Is this behaviour reasonable for a mechanic?
June 15, 2007 2:21 PM   Subscribe

Is this behaviour reasonable for a mechanic? Also, why is there so little consumer protection laws for this sort of thing?

Hello folks, I am a new (old) Saab owner here. I just bought myself a 1995 4dr 900s with 188k on the clock.

It was dirt cheap and, as I am wont to do when I am lazy, I didn't get it checked out by a mechanic - my bad. It started well and ran fine with no odd noises. It idled and shifted smoothly, the brakes did not shudder or squeal, and the only known problem was some rust under the passenger foot well and, according to the previous owner, rear brakes.

I just took it in for an inspection sticker (asked them to fix a tail light issue, look at the rust, and do an oil/filter, check plugs tune-up). I mentioned $400 as a vague cut-off unless they gave me a call and I agreed to further work.

They called me the next day and told me my control arm(s) needed to be replaced for inspection. They quoted me $800 for that job and I wasn't happy, but I told them to go ahead and do it. The day after they called me back and said they were up to $1700, having done bushings, coil springs, struts - all manner of front suspension work. They also told me that an un-inspectable item was my windshield wipers not stopping at the bottom of the window when you shut them off (you have to time it so they stop at the bottom - they do not "park" themselves).. and a windshield wiper motor is ~$250. He offered to put in a used one - $100 for the part.

At this point I'm not sure how much I trust these guys. Certainly, I have to fix those things that truly are not safe and/or inspectable, but this seems ridiculous. I have had innumerable old cars with 200k+ on them and never run across this sort of all-at-once repair disaster.

Today's news is that the serpentine belt is on it's way out. He said "that's the noise you hear under the hood". To be clear, I have never heard any noise under the hood. It idled and ran smoothly with narry a click or clank before I brought it to them, and I remember checking the belt and thinking it looked almost new and certainly not at all worn.

I'm wondering if I have any rights whatsoever when it comes to the work they did on this car. Specifically, I "okayed" a job that was estimated at $800. Whether he misquoted or ended up doing much more work is neither here nor there, I certainly never okayed $1700 of work. Double the estimate does not seem to be "within reason". Does anyone know what my rights are in this situation?

I do know that here in Maine the mechanic must return your old parts if you ask for them.. I also know that if you give the mechanic a written contract with a spending limit, they cannot make you pay for anything over that. I do not have any written contract, just my memory and hand-written notes of the phone calls I've had with him.

Note: I have not picked the car up yet.

Suggestions? Anything? Again, this isn't a matter of complaining about my repair woes.. it is me being concerned that much more was repaired than was required.

Thanks a lot guys!
posted by mbatch to Travel & Transportation (28 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Looking at what you've written here, my opinion would be to thank your mechanic as you pay him the full amount. Now you'll know where to take the next "dirt cheap" car you're inclined to buy - before you buy it.

You could hypothesize, I guess, that the mechanic is a greedy thief, repairing things that don't need repairing to be roadworthy. If you're going to indulge in this kind of paranoid thinking, it is worth considering its corollary: A guy has a 12 year old car coming up for inspection with 188000 miles on it. He knows it's in perfectly good repair despite its high mileage - would breezily pass inspection anywhere in Maine with never a fault discovered. That's because 15000 miles a year for 12 years in Maine, a state where the roads freeze and get salted every year, have simply had no effect on the car, which remains in its mechanically pristine, like-new state. For this reason, knowing this about his car that he's lived with for years, he chooses to sell it to you "dirt cheap," just can't let it go cheap enough in fact.

Does this story I just told you really make sense?

A front suspension part failing at speed on the highway can end your life, by the way. Now who's the bad guy here? Your mechanic, or the guy who sold you the car?
posted by ikkyu2 at 2:34 PM on June 15, 2007 [1 favorite]

There's still the issue of just breezing past the estimate though. Even if the problems sound possible to me - and they surely do, especially as ikkyu2 laid out, should not the mechanic have called long before going that far over?

