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Auto Body Shops — Ratings of auto body shops on quality and price. Advice on negotiation, insurance claims,
...more (From CHECKBOOK, Spring/Summer 2013)
 
Go to Updated Ratings of 153 Chicago Area Auto Body Shops

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Auto Body Shops

While most auto body shop customers we surveyed rated their shops high for service quality, some didn’t fare as well as others. At the time of our last full, published article, 28 of the 153 shops on our Ratings Tables were rated “superior” for “overall performance” by more than 95 percent of their surveyed customers, while others were rated “superior” by fewer than 65 percent of their surveyed customers. 

When choosing a shop, you want to deal with people who will explain and justify exactly what has to be done. If you will be dealing with an insurance company, an articulate representative at the body shop will be the key to getting all the work you need performed and paid for. 

If there is even a possibility of serious damage to your car, take it to a shop that rates high for quality, and have the insurer send its estimator there. That shop will provide a better evaluation of the damage than an insurance company drive-in appraisal center, and will then serve as your advocate in dealings with the insurance company. 

Since most repairs are paid for by insurance companies, price is less important than quality to most auto body repair customers. The consumer is usually concerned only that the prices are acceptable to the insurer. If the customer is paying for the work, however, price is an important consideration—and we found big shop-to-shop price differences. 

Fortunately, we found no relationship between price and customer satisfaction. Shops with the lowest price index scores actually scored better on customer survey questions than shops with high price index scores. 

Check your car thoroughly before taking it home from the shop. Look and feel whether repaired surfaces are smooth and paint has the proper gloss and color. After a major repair, consider hiring an independent appraiser to inspect the car or taking it to another shop to make sure repairs and replacements of mechanical components and structural elements have been performed correctly. 

How to Get Great Work 

Auto bodywork is difficult to do well. Since any blemish shows on the smooth skin of a car, even ordinary tasks like patching rust spots or blending paint are challenges. Below the surface, precision is equally critical—with less than a sixteenth of an inch of error in the adjustment of a modern car body frame capable of affecting performance. 

Bodywork doesn’t require exacting work standards alone; mechanics also must possess expertise on the properties of metals and plastics; the mechanics of high-tech suspension and steering systems; modern welding methods; the art of paint tinting and blending; how to spot accident-related damage to mechanical, electrical, air-conditioning, and other systems; and much more. 

To find a shop that will provide top-quality repairs, check several points. 

Ratings from Customers 

Our Ratings Tables indicate how Chicago area body shops were rated by their customers. We survey area consumers (primarily CHECKBOOK and Consumer Reports subscribers) and ask them to rate shops they’ve used as “inferior,” “adequate,” or “superior” on questions such as “doing work properly,” “promptness,” “letting you know cost early,” “advice on service options and costs,” and “overall performance.” Our Ratings Tables report the percent of each shop’s surveyed customers who rated it “superior” (as opposed to “inferior” or “adequate”) on each of these questions. The table also reports the percent of surveyed customers who rated each shop “adequate” or “superior” (as opposed to “inferior”) for “overall performance.” (Click here detailed information about our survey and other research methods.) 

Many of the shops were rated quite high by their customers. At the time of our last full, published article, 28 of the 153 shops were rated “superior” for “overall performance” by more than 95 percent of their surveyed customers. But at some shops, things don’t go so well. Some shops were rated “superior” overall by fewer than 65 percent of surveyed customers, with customers often complaining about delays and shoddy work. 

Complaint Records 

In addition to ratings from customers, our Ratings Tables show counts of complaints on file with the Consumer Protection Division of the Office of the Attorney General for a recent two-year period, and complaint rates relative to the volume of work shops do. For more information on reported complaint counts and rates, click here

Communication with Your Insurer 

There’s one important quality factor you can judge for yourself when choosing a shop: Can the shop make an articulate case to an insurance company for the repairs you need? Does the shop provide a clear estimate, and can its representative explain and document the need for each element of the job? If so, chances are good that the shop will get your insurance company to pay for all needed work. 

Experience with Your Model of Car 

Most good body shops are capable of repairing a wide variety of cars. But it can’t hurt to find out if the shop has experience working on yours. Even some highly popular domestic car models are now made with aluminum body components that require expertise and special welding equipment to install. 

