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Avoid the Auto Shop Squeeze With These Simple Tips

If you don’t know a crescent wrench from an Allen wrench, have never changed a spark plug, or think a serpentine belt is something a snake uses to keep its pants up, chances are you’re not taking the DIY approach when it comes to vehicle repair. There’s nothing wrong with that–we all have scant free time that we’d rather not spend crawling under a car–but it does mean that when worse comes to worst, you’re going to have to make a visit to your local auto mechanic. For those who have a longstanding relationship with a reliable, honest mechanic, that’s often no big deal, but for the rest of us it can be an exercise in anxiety. Between shifty shops, exorbitant quotes, and suspect repair quality, auto mechanics have developed a bad reputation that, earned or not, can make drivers nervous about the whole process.

In reality, most auto mechanics are experienced, trustworthy professionals who are just trying to put in a honest day’s work. But the specter of the “bad mechanic” hovers over the whole industry, instilling a lack a confidence in drivers who have little choice but to throw themselves on the mercy of these jumpsuited automotive wizards. Granted, there certainly are some bad actors out there, which is why it’s important to make sure you’re not getting ripped off every time you hand over your keys. Join us as we share a few tips on how to avoid being taken advantage of at the mechanic and see how, with a little basic automotive knowledge and a few simple tricks, you can level the playing field when it comes to vehicle repairs and maintenance.

Do Your Research

Knowledge is power, and in the case of automotive repairs, money. Doing a little research can go a long way when it comes to getting the best price on an automotive repair, which is why the first stop on your repair journey should always be the World Wide Web. The internet is full of resources when it comes to advice on auto repair, including a number of sites that allow you to get a rough estimate of any repair costs. Sites like RepairPal, AutoMD,, and Autobytel allow users to search service and repair costs by inputting their specific make and model, and any other data that might be relevant to a repair. Walking into a mechanic’s shop with a good idea of what a repair should cost can be a vital negotiating tool, and one of the easiest ways to avoid feeling like you’re being ripped off. That said, it’s not a perfect system. If you have limited mechanical knowledge it can be tough to narrow down a potential problem to one easy Google search, so don’t be surprised when it turns out that you’ve misdiagnosed an issue.

Many of these automotive repair research sites also offer recommendations on local mechanics, comprehensive Q&A sections, as well as forums and comments sections that can be vital in shedding a little light on your current mechanical malady. Forums, in general, are a great resource, allowing long-time drivers of a specific make or model to trade stories, offer insights, and address FAQs unique to your particular vehicle. More mainstream websites like Reddit can also be a great resource, with subreddits like r/MechanicalAdvice boasting over 1.2 million members.

Double Check

An illuminated Check Engine light is often the first sign of automotive trouble, and can also be a great way to keep your mechanic honest. When your Check Engine light pops on, it means that your vehicle has detected an issue under the hood registered a Diagnostic Trouble Code (DTC). These five-digit alphanumeric codes, such as P0300, can be read by an On-Board Diagnostic II (OBD-II) reader, giving drivers a chance to diagnose a potential issue well before they set foot inside a mechanic’s shop. It will tell you that your P0300 code is a random misfire, for example. This presents a unique opportunity for drivers, who can essentially test the trustworthiness of their mechanic. Next time your Check Engine light pops on, stop by a local auto parts center where you’ll usually be able to get a free DTC reading, or invest $30 to $50 for your own OBD-II reader. The auto parts employee will give you a printout with the specific code and possible fixes, which will be your bait for the next part of the test. Make an appointment with your mechanic of choice, and have them run the same OBD-II diagnostic test. If they quote a wildly different DTC code or repair solution than the one you were given by the auto parts store or your own OBD-II reader, chances are you’re dealing with a less-than-ethical auto mechanic. If you’re feeling confrontational, you can always whip out the DTC report and see what they have to say for themselves, but in most cases you’re better off taking your business elsewhere.

This technique should only be attempted when dealing with a solid illuminated Check Engine light. If the light is blinking, sounding a chime, or otherwise trying to grab your attention in an alarming way, we would not recommend driving all around town to get a second opinion. A flashing Check Engine light often signals a severe, potentially catastrophic mechanical issue that should be dealt with as soon as possible.

A person is shown counting money for a vehicle repair bill.

Be a Man, or Bring One

We mean this one a bit facetiously, but the sad fact is that sexism is still an inevitable part of the automotive world. While the so-called “Pink Tax” is nothing new, it can really add up. According to a recent study by, women may pay as much as $25 more than men on each repair, and up to $7,800 more over the length of a vehicle’s lifespan. Not having usable pockets on your pants is one thing, but shelling out an extra $7,800 is a bridge too far. Almost 98 percent of car mechanics in the U.S. are men, making it hard for women to get a fair shake when it comes to repair and maintenance pricing, but there is one simple solution: just be a man. As sad as it may be, sending a male partner or friend in your place might net you a better quote than you’d get when walking into a shop as a woman. We’re not recommending that you repeat the process every time you need an oil change or tire rotation. One time is usually enough to know whether a shop is on the up-and-up or looking to take advantage of those it perceives as having less mechanical knowledge. That said, women do have one distinct advantage when it comes to automotive repairs. A study by Northwestern University found that 35 percent of women were successful when asking repair shops to lower a quote, while only 25 percent of men managed to land a discount.

