Skip to main content
Skip to page content

Understanding car repair costs

Understanding car repair costs and car toolsAs someone who makes his living writing about automobiles, I often get asked a question followed quickly by another question. Something like: "Oh, you know about cars... can I ask you a question?” This loaded question then leads into a story about how someone's car or truck went to a mechanic or dealer for repair and whether the price they paid, or are about to pay, was worth the services rendered.

Clear communication
The underlying implication is that most mechanics are somehow crooked, and that there is some sort of bamboozling going on. While there may in fact be some unethical behavior happening in garages and auto shops, this is an unfortunate aspect of any industry. The key to avoiding misunderstanding and unnecessarily high repair bills is communication and common sense.

Parts and labor
One of the major breakdowns between customer and automobile repair occurs when the difference between car parts and labor is not fully understood. While a part may cost but a few bucks, removing and replacing it may take a considerable amount of time and thought.

A cylinder head gasket is a perfect example. The cylinder head gasket itself can cost less than $20. Replacing it can cost 100 times as much. The problem is that the engine must be disassembled to replace it. Replacing a head gasket is literally automobile head surgery. A good mechanic also will look for the underlying reasons the cylinder head gasket failed in the first place and inspect for the kinds of engine damage that can be caused in the wake of such a failure. Since malfunctioning cooling systems are the number one cause of head gasket failure, it will also likely mean other work will be required.

Add and subtract
Another piece to the puzzle is that all vehicles are not created equal. The amount of time required to replace the heater core or air-conditioning compressor on one vehicle may be one hour, whereas the same job on another vehicle can require many more.

A reputable auto repair shop or dealer will be able to calculate the number of hours required to perform a repair, combine it with the price of a part and give the customer the best possible estimate on the final cost of the repair bill before the work is done. Time estimates are standardized by the task at hand and by make and model of automobile. Even with standardization, unforeseen problems can arise, and the original estimate can change. The drawback to standardization is that the customer doesn't get reimbursed if the job takes less time than estimated.

Writing up service
The first person the customer comes into contact with at the dealer or shop is known as the service writer. If a customer has an air conditioner that blows hot or a radiator that doesn't cool, the service writer is the first person to hear about it. The service writer then communicates to the service department what the problem is. A good service writer can listen to the needs of the customer and communicate these needs to the mechanics.

With the sheer number of different problems that can occur with an automobile, the service writer has a tough job. The customer – by clearly communicating with the service writer about the automotive problem – takes the first step in getting the repair completed to satisfaction. When talking to the service writer about an auto repair, try to communicate as clearly as possible what the problem is.

Beware repair
If a breakdown of communication begins even before the job starts, the best path to take is another. Seeking a second opinion is common with medical issues and is also a good path to satisfactory auto repair. Trust is built on communication. If the service writer or mechanic cannot clearly communicate what the solution to your vehicle problems may be, then move on until you find someone who can.

Even with the good majority of service writers, mechanics and auto repair shops doing honest work, there will always be a few shops out there attempting to cash in on unnecessary repairs. The way to avoid these shops is to stick to only the scheduled car maintenance outlined by the people that manufactured the automobile. Steer clear of snake oil and miracle cures promising everlasting engines or untold improvements in mileage and performance.