Source of Parts 

Shops can use new original equipment manufacturer (OEM) parts, aftermarket parts from independent parts manufacturers, or used parts. OEM parts are usually the most expensive option, which is why insurers often push shops to use less-expensive aftermarket or used parts. 

There is some concern over the quality of non-OEM aftermarket parts. For many years, aftermarket parts from many manufacturers often didn’t fit correctly. Some were already rusting when they arrived at the shop, and often they developed rust holes within a year of use. 

In recent years, the quality of many aftermarket parts has improved and in some cases they serve as acceptable substitutes for OEM parts. These improvements are in large part due to the establishment by auto insurers of the Certified Automotive Parts Association (CAPA), an independent testing organization. Manufacturers can seek CAPA certification for individual parts by submitting them to CAPA for testing; if a part meets CAPA standards, it will bear a CAPA certification label indicating that it is of comparable—or superior—quality to its OEM counterpart. Unfortunately, less than one-fourth of parts produced by aftermarket parts manufacturers are CAPA-certified, and quality varies considerably among the non-certified parts. 

Body shop owners told us that the pros and cons of aftermarket parts have not changed much in recent years. They generally prefer OEM parts, and complain that many aftermarket parts are made of lighter-weight metal, have surfaces improperly prepared to ensure paint adherence, and fit poorly, among other problems. In many cases, the shop can make adjustments to correct unsatisfactory parts and absorb the labor costs of the extra work. Good shops simply reject any parts that are not acceptable. One shop owner told us he rejects about 20 percent of the aftermarket sheet metal (fender, hood, etc.) parts he receives, either because of defects or because of poor fit, compared to rejecting less than five percent of OEM parts. 

While shop owners usually have no difficulty returning ill-fitting parts and getting insurers to then pay for OEM parts, such problems can delay repairs. Sometimes the poor fit is not discovered until after considerable work has been done—for example, after a fender has been mounted and a headlight doesn’t fit properly. 

Used parts usually aren’t a problem, as long as they fit well and aren’t rusted or dented; if you are paying for repairs yourself and a used part will save you considerable money, there’s no reason not to accept it. 

Illinois law requires shop estimates to disclose which parts are aftermarket or used parts. If aftermarket or used parts are to be used, ask for a written guarantee for the part—and the labor to install a replacement—if the part proves to be defective during the life of the car. If aftermarket parts are to be used, insist that your body shop (and the insurance company, if applicable) use CAPA-certified parts, and request the CAPA label that documents certification. 

If you will be getting either aftermarket or used parts, you have an extra reason to be vigilant about quality: Make sure you are dealing with a high-quality shop that will not install inferior or ill-fitting parts, and be extra careful in checking out the quality of completed repairs. 

Certifications 

The National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (ASE), a nonprofit organization that certifies auto mechanics, also tests and certifies auto body technicians. ASE’s Collision Repair and Refinish test series evaluates mechanics on five types of work: painting and refinishing; nonstructural analysis and damage repair; structural analysis and damage repair; mechanical and electrical system repair; and damage analysis and estimating. 

To become ASE-certified, a technician must pass one or more of the collision repair exams and present proof of two years of relevant work experience. Those who pass the three collision repair tests plus the painting and refinishing test become ASE-certified Master Collision Repair/Refinishing Technicians. To remain certified, technicians must be retested every five years, which forces them to keep up with changing technology. 

Many shops display plaques bearing the names of their ASE-certified technicians and dates of certification. To check for certification if you see no such plaque, ask to see a technician’s credentials. 

We asked each shop if it employed at least one ASE-certified technician. It turns out that shops employing certified technicians do not have higher customer satisfaction levels than shops with no certified technicians—which is not surprising since the proportion of certified technicians at most shops is low. Nonetheless, we still believe it’s worth requesting that a certified technician work on your car. Among the shops on our ratings table, repair prices at shops with certified technicians were comparable to the prices of shops with no certified technicians. 

