on May 31, 2014

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