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Auto Repair Shops — Ratings of car repair shops, advice on getting the best quality auto repairs at the best
price, where to complain, ...more (From CHECKBOOK, Spring/Summer 2014)
 
Go to Updated Ratings of 531 Bay Area Auto Repair Shops

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Auto Repair Shops

The only way to minimize the annoyance of car repair is to choose a high-quality shop. No amount of caution, communicating, or complaining can compensate for choosing a second-rate shop. 

Many top-quality shops are among the area shops we evaluate on our Ratings Tables. At the time of our last full, published article, 231 of the 531 shops were rated “superior” for the overall quality of their work by 90 percent or more of their surveyed customers. 

But bad choices may lead to a mess of headaches. Fifty shops were rated “inferior” for the overall quality of their work by at least 20 percent of their surveyed customers. 

Cost is a key consideration, as price differences can be dramatic. For example, to replace the water pump for a 2008 Pontiac Vibe, we found prices ranging from $313 to $700. Hourly labor rates range from $79 to $206. The price comparison scores reported on our Ratings Tables show which shops on average had the lowest prices for several repairs for which we shopped. 

It makes sense to consider shops that rate tops for quality but also get our checkmark for cost. There are many top-quality, low-priced shops. Indeed, we found no relationship between the prices shops charge and the quality of their work

Whatever shop you choose, deal with it in a businesslike manner. Be especially thorough the first time you use it. This article offers advice on how to conduct your dealings, including— 

  • Give the shop a detailed written description of your car’s symptoms. 
  • If possible, speak with the repair technician who will be working on your car. 
  • Either get a written estimate in advance or write on the repair ticket that no work is to be done without your approval based on a written estimate. 
  • Get a written, dated invoice that details parts and labor and the vehicle’s odometer reading. 
  • Pay by credit card. 
  • If the car is still not right when you get it back, immediately inform the shop in writing. 

Automakers continue to invent ways for cars to do more: Traction control, smart suspensions, blind-spot sensors and cameras—some can even park themselves. Although new cars are technological marvels, unfortunately they can’t (yet?) repair themselves. When you need repairs or maintenance, you have to get good old-fashioned service. 

Our evaluations of area shops should help you distinguish the good shops from the not-so-good ones. Our ratings, shown on our Ratings Tables, are based on more than 15,000 reviews by Bay Area consumers, consumer agency complaint records, more than 2,000 price checks, and other sources. 

We also provide advice on how to choose a shop on your own, deal with whatever shop you choose, and maintain your car to keep it out of the shop. 

How to Get Steered in the Right Direction 

The best way to put the brakes on lousy auto repair work is to choose a good shop. Although there is no surefire method of selecting a top-quality shop, checking a number of factors can help. Our Ratings Tables show information we have collected on area shops to help you make the right decision. 

What Do Former Customers Say? 

When they need car repairs, most consumers ask their friends for suggestions. The ratings from our surveys of consumers (primarily CHECKBOOK and Consumer Reports subscribers), shown on our Ratings Tables, let you check the experiences of thousands of customers with auto repair shops in the area. Our survey asked consumers to rate shops they had used “inferior,” “adequate,” or “superior” on “doing work properly on the first try,” “starting and completing work promptly,” and “overall performance quality.” Our Ratings Tables, for each shop that received at least 10 ratings on our survey, report the percent of its surveyed customers who rated it “superior” on each question (as opposed to “inferior” or “adequate”). Our Ratings Tables also report the percent of each shop’s customers who rated it “adequate” or “superior” (as opposed to “inferior”) for overall quality. (Click here for further discussion of our customer survey and other research methods.) 

As you can see, many auto repair shops make a lot of their customers very unhappy. At the time of our last full, published article, 50 of the 531 shops listed on our Ratings Tables were rated “inferior” (as opposed to “adequate” or “superior”) for “overall performance” by at least 20 percent of their surveyed customers. But there are also many good shops out there: 231 shops were rated “superior” for “overall performance” by 90 percent or more of their surveyed customers. 

Does It Have a History of Complaints? 

