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Best tips to avoid mechanics ripping you off

Follow our simple tips to protect your wallet, car, and sanity.

We’ve all heard stories about unexpected extras being added to vehicle repair or service bills, about cars coming back from the workshop in worse condition than they were when they went in – or going in and staying there for what seems like ridiculous lengths of time.

Mechanics -- or ‘automotive service technicians’ as they’re officially called these days – are often the source of complaints from readers who believe they’ve been overcharged or underserviced.

Added to this, few vehicle owners understand what a mechanic’s job entails, which can lead to doubts over service bill totals, or the fear of being ripped off.  But just a few simple pointers can put you on more confident ground when dealing with a mechanic.

Don't let them scare you

If your mechanic delivers a diagnosis with a line like "I couldn't let you drive away with it like that," make sure you ask why to ensure that the repair is completely necessary. Yes, it may be them trying to save your life, but it also might be them trying to pressure you into agreeing to expensive work on the spot.

Shop around on repairs

Shop around on both price and second opinions for repairs. And if you’re doubtful about a diagnosis for a repair, do the same thing – seek a second opinion. Even a third or fourth opinion.

A bit of time spent on the phone and seeing other mechanics could save you hundreds – even thousands – of dollars off your final bill.

You can also see if other readers have experienced the same car problem by searching Carsguide’s ‘Ask Smithy’ Q&A   – just add your make and model to the keyword field on the left of the page to see all the problems we already know about. If you come across a reader’s car having similar symptoms toy yours, it could be valuable information to know when talking to the mechanic.

Go with your gut

If your first impression of a workshop isn't 100 per cent, don't be afraid to try another option before committing to any work. If your intial greeting isn't up to scratch or the workshop looks a bit too messy, move on. If the staff don't show you respect, they're obviously not too keen for your business, or to give your car the red carpet treatment your money deserves. 

Help isolate a problem

If you're visiting the mechanic to fix a specific problem, do your best to identify when the problem is evident. For example, if you hear a grinding noise when turning, does it happen when turning left or right? Does it happen when going uphill, downhill, or at certain speeds? Can you feel the grinding through the steering wheel? Mechanics have a limited amount of time to test your car before repairs, so this can help ensure the problem gets solved. You don't want to have to go back for a second crack at it.

Don't skimp on cheap brake parts

Make sure that replacement brake pads or rotors match the quality of the parts fitted to your car when new. You may be presented with cheaper options, but these will rarely match the braking capability of the original spec items, and can easily be the difference between being involved in accident or avoiding one.

Know your scheduled service items

Routine service items are all listed in your owner’s manual against each service interval. So, read the list and make it clear you understand what it includes before any service.  Check for any surprise extras on the invoice as soon as you get it – and certainly before paying. Question anything on the invoice that you don’t understand, and your mechanic should be happy to explain.

Ask to be notified of surprise costs

Its perfectly fair to ask a mechanic to call you to alert you of any surprise costs that may crop up during a routine service. If you're on a budget - like most of us - you'll want to know if that $150 service suddenly includes a $300 water pump replacement on top. It's also wise to ask if this extra repair can wait until the next service, or whenever you can afford it. 

Read the fine print on capped servicing

The good news on servicing is that many brands are starting to offer capped or fixed-price servicing – which takes the guesswork out of vehicle maintenance costs. But be sure to read the fine print, as these plans can vary in their duration and coverage. Some will cover a fixed number of services, while others will cover the duration of your new-car warranty.  We’ve heard of capped-price servicers ‘upselling’ extras like higher grades of oil, adding to the final bill.

See the important points of capped servicing here

Look beyond the seller for service

Just as for a repair, shop around on prices for servicing. Once you know what’s entailed in your scheduled service, make some calls to get price estimates.

If you drive a brand that doesn’t have fixed-price servicing, costs among agents can vary. Don’t feel compelled to service your car at the dealer you bought it from. Many stand-alone workshops are qualified to service your car without affecting your warranty.

But double-check that they can offer written proof they’re qualified to do a warranty-safe service – don’t take a verbal assurance.

Service your car on time

This is the ‘stitch in time’ truism. Service intervals are set to keep your car in top nick, so be sure to keep an eye on your ‘next service’ date or kilometres, to avoid damage from undetected problems – and resulting costly repairs. Many modern cars will remind you via their trip computer display -- but not all. Most mechanics will leave a sticker in the top corner of the windscreen with these details.

Also, get any issues rectified swiftly. A problem that is ignored is likely to worsen, and cause that repair bill to ramp up quick smart. Similarly, your dashboard 'check engine' light should not be ignored.

See the important points of servicing your car here

A clean car is a respected car

It sounds too simple, but it’s true. It’s always a good policy to wash and clean out your car before taking it in for work. If your car looks like you care for it, there’s a better chance a mechanic will treat it with more love than if it were filthy.

Don’t wait for them to call

If your mechanic hasn’t called to let you know your car is ready by the agreed time, don’t be afraid to make a polite call to check on things. Mechanics will be more focused on fixing cars than your own need to get the kids to school tomorrow. There may have been problems in getting it finished on time, and won’t mind you give them a gentle reminder.


In summary:

- Shop around on repairs

- Go with your gut

- Help isolate a problem

- Watch out for scare tactics

- Don't skimp on cheap brake parts

- Know your scheduled service items

- Ask to be notified of surprise costs

Read the fine print on capped servicing

- Look beyond the seller for service

Service your car on time

- A clean car is a respected car

- Don’t wait for them to call


This reporter is on Twitter: @Mal_Flynn