Few things in life are filled with as much mystery and anxiety as automotive service. Any number of questions can arise when something is wrong with your car or even when you just bring it to the dealer for its scheduled maintenance:
"My car only has 12,000 miles on it, so why do the brakes shudder?"
"When I brought my car to the dealership for its 15,000-mile maintenance, the service advisor showed me a list of things to be done that was a lot more than my owner's manual called for. Do I go by the book or heed the service advisor's recommendations?"
As with anything else in life, the more you know, the better off you are. A little homework and street smarts will go a long way toward saving your pocketbook from unsavory service practices. Yes, we know that not all dealerships and mechanics are out to cheat you, and there are a lot of them who take pride in their work ethic. But let's not be naive, reputations don't just materialize out of thin air, either. Can you fully trust that the service team at the dealership or the mechanic down the street is going to give you a fair shake? Maybe, but it wouldn't hurt to arm yourself with some knowledge to guard against those who are out to rip you off.
That said, here are a few tips for dealing with both repair and maintenance circumstances:
1) Get yourself a service/repair manual for your car (typically available at the major auto parts chains, such as Pep Boys and AutoZone). When the time comes, this will at least help you research and understand what the mechanic or service advisor is talking about when he tells you what's wrong with your car.
2) If the problem is something that affects safety or seems to be a common manufacturing defect (such as shuddering brakes on a relatively new car), chances are you can get the problem taken care of for free. What you want to do is find out if a recall (which is when the manufacturer openly acknowledges a defect) has been issued for that problem. Oftentimes you'll get a letter in the mail (a "recall notice") that will tell you what the problem is (even if you haven't experienced it) and urge you to make a service appointment to get it taken care of. But if you feel you have a problem and haven't received any notice in the mail, go to the NHTSA site and click on "Recall Searches by make, model, year." Under "Select the TYPE of search" you'll want to go with the already selected "Vehicle" category. You then enter the information that's requested to obtain the recall notice(s) that have been issued for your vehicle.
In addition to recalls, there are also technical service bulletins (also called "TSBs" or "Service Bulletins"), which are similar to recalls except that the defect(s) haven't cropped up in enough vehicles for a recall to be issued. In other words, only a small amount of people have discovered and complained about the problem. The manufacturer lets the dealership's service department know about the problem, and if someone brings in a vehicle with said problem to check for a possible TSB on your vehicle, again go to the NHTSA site only this time click on "Service Bulletins" and then click on "Search Technical Bulletins." You then enter the information on your vehicle as you would when looking for a recall. Note that you can also find service bulletin and recall information for your car by using the Edmunds.com Maintenance Calculator.
3) If the above doesn't apply and you're going to be facing some repair bills, you should check with the local Better Business Bureau (BBB) to see if any complaints have been filed against the repair shops or dealerships you're considering for your car's care.
4) If they check out OK, ask the respective shop managers if the mechanics they employ are "ASE" (Automotive Service Excellence) certified, and in what areas (such as engine, brakes, electrical, etc.). Obviously, you only want ASE mechanics working on your car.
5) When you've picked a shop and are dropping the car off, tell the person handling your car that you want to be given an estimate before they perform the repair(s). Tell them to call you with the estimate and for your authorization before they do anything else so you can decide whether you want them to do the work.
6) Once you've gotten the lowdown on the necessary repairs and an estimate, it wouldn't hurt to quickly call another half-dozen or so shops (that also have good credentials) to get additional estimates for the work. Be certain that you make it clear to them exactly what you need done to your vehicle. What you're looking for is some consistency — estimates that are a lot lower than the average might not be real, whereas ones that are a lot higher could indicate a shop trying to take you to the cleaners.
7) If the shop that already has your car seems to have a fair price for the work, call them back and authorize them to make the repairs. Ask them if there is a written warranty. You might want to tell them that you'd like to have the old parts back — as confirmation that the repairs have indeed been made. Use your best judgment on this one; if you're getting a new exhaust system, for example, you can simply look under the car to check that a new one has been installed). Finally, don't forget to ask them when the car will be ready for pick up.
8) After the repairs are complete and you've gone to the shop to pick up your car, first scrutinize the bill to make sure the agreed-upon work was done and the cost is in line with the estimate. If anything looks awry, ask about it right then and there.
9) Check out your car and take it for a brief test-drive with the service advisor or the mechanic riding shotgun. This way, if the car still makes the "funny noise," or "runs rough" or "pulls to the side" when you hit the brakes, he'll be right there to witness it. Don't take the car unless you are satisfied.
1) Before you take your car in for its scheduled maintenance ("15,000-mile service," for example), grab the owner's manual (that little-read book that's usually in the glovebox) and look up what services the manufacturer recommends at this particular mileage point. Usually, there will be two different schedules, one for "normal driving" and another for "severe duty" use. The latter usually is defined as the car being driven primarily for very short trips (such as for delivery use), or in very dusty or severe climate conditions.
2) Once you've figured out which schedule applies to your car (more often than not, it's going to be "normal driving"), call the dealer and make an appointment for your car's service.
3) When you take your car to the dealer, make sure that you take the owner's manual with you. When you arrive and talk to the service advisor, chances are he's going to whip out some official-looking chart showing what the dealership recommends for your car's service. And chances are the cost of this "service" is double or triple what the manufacturer's recommended service would be. But since you've studied the owner's manual and are confident that the actual maker of the car (not some easy-profit-oriented dealership) knows what the car needs, you can politely tell the advisor, "No thanks, just do what the manufacturer states." If he balks, show him the owner's manual and go over the actual service you want performed. At that point, his argument for transmission fluid replacement or fuel-injection cleaning for your 15,000-mile car will cease to have any validity.
We recommend printing out this list of tips and keeping it in your glovebox (preferably with the owner's manual) so you can review it if need be. Now that you're savvy about matters of maintenance (and repair), we're confident that taking your car in for service won't equate to a chance of you being taken to the cleaners.