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Saving on Car Repair
Car repairs never come at a good time. They can mess up your commuting plans, your carpool, your evening out. They can also mess up your budget. But there are some things you can do to keep costs down.
Start with keeping up on routine maintenance. Getting your oil and other fluids changed, checking belts and hoses, keeping your tires properly inflated all help keep trouble at bay. Read your owner’s manual, and do what it says.
Still, you almost certainly will have car trouble at some point, no matter how vigilant you are. The Federal Trade Commission, along with the National Association of Attorneys General and the American Automobile Association, have some tips for when that happens.
First, be observant. Know how your car drives and sounds, and pay attention to anything that seems unusual. Use your:
Other possible signs of trouble are shimmying or pulling to one side when driving, or an unusually rough ride. In general, be aware of any way your car is performing out of the ordinary.
- Eyes. If you see fluid under your car, especially if is a regular puddle, that could spell trouble. If the fluid is clear and if you have been running your air conditioning, you probably are looking at normal condensation from the A/C. But yellowish green, pastel blue or florescent orange fluid could mean you have an overheated engine or an antifreeze leak. Dark brown or black fluid could mean you are leaking oil. And red, oily fluid usually signals a transmission leak.
- Nose. If you smell something like burning toast, you may have an electrical problem. If you smell rotten eggs, you could have a problem in the catalytic converter. Thick, dark smoke may signal an oil leak. A gas smell after a failed start may just mean you flooded the engine, but if it continues, you may have a fuel leak. An acrid chemical smell may come from overheated brakes or clutch, and a sweet, steamy smell may mean you are overheating or losing coolant.
- Ears. You know how your engine sounds when it is running well. Unusual sounds may mean you have a problem. Squealing can signal problems with a belt. A click can mean anything from a loose wheel cover to a stuck valve lifter. A screech can mean you need brake maintenance. A low rumble can indicate a problem with the exhaust system or a worn universal joint. A ping sound probably means you are using the wrong grade of gasoline. A rhythmic pounding sound can come from a worn crankshaft or bearings, or transmission problems. And a random clunking sound can mean that part of your suspension or exhaust system has come loose.
So what if you need to see a mechanic? How do you find one who won’t rip you off? If your car is under warranty, you probably need to take it to a dealer. But what if it is out of warranty? Then you need to find a good mechanic you can trust.
Ask around. Talk to your friends and colleagues. You probably will find someone who can give you a recommendation. When you call the mechanic, mention the name of the person who referred you; in addition to breaking the ice, it lets the mechanic know that if you are not pleased with the service, he could lose two customers instead of one.
Check to make sure the mechanic will work on your car. Some mechanics specialize in certain types of cars, such as imports. Ask about any licenses or certifications the mechanic has. Ask him about his experience, both in general and on your type of car. You might want to check with the Better Business Bureau to see if there have been any complaints filed against him.
Ask him how he prices repairs. Some mechanics, especially those at auto dealers, charge an hourly rate based on an independent estimator’s statement of the time the repair should take. If your repair does not actually take that long, you still pay the fee based on the estimate. Of course, if it takes longer, you usually don’t pay more. And you know what you will have to pay up-front. Other mechanics charge an hourly rate based on the time the mechanic spends actually working on the problem.
Get a written estimate before any work is done. In addition to the price, the estimate should explain what work will be done, what parts will be used and whether the parts will be new, rebuilt or salvage. The estimate also should say that the mechanic will contact you before doing any work not expressly laid out in the estimate. You and the mechanic should each sign the estimate, and you should take a copy with you.
Ask the mechanic how he expects to be paid. How much, if any, of the repairs will be covered by warranty? Can you use a check or credit card to pay for the rest?
When your repairs are done, you should receive a paper from the mechanic documenting the work that was done, the parts that were used and the amount that was paid. If there is any warranty on the parts or labor, that also should be spelled out.
Finally, if you think the mechanic did a good job at a fair price, keep his card. You probably will need him again. And you can give his name to your friends when they have car trouble.