Taking the Scare Out of Auto Repair
Savvy Consumer: Taking the Scare Out of Auto Repair
Taking the Scare Out of
Presented by the Federal
Trade Commission, the National Association of Attorneys General
American Automobile Association
The best way to avoid auto repair rip-offs
is to be prepared. Knowing how your vehicle works and how to identify common
car problems is a good beginning. It's also important to know how to select a
good technician, the kinds of questions to ask, and your consumer
According to the Federal Trade Commission
(FTC), the American Automobile Association (AAA), and the National Association
of Attorneys General (NAAG), this kind of information about your automobile may
help you keep a lid on mechanical mistakes.
How to Choose a Repair
What should I look for when
choosing a repair shop?
- Ask for recommendations from friends,
family, and other people you trust. Look for an auto repair shop before you
need one to avoid being rushed into a last-minute decision.
- Shop around by telephone for the best
deal, and compare warranty policies on repairs.
- Ask to see current licenses if state or
local law requires repair shops to be licensed or registered. Also, your state
Attorney General's office or local consumer protection agency may know whether
there's a record of complaints about a particular repair shop.
- Make sure the shop will honor your
How to Choose a
Is one technician
better than another?
- Look for shops that display various
certifications - like an Automotive Service Excellence seal. Certification
indicates that some or all of the technicians meet basic standards of knowledge
and competence in specific technical areas. Make sure the certifications are
current, but remember that certification alone is no guarantee of good or
- Ask if the technician or shop has
experience working on the same make or model vehicle as yours.
Repair Charges: Unlocking the
Before you arrange to have
any work performed, ask how the shop prices its work. Some shops charge a flat
rate for labor on auto repairs. This published rate is based on an independent
or manufacturer's estimate of the time required to complete repairs. Others
charge on the basis of the actual time the technician worked on the repair.
If you need expensive or complicated
repairs, or if you have questions about recommended work, consider getting a
Find out if there will be a diagnostic
charge if you decide to have the work performed elsewhere. Many repair shops
charge for diagnostic time.
Shops that do only diagnostic work and do
not sell parts or repairs may be able to give you an objective opinion about
which repairs are necessary.
If you decide to get the work done, ask for
a written estimate.
What should a written estimate
- It should identify the condition to be
repaired, the parts needed, and the anticipated labor charge. Make sure you get
a signed copy.
- It should state that the shop will
contact you for approval before they do any work exceeding a specified amount
of time or money. State law may require this.
What should I know about the parts to be
repaired or replaced?
Parts are classified as:
- New - These parts
generally are made to original manufacturer's specifications, either by the
vehicle manufacturer or an independent company. Your state may require repair
shops to tell you if non-original equipment will be used in the repair. Prices
and quality of these parts vary.
- Remanufactured, rebuilt and
reconditioned - These terms generally mean the same thing: parts have
been restored to a sound working condition. Many manufacturers offer a warranty
covering replacement parts, but not the labor to install them.
- Salvage - These are used
parts taken from another vehicle without alteration. Salvage parts may be the
only source for certain items, though their reliability is seldom
What do I need after the work is
- Get a completed repair order describing
the work done. It should list each repair, parts supplied, the cost of each
part, labor charges, and the vehicle's odometer reading when you brought the
vehicle in as well as when the repair order was completed. Ask for all replaced
parts. State law may require this.
What are the
consequences of postponing maintenance?
- Many parts on your vehicle are
interrelated. Ignoring maintenance can lead to trouble: specific parts - or an
entire system - can fail. Neglecting even simple routine maintenance, such as
changing the oil or checking the coolant, can lead to poor fuel economy,
unreliability, or costly breakdowns. It also may invalidate your warranty.
What maintenance guidelines should I
follow to avoid costly repairs?
- Follow the manufacturer's maintenance
schedule in your owner's manual for your type of driving.
