There is no guaranteed method for protecting yourself from being ripped off by an unscrupulous auto mechanic. However, online car repair estimates can put a repair shop's diagnosis and cost estimate into perspective.
Car repairs are big business. Karin White, research and project specialist for the Automotive Service Association, or ASA, a trade group for independent repair shops in Bedford, Texas, says there are more than 80,000 independent repair shops in the U.S. When specialty stores, gas stations and car dealerships are added, the number of shops performing car repairs jumps to 180,000 establishments.
With so many automotive repair shops fixing cars, there is plenty of opportunity for mischief. For most of us, recognizing a reasonable cost for a car repair is uncharted water. Try figuring out the cost of replacing a worn-out timing belt on a 2005 Honda Accord?
Go online for car repair costs
Although consumers always have the opportunity to use the Yellow Pages and phones to obtain a "second opinion," it is time-consuming. A quicker way is to type "automotive repair estimates" into Google. This will bring up a list of websites that provide ballpark estimates for specific car repairs.
Here are two such sites, but there are more:
RepairPal.com has been active since June 2008 and is accessed by about 22 million visitors annually. According to Chief Executive David Sturtz, the easiest decision regarding your car is to buy it.
"After the purchase, every other decision is the cause of lots of anxiety," Sturtz says. "The original goal of the site was to take all of this technical information that is very messy and make it understandable to your mother."
AutoMD.com went live in January 2010, with 3.5 million unique visitors last year. "The question we asked was: 'How can we empower people to make informed decisions?'" says Brian Hafer, vice president.
What sites offer
Although their methodologies for arriving at estimates differ somewhat, these sites, as well as others, provide:
- ZIP code-specific estimates of almost every repair cost on virtually any car model made in the last 20 years.
- A comprehensive list of repair shops in any given area.
- A way to ask a qualified mechanic specific questions about your car.
RepairPal.com provides a range of estimated car-repair costs. In the case of the Accord timing belt, the range for one ZIP code was $341 to $454. The $113 spread reflects the difference in the cost of original equipment manufacturer, or OEM, parts and less expensive aftermarket parts. It also reflects having the repair performed at a dealership versus an independent shop.
"We accessed several different sources of industry data -- some never accessed before," Sturtz says. "We looked at local parts costs and labor rates, and how labor rates vary by locale and vehicle. We did this for 42,000 ZIP codes."
Using a base-price approach, AutoMD.com provides an estimated lowest do-it-yourself price and lowest shop price. For the Accord timing belt, those estimates were $74 for DIY and $308 for a repair shop, in one ZIP code.
"We have a team of certified technicians who helped us build out the site," Hafer says. "We looked at national and local labor costs. (Cost estimates) also cover OEM and aftermarket parts prices. They are an average."
Some unique Web features
Many car repair estimate sites also offer a unique feature or two. AutoMD.com has a diagnostic tool that helps consumers identify the cause of a problem. "The diagnostic tool is important," Hafer says. "The site makes a logical progression from that to the options available and the costs."
RepairPal.com includes repair notes with its estimates, shop listing information and other related repairs a mechanic might suggest be done with the repair at hand.
"Timing belts and water pumps wear out at about the same rate," Sturtz says. "But if the mechanic suggests replacing the water pump in addition to the timing belt, the customer probably won't trust him. RepairPal will tell you about the water pump in the repair notes."
These sites as well as others provide contact information for nearby repair shops. Unlike the array of shops that Google might list, all the car repair shops on these lists have been researched and actually perform the required repair.
They may not be foolproof, but online car repair estimates can provide some peace of mind.