4:18 PM EDT, September 2, 2011
For consumers, information is power. But smart shoppers can't be expected to be experts in all categories of buying. That's why one of the biggest benefits of using the Internet is to lift the veil of ignorance that leads to bad purchases.
A prime example is car repairs.
Perhaps no other area of spending makes consumers feel more vulnerable. Unless you know your way around a modern vehicle engine, you likely won't have a clue whether your vehicle truly needs a repair suggested by a mechanic and what a reasonable cost is for the repair. Peace of mind comes to only those who have a trusted auto mechanic who will tell them the truth and quote them a fair price.
In a down economy, more people are choosing to repair the car they have rather than buy a new one. "What you're seeing is consumers holding onto their cars longer," said Shane Evangelist, chief executive officer of U.S. Auto Parts Network. "Consumers are essentially skipping a buying cycle."
Nearly 80 percent of drivers plan to put at least 50,000 more miles on their current vehicle than they put on their previous one. And 55 percent say they plan to drive their current car "until it dies," according to a recent survey by AutoMD.com, a car-repair information site owned by U.S. Auto Parts Network.
The problem with car repairs is that prices for the same job can vary widely. For example, sample quotes to replace a water pump and timing belt on a 1999 Ford Contour ranged from about $400 to about $1,000, according to Consumers' Checkbook, which rates repair shops in seven U.S. regions. Interestingly, Consumers' Checkbook found an overall reverse relationship between price and quality. Lower-priced shops were generally rated better for quality.
Some car owners prefer to take their vehicle to a dealer for maintenance and repair. Keep in mind that independent shops tend to be less expensive, and consumers are generally more satisfied with them, Consumer Reports surveys show.
Consumers looking for a repair shop and some automotive intelligence can get help online. Here's how.
Repair information sites. Several relatively new websites can be helpful. Try AutoMD.com, RepairPal.com and DriverSide.com for general information on car repairs, including diagnosing your car's problem before you take it to a shop. The repair sites also have forums for asking specific questions about your vehicle.
Particularly helpful is estimating prices for specific repair jobs in your area. For example, Repair
Pal.com says replacing an alternator on a 2006 Acura TL would cost $439 to $497 in one particular metropolitan area. DriverSide estimates a repair cost of $471. AutoMD.com estimates it would cost about $464. While price estimates differ, they're in the same ballpark and give you a frame of reference. You know that if a local shop quotes you $175, it's suspiciously low, and $900 is outrageously high.
AutoMD estimates it would cost $263 if you replaced the alternator yourself, assuming you knew how and had the tools. All the sites have do-it-yourself repair guides.
AutoMD also has a "negotiator" function. AutoMD will call repair shops near you and e-mail price quotes to you. It will even set up the repair appointment. Evangelist said the company has issued more than 6,000 quotes, and the average price variance is nearly $250 for the same job on the same car on the same day. "A little knowledge goes a long way in your car repairs," Evangelist said.
RepairPal has a section, called MyCar, for tracking repairs to your car and being alerted to recalls.
Also helpful are free smartphone apps from AutoMD and RepairPal. If you have a smartphone, they can help you make waiting-room decisions about car repairs; is the price you were just quoted fair? Apps can also help when your car breaks down in an unfamiliar area. The RepairPal app says it will help you locate the nearest tow-truck services, and both apps will help find nearby repair shops. RepairPal has apps for iPhone and Android, while AutoMD is currently for iPhone only.
Remember these sites are just tools and provide reference points. The diagnoses and price quotes can be inaccurate for a variety of reasons. You still have to strive to be a smart consumer when deciding on a repair.
Repair-shop reviews. "The only way to keep down the pain of auto repair is to choose a high-quality shop. No amount of caution, communicating, or complaining will make up for starting with a second-rate shop," contends Consumers' Checkbook, online at checkbook.org.
There are a number of ways to check out service providers, such as auto-repair shops. Angieslist.com has user ratings for repair shops nationwide. It costs about $6 per month, depending on region and subscription term. Yelp.com is among the free sites to offer user reviews of repair shops. AAA also has a database of its approved shops, at aaa.com.
Low-tech ways to save. The old-fashioned method of finding a repair shop — seeking recommendations from friends, relatives or neighbors — is a good idea. If you're worried that a service manager is suggesting unnecessary maintenance, consult the owner's manual, which will detail what you need, experts say. You can also look for mechanic certifications and repair shops. Consumers' Checkbook praised mechanic certification programs by the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (ASE) and certification of shops by AAA. But oddly, those credentials — sometimes displayed in the shop — did not correlate with better prices or service, according to ratings by Consumers' Checkbook. So you want a certified mechanic and shop, but don't let it be the only factor.
If you're especially wary of a shop that's completing a repair on your vehicle, tell the service manager that you want the old parts back. And you want the boxes the replacement parts came in, Evangelist suggests. That does two things. First, it makes it less likely that the garage will do an unnecessary repair and hand you back a working part. Second, asking for boxes makes it more likely the shop is using an original new part and not an aftermarket part or reconditioned one, unless you agreed to use one.
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