I've been swindled!
July 30, 2007 2:05 PM   Subscribe

I got ripped off on my car repairs. Help me stop this from happening again!

I was quoted $140 for the replacement of my valve cover gasket set because it was leaking.

Or so they said.

Smoke had been coming out from my hood and I noticed that there was oil on the cover, but the smoke seemed to be coming from behind that. However, the car repair guys said that the valve cover gasket set needed to be replaced and that would stop the smoking.

It turns out it was only "seeping" and not leaking, the gasket set was only worth about $25..and it took them probably 20 minutes to do it.

When I come back they say, oh by the way your power steering hose is leaking. We'll throw that in, along with the gasket set replacement for $220." I balk at that price and say I'll come back because I have an appointment to go to.

Less than a minute after I drive away my car is still smoking! Obviously, the hose was the real problem and the gasket set, though contributing a little bit because of the leakage, wasn't a big deal.

SOO help me avoid this in the future...

I am a 22 year old female and bringing a male with me isn't always an option, though I know that would help.

I called my dad and told him the price they quoted me before I agreed to it and he said it was ok (I guess he was wrong!)

I am looking for advice on ways to appear knowledgeable, things to say at auto shops, common deceptions, and web sites you guys use to find out fair prices for repairs and whatnot...


p.s. Also, should I go back and try and get the hose replaced for free or for really cheap? I was thinking of going back and saying "Look, you didnt fix the problem and you overcharged me. Fix the real problem and we'll call it a day."
posted by PinkButterfly to Travel & Transportation (18 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
to play devil's advocate - just because they fix a leaky seal doesn't mean it'll immediately stop smoking. (i'd be surprised if it did, unless they steam-cleaned the engine). all the oil that's already leaked needs to burn off before it'll stop smoking. this can take a day or two, depending on how much you drive it.
posted by noloveforned at 2:22 PM on July 30, 2007

Response by poster: That's a good point. Thanks.
posted by PinkButterfly at 2:24 PM on July 30, 2007

Were you at the dealer? I'm a 23 year old female, and barring personal recommendations of mechanic shops, I'll only take my car to the dealer. I know they charge more, but I've rarely gotten bad service, and the one time I found something still wrong with my car after I left I brought it back the next day and they fixed it no questions asked.

Additionally, I've found that if I do some research before I go in into what things could possibly be causing whatever problem I'm having just to throw into the conversation, they seem to take me more seriously.

I'm no expert, but for me, just going back to the dealer and saying that they didnt fix the problem I paid them to fix did work, however, I'm not sure what would be the correct next step if they refuse.
posted by wuzandfuzz at 2:26 PM on July 30, 2007

Many mechanics will guarantee their work for a certain amount of time. Find one who does this and has it printed on the receipt, so if you find that the problem was not repaired within whatever the designated amount of time, you can bring it back.

As far as overcharging - there isn't much you can do. Some shops find creative ways to jack up the costs. I like my mechanic in that before starting work, he goes through what all of the parts & labor will cost and gets my approval first.
posted by tastybrains at 2:28 PM on July 30, 2007

Best answer: When you have a car repair done, it should have a warranty.

When they said "here, pay us $140 and we'll fix it" and you did, and they didn't (the car still smokes, after all) they should either fix it or refund your money.

Of course, if the bill says "replace head gasket set" instead of "replace head gasket set to fix engine smoking problem", they could (if they're shady) argue that they never promised you it would fix the smoking. You'd know they were full of it, but you'd have no real recourse to do anything about it.

What probably happened here is this:

1. They made the repair in good faith;

2. They tested the repair and it wasn't fixed;

3. They realized they could either be up-front and eat the gasket labor (but charge you for the parts, which given the cost would have been fair) or tried to hide their mistake by having you pay more money for the actual repair needed. That they chose the latter is what makes them sketchy, not that they made the mistake in the first place.

So what can you do in the future?

1. Go have repairs done at shops that other folks you know frequent and trust, and bring one of those regular customers with you on the first visit to introduce you;

2. When you have a repair ticket written up, make sure it exclusively states the parts being replaced and the problem the replacement is supposed to fix;

3. Get more than one estimate for every repair, ideally three, and don't tell any of 'em what you *think* the problem is, or what someone else told you -- let them figure it out. If you get three estimates and at least two identify the same problem, the likelihood that they've identified the correct issue is higher than a one-off;

4. Request the parts be returned to you, and know what the old parts look like before you ask (even though you'll just dispose of 'em);

5. If the problem is one that could have many causes, your mechanic should be fixing the cheapest thing first -- for instance, a mechanic that says "your starter is bad", charges you for the $$$ replacement, then (when the problem persists) says "maybe it's your battery cable running to the starter" (a $ repair) then he's shady.

