Mechanic Panic - Are They Ripping Me Off??
April 8, 2016 10:55 AM   Subscribe

I've taken my car to the mechanic what seems like an unreasonable number of times to fix an issue. Mostly, the car keeps overheating. First, they replaced the entire radiator. The next time it broke down, it was the water pump, which also necessitated a new timing belt. It's been overheating again, and came close to breaking down. I talked with a guy who knows cars, but is not a mechanic. He says if it's still having problems, it's likely the thermostat. Am I overreacting to not want this same shop to fix it?

This isn't a car that I drive very often, usually. Between 2 and 4 times / week, and only for a few miles. Maybe a max of 40 miles each time, usually more like 20. These breakdowns have consequently been several weeks apart, but not very many "miles" apart, if you get me. I also had a problem with the car idling roughly, which was "fixed." It was fine for a few days, but started up again to the point where the car actually shut off recently when I was at a red light.

When I had the radiator fixed last time (3 years earlier), it was a similar ordeal. It broke down out of town, and a mechanic I didn't know replaced it. It was fine for a while, then kept having problems- it leaked coolant because Mechanic A had clamped the hoses too tight, AND had put the thermostat in upside-down. Mechanic B cleaned up after them, and I went three years without issue. I think I'm associating this new mechanic with the problems I had earlier.

I want to know whether this is okay- are they lazy/bad mechanics, or is this fairly normal and an okay thing? Should I take it to them to fix? I'm now about 45-55 min's drive from Mechanic B. The car can make it, but he's just one guy and it'll take at least a day for him to fix it. I'd have to go with my husband, which I hate because it's such a waste of gas, but if it's necessary, I'll do it. The only other mechanics near here are a super-expensive place 30 minutes away that I don't know. There's also "I know a guy"s I keep getting recommended, but I wouldn't, because I don't know the guy.

TLDR; mechanic keeps spot-fixing the same system on my car. Are they being lazy for fixing only one issue at a time instead of looking at the whole system? Is it possible that these issues are cropping up in-between fixes, and they're being professional and competent? Should I try to demand my money back/ have them actually fix the issues for free? Just stop going to them?
posted by serenity_now to Travel & Transportation (15 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I'm not an expert or anything resembling it, but I have been doing lots of research on car stuff. You also don't say what age and model of car, and that is pertinent here. I'm in a hurry, so a quick few things. Hopefully Brockles sees this and has some helpful advice.

So, if your thermostat was replaced a few years ago, it is unlikely to be that. And most thermostats fail open, so you'd not be overheating. At this point if it were in the cooling system there aren't a lot of things left to look at. With both overheating and idling issues, I'd suspect electrical/sensor issues. Or exhaust system.

Anyway, if this car has overheated repeatedly, I'd start worrying about gaskets and the engine integrity overall. Might be time to stop trying to fix the problem and find another vehicle.
posted by monopas at 12:09 PM on April 8, 2016

It's a 2002 Hyundai Elantra. I've heard they're not as good as the newer Hyundais, and there are a lot of plastic parts. We ruled out the head gasket via the "watch for bubbles" trick. I do have a car to replace it, and I'm trying to sell it now, but it keeps getting fucked up. I've looked online and it's expected that the car will net $500-$1000 but if I can't get it fixed, I'll have to sell it to junkers for scraps.

Not looking for solutions on how to fix it, more concerned with mechanic etiquette. I kind of want to demand they fix whatever's wrong with it now for free, but don't want to if they've done a reasonably good job. If they're doing something wrong, I don't want to take it back to them, but I don't want to be too harsh/unfair. That's the question, folks. Helllp!
posted by serenity_now at 12:25 PM on April 8, 2016

I think you need a better mechanic.
posted by SemiSalt at 12:56 PM on April 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

I would try another mechanic. OK, you don't know a good one personally. Try a new mechanic who is trusted by someone you trust. You may have to try a few different mechanics (over a period of time, probably with different vehicles) before you find one you really trust.

I doubt you're going to have any luck with getting your vehicle fixed for free etc. In general you are paying a mechanic $X to do specific job Y (replace certain hoses, or the radiator, or the thermostat, or whatever). So if they replace the hoses and the hoses burst two days later, then yeah. Demand they fix it for free.