- Some repair shops create their own
maintenance schedules, which call for more frequent servicing than the
manufacturer's recommendations. Compare shop maintenance schedules with those
recommended in your owner's manual. Ask the repair shop to explain - and make
sure you understand - why it recommends service beyond the recommended
What warranties and service contracts apply to
- There is no "standard warranty" on
repairs. Make sure you understand what is covered under your warranty and get
it in writing.
- Be aware that warranties may be subject
to limitations, including time, mileage, deductibles, businesses authorized to
perform warranty work or special procedures required to obtain
- Check with the Federal Trade Commission
or your state or local consumer protection agency for information about your
Many vehicle dealers and others sell optional
contracts - service contracts -issued by vehicle manufacturers or independent
companies. Not all service contracts are the same; prices vary and usually are
negotiable. To help decide whether to purchase a service contract,
- Its cost.
- The repairs to be covered.
- Whether coverage overlaps coverage
provided by any other warranty.
- The deductible.
- Where the repairs are to be
- Procedures required to file a claim, such
as prior authorization for specific repairs or meeting required vehicle
- Whether repair costs are paid directly by
the company to the repair shop or whether you will have to pay first and get
- The reputation of the service contract
company. Check it out with your state Attorney General's office or local
consumer protection agency.
How do I resolve a dispute regarding
billing, quality of repairs or warranties?
- Document all transactions as well as your
experiences with dates, times, expenses, and the names of people you dealt
- Talk to the shop manager or owner first.
If that doesn't work, contact your Attorney General or local consumer
protection agency for help. These offices may have information on alternative
dispute resolution programs in your community. Another option is to file a
claim in small claims court. You don't need an attorney to do this.
The more you know about your
vehicle, the more likely you'll be able to head off repair problems. You can
detect many common vehicle problems by using your senses: eyeballing the area
around your vehicle, listening for strange noises, sensing a difference in the
way your vehicle handles, or even noticing unusual odors.
Looks Like Trouble
Small stains or an occasional drop of fluid under
your vehicle may not mean much. But wet spots deserve attention; check puddles
You can identify fluids by their color and
- Yellowish green, pastel blue or
florescent orange colors indicate an overheated engine or an antifreeze leak
caused by a bad hose, water pump or leaking radiator.
- A dark brown or black oily fluid means
the engine is leaking oil. A bad seal or gasket could cause the
- A red oily spot indicates a transmission
or power-steering fluid leak.
- A puddle of clear water usually is no
problem. It may be normal condensation from your vehicle's air
Smells Like Trouble
are under your nose. You can detect them by their odor:
- The smell of burned toast - a light,
sharp odor - often signals an electrical short and burning insulation. To be
safe, try not to drive the vehicle until the problem is diagnosed.
- The smell of rotten eggs - a continuous
burning-sulphur smell - usually indicates a problem in the catalytic converter
or other emission control devices. Don't delay diagnosis and
- A thick acrid odor usually means burning
oil. Look for sign of a leak.
- The smell of gasoline vapors after a
failed start may mean you have flooded the engine. Wait a few minutes before
trying again. If the odor persists, chances are there's a leak in the fuel
system - a potentially dangerous problem that needs immediate
- Burning resin or an acrid chemical odor
may signal overheated brakes or clutch. Check the parking brake. Stop. Allow
the brakes to cool after repeated hard braking on mountain roads. Light smoke
coming from a wheel indicates a stuck brake. The vehicle should be towed for
- A sweet, steamy odor indicates a coolant
leak. If the temperature gauge or warning light does not indicate overheating,
drive carefully to the nearest service station, keeping an eye on your gauges.
If the odor is accompanied by a hot, metallic scent and steam from under the
hood, your engine has overheated. Pull over immediately. Continued driving
could cause severe engine damage. The vehicle should be towed for
Sounds Like Trouble
Squeaks, squeals, rattles, rumbles, and other sounds
provide valuable clues about problems and maintenance needs. Here are some
common noises and what they mean:
Squeal - A shrill, sharp
noise, usually related to engine speed:
- Loose or worn power steering, fan or air
Click - A slight sharp
noise, related to either engine speed or vehicle speed:
- Loose wheel cover.
