The only way to minimize the annoyance of car repair is to choose a high-quality
shop. No amount of caution, communicating, or complaining will make up
for starting with a second-rate shop.
You will find many top-quality shops among the area shops we evaluate on
our Ratings Tables. In fact, at the time of our last full, published
article, 161 out of 598 shops were rated superior for the overall quality
of their work by 90 percent or more of their surveyed customers.
Most of these top-rated shops also score well on our survey questions on
getting the work done promptly as promised, and on letting you know what
the cost will be in advancea key to giving you the opportunity to consider
other repair alternatives.
But bad choices may lead to a mess of headaches. Sixty-one shops were rated
inferior for the overall quality of their work by at least one-fourth
of their surveyed customers.
Use our Ratings Tables to find shops that are convenient for you and
repair your make of car. Our Ratings Tables make it easy to sort and
select the shops that fit your needsfor example, to see only shops located
within five miles of your home that work on Toyotas, make in-warranty repairs,
and receive our top ratings for quality and for price.
Cost is a key consideration, as price differences can be dramatic. For
example, to replace the right front axle assembly on a 2006 Honda CR-V,
we found prices ranging from $667 to $1,222. Hourly labor rates range from
$65 to $135. Our Ratings Tables show which shops on average had the
lowest prices on several repairs we shopped for.
It makes sense to consider shops that not only 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 business-like way. Be especially
thorough in the first few years, while you are getting acquainted. In this
article, we offer advice on how to conduct your dealings, including
Give the shop a detailed, written description of your cars symptoms.
If possible, talk directly to 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 vehicles
Pay by credit card.
If the car is still not right when you get it back, tell the shop in writing
The phone rings...and you hear what youve been dreading since you dropped
off your car: Im calling with your estimate...
How much will it cost? How many days will you be without transportation?
Will there be more calls as more problems materialize? Are the repairs
really necessary? Will the car run right when its all over? How can you
be sure the price youre quoted is fair?
Unfortunately, your dread is well founded. Auto repair problems are among
the top consumer complaints, with many shops making their customers miserable
by doing lousy work, creating long delays, selling unnecessary repairs,
and failing to provide accurate estimates. But not all shops need be feared.
There are plenty of shops that almost always do top-quality work, quickly,
at a fair price.
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 30,000 consumer reviews we collected by surveying
Washington area CHECKBOOK and Consumer Reports subscribers, checks on complaint
records at consumer agencies, over 2,000 price checks, and other information.
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.
The best way to get satisfactory auto repairs is to choose your shop carefully.
Although there is no sure way of selecting a top-quality shop, checking
a number of facts can improve your chances. Our Ratings Tables show
information we have collected on area shops to help you make the right
decision. It is easy to sort and select the shops that fit your needsfor
example, to see only those shops located near your home that work on your
make of car and received our best ratings for quality, for price, or for
When they need car repairs, most consumers ask their friends for suggestions.
The ratings from our surveys of CHECKBOOK and Consumer Reports subscribers,
shown on our Ratings Tables, let you check the experiences of thousands
of your neighbors with area auto repair shops. (For more information on
our customer survey and other research methods, click here.)
As you can see from our Ratings Tables, many auto repair shops make
a lot of their customers very unhappy. At the time of our last full, published
article, 61 of the 598 shops listed on the table were rated inferior
(as opposed to adequate or superior) for overall performance by at
least one-fourth of their surveyed customers. For these shops, we receive
Had to return for the same problem immediately after driving away. Had
to return for a third time for the same problem a few weeks later. Car
was in the shop more than in use for over a month.
Always ends up costing more than I expect. Have no confidence they know
what they are doing or that they are only doing what is needed.
A repair that should have taken two to three days took a week. Later found
out they missed spotting several items that probably were what caused the
breakdown in the first place. To top it all off, they literally wrecked
my car when moving it.
Horrible, unprofessional, nightmare mechanic.
Just stay away from these people unless you like to spend money.
Fortunately, there are many good shops out there. Of the 598 shops listed
on our Ratings Tables, 161 were rated superior for overall performance
by 90 percent or more of their surveyed customers. For these shops, we
get comments like the following
Have been a customer for 20-plus years and trust this shop totally. Will
never change as long as they are in business.
Good faith and fair prices combined with honesty and automotive knowledge
is a rare, rare occurrence in the auto repair business. It resides at this
Fantastic service and results. Kept my Accord running for 230,000 miles.