But you're not hiring/paying them to "fix the $#&* car" in general. The fact that they accomplished specific job Y and it still doesn't work doesn't really give you scope to demand they accomplish specific job Z as well, in hopes that fixes the problem. That is maybe a reason to try another mechanic, but not to get more free work out of the previous one.

Also, I've pointed this out many times before, but if you're driving a car that is 5 to 20 years old your baseline expectation should be spending $1000-$2000 annually on routine maintenance and upkeep. This is a massive savings over the average new car payment (about $475/month, I understand). If you're not spending more than that on your older vehicle, year in and year out, you really don't have too much to complain about . . .
posted by flug at 1:13 PM on April 8, 2016

Also FWIW I seem to recall replacing a thermostat on one of my cars once, and the replacement was almost immediately faulty. Thermostats are pretty inexpensive & easy/inexpensive to replace. I would certainly be thinking about trying that quick/easy fix myself if this were my vehicle. Just because new parts do sometimes fail. However, I would also expect a decent mechanic to be able to do some fairly quick tests to give some indication about whether replacing the thermostat would be a worthwhile to try.
posted by flug at 1:19 PM on April 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

Have they plugged a computer into the car? That should tell them what's wrong with it. All cars built since the 1980s have this system in them that can be read to tell a mechanic what's going on. You don't mention it, but it sounds like you're being hosed.
posted by amcevil at 2:11 PM on April 8, 2016

They should have checked the thermostat first. Thermostats are $10 and are typically not hard at all for a mechanic to replace, so you shouldn't have more than an hour or two labor at most (unless this car has a weird setup, but I doubt that.) Radiators aren't hard to replace either, but if they went straight for that, I am kind of wondering whether or not they actually checked the radiator - while it's not out of the realm of possibility for a radiator to be clogged after three years, it's also pretty unlikely. The "watch for bubbles" trick is not foolproof on a head gasket, and if you have a new thermostat installed and it's still overheating, you need to have a mechanic check for a head gasket leak.

"Have they plugged a computer into the car? That should tell them what's wrong with it. All cars built since the 1980s have this system in them that can be read to tell a mechanic what's going on. "

It's not that simple. A computer will tell them certain things that are wrong with the car but that typically only tells you what the car's sensors are reporting. If you get a "Check Engine" light, it will store a code but that code will be something that could have many causes. For example, the P0420 code on one of my cars means "Catalytic Converter Efficiency Below Threshold." Does that mean the catalytic converter is bad? Most likely no. It could be a bad oxygen sensor, a bad spark plug wire, a vacuum leak, a fuel system issue leading to poor combustion, etc. The odds are that the computer will be little help diagnosing an overheat issue.
posted by azpenguin at 2:47 PM on April 8, 2016 [2 favorites]

Overheating can be the result of a multitude of causes, radiator, thermostat, timing, water pump and head gasket the most common.

In your case, I would (again) replace the thermostat (and they do fail closed, which will surely cause overheating). And they are know to sometimes fail early.

I would have the timing checked (long shot) and a compression/leakdown test done to identify a leaking head gasket - this is the definitive test for head gasket integrity. Look at the oil, and make sure it is not going milky - milky oil is a definite head gasket failure, but normal oil is not an all-clear.

It was a new radiator, not a secondhand one, that was installed? Nothing blocking the radiator intake, the radiator fins not blocked with bugs?

As for etiquette, it depends. If you said 'fix it', and they didn't you might have a case if they have to redo work already done but you would need to show how they failed to do the job properly. If they have to do extra work, which you would have paid extra for at the time, not much chance of getting it for free, maybe a discount though. Bottom line is, do want the car fixed, or do you want the warm feeling of getting a discount/saving some money? You might get both, but one might compromise the other.

And, as above, the computer may tell them the car is overheating, but not much more. It might tell if the timing is off, but even that is not certain.
posted by GeeEmm at 2:56 PM on April 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

My 2000 Jeep Cherokee Classic had similar issues, and it turned out to be a head gasket leak.
posted by frecklefaerie at 3:05 PM on April 8, 2016

Forgot to mention, bubbles are a sign of head gasket leak, absence of bubbles not a guarantee that the head gasket is ok.
posted by GeeEmm at 3:29 PM on April 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

My partner is an experienced mechanic. I read your question to him and emphasized that you're looking for mechanic etiquette advice, not so much repair advice.

