A woman happily driving a car. White text says Consumers' Checkbook in the lower right corner.

How To Get a Fair Deal on Auto Repair

If you're trying to keep your old car running, you need a good mechanic. We turned to our friends at Consumers' Checkbook for tips on how to shop for auto repair at a fair price.

New cars continue to be hot commodities. Low inventory and high prices are forcing more people to keep their old cars running a little longer, so having a good mechanic is a high priority.

If your old ride needs some professional maintenance or other repairs, it's important to choose a shop that will give you top-notch service and fair prices.

Review of Auto Repair Shops

Puget Sound Consumers' Checkbook evaluated 389 shops in the Puget Sound area for quality and price. Ratings are based on 19,000 customer survey responses, reviews of consumer-agency complaint records, more than 1,500 price checks by undercover shoppers and other sources. The results? Unfortunately, many repair shops disappoint their customers with poor-quality work, long delays, unnecessary repairs and inaccurate estimates. Fifty-three of the 389 evaluated shops were rated "superior" for the overall quality of work by fewer than 60% of their surveyed customers. But not all shops are lemons. One hundred forty-five were rated "superior" for overall quality by 90% or more of their surveyed customers.

Wide Range of Prices

Checkbook's undercover shoppers found dramatic shop-to-shop price differences for the same work. For example, to replace the water pump for a 2014 Ford Escape, using original equipment manufacturer (OEM) parts, they found prices ranging from $183 to $628 among area shops. Hourly labor rates ranged from $75 to $215.

Getting Quotes

It was surprisingly easy to get price quotes over the phone, so if you know what repairs you need, you can compare prices by calling a few shops for quotes. If you don't know what work is needed, call one or more shops and describe the symptoms — what the car is doing or not doing. Shops might be able to tell you over the phone what's likely to be wrong and quote a price. If so, get quotes from several shops.

When shops can't determine what's wrong with your car based on your description, you'll have to take it in for diagnosis and an estimate. Then, with an estimate in hand, you can check with other shops to see if the shop's price is fair.

Higher Price Doesn't Mean Higher Quality

You don't have to pay more for good service: Checkbook found no relationship between the price shops charge and the quality of their work. In fact, low-priced shops were more likely to receive high marks from surveyed customers than high-priced shops.

Dealers and Non-Dealers

Dealers and independent repair shops have the same access to proprietary knowledge, sophisticated diagnostic software, and high-tech tools. They subscribe to the same databases that provide repair instructions, diagrams and news from manufacturers. That means you can use the same criteria for dealers and non-dealers when comparison shopping for auto repair, but keep in mind that typically, only dealers can take care of your warranty work.

Communication Is Key

With any shop, communication is critical. Here are some tips to make sure the shop knows what you need, and you get the service you're expecting:

  • Describe the problem in writing: Give the shop a detailed written description of your vehicle's symptoms but distinguish between what you know and what you think you know. If you know what needs to be repaired, tell the shop, but don't guess. If you mention a specific problem — say, a bad alternator — the shop might replace a perfectly good alternator (and charge you for it), before fixing what is actually wrong.
  • Speak with a tech: If possible, speak with the repair technician who will be working on your car. Service write-up personnel at large shops often know very little about car repair, and those who do know car repair might not be able to describe your car's symptoms to a repair technician as well as you can.
  • Review estimates: Either get a written estimate in advance or write on the repair ticket that no work is to be done without your approval based on a written estimate.
  • Get a written invoice: Get a written, dated invoice that details charges for parts and labor, and the vehicle's odometer reading (because warranties for repairs are often tied to mileage).
  • Pay by credit card: You can dispute the charges if things go wrong and the shop isn't responsive.
  • Follow-up on problems right away: If the car is still not right when you get it back, immediately inform the shop, preferably in writing.

About Puget Sound Consumers' Checkbook

Puget Sound Consumers' Checkbook and Checkbook.org are a nonprofit organization with a mission to educate and help consumers. Checkbook also evaluates local service providers — home improvement contractors, doctors, dentists, veterinarians, stores and more. It is supported by consumers and takes no money from the companies it evaluates. BECU members can try Consumers' Checkbook for 30 days for free and can get 50% off their annual subscription. You can also see Checkbook's ratings of auto repair shops free through October.