It's not uncommon for estimates from different body shops to vary wildly. One shop might give you an estimate for $500 while another wants $2,000 for the work. What's the difference? And when is it OK to choose the cheaper shop?
John Mallette, owner of Burke Auto Body & Paint, in Long Beach, California, knows better than most people how to choose a reliable shop. Mallette started working on cars when he was 12 years old and has been in the body shop business for 24 years. Here are some of his tips for choosing the right shop to work on your car — particularly when you're the one paying the bills.
1) Pay Attention to Word-of-Mouth
Any business can advertise, but you'll do better with a shop that friends, family or acquaintances recommend. It's a business that has proven it can satisfy customers. And it might not be the biggest or best-known shop in your area.
Mallette went to a shop years ago on such recommendations and found that the owner was a "real stand-up guy.... He doesn't advertise on the Internet; it's a family-owned shop," Mallette says. "But, golly, if you take your car there, you'll get a fair price."
In some cases, you might get a recommendation for a small shop where the owner works on the cars himself. "That's how I like doing business," Mallette says. "To me it seems so much more personal and then you can understand what's really going on with your car."
2) Consider the Operation's Location and Overhead
"Where you get screwed in our business is labor hours," Mallette explains. His shop charges $40 per hour for labor. But in ritzy parts of West Los Angeles, the per-hour labor charge is $60-$65. In wealthy Newport Beach, California, Mallette has heard of $90-per-hour labor charges.
Large body shops with a lot of front-office workers probably have to charge higher rates to pay their staff. While service delivered by front-desk folks, managers and foremen gives some people a feeling of confidence in the business, it can result in estimates that are padded with non-essential work. When they're charging more labor hours at a higher rate, your bill can add up quickly.
In his shop, Mallette says he does things by the book — literally. Body shops and garages use reference guides that estimate the number of hours required to perform common repairs.
"Let's say somebody has damage to their fender, bumper and headlight," Mallette tells us. "I go to my book, I write an estimate and I basically go by the hours mandated by the book."
By contrast, the higher-end shops might decide to charge for everything in "the gray area," meaning those things that they might have to do to fix the problem. In Mallette's example, high-end estimates might include a charge for time spent removing the hood and the door, while his judgment call is not to perform this additional work.
3) Get Several Estimates
Taking your car to several auto body shops for repair quotes is the best way to avoid overcharges, Mallette notes. "I'll tell people to go get some estimates and bring 'em back to me. I'll match estimates if I can."
And while it's important to protect against being overcharged, you shouldn't simply take the lowest quote. "You might get some kind of midnight guy who will say he can do it really cheap," he says. "Stay away from those guys, because there is something they're not doing. You could have major problems down the road."
4) Ask the Right Questions
When choosing a body shop, "you don't go in with your pocketbook open," Mallette explains. "You go in smart," and ask some key questions. Does the shop provide a written warranty? And if so, for how long? What does the warranty cover?
A one-year warranty is a minimum, Mallette says. His shop offers a two-year warranty for body work and a three-year warranty for complete paint jobs. Some shops offer lifetime warranties as a selling point, but that isn't realistic, he says.
"Most of the stipulations and conditions those warranties require are more restrictive than the majority of people can adhere to," he says. "So basically, the warranty becomes useless."
Another key question is whether the shop carries fire and theft insurance. You want to be sure you're covered if your car is destroyed, stolen or burglarized. Don't forget to ask how long the shop has been in business. Make sure it has a business license.
You will also want to know about the materials the shop intends to use. Are new, used or aftermarket body parts going to be used? New parts are obviously the best and used parts are fine, though they don't offer the savings people imagine. Depending on the damage to your vehicle, aftermarket parts can save a lot of money and can be just as good as the ones that come from the original manufacturer. If paint work is involved, ask how many coats of paint and clear coat the shop intends to use.
5) Follow Your Intuition
Finally, it's important to trust your intuition about the shop you're considering. If a shop isn't busy, maybe that's because customers are avoiding it because of shoddy repairs. If the place is really dirty, cluttered or disorganized, this might reflect the kind of work you could expect the shop to do with your car. Is the shop owner or manager a grouch who seems to resent answering your questions? You'll be happier with a shop where the owner communicates well and is straightforward with customers.
"Trust your gut," Mallette says. "If your gut tells you the guy's shady I wouldn't even go there."