The ASE Blue Seal of Excellence Program recognizes shops at which at least 75 percent of technicians are ASE-certified and at least one mechanic is certified in each area of service the shop offers. Blue Seal shops are reevaluated annually to determine if they still qualify for certification. Look for an ASE Blue Seal of Excellence plaque at a shop you are considering for repair work. To find Blue Seal shops, check www.ase.com

Also ask to have your vehicle repaired by a technician who has completed training offered by I-CAR (Inter-Industry Conference on Auto Collision Repair), a not-for-profit organization comprised of body shop owners, insurance companies, automobile manufacturers, and parts suppliers. I-CAR offers an eight-part collision repair program, which includes courses on identifying and analyzing damage, welding, straightening techniques, replacement of structural parts, restoring corrosion protection, suspension, steering, alignment, plastic repairs, glass replacement, aluminum repair, and working with electrical parts. 

I-CAR awards its Gold Class Professionals designation to businesses that have met a specified level of training. To find a Gold Class Professionals repair shop, check the directory on I-CAR’s website (www.i-car.com). 

We asked each shop if it employed at least one technician certified for completing one or more I-CAR training courses. As with ASE, shops that employed I-CAR-trained technicians did not receive higher customer ratings than shops with no I-CAR-trained mechanics on staff. 

Protections 

Ask the shop to show you proof that it carries a current liability insurance policy and that it is bonded. 

Also, look around the property to make sure your car will be secure while stored there. 

How to Avoid Paying Too Much 

Since most repairs are paid for by insurance companies, for most auto body repair customers price is less important than quality. The consumer ordinarily is concerned only that a shop’s prices are acceptable to the insurer. For work paid for by the customer, however, price is an important consideration. Our Ratings Tables show our ratings for price for each shop that was evaluated in our last full, published article. 

Comparing prices for anything takes time and effort, but it is especially difficult when it comes to bodywork. In most cases, a shop must see the car to make a proper estimate. 

When a specific part has to be replaced and no other work is required, you can compare prices by phone. If your car needs a new bumper, for example, you can call around with its make, model, and year, and most shops will give you an estimate. But the shop will base the estimate on the assumption that there is no other damage—no bent bumper mounts, for instance. You can also get phone estimates on an all-over paint job, barring any bodywork. 

We called shops and asked for their estimates on specific repairs of this type. Our researchers called as consumers who would be paying out-of-pocket, and made it clear that they would definitely bring in their cars to take advantage of the quotes they were given. We used the prices gathered this way to compute the price index scores reported on the ratings table for firms. Based on two or three quotes from each shop, the price index scores show how each shop’s prices compared to the average price quoted for the same repairs. For instance, if two shops quoted on the same repairs, and one shop has a price index score of $110 while a second shop has a score of $100, this means that the first shop’s quotes averaged 10 percent higher than the second shop’s. 

The price index scores probably vary less than if we had obtained quotes on more complex jobs for which the shops could justify higher prices by claiming superior workmanship. Also, shops’ relative price levels were not consistent. In many cases, shops with a relatively low price on one job had high prices on other jobs. So while the price index scores are not as good a predictor as we would like, shops with low price index scores are reasonable candidates for you to start with. Also, if you like one of these shops based on our quality indicators, its low price index score may give you a leg to stand on if an insurance claims adjuster says the shop is too expensive. 

We found no relationship between price and customer satisfaction. Shops with the lowest price index scores actually scored better on our customer survey questions than the shops with high price index scores. 

Our Ratings Tables also show the labor rate quoted by each shop for auto bodywork (rates might be different for painting or frame straightening). The labor rates range from $45 to $55 per hour. 

Table 1—Low, Average, and High Prices Quoted by Shops for Illustrative Auto Bodywork

Low, Average, and High Prices Quoted by Shops for Illustrative Auto Bodywork1
Description of jobLow priceAverage priceHigh price
Replace the passenger side front fender on a 2010 Chrysler Town & Country$500$804$1,200
Replace the front bumper cover on a 2008 Toyota Camry$500$762$1,000
Replace the trunk lid on a 2009 Honda Accord$764$1,100$1,500
1 The descriptions of repairs are summaries; shops were given additional, detailed instructions. Although our researchers attempted to get quotes for exactly the same job from each shop, in some cases shops may have intended to do different work or use different parts.