While customers might have rated a shop “inferior” on our survey even if the shop’s deficiencies were fairly minor, filing a formal complaint with a consumer agency usually reflects serious dissatisfaction. 

For firms that were evaluated in our last full, published article, our Ratings Tables show counts of complaints we gathered from local Better Business Bureaus (BBB) for a recent three-year period and complaint rates relative to the volume of work companies perform. 

When we report counts of complaints filed against auto repair shops, we prefer to include only complaints that relate to auto repair work (as opposed to complaints about bodywork, new or used car sales, etc.). But for the counts of complaints reported for the BBB, we were unable to be so selective. The BBB does categorize complaints it receives into broad categories; for all of the shops on our Ratings Tables, we have included those complaints that fell into the “problems with product/service” category, which accounted for the most complaints filed against independent auto repair shops. We did not count complaints that were categorized as relating to advertising/sales, billing/collection, delivery, or guarantee/warranty issues. 

For more information on reported complaint counts and rates, click here

As Figure 1 shows, consumer complaint information can be a very meaningful indicator of quality: There is a correlation between the number of complaints and scores on our customer survey. Shops with no complaints on file were rated “superior” for “overall performance” by 84 percent of their surveyed customers; shops with seven or more complaints were rated “superior” for “overall performance” by only 57 percent of their surveyed customers. 

Figure 1—Customer Satisfaction at Shops with Different Complaint Histories
 

customer chart

Are Its Mechanics Certified? 

Another way to gauge a shop’s quality is to determine the competence of its mechanics. To become certified by the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (ASE), a mechanic must have worked in the automotive service field for at least two years and pass at least one of the tests offered by ASE. A technician can become certified in any or all of eight automotive service categories, such as engine repair, electrical/electronic systems, brakes, and suspension and steering. Certification is not easy—about one-third of the tests taken are failed— but more than 300,000 technicians nationwide are currently certified. Technicians who become certified in all eight categories receive “master technician” certification, and there are nearly 100,000 certified master technicians. To remain certified, technicians must retest and pass exam(s) every five years. 

Check on the certification of a shop’s technicians by looking for plaques on the shop’s wall showing names and expiration dates of ASE certification. Or ask to see a technician’s credentials, which should list areas of certification and expiration dates. 

Although you would expect shops that employ certified technicians to rate higher than shops without them on our survey’s “doing work properly” question, this is not the case. One explanation is that ASE certification ensures the competence of only individual mechanics. Competence of one or a few mechanics in one or more service specialties does not guarantee competence of a shop’s other mechanics, much less their diligence and honesty. And certification of some mechanics doesn’t ensure good communication within the shop or between the shop and its customers. 

Despite the absence of positive correlation between certification and customer satisfaction, we are convinced that the ASE program is a well-conceived, well-managed effort, and advise you to ask that a certified mechanic work on your car. Request a mechanic who is certified in the particular specialty—say, engine repair—you need; certification in brake work, for example, says little about ability to make major engine repairs. 

Does AAA Approval Matter? 

While ASE certifies individual mechanics, the American Automobile Association (AAA) has a program to “approve” entire shops. The AAA inspects for a broad range of equipment and customer conveniences, examines staffing and quality control procedures, surveys a sample of customers, and checks complaint records at local consumer agencies. Approved shops must guarantee their work for a minimum of 12 months or 12,000 miles (whichever comes first), and agree to let AAA arbitrate members’ complaints (at no charge to the member). Approved shops display the official AAA approval sign. 

Although the AAA program appears to be a well-conceived effort, we found no correlation between AAA approval and scores on our surveys of area consumers. In fact, both AAA-approved dealer and non-dealer repair shops evaluated on our Ratings Tables rated slightly lower than non-approved shops on our customer survey. And AAA-approved shops may charge more than non-approved ones: Approved shops had slightly higher price comparison scores (described below), on average, than non-approved shops. 

Does It Have Customer-Friendly Business Practices? 

Many good shops have procedures to foster good communication with customers and avoid disagreements. 