6. Befriend someone who knows about stuff like this.
posted by davejay at 2:30 PM on July 30, 2007 [1 favorite]

barring personal recommendations of mechanic shops, I'll only take my car to the dealer.

Be careful about using this as a blanket success method; I've had very good dealership experiences and stuck with 'em, but I've also had very bad experiences and bailed on dealers after the first repair. Like any independent shop, YMMV.
posted by davejay at 2:33 PM on July 30, 2007

from experience, i found a trustworthy, well-reviewed mechanic on yelp.com
posted by gnutron at 2:42 PM on July 30, 2007

4. Request the parts be returned to you, and know what the old parts look like before you ask (even though you'll just dispose of 'em);

I find that mentioning this tends to let them know that I am on the lookout for getting screwed and they seem to be more honest very quickly.

$140 for a valve cover gasket replacement seems reasonable unless you are driving a 20+ year old car. Many new car engine compartments are so tight that it takes a lot of effort to replace simple parts and do simple repairs.
posted by Big_B at 2:57 PM on July 30, 2007

It turns out it was only "seeping" and not leaking, the gasket set was only worth about $25..and it took them probably 20 minutes to do it.

Whether this was the actual problem causing the smoking or the power steering hose was, both got repaired. It sounds that the gasket set needed to be replaced anyway.

I agree with noloveforned. They may have fixed the problem, but that's not going to cause the smoking to stop immediately...there's still oil that needs to burn off. Give it a little time.
posted by C17H19NO3 at 3:14 PM on July 30, 2007

Third noloveforned -- leaking oil takes some time to burn off. Run the car for a long drive and see if the smoking stops. $220 for the valve cover gasket and a new power steering hose is not surprising -- I don't think you've been swindled. What I do when money's tight is make it clear that I'm authorizing either A) a certain amount of money or B) a certain repair. Anything else requires prior approval.
posted by Pantengliopoli at 3:34 PM on July 30, 2007

why do you think $140 for a gasket replacement is unreasonable? it sounds okay to me. gasket cost typically 20-30 bucks. mechanics cost roughly $100/hr these days depending on where you are, and you're talking about

a) inspection and identifying the problem

b) fixing it, which involves removing all the crap from your valve cover (throttle body, egr valve, plug wires, etc etc), unbolting the valve cover, cleaning the mating surfaces of oil, crud and the old gasket sealant, installing the new gasket and then reassembling everything

c) testing it to make sure it works

a competent mechanic should be able to do that quickly, but 30-45 minutes doesn't sound unreasonable and at those rates youre talking about 50-75 bucks. on top of that throw in taxes and whatever other dumbass fees they always nail you with, you get to 140 pretty easily.

also, "seeping" is leaking, and while it means that your car is not going to be undriveable, it is the sort of thing that can cause smoking. it really doesn't sound like you got ripped off at all.
posted by sergeant sandwich at 3:35 PM on July 30, 2007

I'll only take my car to the dealer.

Yeah, that's not always so great.

People take their new cars to the dealer because it is free under warranty or dealer incentives, and keep doing so out of habit.

Other people take particlar makes to the dealer because they can get the parts and everyone else has to wait a week for it to come from Sweden or Germany or wherever, and because it increases the resale value to have a dealer service record for the car.

Finally, some people take their car to the dealer because the dealer gets notifications from the manufacturer about recalls and known issues that indie garages don't get, or at least don't get right away.

But that doesn't mean dealers do better repairs. They do warranty repairs, they do "official" repairs, they get in obscure parts better, and they have information about problems that occur regularly on a particular model, but none of those would have helped you.

One thing reliable about dealer service is that parts and labor will cost more than at an independent garage.
posted by mendel at 3:44 PM on July 30, 2007

flat out- check out the mechanix files on cartalk.com.

I've found three good, honest mechanics there.
posted by filmgeek at 4:10 PM on July 30, 2007

I am looking for advice on ways to appear knowledgeable

Go to an auto parts store and buy the Haines manual for your make and model of vehicle. I know there are nicer manuals but that's what I have for my car. Acquaint yourself with the digram of what's under your hood, and be able to find and identify these thing on your car. If something goes wrong with your car, try to get some general sense of what it might be -- i.e., is the squeaking coming from the brakes, or under the hood? Be able to describe the problem you want fixed with your car.

