Understanding the Shop Estimate and Repair-ese
You should never authorize ANY work on your car until you understand exactly what repairs the mechanic proposes to do—and why. You must insist on a full, written, broken-down estimate—in person, and on paper—to analyze, and compare with your AutoMD.com estimate and, hopefully, a few other estimates from your short list of pre-screened shops.
Why? Because estimates for the exact same job can vary wildly by city/region and within that city: a recent survey revealed that repair shop quotes in the majority of American cities for the same job could vary by more than 150%. If you live in the top 50 cities in the US, click here to see how your city stacks up for “Fair Repair.”
Repair estimates can be confusing. You need to understand the common language shops use, and how to decipher a typical estimate/invoice. It is very important that you analyze the components making up the grand total, to avoid getting ripped off.
All estimates should include a clear breakdown of:
- the parts to be used and specific prices
- labor charges
- miscellaneous charges (like shop supplies)
- flat fees (those not broken down into parts and labor)
- a summary of the total estimate
COMPARE EACH MAJOR COMPONENT TO THE BREAKDOWN ON YOUR AUTO MD ESTIMATE. Again, AutoMD.com sets the benchmark for: 1) how many hours it should take to fix 2) average local labor rate/hour 3) what the total labor component costs 4) what parts cost 5) estimated lowest price in your area.
Dissecting an Auto Repair Estimate:
Your written estimate will typically include the following Basic Repair Estimate Components:
- Customer/Vehicle Information
- Miscellaneous Charges
- Flat Fees
- Summary of Charges
1) Customer and Vehicle Information
In a garden-variety estimate, the top part simply contains your personal information and your vehicle’s specifics: year, make, model, mileage, etc., as well as the symptoms you are experiencing/the repair you are requesting.
2) Auto Parts
Parts are usually listed with a brief description, as well as the quantity, and the price.
There are four types of parts:
- New OEM (parts specifically made by/for your manufacturer). Dealers usually install these parts, although independent shops will use them too.
- New aftermarket parts: Not made by the OEM, and they can span the quality spectrum from top-notch to poor. Note the brand and where they’re made, e.g. whether parts from China or made in USA.
- Remanufactured parts: These are OE (original equipment) parts rebuilt, and they can be entirely comparable in quality to original OE parts.
- Salvaged/Used Parts: Less utilized than the first three, these are parts purchased by the shop from a salvage yard.
Tip: To determine if the parts estimate/component is too high, you first must determine exactly what type of parts are being used. With OEM parts (typically used by dealers), you should never pay more than MSRP. Premium, new aftermarket parts tend to be similarly priced across the major brands. Used/salvaged part prices can vary quite a bit.
Once you know the parts the shop suggests, the Internet, once again, is your ally. You can search pricing for the exact parts’ names online at sites like AutoPartsWarehouse.com , PepBoys or AutoZone. And since dealers purchase OEM parts directly online today, you can even find the catalogues dealers use to order, with the MSRP for that make/model part. And even salvage yards post their parts inventory/prices online today, so you can establish a reasonable “middle price” for that part the shop is using.
3) Labor Costs:
Auto repair labor costs are billed in tenths. (So 2.5 equals two hours and a half, etc.) While labor rates typically range from $50 to $120 an hour (at the higher end for dealerships), the range can be even greater.
Labor times (the estimated time that the job will take) are typically generated from “established industry guidelines,” which can be inflated or abused.
Make sure you verify the shop’s labor rate, because this is the area that is most often abused by repair shops and that can determine if you are being charged fairly or not. Unfortunately, most repair shops simply don’t list their labor rate, so it is critical that you pinpoint it before authorizing the work on your vehicle.
Tip: If you don’t see the labor rate clearly stated on the estimate, ask directly for it. Beware of explanations/language that involves a “labor matrix,” which is a tactic that shops can use to manipulate labor costs. The upshot: you can end up paying significantly more per hour than the posted rate if you don’t clarify before authorizing the work.
* Revisit AutoMD.com’s Shop Finder , which shows labor rates-per-hour for the repair shops in your zip code, to compare
To ensure you’re being charged properly for labor, you need to multiply the number of hours billed (which is also often not itemized) by the shop’s labor rate.
Most labor descriptions are poorly written and hard to decipher. Ask LOTS of questions, so you understand the labor rate, the hours estimated for the job—and why you’re being charged for them.
Tip: Demand a clear labor description, which should look like this: Replace Timing belt, all necessary components removed to access timing belt, replaced water pump and timing belt tensioner with customer’s permission while replacing timing belt added .5h to labor and price of parts added. Reassembled all components, topped off all fluids and checked serpentine belt. Test drove vehicle to verify repair. Recommended for customer to replace serpentine belt.
4) Miscellaneous Charges
The lion’s share of your estimate/invoice will be parts and labor, but there can be “miscellaneous charges,” which can include things like hazardous waste disposal fees, supplies like rags, chemicals, etc. They’re often itemized separately at the bottom.
Be aware that very few of these “extras” are actually needed during a typical repair. Make sure you’re charged for actual items, services used—and that it’s not calculated on labor hours billed—which many shops do.
5) Flat Fees
You may see a charge for “flat fees.” These could include a service, like an alignment, which isn’t broken down into parts and labor—making it difficult to determine the fair price.
Tip: “Flat fees” can be synonymous with “menu selling.” You might see: “tune-up, $99.” Don’t agree to/pay for unnecessary services: follow your manufacturer’s maintenance schedule as your guide.
6) Summary of Charges
Typically the grand total, or “summary of charges,” is listed at the bottom right-hand side of the invoice. Re-tally it carefully against the itemized charges to make sure the math adds up.
Written Estimates vs. Actual Invoice: No repairs other than those you authorized on the estimate should show up on your final invoice. However, the final invoice may include other charges called “Sublet” or “HazMat.” A “Sublet” charge is when the shop uses another vendor to fix your car—e.g., a glass company that replaces your windshield. A “HazMat” charge may include waste oil or other “hazardous material” disposal fees.
Tip: Make sure each charge is justified. Again, the shop often calculates them based on a formula based on total labor time, rather than actual utilization.