How to avoid Auto Repair rip-offs

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It's something every car owner dreads. You're driving down the highway, and out of nowhere, you hear a loud clanging. Or, maybe the maintenance light starts urgently flashing or, in extreme cases, your car dies all together. You calmly call triple AAA. But, towing is now the least of your worries.

Frantic, you immediately do research on repair shops in your area. Finally, you find a shop. Ah, salvation! That is, until you get the call from the mechanic with the big news - the estimate. But, you begin to think: Does that rod really need to be replaced? It's going to cost $2,000 to fix what? Whatever the case may be, a trip to the auto repair shop can leave the best of us feeling stressed and vulnerable.

On the bright side, most automotive repair shops give customers good, honest service at a fair and competitive price. But just like any service industry, there are a few bad apples. Someone out there will try to take advantage of the fact you don't know the difference between a catalytic converter and a fuel inlet restrictor.

Auto repair rip-offs are among the top consumer complaints. They keep your Attorney General and other consumer protection offices busy. But, what is the best way to avoid getting ripped off? Educate yourself. Being educated about your auto repair needs is more than half the battle:

Word of mouth. It is usually the best way to find a trustworthy repair shop. Ask family and friends for recommendations. Like finding a doctor, choose an auto repair shop before you actually need one. Auto repairs can be stressful enough. If you're not prepared ahead of time, you may wind up at the garage around the corner just because that's where your car died.

Contact your state's Attorney General. You should research the repair shop with the Attorney General to see if any complaints have been made against the shop you are considering.

Dealer or independent repair shop? If your car is still under warranty, it makes sense to go to the dealer. For out-of-warranty repairs, the dealership may still be the best bet if the repair involves more technical or electronic work. However, independent repair shops are usually less expensive. They can be ideal for smaller, less complicated repairs.

Always get a written estimate of any necessary repairs. Make sure you understand and approve the estimate before repair work begins. In addition, the repair shop must contact you for approval before they do any work exceeding the agreed upon amount of time or money.

Understand your vehicle's repair needs. If you take your car in for a blown gasket and they tell you your car needs an engine overhaul, you may want to rethink that shop.

Educate yourself on your vehicle's warranty. That way you'll know whether or not your repair shop honors your vehicle warranty. If you aren't educated about your warranty, you may not even realize you're paying for parts or labor that is covered.

Today's vehicles have more sophisticated electronic systems than the original space shuttle. Because of the intricate computers in today's cars, the term "grease monkey" hardly applies. In fact, mechanics are referred to as "automotive technicians" because of the computer and math skills needed to fix car trouble. Make sure the shop you visit has qualified technicians. If the technicians are ASE-certified (Automotive Service Excellence), it means they're competent in specific technical areas.

Ask if the shop has experience working on your vehicle's make and model. In other words, a repair shop that specializes in Saabs may not be the best place for your Ford.

Get a second opinion. There's nothing wrong with seeking a different opinion. If you have time, compare estimates from a couple of shops.

Look into reconditioned or salvage parts. Find out if your vehicle needs new parts or if remanufactured or salvage parts could be used. Remanufactured parts (also known as rebuilt or reconditioned) are used parts that have been restored to working condition. Salvage parts are taken from a vehicle after a crash. Both kinds of parts tend to be less expensive. If your car is still under warranty, check to see if your warranty covers these types of parts and labor.

Get a copy of your repair receipt. After the work is completed, the repair shop must provide a clear copy of the repair invoice. All repairs, parts and labor should be itemized. Review this document carefully. Feel free to ask questions about anything you don't understand.

If you are still wary about the repairs you got, call a local part stores and ask for the list price of the parts on your invoice. If their quote is close to what you were charged, you may have just found a long-lasting relationship with a reputable auto repair shop.

And, of course vehicle maintenance is one of the best ways to prevent costly repair bills. Service your car on schedule to help prevent unnecessary expenses later.

The best way to avoid being ripped-off by a repair shop is to have a basic understanding and knowledge of what your car requires. By understanding your car's needs and costs, you can stop rip-off artists before they strike your wallet.