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Check Engine Light On? Here’s what to do next.

by Sam Dillinger

     You’re driving down the road on your way to work, you’re already irritated (it is Monday, you argued with your wife/husband, the kids didn’t want to go to school) and 10 miles after you’ve gone too far to be convenient to go home, it happens. You’re check engine light comes on, the engine makes some strange noises, and then STOPS. Leaving you stranded and with a major problem to deal with on top of all the rest of the things you need to wrestle with today. Now you’ve got to call your boss and explain the situation, call a tow truck and wait for them to come save you, and most importantly: you have to decide where to have your vehicle towed to get repairs.

 

     If your vehicle is still under the manufacturer warranty, then that makes the choice easy, you go where the repairs are free (also they have free coffee and sometimes doughnuts there, bonus). For those of you who that applies to, this article won’t affect you much. For the rest of us, this is a major decision. There is a ton of things that could be wrong and most of us have only the vaguest idea of what those things could be. One thing we all know for sure though, is that it’s going to be expensive and take a chunk out of our expendable incomes. Naturally you will want to go somewhere that will give you the best bang for your buck. A place that will give you an accurate diagnosis the first time, fair prices on parts and markup, and good labor rates with the labor they charge. So where is that shop located?

 

     If you’re lucky enough to be related to, or good friends with, a professional technician, then the choice is pretty obvious. You go with what and who you know. A lot of people don’t have that luxury. So I am going to offer some advice to help you figure out where to go and how to protect your wallet.

 

     Recently, I’ve read two articles that deal with this issue. They offer advice on how to pick a repair facility and how to avoid getting scammed by them. It’s a great idea in principle but one immediate fact about both of these articles jumped out at me, they’re both written by journalists and NOT by professional technicians. The reporters speak to people in the industry and trust the information they are being given to be factual and accurate. But, how do they know it is, before they pass it on to their readers, and to the Internet community as a whole? You want the easy answer? They don’t.

 

     While reading both of these articles, I was slightly amused but mostly frustrated. Being a professional technician for almost 20 years, I know the industry as well as anyone and better than most. The advice they give is, for the most part, impractical and unhelpful. Let me explain. A key tactic they recommend, to make sure you shop your repairs around to get the best deal, is seriously flawed. Here’s what I see wrong with that:

 

What if your vehicle doesn’t move?

 

     In order to get an accurate diagnosis the servicing technician needs to see and touch your vehicle. So let’s break this down a bit. It’s usually about $75 to get your vehicle towed less than 50 miles. You’ve had it towed to the first shop and have paid the diagnostic fee and now you want to compare that estimate. The labor rate for most shops in the urban market is about $80 per hour. Some are only $50-$60 and some are $110-$120 or more. The diagnostic fee is almost always an hour to start with and could be more depending on the nature and complexity of the problem. So now that you’ve paid $75 for the tow truck and $80 for your diagnosis, it’s time to shop around and see if what they’ve told you at the first place is a good deal.

 

     Assume they told you at the first place that your fuel pump is the problem. Parts and labor for the repair come out to $300. It’s very easy to call a few other local repair shops armed with this estimate, and get competing quotes. But what if that original diagnosis is wrong? Then you have 3 separate estimates for a repair that won’t fix your vehicle. So the second shop you called says they’ll do the job for $225 and you decide to go there and get it done. Now the repairs are done, you’ve spent $455 (2 tows, 1 diagnostic fee, and the repair work) and you’re exactly where you started, with a car that won’t run!

 

     You can’t have the first shop reimburse you for repairs they didn’t make and you can’t have the second shop reimburse you for an incorrect diagnosis that they didn’t make. I am sure by now some of you, or maybe a lot of you, are shaking your heads in agreement with this. It happens far too often, unfortunately.

 

     The only way you can hold a shop liable for the repairs they’ve effected to your vehicle is if they’re the ones who recommended it to you. By that I mean, if you got your vehicle diagnosed at one shop, and then go to a different shop and tell them “I want to have my fuel pump replaced” they’ll be more than happy to do that for you. However, if that repair doesn’t fix your car, you can’t be upset about that. After all, they performed the work that you requested without making a diagnosis themselves. They’ll be happy to perform their own diagnosis, but they will expect to be paid for it. As a professional technician, let me just say, any repair facility deserves to be paid to diagnose a vehicle. It gets more and more complicated to diagnose the computer circuitry and electronically controlled vehicle systems, all the time. Sometimes it takes several hours. No one wants to spend 3-5 hours working for free! So the only safe way to get 3 competing estimates for your repair needs would be to have the car towed to 3 places and pay 3 separate diagnostic fees. If you do this you’re into this repair for $465 and no one has even made any repairs to your vehicle yet! Also, what happens if after you’ve towed it to the third shop on the list, you decide that the first shop was your best deal? Then it’s another tow fee to go back there.

