How to Deal with an Auto Repair Shop
Last updated in May 2017
Our Ratings Tables will help you select a top-quality, reasonably-priced auto repair shop.
Once you find a great shop, follow good business practices in dealing with it, especially on your first visit.
Your ability to get your point across can help you get your car fixed and avoid unnecessary repairs. 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. But if you don’t know, don’t guess; simply describe the symptoms. If you mention a specific repair—say, fixing the water pump—the shop may check or even replace it—and then go on to fix what is actually wrong (possibly worn out alternator bearings).
- Describe symptoms. Note changes in the way the car sounds, smells, and drives since the problem started. Describe how long you’ve had the issue and when it happens: in hot or cold weather, when the engine is hot or cold, at high or low speeds. If the problem is hard to describe, ask the shop to have someone take a drive with you.
- Write it down. Make a list of the symptoms or problems you want to check or fix, and leave it with or email it to the shop.
- Go to the shop when it is less busy. You’ll get closer attention if you visit between mid-morning and mid-afternoon, when things are usually least hectic.
- Talk with the mechanic who will work on your car. Service write-up personnel at dealerships and large shops often know very little about car repair. Discussing symptoms directly with the technician who will work on your car will improve the likelihood that you get good work.
Get a Written Estimate and Work Order
If you know what repairs are needed, ask for a price and have the shop write a description of the work and the price on a 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
Before you pay, the shop should give you an invoice including its name and address, your name, and your car’s license number and mileage. It should indicate the labor charge; name, number, and price of each part replaced; and whether parts are new or rebuilt.
Keep your invoice. If the repair is unsatisfactory you might need it to prove you paid for the work. Also, if another shop later tries to charge you for a recently performed repair, you’ll have a reminder that it might not be needed.
The invoice should indicate the shop’s warranty. If not, have it added, both for labor and any parts that were installed.
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 on your copy of the invoice that you brought the problem to the shop’s attention. 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 verbal 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 pledge and believes the problem is a new one caused by something that happened after the car left the shop.
Despite your precautions, you and your shop may still have disagreements. If so, you have several forms of recourse.
The first step: Speak to the service manager or owner. If you don’t get results, you can complain to government consumer agencies, manufacturers’ zone offices, and the Better Business Bureau.
If you paid by credit card, and you tried to work out the problem with the shop but it wouldn’t make things right, dispute the repair charges with your credit card company. The Fair Credit Billing Act and policies of the credit card companies provide you with strong protections that allow you to get refunds for unsatisfactory purchases.
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 George’s 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 for the 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 estimate, customers have a right to have their car returned in its original condition (if possible). In Montgomery County—but not in the District—customers 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 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 more—and 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.