Shops charge in different ways. Some charge by the hour, and however long it takes to fix your car, that's how long it takes. It's the labor costs that'll getcha in the end. Other shops might charge a flat rate per job regardless of how long it takes, which could work out in the customer's favor. Your garage might charge you a flat rate for a repair job based on an estimated hourly rate of how long it should normally take to do that job, plus parts and labor, of course. They might budget an hour to repair your cooling system, for example. Based on that, they might charge $75 to service the cooling system.
That's how much it should cost whether it takes them 50 minutes or an hour and a half. In these cases, your mechanic is probably following what's called a "labor guide," Some after market data suppliers, like Chilton, Mitchell or Alldata, publish such labor guides. Mechanics sometimes rely on them for technical information, in the same way that a surgeon might consult a guide on surgical procedures to see how long things normally take and, based on that, how much to charge the patient, er, customer.
Dealerships have their own guides. Because they have the specialized knowledge and the proper tools, they should be able to do a specific repair job in less time than it would take the mechanics at an independent garage. However, specialized knowledge and tools cost money too, so the price of a certain job will probably vary greatly depending on whether you get it done at the garage or the dealership. Furthermore, certain repairs might still be under warranty depending on the age of your car.
Just to give you an idea of what your average mechanic is up against, consider his overhead costs. Most mechanics are always updating and investing in their toolboxes to make sure they're equipped with all the latest tools necessary to fix your car and all the new models that come out every year. Indeed, when a manufacturer comes out with a new part, a mechanic often needs to buy a specific tool to repair that part. That's the kind of thing he'll take into account when deciding how much to charge.
My momma told me ya better shop around
So how do you make sure you're getting the best possible price for a repair job? A lazy car owner might end up paying an unnecessarily high price for a job if all he does is leave his car with the first clean garage he finds. You've got to do the footwork. Again, don't just toss the mechanic your keys. Get an estimate on a job and then hit the pavement. Take the estimate away with you and call around to or visit other garages. Get a second opinion, and see if you can get the job done more cheaply somewhere else. But don't stop there. Take your new estimate back to the first guy and see if he'll either match the new price or go even lower.
This is a good policy when shopping for anything, by the way, not just car repairs. Keep in mind, though, that cheapest isn't always best. Use your judgment. If the shop is offering you a rock-bottom price, but you don't trust the look or feel of the place, it may be better to pay a little more for some peace of mind.
It's a tough call: sometimes a mechanic is actually looking out for your best interests, which might include trying to save you money. We're selfless that way... and we'd love to have you come back to our place again, so we want to make sure you're satisfied. But you have to think things through, as well.
The benefit of shopping around
Say you need a timing belt, but on your car the timing belt also drives the water pump. Your mechanic might recommend that you change the water pump and the oil seals along with the belt. You might feel that's unnecessary, mainly because you don't want to pay all that money right now. Think about it, though, because your mechanic just might be right. If all you fix is the belt, and then six months later the water pump goes, you'll end up having the whole job done all over again, which will cost you more in the end. In certain cases it might seem like we're scamming you by trying to get you to fix something that ain't broke. But we might really be trying to save you trouble down the road.
It's sometimes smarter to do a whole job while you're there at the garage, especially if it's only a question of paying for the part, with the bulk of the labor already being done.
Grouping repairs together saves on labor. But you can also try bargaining with your mechanic. Mechanics in some small independent places will do it. If you have a lot of repairs, or a big job, see what happens if you ask for a discount on the parts (mark-up value). You could try to bargain on the labor, too, but start with the parts.
Specialists and generalists
Some car owners become comfortable with a mechanic and only ever go to the one guy, whether it's for regular maintenance or special jobs such as mufflers or brakes. But there are many specialty shops out there that only do one kind of job, such as fixing and replacing mufflers or brakes. These guys are specialists, so you know they do these specific jobs right. Your corner mechanic is more like a GP. I know, I know: again with the medical references. But the principle really is the same. There are also transmission and differential specialists, engine-rebuilding specialists, and body shops.
Your corner mechanic can probably get all of these things done for you if you ask him to, or if you just don't have the time or the inclination to shop around for a specialist. He doesn't want to lose you as a customer, so he'll take your job. But since he's a generalist, he might not have the specific tools or know-how for certain jobs. He might not even want to occupy one of his bays with a big-ticket job, so he may outsource the job to someone else. But that won't save you any money, if that's your goal. But you might save money if you do the footwork. First, just get out there and find a specialist. Then get estimates, haggle, shop around, and you might be able to save yourself some dough.
Checklist: Bargain shopping
If you're looking to get the best price possible for your repair, consider the following:
• Shop around (don't take the word of one garage as gospel).
• Get estimates (they make great ammunition when it comes to the next step).
• Haggle (you'd be surprised at how much is negotiable).
• Hire a specialist (he may know the car better and take less time to do the repair).
• Leave your vehicle at the shop (you might be able to work out a deal if you can leave your car longer and your mechanic can work on your job around others).
Excerpted from Clueless About Cars by Lisa Christensen. Copyright 2004 by Lisa Christensen. Excerpted, with permission by Key Porter Books All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.