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By Don Patten

Don Patten is a leading expert in automotive education. His text book Automotive Service Basics published by Prentice Hall is used in automotive instruction courses world wide.

What are the costs involved when you need the services of an automotive repair technician? We know these people need enough profit to stay in business. So what can you expect when you need their services?

First, you need to pin point the problem. This alone may require the services of a repair technician. Many times you can guess or the problem is obvious if the car won't start or the brakes fail. But sometimes the problem is beyond the realm of guesswork such as an intermittent skip in the engine. So the question to ask is, "Do you give free estimates?" If not, then there will be a price for the estimate. If it takes some time and the use of special equipment, there may be an additional fee. Is it worth it to pay for an estimate? Since the technician is planning on selling you the repair job after the estimate he will, in most cases, try to give you an accurate appraisal of the damage.

You now have an idea of what has happened and an estimate for the cost of repair. At this point you have to be careful. If you don't know anything about the internal parts of your automobile, it is easy for the technician to oversell you or overprice the cost of repair. Remember, you are looking for information at this point and are not obligated to continue further if you feel the price is more than expected. Get a written estimate of what parts are needed, the cost of the parts, and the labor cost to install the parts.

You have some options at this point. If your vehicle is safe to drive, you can get a second opinion. You can ask for factory rebuilt parts rather than new parts. You can ask for used parts. A used windshield with no defects is just as good as a new one. A used transmission from a damaged low mileage vehicle would be as good as any new transmission a dealer parts man has for sale. Remember, we all drive used parts and our car is a used car when we leave the sales lot. The used parts places also have warranties on their products. Most people simply don't know what parts and services are available to them and they accept estimates that are too high.

My neighbor's car recently experienced an alternator failure. I called several parts places and received prices from $125.00 down to $85.00 for the same product. We also decided to replace the belt. The cost of both items was less than the quoted price of the alternator if we had purchased the first one quoted. An acquaintance of the family also had an alternator fail. She lives over one hundred miles from me and had a local shop do the work. She got a bill for $253 dollars. It takes about ten minutes to install the alternator on her car. Subtracting the cost of the alternator, and I am sure he got a better price than $85 dollars, still leaves $168 dollars. $168 dollars for ten minutes work is over one thousand dollars per hour. Wow! How easy it is to be taken if you are at the mercy of those who have the knowledge and equipment. I may have been able to help from long distance if I had been consulted. When distance is involved the solution gets harder.

All shops have a posted labor rate. The problem is the failure of the customer to get an estimate on how much repair time is needed to complete the task. This information is computerized and at the touch of a button, the estimator can tell how much time is allotted to fix any problem. By sticking to this system, both the technician and the customer get a fair price and if the technician can fix the problem faster, he gets to keep the difference.

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Here is a great deal! If you have a problem which is not an emergency, set up an appointment at one of the automotive repair programs at a local technical school or high school and have them locate the problem and suggest some solutions. All they usually charge is a small lab fee and most of the time it is free. Many times they stop short of fixing the problem if it is out of sequence with their normal training but you are looking for information so you can make wise choices. They can also recommend some repair shops that specialize in fixing any problem they find and offer an opinion on what the total parts and labor should cost. This is valuable information you can use to save both time and money.

Highly recommended repair shops are usually fast and accurate. This alone saves money on labor costs and saves on dissatisfaction. Shoddy repairs can quickly raise the original repair costs out of sight. You end up having to find someone else to repair your vehicle right and repair the damage done by the last shop. The new shop can not be expected to cut their rates because of something they had no control over.

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