He says: It's important to get to know your mechanic so you can establish the type of trust people seek in a mechanic-customer relationship. The same way that you'd want to establish trust with your primary care doctor, dentist or even your hair stylist. That alone is reason to go back to Mechanic B. He already proved himself by fixing Mechanic A's errors (installing the thermostat upside-down? really?); this allowed you to get another three years out of the car. Don't be afraid to ask Mechanic B to show you what the issues are in your car. Insist on seeing what they're talking to you about. If the mechanic won't show you the problem and explain what they're doing, then move on to a new mechanic. But yes, it is normal that mechanics - yes, trustworthy mechanics included - usually have to identify and knock out big problem first, before the smaller problems can either a) be addressed or b) reveal themselves as a problem. You fix the major problem first. If you come into a shop and, for example, coolant is leaking like crazy from your radiator, the mechanic has to address the coolant leaking everywhere before they can address any other underlying problems concerning the overheating. It's a process; it is not always nickle-and-diming for the sake of nickle-and-diming. That's because in the example I gave, you're dealing with something comparatively "catastrophic" - a major coolant leak - which naturally has to take priority over other issues until it has been resolved. Chances are (emphasis on "chances are"!) that Mechanic B is not trying to gouge you. However, you are dealing with an - I assume, because of its age - higher mileage vehicle. It's not unusual for a higher mileage vehicle to present with this watershed of problems.
posted by nightrecordings at 6:50 PM on April 8, 2016 [2 favorites]

Definitely take this car to the mechanic you trust. You need a real diagnosis, not just someone to throw parts at the problem. This could be as simple as a $10 thermostat, but with overheating and rough running to the point of stalling, it could also easily be an issue that may be more expensive to fix than the value of the vehicle. You want a mechanic who can figure that out and give you options to move forward. It takes some work to figure this out, but it generally can be done. It's a pain to drive 50 minutes and back, but it certainly sounds worthwhile in this case.

In the longer term, you can try out some of the other local guys who are recommended, but for an issue that might be quite expensive, I'd recommend going with the guy you know does good work.

Can you call ahead and book an appointment so that he is able to look at your car right when you bring it in (e.g. first thing in the morning), so you and your husband can hang out for an hour before you drive home to see if further investigation is needed or parts need to be ordered or whatever the initial outcome is? That would also give you an opportunity to hear directly from the mechanic and have him show the two of you what he has checked or what he thinks the problem is.
posted by ssg at 7:14 PM on April 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

All cars built since the 1980s have this system in them that can be read to tell a mechanic what's going on.

For future reference, this seems to be a common misconception in automotive threads on AskMe. Yes there is a computer diagnostic system, and it throws off useful data. But a mechanic can't simply plug into that port and instantaneously gain a complete diagnostic picture and find out specific problems that need fixing. That still requires visual inspection of components and more direct methods of testing their integrity or functionality, such as test driving, emission testing, and scoping and metering various functions directly.

A 2002 Hyundai Elantra has an approximate value of $1500 in running condition. I'd be looking to replace that car as it is at the end of its useful life and you will need to expect forthcoming repairs (regardless of mileage) that will far exceed the value of the machine.

Not to mention that a 2002 Hyundai that hasn't rusted away is remarkable.
posted by spitbull at 3:19 AM on April 10, 2016

I think this is one of those situations where realizing your limitations is important. The fact is, you'll never get enough personal experience with a bunch of mechanics to make a quality judgement of them. By asking people in your circle of friends, you'll at least get some relatively unbiased advice. We finally found our mechanic, and he was the kind of person who would tell you that something was going to fail but didn't need to be replaced yet. He would really explain the problems in lay terms, and always had an answer when we asked, "OK, and what if we don't do what you recommend?" (my own favorite question for seeing if a professional has really considered the alternatives and consequences). That way, when he said that we needed a whole new catalytic converter, we believed him.
posted by wnissen at 4:16 PM on April 11, 2016

A thermostat getting stuck open (or closed) is a really common phenomenon and the cause of a huge percentage of overheating issues. It's also an inexpensive part. It should be the first thing they checked. Ask your mechanic if they took a look at or replaced your thermostat. If not, go somewhere else. That being said, the potential causes keep getting more and more expensive the deeper down the rabbit hole you go.
posted by TickTickVroom at 2:13 PM on April 14, 2016

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