If you read that manual you might even try things like replacing the valve cover gasket yourself, it takes some time but is not all that hard.

Knowing the right terms to use will also help, some shops will have a monetary difference in the same repair described as "clicks but won't start" and "my car won't work". I'm not sure how you would learn this other than to talk about cars with people.

Actually, bringing a generic male along doesn't help at all in most cases. If you are at a good shop it won't change what they do. If you are at a bad shop it won't change what they do. You need a good mechanic, and if your car needs work often it would be worthwhile to spend some time asking around for one. Use your judgment in taking someone's recommendation.

To compare prices for repairs, call different shops and ask. Know the make, model, and year of your car.
posted by yohko at 4:12 PM on July 30, 2007 [1 favorite]

I found Auto Repair for Dummies to be a worthwhile read, although I haven't finished it. Despite the name, it's more of a primer on how cars work, as opposed to showing you how to do complex repairs.
posted by fogster at 6:25 PM on July 30, 2007

I 2nd Auto Repair for Dummies. It's been invaluable in helping me at least sound knowledgeable about cars. That said, absolutely noting beats a trustworthy mechanic. You must know at least a couple of people with cars...somebody must have a mechanic they are happy with. If not, a half way decent way to take a shot is to look for a locally owned shop with no more than 4 locations that has been in business in the same town for a long time. Bonus points if its family owned and has passed down a generation. Mechanics live on their rep, and if they've been in the same town for a long time with the same name, odds are they are doing right by their customers.

Also, check the local paper archives or website for the annual "best of" issue.

Personally, I've ever had consistently good service from a dealer. YMMV.

BTW, my valve cover gaskets start seeping every two years, and because it's a tranverse mounted V6 - they have to take half the engine apart to get to the back gasket. It's a $400 job. Price wise at least, it sounds like they were being fair.
posted by COD at 6:44 PM on July 30, 2007

Best answer: $140 for a gasket replacement of a $25 gasket isn't an unreasonable price for a mechanic to do it. Is it a simple job? Sure. But as Sarge says, you're paying for more than the 20 minutes time.

Here's the reality of paying to get your car fixed: You're almost always charged their fixed hourly rate for the number of hours the job is estimated to take in the ASE guidelines. On the downside, ASE numbers are inflated, period. They're also calculated based on the average time a job takes, including the times when everything goes wrong, which is where you get the rare upside: if your job turns into a completely pear-shaped fuster-cluck, you shouldn't be charged for those extra hours.

In reality, many shops will try to charge you for all the time when that happens and you just have to negotiate with them. A smart shop is going to eat it on the rare problem because you're not valuable to them as a one-time visitor, you're valuable as a repeat customer.

Being a knowledgeable consumer is useful for dealing with mechanics but you can accomplish the same thing by making it clear you're a careful consumer. You don't need to know cars to ask "why?" when presented with a diagnosis to do a certain thing. You don't need to understand what is likely to be a problem - the hose or the gasket - to respond to the subsequent "well it turned out to be something else" to say "Well, gee, I really feel like you should cut me a deal on the first job since I agreed to it thinking that would solve the problem, based on your advice."

Another good bargaining position here is how busy the shop is. If you rolled in and every mechanic was sitting around with their thumb up their ass then they didn't forgo other paying work - which they wouldn't have to discount - in order to solve your problem. You do run up against their counter-productive reaction which is "I didn't make any other money today, I can't afford to discount this labor!" but you can certainly say "We both know you charged me based on a 1.5h ASE estimate and it was in and out in 30 minutes and you weren't doing anything else anyway. It would go a long way towards convincing me you're on the level if you'd cut this charge to the 1/2 hour you really spend."

Ask question, get explanations. Don't be afraid to tell a mechanic what your priorities are in fixing a car. "I don't care about cosmetic issues" or "I'd rather burn a quart of oil a month at $2 per than spend $200 to fix a problem." are things they don't know unless you tell them. Don't be afraid to demand explanations and if they won't provide them to your satisfaction then vote with your feet and go elsewhere.
posted by phearlez at 9:37 AM on July 31, 2007

Response by poster: Thank you everyone for your advice!
posted by PinkButterfly at 11:24 AM on July 31, 2007

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