No one ever looks forward to getting their car repaired, but given enough time, it’s an inevitable certainty. You can’t avoid repairs, but you can take some steps to reduce the amount they set you back. When you feel a knock, hear a squeal or notice a rattle, do the following before you drop your car off at the shop — and prevent the most expensive repairs in the first place with a few proactive tips.
Last updated: March 11, 2020
Know Your Car
One of the best ways to save money on repairs is to do something you should do anyway no matter what you drive: Learn a little about your vehicle. Check out the manufacturer specs online and get to know your manual to prevent costly repairs and unnecessary wear and tear in the first place. That includes things like ground clearance, which tells you how much water you can cross without flooding, and towing capacity, which tells you how much you can pull without damaging your engine.
Another thing you should be doing anyway is driving well — and this, too, can make repairs both less frequent and less severe. During the break-in period of the first 1,000 miles, drive under 55 mph when you can and try not to tow anything. For the life of the car, accelerate slowly, don’t hold the wheel to the extreme right or left when you turn, shift to neutral at red lights and don’t race your engine when it’s very hot or very cold outside.
Know Your Warranty
Dig out your warranty — or call the dealership with your vehicle identification number — to learn if you’re still covered by a bumper-to-bumper warranty, drivetrain warranty or both. Find out how much longer you’re covered under either or both, exactly how long your warranties last, exactly what they cover and exactly what’s required of you to keep your warranties in good standing. While it lasts, your warranty is your best protection against breaking the bank on costly repairs.
Protect Your Warranty
If you are under warranty, protect your protection by not doing or failing to do anything that voids your warranty agreement. That means getting your car serviced on a regular schedule and keeping detailed records of those service appointments no matter who does the work. Using an aftermarket or recycled part won’t void your warranty in and of itself, but if one is installed incorrectly or does other damage to your car, be aware that those repairs might not be covered.
Fight if You’re Denied
If you bring your car in for repairs while it’s still under warranty and the service manager denies your warranty claim and you believe that you should have been covered, go with your gut. Go to another dealer before you pay anything or contact the manufacturer. If all else fails, you can file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, your state attorney general or your local consumer protection office to fight for your money.
Learn How To Fix What’s Fixable
Good driving, basic maintenance and warranty management can go a long way in preventing outsized repair bills. You can also, however, save real money by taking on the many repairs that are DIY. Family Handyman lists more than 100 “super-simple” car repairs you can do yourself, and while “super simple” is a subjective term, most people can change their air filters, fill their own tires with air, maintain their own spares and even replace their own headlights and more without paying a mechanic to do it for them.
If Nothing Else, Change Your Oil …
Oil changes can cost less than $50 or more than double that amount with top-quality synthetics and a new filter — but regular oil changes are well worth the money. Without them, your lubricating oil will convert to black sludge and every system in your car will run poorly. Eventually, you’ll kill your engine and meet the most expensive repairs in the automobile universe face to face.
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… But Not Too Often
Many dealers and auto shops will recommend an oil change every 3,000 miles — they’ll even put a little sticker on your car with the mileage so you don’t forget. That was long the standard, but thanks to modern engines and high-tech petroleum-refinement, 3,000-mile oil changes are generally wasteful by a multiplier of at least two. Always go with manufacturer recommendations as laid out in your owner’s manual. You’ll likely find that you can go for 7,000 miles or even as many as 10,000 between changes.
Do Your Homework on Repair Costs
Before you take your car in for any repair, get an idea of what that exact repair should cost for your exact car. RepairPal offers a reliable repair cost calculator, as do AAA and Kelley Blue Book. Just answer a few questions about your car and the type of repair you think you need and you’ll see what you can expect to pay — knowledge is a good defense against mechanics who are prone to overcharging.
Do Your Research on Mechanics
When shopping around for mechanics, do your normal due diligence like checking their ratings on popular review sites, but also make an effort to get industry-specific. Car forums like Edmunds Forums and AutomotiveForums.com offer real car talk from real car owners. The discussions there are often unrefined, but they can give you an idea of what actual people experienced at the mechanics you’re considering.
Use Social Media to Your Advantage
Social media is for more than just posting pictures of your fondues and ferrets — it’s a great way to get the real scoop on the goings-on at some of the mechanics you might be thinking about using for repairs. Check out reviews on the mechanic’s social profiles and also reach out to your own network to ask around for word-of-mouth feedback on local auto shops and dealerships.
Look For the AAA Seal of Approval
AAA works with thousands of mechanics across the country, and while it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re great mechanics who are going to give you the best price, it does mean that they’ve been strictly vetted by AAA. If you take your car to a AAA-certified shop, you’ll know that you’re working with someone who has earned the approval of the largest automobile club in America and that losing that seal of approval is not a risk most of them would take just to get a little gravy by upcharging you for repairs.