Ask to speak with the technician who will be working on your car. Service write-up personnel at large shops often know very little about car repair, and those who do know car repair may not be able to describe your car’s symptoms to a repair technician as well as you can. Ideally, take the repair technician for a ride to point out symptoms that are not easily explained; this may seem like a strange request, but mechanics often take cars for a drive, so why not ride along? A nationwide study of auto repair found that vehicle return rates (to fix improper repairs) were about one-third lower if a customer had dealt with the repair technician rather than a service writer. 

Also ask if the shop will let you test drive your car before you pay your bill. Because customers can’t always be trusted, some shops are reluctant to allow them to drive away without paying, but a test drive can help you avoid hassles if you find a problem later. 

Finally, be sure the shop makes it easy for you to follow basic good business practices—getting an estimate in advance, inspecting replaced parts, and receiving a detailed invoice. State laws and regulations for the most part give consumers the right to demand these practices, but shops may make you feel like a nuisance if you ask for estimates or other documentation. On the other hand, some shops proactively encourage you to get an estimate, offer to return replaced parts, etc. You will have to try out a shop to see what procedures it follows. 

Does It Charge Reasonable Prices? 

You want to be sure a shop charges fair prices before you bring in your car because, like most repair work, it is difficult to shop for price before you know exactly what needs to be done. 

If you know what repairs you need, compare prices from shop to shop by calling a handful for quotes: We find it surprisingly easy to get price quotes from auto repair shops over the phone. 

If you don’t know what work is needed, call one or more shops and describe the symptoms—what the car is doing or not doing. Shops might be able to tell you over the phone what’s likely to be wrong and quote a price. If so, get quotes from several shops. 

When shops can’t determine what’s wrong with your car based on your description, you’ll have to take it in for a diagnosis and estimate. Then, with estimate in hand—and assuming that the diagnosis is correct—check to see if the shop’s price is fair. 

Start by comparing the price quote with estimates at www.repairpal.com/estimator, a handy site that tracks auto repair prices. Or call other shops and ask what they would charge for the repairs. The drawback of taking the car to another shop is that you’ll have to pay the first shop for the diagnosis. Also, if your car isn’t drivable, you’ll have to pay to have it towed to a second shop (although AAA members can have their cars towed to a second shop for free to obtain a second opinion). 

To help you find shops that charge low prices, our Ratings Tables report our price comparison score for each shop that was evaluated in our last full published article. To calculate these scores, our researchers (without revealing their affiliation with CHECKBOOK) called shops to obtain their prices for specific repairs. The scores show how each shop compared to the average price quoted for the same repairs. We set the average at $100. So if two shops quoted on the same repairs and one shop has a price comparison score of $120, while a second shop has a score of $100, it means the first shop’s quotes were 20 percent higher than the second shop’s. 

Table 1 illustrates the range of prices we found. For most repairs, some shops charged twice as much as nearby competitors. 

Table 1—Low, Average, and High Prices Quoted by Shops for Illustrative Repair Jobs

Low, Average, and High Prices Quoted by Shops for Illustrative Repair Jobs1
Description of job Low price Average price High price
2008 Pontiac Vibe
Replace water pump
$313 $474 $700
2007 Ford Fusion SE Replace starter motor $279 $364 $507
2007 Dodge Caliber SXT
Replace alternator
$500 $604 $900
2009 Honda CR-V
Replace right front axle assembly
$269 $402 $667
2009 Nissan Maxima 3.5 S
Replace front wheel brake pads and rotors
$366 $464 $595
2007 Toyota Camry XLE
Replace water pump
$410 $773 $1,809
2008 Nissan Maxima SE
Replace outer and inner CV joint boots and axle on right side
$720 $818 $1,106
2010 Volkswagen Jetta SE/SEL
Replace right front axle assembly
$459 $614 $787
1Prices quoted were in response to CHECKBOOK’s telephone inquiries. The descriptions of repairs are summaries; there are specific variations for each make of car. 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.

The price comparison scores are just a starting point for your own shopping efforts. The number of price quotes from each shop was small, and the selection and weighting of repairs included in the comparison scores may not reflect the mix of repairs you will need. 

