For most consumers, auto body shops are intimidating and mysterious. The good ones restore your beloved car to gleaming perfection. The bad ones hide problems and stick you with a big repair bill.
We talked with three veterans of the auto body industry, two of whom (Brian and Neal) run their own collision repair businesses and the third expert (Andy) who is a well-connected industry observer. Our sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, shed light on this shadowy world and offer suggestions on how to manage costs, avoid rip-offs and ensure that sure your car is fixed right.
Know That Body Shops Run the Quality Gamut
"I don't care what state you live in, for every 10 body shops, three of them are unethical and five of them do mediocre work at best," Neal says.
It's clear that finding the right shop and building a relationship with the owner or manager is an essential first step in the repair process. There will always be fly-by-night shops, and even mobile dent-repair guys working out of the trunks of their cars. Consumers should look for brick-and-mortar body shops that have been in business a long time and have a solid track record of satisfied customers.
Most body shops are family-owned or second-generation businesses, says Brian.
And it's a tough business these days. After getting a high bill for collision repair, some people might think that body shops make a lot of money. Neal laughs at this. "At one time body work was lucrative. But today, the well-run shops are realizing profits of 4-7 percent. And it's a very fine line between making 4 percent and losing 5 percent."
In an environment like this, shops rely on good word-of-mouth referrals to attract customers. "The last thing we want is a bad reputation or reports of poor customer service," Brian says. "We want to fix it right and make that customer happy." (For more about choosing the right shop, see "5 Tips for Choosing the Right Auto Body Shop.")
Once you find the right shop, the process of getting your car fixed right at the right price starts with getting an accurate, reasonable estimate.
Understand Your Estimate
Price quotes from different body shops seem to vary wildly, and this shouldn't be the case.
Our three experts remind us that collision-repair facilities and insurance companies use one of three systems for estimating repair jobs to arrive at standardized, impartial quotes. Theoretically, this means three different shops will present similar estimates. But insurance companies will sometimes present their policyholders with a low quote that bears no relationship to the product of these estimating systems, Brian says. And if the consumer decides he can live with minor body damage and elects to pocket the check rather than pay to have the damage repaired, the carrier has quickly cleared another claim.
It's increasingly tough for body shop owners to provide an accurate cost estimate that will cover the expense to fix the car properly and still make a profit. Brian says automakers frequently change vehicle designs as the Environmental Protection Agency raises fuel-efficiency standards. They are increasingly using lighter materials like aluminum and high-strength metals like ultra-hard boron steel, particularly in the frame and suspension parts. Such parts are expensive.
Body shops are supposed to restore cars to the standards of the original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), but they know from experience that doing so is going to be prohibitively expensive. Instead, they don't even consult the manufacturer's specifications and fix the car according to time-tested methods. Those methods might not fix the car safely or completely.
"So all of a sudden the lowest common denominator — the insurance company's quote — becomes the benchmark," Brian says. And the shop with the lowest cost is likely the one the consumer will pick.
Neal adds that there is another factor that makes the process difficult for consumers. "One guy might have a different definition of what a fair profit is from the next guy for procedures that are identical between the two shops." This is the dreaded gray area in evaluating cost estimates and it can hit your wallet hard. Here's how it works.
Get an Estimate Breakdown
There are judgment calls in auto body work that can lead to huge swings in price quotes, our experts report.
Neal gives an example: Say you have a dent in your quarter panel. One shop might write a simple four-line estimate to repair the panel and repaint it. (Each line on the quote constitutes another charge.) Another shop might write a 20-line estimate that includes removing the taillight and bumper, instead of just taping them off. "There can be 20 steps for the repair if you want to do them all and if you want to charge for them all," he says.
If a consumer doesn't understand the steps, the estimate makes little sense. And many body shops don't take the time to explain it, Brian adds. "There are a lot of shops that print their estimate, throw it at the consumer and say 'Call me if you want me to do it,'" he says. Instead, he recommends looking for the shop with a staff that listens patiently and replies with reasonable answers.
Andy says consumers should be aware that some shops write lowball estimates just to "seize the keys" — get the car owner's commitment to do the job. Once the car is dismantled, the body shop owner calls the consumer and lists additional charges, claiming that the shop discovered new damage after it started work.
Additional charges do occur because, "you can't see through a car without taking it apart," Andy says. Avoid this ploy by choosing a highly regarded body shop in the first place and making sure to the best of your ability that the estimate covers all the work required.
Turn Down the "Save the Deductible" Come-on
Andy warns that some shops will offer to help consumers "save the deductible" from their insurance claim — typically about $500. The shop is basically offering to scam the insurance company for the consumer by not collecting the deductible payment.