Taking my car to [this] shop is a totally new experience: I dont go in
feeling that Im about to be screwed. They are competent and cost-conscious
and also nice people to do business with.
He gives sound advice on cost-effective approaches to auto maintenance
and is candid about what repairs he recommends doing immediately and what
jobs can be postponed... He and his staff listen carefully to their customers
and will even go on a test drive with a customer to reproduce symptoms.
I wish I had discovered them a long time ago!
While customers might have rated a shop inferior on our survey even if
the shops 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 the number of
complaints on file with local government consumer protection offices for
a recent two-year period.
Where we were able to, we have also reported on our Ratings Tables
a complaint rate, calculated by dividing the number of complaints by our
measure of the number of full-time-equivalent repair technicians working
at the shop. This complaint rate is a rough way to take into account volume
of work and the fact that shops that do more work are exposed to a greater
risk of incurring complaints.
For the counts of complaints reported for local government consumer protection
offices, we have attempted to include only complaints that relate to auto
repair work (as opposed to complaints about bodywork, new or used car sales,
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
that 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
You can check current BBB complaint information on any company by visiting
www.bbb.org or by calling 202-393-8000. For any shop listed on our
Ratings Tables, subscribers can click a link on the detailed ratings
page to go directly to the BBBs most up-to-date report on the shop.
Consumer protection offices in Fairfax and Montgomery counties also have
online databases that let you check complaint histories on any company.
See below for links and contact information.
When using the complaint information, keep in mind that complaints are
not always justified; sometimes customers are unreasonable. Also be aware
that some shops may be at greater risk of incurring complaints because
of the specific types of business they do. And remember that the measure
of business volume we use in calculating complaint rates (the number of
full-time-equivalent mechanics) is at best a very rough indicator.
As Figure 1 shows, consumer complaint information can be a very meaningful
indicator of quality. You can see on Figure 1 that there is a correlation
between the presence of complaints and scores on our customer survey. Shops
that had no complaints on file were rated superior for overall performance
by 85 percent of their surveyed customers; shops that had seven or more
complaints were rated superior for overall performance by only 49 percent
of their surveyed customers.
Figure 1Customer Satisfaction at Shops with Different Complaint Histories
Another approach for gauging a shops quality is to find out about 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. The written or computer-based exams are developed,
administered, and scored by American College Testing, a nonprofit organization
that also administers college entrance exams. A technician can become certified
in any or all of eight automotive service categories, such as engine repair,
electrical systems, and suspension and steering. Certification is not easy;
about one-third of the tests taken are failed. About 400,000 technicians
nationwide are currently certified. If a technician becomes certified in
all eight categories, he or she receives master technician certification.
There are over 100,000 master automobile technicians nationwide. To remain
certified, technicians must re-test and pass exam(s) every five years.
Check on the certification of a shops technicians by looking for plaques
on the shops wall showing names and expiration dates of ASE certification.
Or ask to see a technicians credentials (which should list his or her
areas of certification and expiration dates).
Although you would expect shops that employ certified technicians to rate
higher than shops without them on our surveys doing work properly question,
this is generally not the case. One explanation for this surprising result
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 shops other mechanics, much less their
diligence and honesty.
Despite the lack of a 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 specialtysay,
engine repairneeded to fix your car; certification in brake work, for
example, says little about ability to make major engine repairs.
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, the AAA-approved dealer and non-dealer repair shops evaluated
on our Ratings Tables rated slightly lower than their non-approved
counterparts on our customer survey. And AAA-approved shops may charge
more than non-approved ones. On our price index (described below), prices
at approved shops averaged slightly higher than at non-approved shops.
Many good shops use certain procedures to foster communication with customers
and protect both shop and customer from unnecessary disagreements. We have
not checked each shops procedures, but you can check them for yourself.
Ask whether you will be allowed to speak with the repair 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 cars symptoms to a repair technician
as well as you would be. The best arrangement is to take the repair technician
for a ride to point out symptoms that are not easily explained. 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 cant always be trusted, some shops are reluctant
to allow them to drive away without paying, but a test drive can help you
avoid inconvenience and resistance if you find a problem later.
Finally, be sure the shop makes it easy for you to follow basic good business
practicesgetting an estimate in advance, inspecting replaced parts, and
receiving a detailed invoice. Local laws and regulations for the most part
give consumers the right to follow these practices, but some shops may
make you feel like a nuisance when you ask for estimates or other documentation.
On the other hand, there are shops that proactively encourage you to get
an estimate, offer to save replaced parts, etc. You will have to try out
a shop to see what procedures it follows.