Here is a striking observation about our data: There is a negative correlation between the price comparison scores and our measures of quality. For example, as Figure 2 shows, shops with price comparison scores of less than $87 were rated “superior” for “doing work properly on the first try” by 85 percent of their surveyed customers, while shops with price comparison scores above $113 received such favorable ratings from only 71 percent of their surveyed customers. 

Figure 2—Customer Satisfaction with Quality of Work at Shops with Different Price Levels

customer chart

Does It Have a Low Labor Rate? 

Our Ratings Tables also report shops’ hourly labor rates. On average, the higher the labor rate, the higher the repair price. As Figure 3 shows, shops that charged hourly labor rates of $140 or higher had average price comparison scores about 12 percent higher than shops with hourly labor rates of $109 or less. 

Figure 3—Average Price Comparison Scores at Shops with Different Labor Rates

compaison chart

But be aware that labor is just one element of what a shop charges, and that some shops with high labor rates have low prices, and vice versa. Despite a low labor rate, a shop may still have high prices if it calculates labor costs using a manual that allots generous amounts of time to each job, calculates labor costs according to “clock-time” but has slow mechanics, or adds a big markup to parts. 

Independent Shops vs. Dealers? 

The best way to choose a shop is to check out the factors discussed above and that appear on our ratings table. But even without such detailed investigation, you can boost your odds of getting good repairs by selecting the right type of shop. Our Ratings Tables show which shops belong to new-car dealerships. Table 2 shows how dealers and non-dealers compare on our customer survey and on two measures of price: our price comparison scores and hourly labor rates. Non-dealers scored better on both quality and price. 

Table 2—How Dealers and Non-dealers Compare for Quality and Cost

How Dealers and Non-dealers Compare for Quality and Cost Dealers Non-dealers
Percent of surveyed customers who rated shops “superior” for ”overall performance” 62% 88%
Average hourly labor rate $157 $118
Average price comparison score $109 $97

Dealers’ quality scores may suffer to some extent because they take on more difficult jobs. Dealers argue that they are blamed for manufacturing defects, tend to work on cars when they are new and owners are especially critical, and get jobs too difficult for independents to handle. But in an analysis of actual success rates on emissions-related repairs (as evaluated by state inspectors), independents perform substantially better than dealerships. Our advice: If the work you need is not covered by a new-car warranty, use an independent shop. 

Does Affiliation with an Auto Manufacturer Matter? 

For dealerships, we can make generalizations on one additional characteristic: the makes of cars for which dealers are authorized to perform repairs under new-car manufacturer-backed warranties. As Figure 4 shows, dealers authorized to repair Kia, Infiniti, and Acura models under new-car warranties had the highest average ratings for “overall performance” on our customer survey. Dealers that perform warranty work for Volkswagen, Mercedes-Benz, Ford, Lincoln, and BMW rated lowest. Whether these differences reflect the manufacturers’ quality control of their dealer networks, ease of repairing different makes of cars, or pure chance is hard to say. 

Figure 4—How Dealers that Do Warranty Work on Various Makes of Cars Compare on Customer Satisfaction
 

customer satisfaction warranty figure

Dealing with the Shop 

Once you find a great shop, you need to follow good business practices in dealing with it, especially on your first visit. If some of the suggestions below seem overcautious or mistrustful, remind yourself how frustrating and expensive car repairs can be. Repair shops know that members of their industry do not always deal fairly with customers; rather than resenting your caution, shop personnel should respect you for caring about your car and your money, and for knowing how to get the service you deserve. 

Communication Counts 

Your chances of getting your car fixed right and avoiding unnecessary repairs depend heavily on your ability to communicate. Even mediocre mechanics can fix most cars if they know exactly what’s wrong. 

  • Distinguish between what you know and what you think you know. If you know what needs to be repaired, tell the shop. If your car’s battery has died because of a loose fan belt, don’t say only that the car won’t start; the service writer may write an order to check the distributor points, battery, fuel pump, and various other components—each at some cost to you. The more you know about cars, and the more clearly you can explain your problem, the better the service you get. 