 

     Or even worse yet, what if you have your car towed to all 3 shops, and you end up with 3 different estimates? So, I think you can all see where I am going with this. It’s completely impractical, and not at all cost effective, to correctly shop your repairs at several different repair facilities, unless you happen to be having a minor problem with your car. If it’s something minor, or you happen to know for sure what needs to be done, then by all means call and get competing estimates for the repairs needed.

 

     The next point that both articles recommended, is that you ask to see or be given your old parts to confirm the repair. In theory this is a good idea. In theory. Where it breaks down is in actual usage. If you’re dealing with a dishonest mechanic, how will you know if the parts you receive are from your vehicle? You can mark the parts to be certain that you receive your own used parts back, but what if you don’t know which part needs to be replaced? What if it’s internal transmission parts? In my experience, not many people in the general populace can tell the difference between the overdrive clutch discs from a 48RE Chrysler transmission and a 700R4 Chevy transmission. That same thing applies to a lot of the parts on your vehicles. Show of hands, how many of you have the time to learn the names of the majority of the parts on your car and the locations of each? You can bet that the dishonest mechanics out there know this and will take advantage of it if they think they can do so, and get away with it.

 

     I’d like to take a moment here to let everyone know, there are just as many honest, decent, and knowledgeable mechanics out there, as there are of the dishonest variety. Maybe even more. So all hope is not lost.

 

     One great tool to use in finding a good, honest mechanic, is to use the internet. Sites such as Yelp, Google, Angie’s List, and the Better Business Bureau are great resources. Be sure to read plenty of reviews about the shop and staff. Bear in mind there won’t be many businesses that will have all positive reviews. If you do enough business, some of your customers are bound to be unhappy. But a shop that has a lot of complaints about the prices, or work being paid for and not performed, work not being performed correctly after several attempts, and various other complaints about the workmanship, are the type of places you want to stay away from.

 

     Another great way is to talk to people you know personally. Most everyone that has lived in a certain locale, for a decent length of time, has had to go to a local repair shop for something. Ask around at work, ask some of the employees at your local grocery store, and ask the local newspaper. Between these sources and a little investigation on your part, it should be fairly easy to come up with a few names that are worth checking out.

 

     There are a few other things these articles recommend to make sure you’re not being taken advantage of. Suffice it to say, you won’t benefit very much by most of the advice they give in these articles. However, one thing that was mentioned will be a great help. Get your estimate in writing! When you speak to your mechanic and he’s given you a quote, ask for it in writing. Then, when/if you authorize the repairs, sign it next to the total you are authorizing. Keep a copy of this estimate for your records. This way if there’s a discrepancy in price when it’s time to pay the bill and pick up your car (how many of you have been hit with a bill that’s several hundred more than you were quoted for?) you will have legal grounds to dispute any additional charges. Asking for a signed estimate and signing it yourself, will also show the mechanic servicing your car that you’re taking this very seriously. It will give them a gentle nudge toward honesty, if you will.

 

     So with all of these things being said, how can I personally, help you keep your mechanic honest? By using our ESTIMATE REVIEW tool. Simply submit your make/model/year/engine size for your vehicle, and then your full estimate. With this information I’ll be able to help guide you towards making sure your car is repaired correctly and for a fair price. I can review any mechanical estimate for the entire range of mechanical repairs, and I’ll let you know if the estimate you’ve received is legitimate, if it’s just a complete guess, if it’s full of a bunch of things to make the mechanic money that you don’t really need, or if it’s just flat out wrong.

 

     How do you know you can trust me? That’s a good question, with a surprisingly simple answer: money. I don’t have any financial investment in repairing your car. My site isn’t affiliated with any repair shops anywhere in the country. I won’t even accept advertising money to put an ad on my site for a repair shop, because I feel that it would damage my credibility. My purpose here is to arm you with the knowledge you need to get your car fixed, and most importantly, to save you as much money as possible.

 

     Now that you’ve gained some insider perspective, hopefully the process of selecting a good local mechanic, and ultimately protecting as much of your hard earned cash as possible, won’t be as frustrating.

 

Thoughts? Comments?

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