Know Your Rights

In most respects, the law is on your side when it comes to automotive repairs. In an effort to protect consumers from the occasional predatory repair racket, the US government has introduced a number of laws, but few drivers are familiar with their rights. First off, it’s illegal for a mechanic to make a false or misleading statement about the need for parts, replacement, or repair service. They’re also barred from falsely stating that work has been done, or advertising goods and services without intent to sell them as advertised. Mechanics also can’t try to pass off secondhand or refurbished parts as new, so never be afraid to ask for an invoice next time you’re suspicious of a part’s origin or quality. Those completing repairs in an attempt to stay on the right side of a vehicle’s warranty should also be familiar with the Magnusson-Moss Warranty Act. This bars dealerships from requiring that regular maintenance be performed at the dealership itself, or with a specific manufacturer’s replacement parts, in order to prevent invalidating a warranty.

Cut Your Losses

Shopping around and comparing prices is the easiest way to ensure you’re getting the best possible deal, but too often, drivers go with the first quote they hear in hopes of alleviating their automotive headache as soon as possible. If a quote seems suspiciously high at the first auto shop you visit, don’t be afraid to ask for your keys and make a beeline for one of the mechanic’s competitors. No matter how bad or dangerous a potential mechanical issue might be, a mechanic can’t legally stop you from taking possession of your vehicle before any work has been performed. That’s not to say they won’t threaten just such an action, but the law is on your side when it comes to vehicles that haven’t yet been worked on. The mechanic might note on the work order or receipt that the vehicle was in an unsafe condition when it left the shop, but that’s about the extent of their power.

Get a Second Opinion

Standing up for yourself can be uncomfortable, but all too often necessary, in the world of automotive repair. If you suspect that you’ve been taken advantage of, or are simply suspicious of a recent quote or repair job, there are several avenues you can take. If you feel you’ve been overcharged beyond the initial estimate, ask for a detailed report on the repair that includes the reason for the upcharge, and file it along with the original estimate, final bill and any other paperwork you receive. Also ask the mechanic to return any old parts that were replaced, as they could become vital pieces of evidence down the line. With paperwork in hand, make an appointment with another local mechanic and get a second opinion on the recent repair. Ask for a written report of the assessment, and if there are any major discrepancies, you just gained some significant bargaining power. If sufficiently damning, that second opinion could net you a significant discount from the original mechanic or, in the worst-case scenario, become a compelling piece of evidence to use in later negotiations or legal proceedings.

Don’t Pay

It’s every driver’s nightmare scenario. You shell out big bucks for an auto repair, and it either fails to fix the issue, or turns out to be outrageously higher than the original estimate. If only you had a major financial institution on your side to help smooth out the situation. Well, if you used a credit card to pay for the repair, you do. Disputing a charge with your credit card company is a great way to gum up the works and delay payment until the issue can be resolved in a fair and transparent way, but it does require a little busywork. You’ll have to file a dispute within 60 days of receiving the credit card bill, and include a dispute letter (The Federal Trade Commission provides a handy template), receipts, a written second opinion, and any other relevant documents you might have. The credit card company will get right to work, investigating the claim and interviewing the mechanic before ruling on the disputed charge.

This loophole can be a valuable tool when it comes to standing up for your rights as a driver, but it really only works if you’ve paid by credit card. If you’ve paid by cash or check, you’ll get no such protection, and could even lose access to your vehicle. If you refuse to pay a bill on a questionable repair and didn’t use a card, the mechanic has a legal right to keep your vehicle until you’ve paid. You can always file a complaint with the Attorney General’s Office, Better Business Bureau, or take the mechanic to small claims court, but we’d just recommend charging all repairs and maintenance work to a credit or debit card instead.

Getting ripped off at the mechanic isn’t an inevitable part of car ownership, but it can often feel that way. If you’re not willing to put in any work when it comes to comparing prices, getting a second opinion, translating DTCs, or asserting your legal rights, it’s hard to blame a mechanic for taking advantage of the free market. If you feel that you’re in a toxic relationship with your current mechanic, just know that there are plenty of other fish in the sea. If you’re considering a switch or are new to the area, ask around for recommendations. Most people will be happy to share their auto repair highlights and horror stories, allowing you to capitalize on their experience and simplify the process of sourcing a new mechanic. A good mechanic can be hard to find, so once you do, it’s important to maintain the relationship. Always pay on time and make them your one-stop shop for all things automotive, from simple maintenance and oil changes to big-ticket repairs and the like. This will not only help to establish trust, it’ll also allow the mechanic to get you know your vehicle inside-and-out, which can be vital when it comes to heading off problems or diagnosing repairs.