But Andy says that what such a shop is really intending to do is to either not perform necessary work, or overcharge for something to compensate for the waived deductible. "Collision repair shops are businesses, and like any business, can't afford to not charge for work that is being performed," Andy tells us. "If a shop says they can waive the deductible...that is something for consumers to be cautious of."
Ask About the Parts
Our insiders say some unethical shop owners will try to boost profits by charging customers for new OEM parts when they've actually installed used ones, or have substituted aftermarket parts for OEM parts without telling the customer. In other cases, they repair the original part, reuse it in the vehicle and charge the customer for a new part.
It's difficult for unwary consumers to protect themselves against these scams. However, they can ask to review the original quote and request documentation of the parts the shop used in repairing their vehicle. In most states, repair facilities are required by law to disclose in their estimates that they intend to use non-OEM parts. If you live in one of the states that doesn't require disclosure, it's even more important to ask.
Consumers also have to be alert to the terminology that shops and insurance companies use when they're describing parts. Our experts talked about "imitation" parts, using the term to refer to parts that are made by aftermarket suppliers. The aftermarket industry says its products are built to industry standards and are as good as those produced by the OEMs. Your decision on which to use likely depends on the age of your car, the size of your wallet and the terms of your insurance policy. In any case, make sure you get your body shop to define its terms. Will it use OEM parts? Aftermarket? New? Used? Will it repair and reuse a part from your car?
Neal says that aftermarket parts have their place and consumers shouldn't always be hesitant to approve their use.
"If you came to me with a damaged year-old vehicle, I wouldn't even suggest an imitation part because it doesn't belong on a vehicle that we're trying to protect the value of," Neal says. "But if you came to me with your daughter's eight-year-old transportation car, we would price it both ways." There would be a small risk in lowering the resale value of the car in exchange for the savings.
For more on this subject, please see "How To Tell if Your Body Shop Did the Job Correctly."
Beware of Shops in Cahoots With Adjusters
Insurance work is the lifeblood of the auto body business. Nearly 85 percent of the work for most collision repair facilities comes from claims, according to the insiders we interviewed. Brian says that he knows of many shop owners who attempt to ingratiate themselves with insurance adjusters by detailing — or even painting — their personal vehicles for free. "We know of it happening all the time," he says.
(For the insurance industry's side of the story, see "Confessions of an Auto Claims Adjuster.")
This unethical relationship puts the consumer at a disadvantage, Neal says. "Your repair shop is supposed to act as your advocate," he says. "If your insurer wants to put an aftermarket part on a vehicle that's six months old without your permission, the shop should tell you so: 'Mr. Jones, I have to let you know that your insurer is playing games.'" There are consequences for that, though, as Neal notes. "But if you do that they'll take you off the list — that's the dirty reality," he says.
Once again, your best defense is a good offense. Only work with shops that have a track record of dealing fairly and honestly with their customers.
Don't Get Pushed to "Preferred" Auto Body Shops
When an insurance company is paying for repairs, Neal says it often tries to steer clients to its "preferred" list of body shops. Insurance companies control these collision repair facilities by promising them steady work in exchange for corner-cutting, according to the insiders we interviewed. This control may encourage some body shops to "back charge," or build in extra costs to cover areas not covered by the insurance company. If a shop begins doing this, Neal says, "It's a slippery slope, and when you get on that path it's hard to get off."
Andy says that most state laws allow consumers to choose their auto body shops, even when an insurance company is paying for the repair. But insurance adjusters will still coerce clients toward the "preferred" shops using a variety of tactics to discourage them from going elsewhere, the insiders say. For example, the adjuster might say if you go to a shop that's not preferred, some costs won't be covered, or the non-preferred shop won't guarantee the work, while the preferred shop will.
In many cases, Andy has seen consumers pay out-of-pocket for repairs that the insurers said they won't cover. Then, when the consumer files a complaint with a state's department of insurance, the insurer is forced to pay for the repair. "Some insurance companies will put the onus on the customer to prove that they will pay for it themselves before they will agree to indemnify them for it," he says.
All three experts agree that consumers place a lot of trust in their insurance companies to look out for their best interests. What most people don't consider is that the insurance company is trying to cut costs to the bone while still retaining policy holders. "Consumers are at a disadvantage because they're not knowledgeable about the services that they're procuring," Andy says.
Be Your Own Advocate
Sad to say, the body shop experts we spoke with say that the consumer can't rely completely on body shops or insurance companies to watch out for their interests. You have to act as your own advocate, choose the best shop and remain alert to overcharging and misrepresentation.
"Most body shop owners are very concerned about getting good feedback and building a list of customers who'll come back next time work is needed," Andy says. "Find those shops, work with them, and nine times out of 10, things will go smoothly."
Read more articles in the Edmunds Confessions Series.