And that breach of ethics makes the mechanical problems more suspect to me.
posted by John Kenneth Fisher at 2:43 PM on June 15, 2007

I don't know where in Maine you are from, but if you went to the Saab dealer on the Foreside, they did this to me too. (for substantially less money, but I was still peeved).
posted by nursegracer at 2:52 PM on June 15, 2007

a mechanic will always find things that -can- be fixed on an older car. it's just a matter of what you want to fix.

i would get the car out of there before they do anything else. (i guess pay for the work unless it seems really unjustified, but i'm not the one to ask). ask them to explain what was wrong with the parts and what was dangerous about their condition.

then find a mechanic you trust (or who a friend trusts) to go over the car and see what's going on in there. the car talk guys have a website at and there's a referral page if you're really searching.
posted by thinkingwoman at 2:55 PM on June 15, 2007

Well, you had the 400 right... so thats, oil change and all that jazz you mentioned. Then he said 800 for control arms. Then charges you anothe 500 for "other suspension work, and bushings and such"

He should have been able to include any possible bushings that would have needed replacement before giving you a quote on the control arms. So thats bogus...
the real bottom line though is that they did work you did not approve of. I'm not sure what course you have but I would pursue all options to the fullest!
posted by crewshell at 2:58 PM on June 15, 2007

They also told me that an un-inspectable item was my windshield wipers not stopping at the bottom of the window when you shut them off

I've never heard of something like this making a vehicle incapable of passing an inspection, but then I live in Texas. Check your state laws with regards to this if you want to be sure, but it sounds like you're being taken for a ride and the guy is just picking ugly looking parts (on a car that old, they're all ugly, doesn't mean they need to be replaced) to make a few bucks. Pay the tab, get the car and run. They never should have gone so far over your limit without contacting you. This is the most common scam in the book, because they know you can't pick up your car without paying (mechanic's lien).
posted by IronLizard at 3:01 PM on June 15, 2007

Generally the consumer protection for auto repair is all in the labor: the number of hours for a given job is fixed, and the hourly price is also constant for any given shop.
posted by smackfu at 3:01 PM on June 15, 2007

Maine Inspection Manual. One relevant part is: Reject vehicle if wiper(s) do not return to normal “rest” or “park” position when turned off. So that's not BS.

This page has the complaint procedure for inspections.
posted by smackfu at 3:28 PM on June 15, 2007

Firstly, thanks for the responses. I had a vague feeling I might be over-reacting but thankfully I am not the only one around here who doesn't enjoy getting shafted.

To ikkyu2, as I stated I have no problems dealing with truly broken parts. The "taken for a ride" feeling came from the lack of communication about the true costs of the repairs. I did not ask for a lecture on salty Maine roads, or what kind of wear-and-tear a 12yr old car can be expected to have - I know about and do expect these things. I clearly have only myself to blame for buying a used car without carefully looking things over, and I knew that going into it. This is not the concern of this post.

My main question was: does a $1700 bill for an $800 estimate sound like "fair" business practice to you? Personally, I like to know ahead of time what I am paying for and I don't think that is unreasonable.

smackfu: Sadly, the problem with fixed-hours-per-job is that they sometimes use the car manual's recommended "time". This can be much longer than the true time to perform the work and inflates the mechanic's payment. Of course the hourly rate is constant, but here in Maine we have no "static time for x job" law either way.

Thanks again, folks!
posted by mbatch at 3:35 PM on June 15, 2007

I have had innumerable old cars with 200k+ on them and never run across this sort of all-at-once repair disaster.

Presumably you did some basic maintenance on your cars, though. I don't think you can make the same assumption about the people who sold this one to you. This could be multiple years of accumulated crap that isn't fixed.

If the issue is that you don't want to pay for anything you don't specifically authorize, spell that out very clearly to this guy (or the next mechanic you take it to) and go in and sign off on all estimates before they do any additional work. This'll draw out the process but protect your funds.

If you genuinely think he's doing work that doesn't need to be done, then you can try to decline to pay for the work done he did above and beyond the parts you authorized, but if you think the work probably did need to be done, and are just peeved he didn't ask first, pay for it and get out.
posted by jacquilynne at 3:47 PM on June 15, 2007

This is not the concern of this post.

You invite commentary regarding any background information you provide, over and above answers to questions that have been stated outright, when you provide that background information. You were not being lectured; you were invited to explore your perceived problem from another viewpoint.

Ikkyu2 is the single best resource on AskMe, btw. Best to stay on his good side.

To answer your question: if you told the mechanic that the car needed to pass inspection, then any repairs to get it to pass inspection are appropriate and reasonable, over and above any initial or amended estimates. And $1700 for the age of the vehicle and the locale in which it was driven is cheap like borscht. You were not shafted.
posted by solid-one-love at 3:48 PM on June 15, 2007

From your comment about the serpentine belt, it sounds like there are more things that he says needs to be done. Before you let him do anything else on the car, get a second opinion. I took my Civic in to the dealer and they told me it needed $3500 worth of work; I took it in to a highly-rated mechanic I found on the Car Talk website, and he fixed the urgent, wheels-are-about-to-fall-off stuff for about $500 and explained that the rest could wait. (He was right; I've been driving it for two years, taking it in for occasional check-ups to fix things that have worn further, and it's still running fine.)

