5 steps to cutting a big car repair bill

Assessing car damage
  • Make sure to get plainspoken descriptions of suggested repair.
  • Ask about shop's qualifications and look for certificates, awards.
  • Get estimates in writing and ask for second opinion.

Every day, hundreds of car owners take their Toyota, Ford, Lexus or other brand to the local auto shop and receive unexpected, expensive news: They need major car repair work that will cost several hundreds -- or thousands -- of dollars.

What should they do next?

In a perfect world, that car repair place would be one the consumer trusts, because he or she is familiar with the shop's service, says John Nielsen, director of auto repair and buying services at AAA's national office in Heathrow, Fla.

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"If you visit the same shop regularly for oil changes, tire rotations and other minor maintenance, and have an established relationship with them, then you could approve their estimate with confidence," he says.

But if you're like many drivers, you probably don't have that sense of trust in your local mechanic's shop. In such situations, it's important to weigh all options before making an expensive decision.

Here are five potential money-saving steps auto experts say car owners should take after they receive a major car repair estimate.

No. 1: Ask probing questions.

Owners should ask for details about proposed repairs, and keep asking until they fully understand the services they'd be paying for, Nielsen says.

"Get in the habit of asking questions by using the phrase, 'Help me understand,'" he says. "Make sure the adviser walks you through all the problems."

Dana TePoel is the owner of Lake Arbor Automotive & Truck in Westminster, Colo. He says that good service advisers should be able to answer complicated technical questions in easy, straightforward terms.

If a vehicle has a bad sensor in its exhaust system, for example, the provider needs to speak plainly about what's malfunctioning and how it affects the car owner.

"The adviser should be able to explain that the sensor is misrepresenting information to your car's computer, and that it could cause your computer to add too much fuel. That would mean something to you, because your car is wasting fuel," TePoel says.

No. 2: Check the shop's qualifications.

Scan the walls of the auto shop to see what certificates and awards the service provider has earned. Awards don't guarantee a shop will provide excellent work 100 percent of the time, but they can show the auto business has made an effort to adopt industry best practices.

For example, the Blue Seal of the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence, or ASE, indicates a business' mechanics have been certified in their areas of expertise.

"It is voluntary, but it provides an avenue for a shop to demonstrate their credibility and competency," TePoel says.


AAA also has an approved auto repair program that regularly monitors auto repair businesses.

"Shops must have a customer satisfaction index of at least 90 percent in order to be invited to participate in the AAA auto repair program," Nielsen says.

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