You want assurance that a shop charges fair prices before bringing it your
car because, like most repair work, it is difficult to shop for price unless
you know exactly what needs to be done.
If you do know what repairs you need, compare prices from shop to shop
by calling a handful for quotes: we find it is surprisingly easy to get
price quotes from auto repair shops over the phone.
If you dont know what work is needed, call one or more shops and describe
the symptomswhat the car is doing or not doing. Shops might be able to
tell you over the phone whats likely to be wrong and give you a price.
If so, get quotes from several shops.
When shops cant determine whats wrong with your car based on your description,
youll have to take it in for a diagnosis and estimate. Then, with the
estimate in hand, and assuming that the diagnosis is correct, call other
shops and ask what they would charge for the repairs. The drawback is that
if you use another shop, you will have to pay the first shop for the diagnosis.
Also, if your car isnt drivable, youll 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 if they want a second opinion or estimate).
If the initial estimate is not more than a few hundred dollars, you will
probably want to have the first shop go ahead and do the repairs. If you
have chosen a shop with a low price index score (see below), theres a
good chance that the price is reasonable. If the estimate is more than
$500 or so, its probably worth getting more quotes. We found, for example,
that for one repair job we shopped with an average price of about $850,
getting three quotes would have cut the repair cost by, on average, about
$100 compared to going with the first quote. Depending on which shop gave
us a price first, subsequent quotes might have saved us from nothing (if
the first quote was very low) to several hundred dollars (if the first
quote was relatively high). You cant properly evaluate the first quote
until you get additional quotes.
To help you find shops that should have low prices, along with information
on repair shop quality, our Ratings Tables report our price index 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 for prices on specific repairs. Table 1 illustrates
the range of prices we found. For many repairs, some shops charged twice
as much as nearby competitors.
Table 1Low, Average, and High Prices Quoted by Shops for Some Illustrative
|Description of job||Low price||Average price||High price
|2005 Chevrolet Malibu|
Replace front brake pads and rotors
|2007 Ford Focus ZX4|
Replace water pump
|2004 Dodge Intrepid ES|
|2006 Honda CR-V|
Replace right front axle assembly
|2004 Nissan Maxima SE|
Replace outer and inner CV joint boots and front, right-side axle
|2004 Toyota Camry XLE|
Replace water pump and timing belt
|2004 Volvo XC70|
Replace starter motor
|2005 Volkswagen Passat GLS|
|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. Prices include parts, labor, and miscellaneous charges (if any) and do not include tax. The prices are those reported by the sample of shops that were priced on these specific repairs; other shops not included in this sample (including some on our ratings table) might have higher or lower prices. 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. Some prices were rounded to the nearest whole dollar.
The price index scores on our ,Ratings Tables show how each shop compared
to the average shop that quoted prices for the same repairs. For instance,
if two shops quoted on the same repairs and one shop has a price index
score of $120, while a second shop has a score of $100, this means the
first shops quotes were 20 percent higher than the second shops.
These price index scores are at most 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 index may not reflect the mix
of repairs you will need.
Here is a striking observation about our data: there is a negative relationship
between the price index scores and our measures of quality. For example,
as Figure 2 shows, shops with price index scores of less than $87 were
rated superior for doing work properly on the first try by 81 percent
of their surveyed customers, while shops with price index scores above
$113 got such favorable ratings from only 61 percent of their surveyed
Figure 2Customer Satisfaction with Quality of Work at Shops with Different
Our Ratings Tables also report shops hourly labor rates. On average,
as labor rates increase, repair prices increase. As Figure 3 shows, shops
that charged hourly labor rates of $106 or higher had average price index
scores about 20 percent higher than shops with hourly labor rates of $85
Figure 3Average Price Index Scores at Shops with Different Labor Rates
But be aware that labor is just one element of a shops 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 is a flat-rate
shop (see below) and uses a flat-rate manual that allots generous amounts
of time to each job, a clock-time shop with slow mechanics, adds a big
markup to parts, or tacks on miscellaneous additional charges.
A heated debate for years among consumer leaders and auto repair specialists
has centered on the method for computing labor charges. Most industry representatives
defend the flat-rate system currently used in the vast majority of area
shops. Flat-rate shops charge for a repair jobs labor by multiplying an
hourly labor chargesay, $95 per hourby the amount of time allotted for
that job in one of several nationally published flat-rate manuals. If the
manualcommonly referred to as the bookallows 2.0 hours to replace the
water pump on a specific make and model of vehicle, the customer is charged
for 2.0 hours of labor even if the mechanic completes the job in less than
an hour. Most shops pay mechanics on the same basis they charge customers:
according to the number of flat-rate hours their mechanics can bill, regardless
of how many hours put in at the shop.
