Auto Repair: Don’t believe everything they tell you

It pays to shop around, and to do your research. There are a lot good, honest repair shops out there, and probably even a few dealerships – but it always pays to take what you’re told by a mechanic with a grain of salt until you’ve done your homework.

Here are a few examples taken from personal experience.

AAMCO Transmissions, California – 1987

Hopping on the freeway in San Diego after a lovely vacation to Disneyland and Sea World with our little family of 5 in our Buick Skylark, whZZZzzzz, the transmission goes out. On the strength of a robust advertising campaign, we had our car towed to a local “Double A – beep beep! – M C O” dealer, where we were told that the entire transmission needed to be replaced: $2400.00, please. In 1987, that was not chump change by any means. Oh, and since they had already pulled the transmission, they wanted $750.00 to put it back in if we didn’t like their estimate.

Results of research: After a bit of digging in the local Yellow Pages – alas, the Internet didn’t exist back then – we found Interstate Transmissions who came and towed our car, plus the transmission and appurtenant bits and pieces in a box – and put us back on the road for $1,200 with a lifetime warranty as well. A couple of years later the transmission failed again, and an equivalent shop in Utah honored the warranty, repairing the transmission at no cost. I also learned why AAMCO stands for “All Automatics Must Come Out,” and never gave them the time of day again. Savings: $1,200 or $2,400, depending on how you look at it.

The following examples are all based on my 2007 Prius, which has been a good and faithful workhorse but which is now coming to the end of her economically viable life. At 240,000 miles, I think I’ve gotten my money’s worth. Good Molly.¹

Big O Tires, Utah – around 2015

Took the car in for a snow-tire changeover. Technician takes me over to the car and does “Grampa’s bounce test” on the back bumper. “Struts are shot, you should replace them. The parts aren’t cheap, it will be about $1,200.00 for each side.”

The price alone would have been enough to make me go do some research, even if my “BS-Meter” hadn’t already redlined.

Results of research: Average 2019 prices for strut replacement on both sides runs about $700.00, including alignment. I never had the work done. At 235,000 miles in 2019, the suspension is still just fine. According to a good article at MarketWatch, “At some service places, staffers (service writers, techs, even managers) are paid partly on commission,” so that could explain the stratospheric and unnecessary quote. In the interest of fairness, on other occasions that I went there I got quick work at a fair price. Savings: $2,400.00

Toyota dealership, Maine – 2018

My hybrid battery finally gave up the ghost after 11 years. Toyota quoted me $3500.00 for a new hybrid battery.

Results of Research: Most local shops wouldn’t touch it. Found a rebuilt battery for around $900.00 at Hometown Hybrids in Texas, free shipping both ways (returning the core) and some great YouTube videos showing step-by-step on replacing the battery. Took me about 4 hours, in and out. Runs like new. Savings: $2,500.00

VIP Tires and Service, Maine, 2018

I developed an exhaust leak and thought my manifold gasket had gone bad. Technician at VIP told me I had a bad manifold gasket and a crack in the exhaust system near the heat shield. “Need to replace the whole muffler, we can do both jobs for $649.00.”

Results of research: Muffler was just fine, thank you, and there was no crack in the pipe. Savings: $649.00

Meineke, Maine, 2018

Meineke replaced the manifold gasket for me without charging me for parts because I had had it done last year there as well. That was good. Replacing the gasket didn’t solve the problem, though, and I was still getting a lot of noise and exhaust from up front. After some more analysis, technician says “Here’s where we start,” and shows me an estimate to replace my catalytic converter for $810.82.

Results of Research:  Just out of curiosity, I checked with the dealership. I had been throwing a P0420 code (“catalytic converter operating below threshold”)² for a long time:

At this point, I figured that it was probably time to have it replaced, especially if I was considering selling the car. Toyota dealership quoted me around $2,600 for the job. Found a direct-fit converter online for $104.00, and a local mechanic installed it for me for $176.00. Savings: $2,320 or $530, depending.

Toyota Dealership, Maine, 2019

My rear wiper motor gave up the ghost; the local Toyota dealership at first declined to quote me a price for repair, saying – as they always do – “You’ll need to bring it in for a diagnostic.” Now, there’s a certain level at which this makes sense; you can’t really diagnose problems over the phone, especially when granny has a problem and the solution might be one of a dozen things. But in this case I knew what I wanted – a price to replace the motor. So they quoted me around $500.00, with the caveat that this would just be for the motor replacement ($146.00 for the part, $250.00 for labor), but if the problem was in the wiring or the switch, it could be a lot more, which I understand. Kinda.

Results of Research: Found a motor at a junkyard for $30.00. Watched a YouTube video showing how to replace it. Took me half an hour – most of that time was spent looking for tools in various places in the house. So Toyota wanted to charge me two hours of labor for what would have been a 15-minute job. Savings: $470.00


The takeaway from these experiences is always get a second opinion, and if you don’t like that one, get a third. Research parts and labor costs online, do what you can by yourself, and keep poking away at the issue for as much time as you have until you’re satisfied you’re getting an honest solution.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

————————————

¹ Although, for the sake of reddit karma, I was really hoping I could get her to 280085.

² Some free advertising for the FIXD OBD-II Active Car Health Monitor: This little plug-in device monitors your car’s health continually and transmits information to an app on your phone. You can clear any codes with the tap of a button, and keep track of what may actually be wrong in your engine or exhaust system, saving you a lot of money for diagnostic charges (although a lot of auto parts stores will check your codes for free as well.) Best $60.00 I ever spent.

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