I’m a Mechanic: Don’t Overpay for These 4 Common Car Issues

Experienced specialist car mechanic standing under lifted car during repair and maintenance process in garage.
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Your local auto shop or dealership makes it easy to overspend. The spaceship-like complexities of modern vehicles are beyond the average driver’s ability to understand — and your mechanic knows it.

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Repair shops and dealerships are in business to make a profit, and even if they’re not unscrupulous, it’s not always in their best interest to steer you toward a lower-cost alternative to a common issue, service or repair, even when one is readily available.

You can’t possibly learn all the details about every system in your car, but you can brush up on the most common and avoidable traps.

Here’s a look at the ones to watch out for from experts in the industry. 

You Don’t Need To Change Your Oil as Often as You Might Think

Modern advancements in oil chemistry, engine materials and fuel-delivery systems have put much more distance between necessary oil changes. But drivers don’t always know that — and repair shops are rarely eager to let them in on the secret.

“People overpay for oil changes because of the outdated recommendation of changing oil every 3,000 miles or so,” said Erika Gaetano of Bradley’s Auto Service in Red Bank, New Jersey. “Modern cars often only need an oil change every 7,500 to 10,000 miles.”

According to Car and Driver, the best bet — especially when your car is new and under warranty — is to abide by the manual’s instructions, not the mechanic’s recommendation. Kelley Blue Book estimates the average oil change costs between $35-$75, or $65-$125 for synthetic.

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Don’t Let Worn Brake Pads Turn Into Expensive New Calipers

According to Bridgestone Tire, brake pads should last for 30,000-35,000 miles with urban use and 80,000 or more with light use. When they go, AAA says you can expect to pay about $100-$300 per axle to replace them, or $200-$600 for the front and rear pads.

But for many drivers, that’s just the beginning.

“This service can be overpriced due to unnecessary add-ons like caliper replacements or rotor resurfacing, which are not always needed,” Gaetano said.

Family Handyman profiled the top scams to avoid when getting your brake pads changed — and the report backed up Gaetano’s assessment.

It warned that buying calipers you don’t really need is the No. 1 unnecessary upcharge to avoid. Even if a caliper is faulty, chances are good that a cheap set of slide pins and some lubricant are all that’s needed to get it back into working order. If you go in for brake pad repairs and the mechanic suggests expensive caliper replacement or even a full system replacement, get a second opinion.

Premium Tires Are Rarely Worth the Upgrade

When the penny test fails and you can see the top of Honest Abe’s head through your worn-out treads, you know it’s time for new tires. But since you change them so infrequently, maybe it’s worth splurging on high-end rubber.

Make Your Money Work for You

Probably not.

“People are occasionally encouraged to buy the most expensive, high-performance tires even when their current car or driving habits may not justify them,” Gaetano said.

In 2018, AAA wrapped up an exhaustive four-year study that tested inexpensive all-weather tires against their pricey premium counterparts on the Toyota Camry and Ford F-150, the bestselling car and truck on the road.

The premium truck tires cost about $250 more for a set of four than the lower-end alternatives and a little over $200 more for the Camry.

For the most part, it was money not well spent.

The study concluded, “On average, new high-priced tires did not perform significantly better than new low-priced tires in terms of stopping distance on a wet road surface, maximum lateral acceleration on a wet road surface and NVH characteristics.”

Change Your Transmission Fluid, but Politely Decline a Flush

Because they’re notoriously expensive to fix and replace, drivers are correctly terrified of damage to their transmissions — and mechanics know it. That’s why they often recommend a transmission flush instead of the standard fluid change.

My Garage Auto & Tire in Nebraska ranks flushes as one of the top services you don’t need, calling it a quick, easy moneymaker that doesn’t address some of the most important aspects of sound transmission health — and the experts agree.

“Don’t bother with engine or transmission flushes,” said Lauren Fix of Car Coach Reports, who has fixed, rebuilt and raced cars throughout her career. “These techniques are often recommended to clean up dirty engine oil or transmission fluid. They’re not worth the money.”

Make Your Money Work for You

And they’re not cheap.

According to Jiffy Lube, the average flush costs $125-$250 — twice as much as a transmission fluid change. That’s because a flush consumes 12 to 22 quarts of fluid, as opposed to five to seven for a change.

In Fix’s experience, basic preventative and proactive upkeep precludes you from ever needing this service.

“If you do the maintenance work recommended in your owner’s manual, you won’t need to do this,” she said.

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