- Loose or bent fan blade.
- Stuck valve lifter or low engine
Screech - A high-pitched,
piercing metallic sound; usually occurs while the vehicle is in
- Caused by brake wear indicators to let
you know it's time for maintenance.
Rumble - a low-pitched
- Defective exhaust pipe, converter or
- Worn universal joint or other drive-line
Ping - A high-pitched
metallic tapping sound, related to engine speed:
- Usually caused by using gas with a lower
octane rating than recommended. Check your owner's manual for the proper octane
rating. If the problem persists, engine ignition timing could be at
Heavy Knock - A rhythmic
- Worn crankshaft or connecting rod
- Loose transmission torque
Clunk - A random thumping
- Loose shock absorber or other suspension
- Loose exhaust pipe or
Feels Like Trouble
Difficult handling, a rough ride, vibration and poor
performance are symptoms you can feel. They almost always indicate a
- Misaligned front wheels and/or worn
steering components, such as the idler or ball joint, can cause wandering or
difficulty steering in a straight line.
- Pulling - the vehicle's tendency to steer
to the left or right - can be caused by something as routine as under-inflated
tires, or as serious as a damaged or misaligned front end.
Ride and Handling
- Worn shock absorbers or other suspension
components - or improper tire inflation - can contribute to poor
- While there is no hard and fast rule
about when to replace shock absorbers or struts, try this test: bounce the
vehicle up and down hard at each wheel and then let go. See how many times the
vehicle bounces. Weak shocks will allow the vehicle to bounce twice or
- Springs do not normally wear out and do
not need replacement unless one corner of the vehicle is lower than the others.
Overloading your vehicle can damage the springs.
- Balance tires properly. An unbalanced or
improperly balanced tire causes a vehicle to vibrate and may wear steering and
suspension components prematurely.
Brake problems have
several symptoms. Schedule diagnosis and repair if:
- The vehicle pulls to one side when the
brakes are applied.
- The brake pedal sinks to the floor when
pressure is maintained.
- You hear or feel scraping or grinding
- The "brake" light on the instrument panel
The following symptoms
indicate engine trouble. Get a diagnosis and schedule the repair.
- Difficulty starting the
- The "check engine" light on the
instrument panel is lit.
- Rough idling or stalling.
- Poor acceleration.
- Poor fuel economy.
- Excessive oil use (more than one quart
- Engine continues running after the key is
performance may come from actual component failure or a simple disconnected
hose or plugged filter. Make sure the technician checks the simple items first;
transmission repairs normally are expensive. Some of the most common symptoms
of transmission problems are:
Car trouble doesn't always mean
major repairs. Here are some common causes of trouble and techniques to help
you and your technician find and fix problems:
- Alternator - Loose
wiring can make your alternator appear defective. Your technician should check
for loose connections and perform an output test before replacing the
- Battery - Corroded or
loose battery terminals can make the battery appear dead or defective. Your
technician should clean the terminals and test battery function before
replacing the battery.
- Starter - What appears
to be a defective starter actually may be a dead battery or poor connection.
Ask your technician to check all connections and test the battery before
repairing the starter.
- Muffler - a loud
rumbling noise under your vehicle indicates a need for a new muffler or exhaust
- Tuneup - The
old-fashioned "tuneup" may not be relevant to your vehicle. Fewer parts, other
than belts, spark plugs, hoses and filters, need to be replaced on newer
vehicles. Follow the recommendations in your owner's manual.
For more information,
Consumer Response Center
Washington, DC 20580
The main office of your local
American Automobile Association (AAA) motor
club, listed under AAA in the telephone directory.
Your state Attorney General
Your state capital
Many Attorneys General have toll-free
consumer hotlines. Check with your local directory assistance.