When you’re at the repair shop, ask as many thorough, intelligent questions about the repairs that need to be done, and physically present all your research. The more interest and intelligence you show, the less likely it is that the repair shop will try to overcharge or push unnecessary repairs on you. Your best protection is being informed and involved. Never ask questions like: "Do I need a tune up?" or "Do I need new tires?" It sends a strong signal that you’re uninformed, and serves as an open invitation for a shop to recommend services that you don’t need.
* Know your vehicle’s manufacturer recommended service schedule before you go in so that you know whether or not your vehicle is due for one of the major services, such as tune-ups, oil changes and tire rotations. Stick to that schedule—not one the shop may present/recommend.
* Answer any questions the repair shop has, but don‘t volunteer unnecessary information. Avoid saying things like "This car is used by my young daughter," "We're going on a long road trip," or worst of all, "Just fix whatever you think it needs." This is analogous to giving someone permission to charge away on your credit card.
* NEVER allow your repair shop to “repair as needed.” It’s an invitation to get ripped off. While the majority of reputable shops are honest, there have been documented incidences of shops damaging parts and then charging car owners for repairing them.
* Establish your rules upfront: nothing is to be repaired until you have seen the broken or worn part, and nothing is to be replaced or fixed until you have given your permission to do so. If you leave the shop’s premises, ask the mechanic NOT to begin any repair(s) without contacting you.
*Once you sign an estimate, they must adhere to it, and no work should be done without your authorization.
* Ask the mechanic to test drive the vehicle with you—so you can explain exactly what you’re experiencing, hearing, etc. A thorough test drive can make the difference between a right and wrong diagnosis.
* It would be ideal to physically be at the shop when they’re diagnosing – and even repairing—your vehicle. Staying put makes it harder for the shop to perform unnecessary repairs, but most of us can’t realistically do that, However, don’t do approvals and business over the phone. If they call you with extra repairs, demand a detailed explanation, and then check with the AutoMD.com fair price estimate to make sure the new estimate makes sense. Go back to the shop and talk to them directly and ask to see the physical evidence.
* Whether you stay or have to leave, you should always ask to physically see each diagnosed problem. You often have a legal right to see damaged parts. This ensures two things: One, they actually did replace the part (and didn't just clean the original part up and charge you for a replacement), and two, that the part actually needed to be replaced.
* Always request upfront that you will want all your old parts back—before any work is done. In certain states, like California, this is a binding request. If you come back later and ask for your old parts, many shops will have already disposed of them. The market is being deluged with cheap parts from China. Request name-brand replacements and ask to see all the proposed parts’ boxes before they start.
* Ask if any recommended repairs could safely be postponed. Some things are a must (to keep you safe and/or prevent further damage to your vehicle), but distinguishing between what’s critical and what you can wait on can save big bucks.
Things to Watch Out For
* Watch our for unnecessary double labor charges, i.e., with certain combinations of repairs, once one task is done, the other one essentially takes little or no time. For example, you get your alternator replaced and they charge full labor hours for replacing a belt, and you get your timing belt done and the shop charges full hours for replacing the water pump. The difference can be hours of labor that is outrageous to double-charge for.
* “Road hazard” warranties on tires can actually save money--you ruin your tires driving over a pothole, and your warranty replaces them free. But be aware of the terms: there can be hefty charges for alignments and suspension replacements in the fine print.
* Be especially on guard about estimates/parts used in brake jobs: many shops use cheap parts and mark them up. Good mechanics do not compromise on brake quality.
* Be skeptical about “unbelievable” deals like ads/offers promising $89 brake jobs. No repair shop makes money on that, but they’re going to make it up somewhere … and that somewhere is probably your wallet.
* Only buy tires when you need them: tires today have tread wear indicators built right in, which reveal when you’ve worn them down to 1/16th inch or less (the benchmark the Highway Patrol uses to write you up).
* Know the difference between a “transmission flush” and a “transmission fluid replacement”: your vehicle typically needs the fluid replacement every 30,000, 60,000 miles—but “transmission flushes” (often sold by the Quick Lubes) are almost never needed, and manufacturers don’t recommend them.
* Beware of repair shops that show you a transmission pan with metal particles in it, and then recommend a major job. The shavings are typically a symptom of normal wear.