This strange system of time-telling troubles many consumersespecially
since most good mechanics can beat the book and thus bill for more hours
per day than they actually work. But others argue that using the book
simply means a shop charges you by the job rather than by the hour. Every
job has a price that you can find out in advance, and you pay no more nor
less if the mechanic is slow or fast.
The really important issues in this debate relate to incentives. A shop
that charges by the book has a strong incentive to work quickly. This
encourages efficiency that might keep your bill below what you pay at a
less efficient shop that charges by the clock.
But this incentive might also encourage hasty, sloppy work. Furthermore,
the book does not always allot enough time to ensure good repair practices.
If too little time is allowed for diagnosis, a shop might work by trial
and error, running up big bills for repairs that more diagnosis would avoid.
Since often too little time is allotted for rebuilding parts, shops may
replace parts that could easily be rebuilt. And since shops often make
too little adjustment for the time they save by doing two or more jobs
at once, shops may perform related work once cars are in repair stalls,
charging nearly full rates for these jobs despite saving considerable preparation
The most pernicious incentives in the flat-rate system arise when a dealership
shop uses two different flat-rate manualsone for retail customers and
another with lower time allotments for warranty work paid for by the car
manufacturer. At these shops, the paying customer subsidizes warranty work
and makes warranty customers less profitable second-class citizens. Although
we could not determine which dealers use different manuals for different
types of customers, you might be able to check this for shops you consider
and act accordingly.
Since almost all shops in the area charge customers on a flat-rate basis,
you have little choice in that matter. But some shops pay their mechanics
on a clock-time basis, a mixed arrangement that has real virtues for customers.
The shop guarantees a price based on the book, but the mechanicthe person
most vulnerable to the unfortunate incentives of the flat-rate manualcan
take the time necessary to do a good job without losing any pay.
Before authorizing any work, find out what charges in addition to parts,
labor, and tax will be on your bill. Many shops add ambiguous shop charges
which can significantly increase the final bill. For example, when our
shoppers got prices for the replacement of a water pump, some shops included
shop charges as high as $30.
Some shop owners say these charges reimburse them for such items as grease,
oil, and shop rags. Others claim they cover environmental expenses legally
required for proper disposal of hazardous waste such as motor oil.
Shops have different ways of setting the amount of this charge. Some add
one set price to the bill. Others calculate the charge as a percentage
of the labor charge, parts price, or a combination of both.
Some states have outlawed these types of charges. California, for example,
prohibits shops from billing customers for shop supplies, miscellaneous
parts, or the like, restricting charges to parts and labor. But these
charges are legal in the Washington area, so be sure to ask whether estimates
include any miscellaneous, or shop, charges.
The best way to choose a shop is to check out the factors that we have
discussed and that appear on our ratings table. But even without such detailed
investigation, you may boost your chances 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 cost: scores on our price
index and hourly labor rates. The non-dealers scored better on both quality
Table 2How 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”||55%||80%|
|Average hourly labor rate||$109||$94|
|Average price index score||$109||$97|
To some extent, dealers quality scores may suffer 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 gas stations and 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 conclusion: if the work you need is not covered
by a new-car warranty, use an independent garage.
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 Acura, Lexus, and Honda vehicles under new-car warranties had
the highest average ratings for overall performance on our customer survey.
Dealers that perform warranty work for Mazda, Mitsubishi, and Land Rover
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. But the data suggest that, in this
area, if you buy a Acura, Lexus, Honda, or a few other makes of cars, you
are relatively likely to receive satisfactory warranty service from a variety
Figure 4How Dealers that Do Warranty Work on Various Makes of Cars Compare
on Customer Satisfaction
Carefully selecting a shop is the first step to good service. The second
is to follow good business practices when dealing with your shop, especially
while you are getting to know one another. If some of the suggestions below
seem overcautious or mistrustful, remind yourself how frustrating and expensive
car repairs can be. Repair shops know that some members of their industry
have not always dealt fairly with their customers; rather than resenting
your caution, shop personnel should respect you for caring about your car
and your money, and knowing how to get the service you deserve.