I don't know what you can do about the work they've already done that went over your agreed-upon estimate; have you confronted him about this issue? Perhaps the good people at might have suggestions.
posted by fermion at 3:56 PM on June 15, 2007

does a $1700 bill for an $800 estimate sound like "fair" business practice to you?

Okay: yes.
posted by ikkyu2 at 4:01 PM on June 15, 2007

Control arms replaced for inspection? The state inspector or their inspection? Sounds fishy to me. However, you OKed it, so it's too late now. But for next time hit AskMe or the second (fermion) opinion prior to the OK.

If it makes you feel any better, I've known other folks who thought they had a good deal on an older SAAB and ended up just sucking it on repairs.
posted by snsranch at 4:56 PM on June 15, 2007

Okay, you say this:

Personally, I like to know ahead of time what I am paying for and I don't think that is unreasonable.

But you also say this:

I didn't get it checked out by a mechanic

You see how people here might be a bit confused, right? You have no idea what you bought. Admit it. You aren't a mechanic and from the sound of it, don't seem to hold an amateur status when it comes to car repair, so you're a novice. I agree that you should definitely get a second opinion if you really want to, but shocks on Swedish cars are expensive (because they're so freaking complex, and the labor costs associated are ridiculous; it's not the parts that kill you, it's the labor). I hope you paid less that $2000 for the car, and that said, I suggest you dump the car immediately and call it a lesson learned. You'll never know if the car will bleed you dry because you didn't do your homework, and you don't trust the only guy that can save your car (at the moment).
posted by SeizeTheDay at 5:03 PM on June 15, 2007

does a $1700 bill for an $800 estimate sound like "fair" business practice to you?

If it's repairing things that need to be repaired, then yes. Largely this depends on the car in question. I had this happen to me with a Nissan Z. The car was made during a lemon year, and was a particularly bad example of all the things that could go wrong with that model. I ended up shelling out $1300 after a $700 estimate, but every repair made was necessary. Anecdotally, I've heard similar tales of woe about Saabs (my dad had one he loved, but not enough to keep paying the repair bills on).

An estimate is just that: an estimate. You then have the choice of refusing additional repairs.
posted by lekvar at 5:11 PM on June 15, 2007

After looking over the Maine inspection manual: Boy do you live in the wrong state to be buying a high mileage car with no mechanical skills. Try another shop and good luck to you.
posted by IronLizard at 5:24 PM on June 15, 2007

When I take my car in for work, I ask them to jot down the estimate and "not to exceed $X" on one of their notepads & initial it. I have no idea whether this would actually protect me, but I think it scares off anyone who'd be dishonest.
posted by acoutu at 5:26 PM on June 15, 2007

I do the same as acoutu. I make it clear I will not pay for repairs that are not approved by me prior.

$1700 on an $800 estimate does seem out of line to me. Sure, an estimate is just that, but you don't get to more than double it and expect full payment.

Not sure what you can do, perhaps just pay this one off, get the car out of there asap and get your local auto club's recommendations for repair shops. Good luck!
posted by Salmonberry at 5:33 PM on June 15, 2007

Of course, it's really $1700 on a $1200 estimate: $400 of 'stuff' which you pre-approved, then they rang and said "there's also this $800 thing", which you approved at the phone call. They didn't double anything.
posted by jacalata at 6:14 PM on June 15, 2007

As jacalata said: you're paying $1700 on a $1200 estimate, which is completely reasonable, given that the stated intent is to make the car ready for state inspection, and it sounds like Maine is an incredibly strict state. None of these repairs are at all out of the norm for a high-mileage car, especially in a northern state.

Pay for what's been done. Get the car from a mechanic. Ask for their opinion on what else needs to be done to make it inspection worthy, then take it to another mechanic for a second opinion.

If you don't think you've been treated by this mechanic in the way you'd expect, don't go back there. But you've certainly not been ripped off, and I don't think there's a consumer protection law in the land that would help in this case.
posted by jammer at 7:30 PM on June 15, 2007

I was able to locate THIS, if you bought your dirt-cheap car from a used-car dealer:

"9.4. Your Warranty That Your Vehicle Can Pass State Inspection

A warranty is a guarantee. Used car dealers must always guarantee that a used car sold for transportation can pass inspection.10 (A "used" car means a car that either has been once registered or is not covered by a manufacturer's new car warranty. Therefore, a "demonstration" model is technically a new car and carries the added benefits afforded to new cars.)11 Dealers must give you this guarantee in writing.12 This law applies even if you are sold the car "as is." "

Also, you agreed to $800 and they went to $1700 without approval. In my state, that's against the law. The estimate cannot be more than $50 over the actual cost of the repairs agreed to, unless you sign a waiver prior to the work being done. Please check the laws in Maine on repairs to see if you have any recourse.
posted by misha at 7:35 PM on June 15, 2007

Okay, in looking into it further, the laws for Maine require that you put down IN WRITING the limit for what you are willing to pay.