Dealing with Your Insurer and Your Shop 

Choosing a good shop is an important step toward obtaining quality service, but certainly not the only one. How you deal with your shop and, when you’re involved in accidents, with your insurer are equally important. 

The Insurer 

If your repair will be paid for by your insurance or another party’s insurance (as is more than 80 percent of all bodywork), make sure the insurance company doesn’t cut corners. Your shop can be an expert ally in this effort, but you yourself must make the right moves. 

Always report an accident as soon as possible. If your car suffers only minor damage, and you are certain there are no structural or other safety-related problems, follow the instructions of the responsible insurance company. You probably will be asked to use a drive-in claims center that will provide an authorized repair-cost figure and the names of body shops willing to make the repairs for that amount. Using a drive-in service is convenient and should be satisfactory when there is only cosmetic damage. 

Some insurers offer another option: Take your car to a company-designated shop and have the repairs made with no estimate. This can be a big timesaver for you and the company, and, again, an acceptable arrangement if you need only minor repairs. 

But if there is even a possibility of more serious damage, take your car directly to the body shop of your choice and tell the insurer to send its estimator there. For serious repairs, you need the shop to advocate for quality. Don’t count on your insurance company to look out for your interests. Also, bringing your car to a body shop rather than an insurance company’s drive-in appraisal center allows the company’s adjuster to make a thorough inspection for hidden damage. 

The disadvantage of taking your car to your own shop rather than to the insurance company’s drive-in center or its selected repair facility is that you might have to wait a few days for the company’s adjuster to get to your shop. In fact, some companies threaten delays as a way to force you to do what they want. But don’t accept a delay without protest; if a company representative can’t promise to send an adjuster out within a few days, appeal to higher levels in the company. If you are still dissatisfied, write a letter to the company demanding immediate service and call the Division of Insurance of the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation at 312-814-2420. 

If your car must be towed, a drive-in appraisal center is not really an option. Have it towed to the shop of your choice and let the shop pay the towing charges, which they can include in the final repair bill. Also, find out how much the shop charges for storage in case you must later take the car elsewhere for service. If the other driver’s insurer will be paying for repairs, let it know that you plan to rent a car and submit a claim for rental expenses; that often expedites service. 

Regardless of where the appraisal is done, the insurer may offer less than your shop’s estimate and suggest shops that will make the repairs for its price. You then have three choices: Take your car to one of the insurer’s shops; leave the car at your shop and pay the difference out of your own pocket; or leave the car at your shop and dispute the insurance company’s offer. 

If there is a dispute, it is very important to understand where your shop and the insurer differ. Ask the shop to explain exactly why its estimate is higher; the difference might represent work that doesn’t matter to you. For example, the shop may insist that certain required parts be new instead of used, as directed by the insurer. If safety is not at issue, the fight may not be worth the effort. 

If you can’t live with the insurer’s estimate and your claim is on your own policy, check the policy for an arbitration provision. Arbitration can be time-consuming (meaning you’ll probably have to pay repair costs yourself while arbitration proceeds), but it gives you a good chance to get a fair shake. 

Finally, if your policy contains no arbitration clause, or you are claiming against another driver’s company, you can take your claim to court. For some problems, you can also get help by complaining to the Division of Insurance of the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation at 312-814-2420. 

The Shop 

Once you and your insurer agree on an estimate, authorize the shop to make repairs only up to the amount of the estimate. If the shop later discovers hidden damage, it can renegotiate with you and your insurer for a higher price. 

When the shop tells you your car is ready, inspect it carefully—by eye and by touch. Examine most carefully the following— 