But if you don’t know what repair you need, don’t try to sound knowledgeable by guessing. Simply describe the symptoms. If you mention a specific repair—say, repair of the water pump—the shop may check or even replace the water pump—and then go on to fix what is actually wrong (possibly worn out alternator bearings). 

  • Take care in describing symptoms. Note changes in the way the car sounds, smells, and drives since the problem started. Describe how long the problem has been going on and when it happens: in hot weather, in cold weather, when the engine is hot, when it’s cold, at high speeds, at low speeds. If the problem is hard to describe, ask the shop to have someone take a drive with you. 
  • Write down each problem you want the shop to work on and every symptom you can think of before you go to the shop. Leave a copy with the shop and keep one for yourself. Ask the service writer to give the shop’s copy to the repair technician who will work on your car. Use your own copy for reference later when you deal with the shop. 
  • Go to the shop when it is less busy. You’re likely to get closer attention if you go in between mid-morning and mid-afternoon, when things are usually least hectic. 
  • Talk with the mechanic who will work on your car. If you get to know a mechanic and are satisfied with his or her work, ask for the same mechanic whenever you bring in your car. If you don’t know any of a shop’s mechanics, ask for one who is ASE-certified for the specialty area in which you need repairs. 

Get a Written Estimate and Work Order 

Don’t leave your car at a shop without taking away a copy of a work order clearly documenting the work you have authorized and how much it will cost. 

If you know what repairs are needed, ask the shop for a price—then have the shop write a description of the work and the price on the work order. 

If you don’t know what is needed, write on the work order: “Shop will provide customer a written estimate. The charge for the estimate will be _____. No other charges will be incurred without customer’s authorization following the estimate.” 

Also, write at the bottom of the work order: “Keep replaced parts for customer’s inspection.” Even if you can’t tell an alternator from a tailpipe, the shop doesn’t know it—and can’t be sure you won’t show the parts to someone who does. 

If all the work you need is covered under a warranty, don’t bother with an estimate or detailed work order but write “only warranty repairs are authorized” on the work order. 

If you ask your shop to check on a problem and give you a call, don’t automatically approve any major repair at any price the shop suggests. To maintain the flexibility to go to a second shop, take your car in for repairs—whenever possible—before a problem becomes so severe that it can’t be driven. 

Pick It Up Right 

Just as there is a right way to drop off your car, there is a right way to pick it up when the work is finished. 

Don’t pay until you receive a clear copy of the invoice to keep. The invoice should include the shop’s name and address, your name, and your car’s license number and mileage. It should indicate the labor charge; the name, number, and price of each part replaced; and whether parts are new or rebuilt. 

Be sure to keep your bill. You might want to show it to another shop to determine if the prices you were charged are reasonable. More important, if the repair is unsatisfactory you will need the bill to prove you paid for the work. Also, if another shop later tries to charge you for a recently performed repair, you have evidence to defend yourself. 

The shop’s warranty should be printed on the bill. If not, have the repair technician or write-up person pen it in and sign it. If parts have been installed, ask for copies of any special warranties. 

If you find the car was not fixed correctly, take it back right away. The best approach is to get the service writer to put a signed and dated acknowledgment that you brought the problem to the shop’s attention on your copy of the bill. Alternatively, send the shop an email citing the problem and your intention to bring back the car to have it corrected. Do not rely on the service writer’s oral promise that you can bring in the car any time for a free adjustment. You may find later that the writer can’t remember the promise and believes the problem is a new one caused by something that happened after the car left the shop. 

Be Persistent 

Despite all your precautions, you and your shop may still have disagreements. If so, you have several forms of recourse. 

The first step is always to go to the service manager; then, if necessary, ask to speak to the owner. 

If the owner fails to provide satisfaction, you can complain to government consumer agencies, manufacturers’ zone offices, and the Better Business Bureau. (Click here for contact information.) 

If you paid by credit card, dispute the repair charges with your credit card bank. The Fair Credit Billing Act includes procedures that enable customers to refuse to pay for unsatisfactory purchases made with a credit card. 