HOWEVER, the mechanic is also required to have THIS sign posted letting you know that, so if he didn't, then you might have a case for not paying the overage. Otherwise, I am afraid you are out of luck.
posted by misha at 7:42 PM on June 15, 2007

When I'm in a location that I don't know very well, I go to a AAA mechanic since I am a AAA member. Their policy is "Written estimates that guarantee repair costs can vary by no more than 10 percent unless authorized by you in advance" Now add this to whatever the tax is in your area and that gives you a variance of more like 15-20% not what you're seeing.

That said, $1700 is high but not terribly crazy and so much hinges on exactly what you told who when. At this point if you're feeling agitated I'd tell them to please not do any more work, that you absolutely can't afford to pay more than $XXXX and thanks for the work they did so far. I find it's really a rare mechanic that is a true ripoff artist and more often than not they just do the work they have to do to solve the problem and aren't sitting there with a stopwatch figuring you'd WANT to get the really broken stuff fixed.
posted by jessamyn at 9:05 PM on June 15, 2007

My mechanic would ALWAYS call before making these kinds of repairs. Whether it's a normal business practice or not, that's what I prefer so I have ended up with respectful people who do that. And guess what? Portland Motor Sales. Ask for John. They're on Washington right when you get off the extension leaving downtown.

Off topic, I think you're getting a little extra ration of crap here because you did something dumb, buying such an old car without a mechanic's review. Especially in Maine where inspection is such a pain in the ass.

Setting that aside I think your frustration is very reasonable, personally.
posted by miss tea at 5:46 AM on June 16, 2007

Sadly, the problem with fixed-hours-per-job is that they sometimes use the car manual's recommended "time". This can be much longer than the true time to perform the work and inflates the mechanic's payment.

The flat rate system is how experienced mechanics make their money; it's how they reap the rewards for their experience. It's also what makes estimates possible. And, sometimes, it works in the customer's favor. One thing you can do is call another mechanic, ask them how many flat rate hours it takes to fix the things these guys have fixed on your car, and see if they're scamming you there.
posted by smorange at 8:33 AM on June 16, 2007

Here's the thing about the flat-rate system: You take your car into Joe's Garage. Joe has five mechanics, ranging from an old guy who can rebuild engines in his sleep to a new guy that's got good mechanic skills, but who has only been doing this for a year or so. You need a clutch. The book says 8 hours. The experienced guys can do it in 5-6 hours, since they've done this type of repair hundreds of times before. For the new guy, it may take 10. Using the flat rate system, it doesn't matter which mechanic you get; you'll pay the same and not be penalized for a slower tech.
posted by azpenguin at 8:52 AM on June 16, 2007

This is late but, again, I wanted to follow up on what's been happening.

I'll state, again, that I was aware that I was buying an old car and that there would be things wrong with it. I identified many of the problems ahead of time (brakes, wiper motor, etc) and expected them. The one thing I did not notice in my own perusal of the car was the front suspension issues. The front end felt fairly solid and not unsafe and I'm pretty sure an expert could have missed noticing this unless it was up on a lift and a careful inspection was made.

Nevertheless, when I got to the shop today the total bill was $1650 so far. This included the wiper motor which I specifically told them not to install and had expected to increase the bill. At the end of the day, with all the work they did - CV boot, bushings, control arms, coil springs, wiper motor, oil, filter, plugs, etc, etc, I can see now that they were definitely fair with me (provided it all needed replacement). They definitely did what they could with used parts, putting in $99 used parts where it would have been $250 new.

I am not unhappy to pay this amount.. At the end of the day I just felt that the practice of giving an $800 estimate for a $1700 bill wasn't quite the way *I* would run my business - how much does a phone call cost them?? And I don't think I need to be an expert mechanic to expect fair practices from my mechanic.

To be clear, I authorized $400 of work. They did not DO $400 of work. When they called to quote $800, I was at about $100 of work thus far. Therefore, the $1700 they told me was almost a 100% doubling of the estimate. I also don't think them asking if I wanted them to replace the wiper motor AFTER they actually replaced it is very fair business practice.

Again, none of this is really about the money as much as it is about having a mechanic that is clear and upfront about the work that needs to be done, will eventually need to be done, and how much those things will cost.

At the end of the day I think they were very fair with part costs and cutting corners on the hourly rate. I will stop complaining now. Thanks again, guys!
posted by mbatch at 11:16 AM on June 18, 2007

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