  • Dent and rust removal. There’s more than one way to fix a dent. A good shop will remove a dent leaving a nearly smooth surface and apply only a thin skin of plastic filler to completely even it out. Poor shops will fill in dents with a lot of plastic filler. Although the filler hardens and can be smoothed out to look like metal after being painted, the hardened plastic is brittle and may fall out or crack after another impact. Also, thick plastic patches tend to form webs of hairline cracks, which show through the paint after a few years. 
  • Good shops also carefully remove all rust before patching rust spots. A little remaining rust will spread rapidly. 
  • While it’s hard to tell how a shop did its dent and rust spot repairs, you will be able to tell whether the shop had done careful work. Examine repaired areas closely by eye and hand. If you find uneven spots, tell the shop to do the work again. 
  • Corrosion protection. The components of most cars are made of galvanized steel, which is steel coated with layers of rust-resistant zinc. But welding, cutting, and grinding galvanized steel can remove the protective zinc coating, leaving the area susceptible to corrosion; shops should re-treat these areas with a protective coating before painting. Depending on what work the shop needs to perform, it should apply an etch primer, epoxy primer, or weld-through primer before painting the area. 
  • Although this is a job some shops try to skimp on, quality shops will do it the right way. The problem is that once your car is painted, you won’t be able to tell if the shop had correctly applied corrosion protection. One strategy is to make sure paintwork is covered by a manufacturer’s lifetime warranty. All major paint manufacturers provide lifetime product warranties; if a shop has failed to properly apply corrosion protection and the area begins to rust, the warranty will let you have the work redone at a shop of your choice. 
  • Painting. It’s easy to spot most paint problems. If paint is sprayed on too thickly, or if the mixture used is not right for the temperature of the spraybooth, the paint may drip or sag or have an orange-peel-like texture. On the other hand, if paint is applied too thinly, it may not have enough gloss. If dust is not properly controlled, it will show up in the paint surface. 
  • The toughest problem for painters is matching colors, with metallic and pearl colors especially difficult to match. While you can’t expect a perfect match on an old car, on newer cars it should be very close. Good painters mix paints using a manufacturer’s formula, then tinker with the color if it isn’t quite right. They also merge the new color with the original by spraying lightly over portions of old paint adjacent to newly painted panels. 
  • If you are not satisfied with a paint job, insist that the shop do it again. But be aware that perfection may not be possible and that repainting is expensive and time-consuming. 

Also check to make sure that every feature of the car works properly—door handles, trunk lid, hood, windows, even the stereo and windshield wipers—before leaving the shop. Ask for a test drive if the damage was substantial. 

If you have had major repairs, consider taking the car to another shop and paying it to inspect the work. Better yet, hire an independent appraiser who specializes in post-repair inspections to check the shop’s work. These companies charge between $100 and $200 for an inspection. The advantage of using an independent appraiser is that the inspector can accompany you to the auto body shop when you pick up your car and point out any deficiencies on the spot. 

If you have consented to use a shop other than your first choice, have the insurance company give you its own written guarantee of the shop’s work. Without a guarantee from the insurance company, you may have no claim against it if your car is repaired improperly. 

Before you take the car away from the shop, ask the shop for a guarantee. You are likely to get a minimum of 30 days guarantee against defects in parts, materials, and workmanship, and most high-quality shops offer guarantees of six months or longer; the length of some guarantees varies by type of job. Whatever guarantee you get, get it in writing. 

Extra Advice:
Top 10 Complaints About Auto Bodywork 

Some auto body shops make many customers unhappy. Below is a summary of the kinds of complaints we receive from surveyed consumers. 

1.    Work not performed properly—Work was not properly completed on first attempt, shop performed poor quality body or painting work, or shop was unable to complete repairs. (Mentioned in 46 percent of complaints) 

2.    Slow turnaround—Shop took an inordinate amount of time to complete work or work was not completed when promised. (35 percent) 

3.    Poor customer service—Poor communication, unresponsiveness to complaints, or unwillingness to correct mistakes or stand behind work. (18 percent) 

4.    High costs—Prices seemed too high for the work performed. (13 percent) 

5.    Damaged vehicle or missing property—Car was damaged while in the shop, or personal property left in vehicle was lost or stolen while car was in the shop. (8 percent) 

6.    Incorrect estimates—Shop’s final bill exceeded estimate. (7 percent) 

7.    Unable to deal effectively with insurer. (5 percent) 

8.    Poor quality of parts—Part(s) replaced prematurely failed or rusted, or shop chose to use inferior part(s) for job. (3 percent) 

9.    Performed unnecessary work—Shop recommended or performed unnecessary or unauthorized work, or charged for work that was not performed. (2 percent) 

10.    Difficult to get appointment. (1 percent) 



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