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 whats 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 cars battery has died
because of a loose fan belt, dont just say the car wont start; the service
writer may write an order to check the distributor points, battery, fuel
pump, and various other componentseach at some cost to you. The more you
know about cars and the more clearly you can explain your problem, the
better off you will be.
But if you dont know what repair you need, dont try to sound knowledgeable
by guessing. Simply describe the symptoms. If you mention a specific repairsay,
repair of the water pumpthe shop may check or even replace the water pumpand
then go on to fix what is actually wrong (possibly worn out alternator
Take care in describing symptoms. Note changes in how the car sounds, smells,
and drives since the problem developed. Describe how long the problem has
been going on and when the problem happens: in hot weather, in cold weather,
when the engine is hot or when cold, at high speeds, at low speeds. If
the problem is hard to describe, ask the shop to have someone take a test
drive with you.
Write down each problem you want worked on and all the symptoms 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 shops 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. Youre likely to get more attention
if you go in mid-afternoon, when things are usually least hectic. Tuesdays,
Wednesdays, and Thursdays are often good days.
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 dont know any of a shops mechanics,
ask for one who is ASE-certified for the specialty area in which you need
Dont leave your car at a shop without taking away a copy of a work order
that clearly documents what work you have authorized and how much it will
cost. A properly completed work order reduces the chances that you will
be charged for unwanted services or be surprised later by an exorbitant
If you know what repairs are needed, ask the shop for a pricethen have
the shop write a description of the work and the price on the work order.
If you dont 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 customers authorization following
Also, write at the bottom of the work order: Keep replaced parts for customers
inspection. Even if you know you cant tell an alternator from a tailpipe,
the shop does notand it cant be sure you wont take the parts to someone
who does know.
If all the work you want done is covered by warranty, dont 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, dont 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 repairswhenever
possiblebefore a problem becomes so severe that it cant be driven.
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.
Dont pay until you receive a clear copy of the invoice to keep. The invoice
should include the shops name and address, your name, and your cars 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
done repair, you have evidence to defend yourself.
The shops 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.
Inspect the car before you pay. If you cant tell much by inspection, ask
the service writer or repair technician to accompany you on a test drive.
Also, take a look at any old parts you asked to have saved.
If you dont feel the car has been fixed right, leave it until the work
is done. If you need the car immediately, or if you dont discover the
faulty repair until you have left the shop, start collecting evidence as
soon as possible. The best approach is to get the service writer to put
a signed and dated acknowledgment on your copy of the bill saying that
you brought the problem to the shops attention. Alternatively, keep a
copy of a note you send to the shop citing the problem and your intention
to bring in the car to have it corrected. Do not rely on the service writers
oral promise that you can bring in the car any time for a free adjustment.
You may find later that the writer cant remember the promise and believes
the problem you complain of is a new one caused by something you did after
leaving the shop.
Despite all your precautions, you and your shop may still have disagreements.
If so, you have several means of recourse.
The first step is always to go to the service manager, and then, if necessary,
to the owner.
If the owner does not provide satisfaction, you can complain to government
consumer agencies, manufacturers zone offices, and the Better Business
Bureau. (See below.)
If you paid by credit card, dispute the repair charges with your credit
card bank. The Fair Credit Billing Act gives procedures that enable you
to refuse payment for unsatisfactory purchases made with your credit card.
If none of these efforts provide satisfaction, go to small claims court.
The District, Maryland, and Virginia have lemon laws which provide relief
for new-car buyers who have had repeated problems with their vehicles.
Wherever you live in the Washington area, you benefit from one or more
laws regulating auto repair shops. Maryland and Virginia have statewide
auto repair laws. Prince Georges and Montgomery counties and the District
have laws of their own.
Cost estimates: All shops in the area are required to provide a written
cost estimate if requested and if the job may cost $50 or more (in most
jurisdictions the threshold is less than $50). A shop may charge a reasonable
fee to provide an estimate.
Cost exceeding the estimate: No shop may charge more than 10 percent above
its estimate (20 percent on jobs under $300 in the District) unless authorized
by phone or in writing by the customer. Only Montgomery County and the
District have laws specifying that, if a shop says costs will run more
than 10 percent above an estimate, you have a right to have your car returned
in its original condition (if possible). In Montgomery Countybut not in
the Districtyou may be charged for work the shop has done.
Time estimates: All shops in the area are required to provide a time estimate
under roughly the same conditions as apply to cost estimates. A shop may
not exceed its time estimate except for reasons beyond its control. But
only the Districts law specifies your rights if the time estimate is exceeded:
the same rights you have with a cost estimate.
