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, 171 of the 510
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. Forty-two shops were rated
inferior for the overall quality of their work by at least one-fourth
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 $315 to $710. Hourly labor rates range from $70 to $149. 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 cars symptoms.
If possible, speak with the repair technician who will be working on your
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, immediately inform
the shop in writing.
Automakers continue to invent ways for cars to do more: Traction control,
smart suspensions, blind-spot sensors and camerassome can even park themselves.
Although new cars are technological marvels, unfortunately they cant (yet?)
repair themselves. When you need repairs or maintenance, you have to get
good old-fashioned service.
Our evaluations of 510 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 22,000 reviews by Washington 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.
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
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 shops 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, 42 of the 510
shops listed on our Ratings Tables were rated inferior (as opposed
to adequate or superior) for overall performance by at least one-fourth
of their surveyed customers. But there are also many good shops out there:
171 shops were rated superior for overall performance by 90 percent
or more of their surveyed customers.
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 the Better
Business Bureau (BBB) for a recent three-year period, the number of complaints
on file with local government offices of consumer affairs for a recent
two-year period, and complaint rates relative to the volume of work companies
For the counts of complaints reported for local government consumer 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, etc.).
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
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 1Customer Satisfaction at Shops with Different Complaint Histories
Another way to gauge a shops 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 easyabout
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 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 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 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 shops other mechanics, much less their diligence and honesty. And
certification of some mechanics doesnt 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 specialtysay,
engine repairyou need; 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, 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.
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 cars
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
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 hassles 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 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.
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 dont know what work is needed, call one or more shops and describe
the symptoms. Shops might be able to tell you over the phone whats likely
to be wrong and quote 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 estimate
in handand assuming that the diagnosis is correctcheck to see if the
shops 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 youll 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 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
shops quotes were 20 percent higher than the second shops.
Table 1 illustrates the range of prices we found. For most repairs, some
shops charged twice as much as nearby competitors.
Table 1Low, Average, and High Prices Quoted by Shops for Illustrative
|Description of job
|2008 Pontiac Vibe
Replace water pump
|2007 Ford Fusion SE
Replace starter motor
|2007 Dodge Caliber SXT
|2009 Honda CR-V
Replace right front axle assembly
|2009 Nissan Maxima 3.5 S
Replace front wheel brake pads and rotors
|2007 Toyota Camry XLE
Replace water pump
|2008 Nissan Maxima SE
Replace outer and inner CV joint boots and axle on right side
|2010 Volkswagen Jetta SE/SEL
Replace right front axle assembly
|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 84
percent of their surveyed customers, while shops with price comparison
scores above $113 received such favorable ratings from only 65 percent
of their surveyed customers.
Figure 2Customer Satisfaction with Quality of Work at Shops with Different
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 $116 or higher had average price
comparison scores about 19 percent higher than shops with hourly labor
rates of $85 or less.
Figure 3Average Price Comparison Scores at Shops with Different Labor
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,
adds a big markup to parts, or tacks on miscellaneous additional charges.
Before authorizing any work, find out what charges in addition to parts,
labor, and tax will appear on your bill. Many shops add ambiguous shop
charges (which purportedly cover things like grease, oil, rags, and hazardous
waste removal or recycling) that can significantly increase the final bill.
For example, when our shoppers obtained quotes for the replacement of a
water pump, some shops included shop charges as high as $30.
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 2How Dealers and Non-dealers Compare for Quality and Cost
|How Dealers and Non-dealers Compare for Quality and Cost
|Percent of surveyed customers who rated shops “superior” for ”overall performance”
|Average hourly labor rate
|Average price comparison score
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.
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 Honda, Acura, and Lexus models under new-car warranties had the
highest average ratings for overall performance on our customer survey.
Dealers that perform warranty work for Mini, Mazda, 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 4How Dealers that Do Warranty Work on Various Makes of Cars Compare
on Customer Satisfaction
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.
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 say only that 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 the service you get.
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 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 its 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 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 closer attention
if you go in between mid-morning and mid-afternoon, when things are usually
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
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 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 cant tell an alternator from a tailpipe, the
shop doesnt know itand cant be sure you wont show the parts to someone
If all the work you need is covered under a 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
performed 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.
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 shops 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 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 is a new one caused by something that
happened after the car left the shop.
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
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.
Throughout the Washington area, customers benefit from legislation regulating
auto repair shops. Maryland and Virginia have statewide auto repair laws.
Prince Georges and Montgomery counties and the District have laws of their
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, the customer has the right to have his or
her car returned in its original condition (if possible). In Montgomery
Countybut not in the Districtcustomers may be charged for work the shop
Time Estimates: All shops in the area are required to provide a time estimate
under roughly the same conditions that apply to cost estimates. A shop
may not exceed its time estimate except for reasons beyond its control.
But only the District specifies customer rights if the time estimate is
exceeded: they are the same rights customers 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 customers have a right to inspect the parts
covered by warranty.
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 others by a professional.
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 doesnt 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 rangeabout
180°Fafter a few minutes of driving.
Finally, the 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 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
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 quartbut dont overfill.
Your owners 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.
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 pastes chemical action work for a half hour, and then wash it
off with clear water.
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.
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.
State and Local Government Consumer Agencies
District of Columbia Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs
1100 4th Street, SW
Washington, DC 20024
District of Columbia Office of the Attorney General
441 4th Street, NW, #11455
Washington, DC 20001
Fairfax County Department of Consumer Affairs
12000 Government Center Parkway
Fairfax, VA 22035
Howard County Office of Consumer Affairs
6751 Columbia Gateway Drive
Columbia, MD 21046
Maryland Consumer Protection Division, Office of the Attorney General
200 St. Paul Place, 16th Floor
Baltimore, MD 21202
Montgomery County Office of Consumer Protection
100 Maryland Avenue, Suite 330
Rockville, MD 20850
Virginia Office of Consumer Affairs
Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services
102 Governor Street
Richmond, VA 23219
800-552-9963 or 804-786-2042
Better Business Bureau of Metropolitan Washington
1411 K Street, NW, 10th Floor
Washington, DC 20005