Insist On ASE Certification
A lack of AAA approval shouldn’t necessarily be a deal breaker, but ASE certification definitely should be. ASE stands for the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence, a nonprofit that represents the gold standard in vehicle repair and service testing. The organization has been the leader in vetting auto professionals for nearly half a century, and you should not visit a mechanic that hasn’t earned ASE certification.
Run a Better Business Bureau Search
It’s a good idea to check with the Better Business Bureau before you conduct business with any person or company — including a mechanic. It’s simple, it’s free and the private, nonprofit organization is the leader in marketplace trust. Just type in the name and location of your business, and you’ll see not only their Better Business Bureau letter grade but also if there are any open complaints against the business or any negative reviews. Better Business Bureau also has an auto warranty complaint tool.
Go With a Local Shop
According to sources like Edmunds and CarGurus, there are definitely benefits to servicing your car at a dealership — they tend to be faster, they have more technical expertise and provide ongoing training to their technicians. At a local shop, however, you’ll have the chance to build a lasting relationship, which is crucial when it comes to auto repair. As an added benefit, they tend to be cheaper than dealerships.
Go With a Brand Specialist
Another major advantage of a dealership is manufacturer training and brand-specific expertise. If you do go with a local shop instead, make sure to choose a garage that specializes in your particular brand. According to Consumer Reports, they’re more likely to have the latest training and equipment specific to your make, and therefore, more likely to do the best work and to give you the best price.
Get a Second (or Third) Opinion
When you’re conducting your research, settle on a few mechanics who you think might be a good fit and visit all of them, maybe two or three in total. Once you get an estimate from the first, do the same with the rest. The cheapest quote isn’t necessarily the best deal — it’s the work quality that counts — but you’ll leave knowing that you got the best deal possible from a mechanic who you’ve researched and have reason to trust.
Ask About Aftermarket Parts
One of the reasons independent shops are often cheaper than dealerships is because most of them use aftermarket parts, as opposed to original equipment manufacturer (OEM) parts, which dealers use exclusively. Aftermarket parts are cheaper — often much cheaper — than OEM parts, and they’re designed to function the same way and are generally the same level of quality, sort of like generic medicine is to prescriptions.
Consider a Mobile Mechanic
Mobile mechanics like YourMechanic come to your car instead of you bringing your car to a garage. They offer transparent pricing and an undeniably more convenient business model — but convenience comes at a cost, right? Not necessarily. Because they don’t have the overhead costs associated with owning a garage, mobile mechanic prices are actually often lower.
Be Wary of 'Entire System' Warnings
There are certain situations when a mechanic has to replace the entire system, whatever that system may be. In many cases, however, a single repair will do the trick and the mechanic — whether it’s an honest mistake or not — will claim that the whole system needs to be replaced. The North Carolina Consumers Council gives the example of a hole in the exhaust that could be fixed with sealant compelling a mechanic to convince a customer that the entire exhaust system needs to be replaced. When you hear the words “entire system,” get a second opinion.
Lower Your Insurance Deductible
You can save money on repairs by lowering your insurance deductible, which means if you need repairs in the case of an accident, your insurer will pay more of the bill. According to Progressive, deductibles average anywhere from $100-$2,000, which varies depending on a lot of factors — the value of your car being the most significant. In every case, however, lower deductibles mean lower out-of-pocket costs but higher insurance premiums — only you can decide if the tradeoff is worth it.
Look For Online Coupons
From movie tickets to coffee makers, sites like RetailMeNot offer coupon codes, offers, deals and discounts for everyday purchases — and auto work is no exception. You can find deals on service and repair at your local body shops at the same online coupon sites. All you have to do is type in your zip code and keywords like “car repair.”
Consider an Extended Warranty
An extended warranty will cover some of the repair costs after your original warranty expires. It’s not always a good buy for all drivers because they’re often pricey to buy, they sometimes come with high deductibles and many experts would advise you to put those payments into a savings account meant for repairs, instead. Consumer Affairs, however, gives excellent ratings to several of the many companies that offer them, indicating a good overall consumer experience from the top companies.
Join a Membership Club
Your local mechanic might have a membership program that allows you to buy in with a yearly membership fee — R.M.F. Auto Service in Wisconsin, for example, charges $89.95 to join theirs. In exchange, you get dramatically reduced rates for many repairs and some common services are even free.
Consider a Regional Chain
Many regional chains, like ServiceOne Automotive in Texas, have many locations that offer streamlined service across all their shops. Since they buy parts in bulk and pool their resources, they can often offer reduced prices. They also tend to offer rotating deals and discounts and provide full warranties for all their work.
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About the Author
Andrew Lisa has been writing professionally since 2001. An award-winning writer, Andrew was formerly one of the youngest nationally distributed columnists for the largest newspaper syndicate in the country, the Gannett News Service. He worked as the business section editor for amNewYork, the most widely distributed newspaper in Manhattan, and worked as a copy editor for TheStreet.com, a financial publication in the heart of Wall Street’s investment community in New York City.