If none of these efforts provide satisfaction, go to small claims court. 

California has a “lemon law” that provides relief for new-car buyers who have had repeated problems with their vehicles. 

Your Rights 

Cost Estimates: All shops in California are required to provide a written cost estimate before beginning work. A shop may charge a reasonable fee for providing an estimate. 

Cost Exceeding the Estimate: No shop may charge more than its estimate unless authorized by phone or in writing by the customer. 

Return of Parts: All shops must return replaced parts, if requested in advance. Parts that must be returned to a manufacturer under a warranty agreement are excepted, but customers have a right to inspect parts covered by warranty. 

Invoices: Any shop operating in California must provide a written invoice itemizing costs for parts and charges for labor, and indicating which parts are new and which are rebuilt. 

How to Avoid the Shop 

You can avoid problems with auto repair shops and cut down on major repairs by maintaining your car properly. 

Your maintenance bible is your car’s owner’s manual; it tells you what to do and how often to do it. Since different cars require different maintenance tasks at different intervals, only the owner’s manual provides accurate guidance, but the procedures listed below are the ones most cars require frequently. Some you can do yourself, and others by a professional. 

Every Time You Use Your Car 

  • Check tires. 

Before you get in the car, make sure all tires are inflated and that there are no bulges or obvious cuts. 

  • Check gauges and warning lights. 

Most car dashboards have an oil pressure warning light that comes on as the car is started but should go out as soon as you begin to drive. If it doesn’t go out, stop driving immediately. 

Some cars are equipped with an alternator warning light; others have gauges. Warning lights should go out when the car is started; on gauges, the pointer should be approximately in the middle, between “D” and “C”, or “—” and “+”. 

Temperature gauges should come to rest in the “safe” or “normal” range—about 180°F—after a few minutes of driving. 

Finally, the brake system warning light (if the car has one) should go out when the emergency brake is released—and stay off unless part of the brake system has failed. Since most late-model cars have two separate brake systems, one system can fail without disastrous consequences. But if the warning light goes on when the service brake (as opposed to the emergency brake) is applied, have the car checked as soon as possible. 

Once a Month Check the Following 

  • Tire pressure 

The owner’s manual indicates the correct pressure. Driving with the wrong pressure is unsafe, wears tires excessively, wastes gas, and may decrease the comfort of your ride. To get an accurate reading, check pressure before driving more than a couple of miles. Tires heat up as you drive, increasing the pressure. 

  • Engine oil 

To check the oil, park the car on level ground, turn off the engine, and wait a minute. Push the dipstick all the way in, and leave it there for a couple of seconds before pulling it out. If the oil level is at or near the “Add Oil” point, add a quart—but don’t overfill. 

Your owner’s manual will indicate the type of oil to add. Most standard cars use “multi-grade” oils like 10W-40. In motor oil, a low first number indicates that the oil can be used at low temperatures without thickening so as to prevent a car from starting; the high second number, such as 40 or 50, indicates that the oil will remain thick enough to be effective even at the high temperatures most engines maintain. 

  • Battery 

Check for corrosion at the posts where the battery cables are attached. Corrosion can eventually cause the battery to lose power, but you can easily clean it away. Apply a paste of baking soda and water to the corroded areas, let the paste’s chemical action work for a half hour, and then wash it off with clear water. 

  • Coolant level 

Check the coolant level by examining the reserve tank alongside the radiator tank. Caution: Never remove the radiator cap when the engine is hot; you could get scalded by spraying hot water and steam. 

  • Belts 

Many mechanical components are driven by belts. With the engine off, some of these belts can be conveniently inspected for fraying, cracks, and loss of tension. Check tension by pressing the belt with your thumb; it should not give more than about a half inch when pressed hard. 

Extra Advice:
Where to Complain 

Better Business Bureaus

Santa Clara and Santa Cruz Counties
1112 S. Bascom Avenue
San Jose, CA 95128
408-278-7400
http://sanjose.bbb.org

All Other Bay Area Counties
1000 Broadway, #625
Oakland, CA 94607
510-844-2000
www.goldengate.bbb.org



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