Consumers love their cars, but repairing a vehicle is something consumers would like to avoid. Vehicle repairs put the driver at the mercy of the repair shop. Our primary role in the repair process is to hope mechanics are honest and that we get a fair price. For auto repair facilities, not all repairs produce the same profit margins. Just as desserts often mean higher profit margins for restaurants, some repairs mean big money for automobile businesses. Here's what you should know to avoid paying too much for maintaining your car.
Just as gasoline produces very little profit at a gas station, express oil change businesses make very little money on the oil change. Gasoline and oil changes are loss leaders. They're designed to get you into a shop where you can be sold more profitable services. While your oil is changed, the sales associates will offer to change your air filter, perform a transmission fluid change and do a variety of other more profitable services in the hopes of increasing the profit margin. Services like an air filter change are easy to do yourself. Having your oil changed at an express oil change business is cheaper than at the dealership, but say no to the extras. Remember, newer cars don't need an oil change every 3,000 miles. A quick look in your owner's manual will likely reveal an interval of 7,500 miles or more.
Asking a mechanic for a tune up is like going to a restaurant and ordering dinner but not specifying a menu item. Each repair facility has a different repair package it calls a tune up. If you blindly sign up for services, you're at the mercy of the repair shop. It could be a simple spark plug change or a list of repairs, many of which might be unnecessary. New cars are sophisticated, computerized machines. If your car is acting out of the ordinary, have it evaluated instead of asking for a tune up. If your car needs a tune up, ask what is included in the service and ask the shop to include labor, taxes and other charges in the estimate. Some shops may leave out some of the charges to make the price appear lower but later include them on the final bill.
Some mechanics will top off your car's fluids free of charge, but it's more likely that any added fluids will cost you. Topping off many of your vehicle's fluids is easy and cheap. Purchase a gallon of windshield washer fluid for a couple of dollars instead of paying twice that amount for a mechanic to do it. Check your owner's manual for instructions on how to top off some of the common fluids, but don't add anything if you don't feel comfortable. The wrong fluids can cause damage to your car.
For every 30,000 miles you drive, you'll likely need your brakes serviced. For a mechanic, this job often takes less than an hour, but you'll pay for at least one hour of service time. In most cases, a simple brake pad change is all you need. If a shop says that you need additional services, get a second opinion. It's better to take your car to a mechanic you trust instead of responding to the great deal you found in the paper. Often those great deals are loss leaders.
If you purchased a new vehicle from a dealership, the salesperson probably tried to sell you a repair contract that included all necessary maintenance items called for in your owner's manual. According to "MoneyWatch," this is an offer to avoid. Because the cost is built into your loan or lease contract, you're also paying interest on the contract, making it even less valuable. Repair contracts allow dealerships to take your money upfront and perform the service later at a higher cost to you. If you're intent on having a service contract, put the extra monthly payment into an emergency fund of your own and pay for the routine maintenance from that account. You'll likely have money left over in the end.
The Bottom Line
With the price of gas hovering around $4 and repair costs going up, owning a car is expensive. The best way to avoid paying too much for repairs is to educate yourself. According to "MoneyWatch," the cost of dealership repairs are often higher than at independent mechanics, but finding a trustworthy mechanic isn't easy. Ask for recommendations from friends, and look for AAA-approved auto repair facilities.