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 you have a right to inspect even the parts covered by
Invoices: All shops in the area must provide a written invoice for any
repair that costs $20 or moreand less than that in some jurisdictions.
All invoices must specify charges for parts and charges for labor, and
must indicate which parts are new and which are rebuilt. Different jurisdictions
require additional, but varying, invoice details.
You can avoid problems with auto repair shops and cut down on major repairs
by maintaining your car properly.
Your maintenance bible is your cars owners 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 owners manual provides accurate
guidance, but the procedures listed below are the ones most cars require
frequently. Some you can do yourself and some should be done by a professional.
Before you get in, 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 does not, stop driving the car immediately.
Some cars are also 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 +.
Your temperature gauge should come to rest in the safe or normal rangeabout
180°Fafter a few minutes of driving.
Finally, your brake system warning light (if the car has one) should go
out when the emergency brake is releasedand 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.
The owners manual tells you the correct pressure. Driving with the wrong
pressure is unsafe, wears tires excessively, wastes gas, and may affect
the comfort of your ride. To get an accurate reading, check pressure before
you have driven more than a couple of miles. Tires heat up as you drive
farther, and pressure increases.
To check the oil, park the car on level ground, turn off the engine, and
wait a minute. Be sure to 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 quartbut dont overfill.
Your owners manual will indicate the right type of oil to add. Most standard
cars do well on multi-grade oils like 10W-40. In motor oil, a low first
number indicates that the oil can be used at low winter temperatures without
becoming so thick that it prevents your car from starting; a high second
number, like 40 or 50, indicates that the oil will remain thick enough
to be effective even at the high temperatures most late-model engines maintain.
Remove the battery caps to see whether it has sufficient water. The liquid
should come to the bottom of the neck of each filler hole (maintenance-free
batteries usually dont allow for adding water).
Also check for corrosion at the posts where the battery cables are attached.
Corrosion can eventually cause the battery to lose power, but it easily
can be cleaned away. Just apply a paste of baking soda and water to the
corroded areas, let the chemical action of the paste work for a half hour,
and then wash it off with clear water.
Check coolant level by looking at the reserve tank alongside the radiator
tank. Caution: Never remove the radiator cap when the engine is hot; you
might be scalded by spraying hot water and steam.
The fan, water pump, alternator, power steering, air conditioner, and emission
control air pump are all 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.
Heres a summary of the various kinds of complaints we find in the auto
repair reviews we receive from surveyed consumers.
Work not performed properlyWork was not properly completed on first attempt,
shop performed poor quality work, or shop was unable to correctly diagnose
problems or complete repairs. Mentioned in 40 percent of complaints.
Poor customer servicePoor communication, unresponsiveness to complaints,
or unwillingness to correct mistakes or stand behind work. Mentioned in
27 percent of complaints.
High costsFees seemed too high for the work performed. Mentioned in 22
percent of complaints.
Performed unnecessary workShop recommended or performed unnecessary or
unauthorized work, or charged for work that was not performed. Mentioned
in 20 percent of complaints.
Slow turnaroundShop took an inordinate amount of time to complete work,
or work was not completed on time. Mentioned in 15 percent of complaints.
Incorrect estimatesShops final bill was higher than original estimate.
Mentioned in seven percent of complaints.
Damaged vehicle or missing propertyCar was damaged while in the shop,
or customer reported personal property left in vehicle was lost or stolen
while car was in the shop. Mentioned in five percent of complaints.
Poor quality of partsThe part(s) replaced prematurely failed, or shop
chose to use inferior part(s) for job. Mentioned in two percent of complaints.
Difficult to get appointment. Mentioned in two percent of complaints.
District of Columbia Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs
4th Street, SW
Washington, DC 20024
District of Columbia Office of the Attorney General
441 4th Street, NW,
Washington, DC 20001
Fairfax County Department of Cable & Consumer Services
Fairfax, VA 22035
Howard County Office of Consumer Affairs
6751 Columbia Gateway Drive
Maryland Consumer Protection Division, Office of the Attorney General
St. Paul Place, 16th Floor
Baltimore, MD 21202
Montgomery County Office of Consumer Protection
100 Maryland Avenue, Suite
Rockville, MD 20850
Virginia Office of Consumer Affairs
Department of Agriculture and Consumer
102 Governor Street
Richmond, VA 23219
800-552-9963 or 804-786-2042
1411 K Street, NW, 10th Floor
Washington, DC 20005