You don't. Several issues are involved here. One is integrity. Another is competence. Another is trust.
When you take your vehicle to a new car dealer, an independent garage, a service station, tire store, specialty repair shop, the auto service department of a retail store or any other kind of service facility, you expect to be treated honestly and fairly. You don't want to be lied to, taken unfair advantage of, told you need parts or services you don't really need, charged for parts that were not replaced or services that were not performed, cheated in any way or made to feel like you've been had, right?
If you're taking your vehicle in for routine maintenance like an oil change, tune-up, tire rotation, etc., you should be told what items will be serviced or replaced, how much the parts and labor will cost and how long it will take. You should then expect the work to be completed as described in a reasonable length of time at the quoted price.
If you're taking your vehicle in because you're having some kind of problem with it or because it obviously needs work, you should be given an accurate diagnosis of the problem, a complete description of what parts and/or services may be to be replaced to fix the problem, a reasonably accurate estimate of what the repairs will cost, and an estimate of how long it will take. No work should be started until you have authorized it (preferably in writing), and no additional repairs should be made unless you have authorized the work after someone has explained to you the reason for the additional work along with an estimate of its cost. A shop should also be willing to show you the old parts they removed from your vehicle, and return them to you if you so desire (unless a deposit is required for exchange parts, which may be necessary in some instances).
Given these ground rules, some people come away from a repair experience feeling like they've been ripped off. In some instances, they have been. Unfortunately, there are people in this world who make their living by cheating others. These are the crooks who need to be identified, prosecuted and put behind bars. But in most instances, no fraud is intended. The "rip-off" is really a lack of communication or a misunderstanding between the parties involved.
Everybody complains about the high cost of auto repairs today, and rightly so. Cars are expensive to maintain and repair, especially when something vital breaks down. But just because you had to pay $1500 for a new transmission doesn't mean you were ripped-off. Big ticket items like engines, transmission, even computers, fuel injectors and catalytic converters are expensive to replace no matter who does the work.
High repair bills are an inevitable cost of vehicle ownership that we'd all like to avoid but often can't. And the older your vehicle is, the more likely it is you're going to have spend money on major repairs. Preventative maintenance like regular oil and filter changes, tune-ups and inspections can help reduce the overall costs of vehicle ownership and minimize the risk of major repairs. But preventative maintenance can't eliminate the risk entirely. So like it or not, sooner or later something will break and you'll have to pay to have it fixed.
Repair bills are high because parts and labor are expensive. The average hourly labor rate charged by new car dealerships can run anywhere from $35 to $60 per hour or more because large dealerships usually have a lot of overhead. Independent repair garages, service stations, tire dealers and other types of repair facilities usually charge less, but even so still get $25 to $40 per hour for labor. Time is money, and the longer it takes to diagnose and repair or replace a component, the higher the bill. The only way to save money on labor is to call around and compare hourly labor rates -- or do the work yourself if you have the skill and tools to do so.
In some shops, technicians are paid a commission or receive a percentage of the work they perform. Consumer groups say this approach may encourage short-cuts and dishonesty because the technician can benefit directly. A shop that pays its technicians on a flat rate or hourly basis is less likely to experience these kinds of problems.
Parts are also expensive, especially many parts for import vehicles that are only available through import dealers. In addition to the big ticket items like the engine and transmission, there are many parts that cost hundreds of dollars to replace: the engine computer, antilock brake modulator and pump, air bags, catalytic converter, air conditioning compressor, possibly the alternator or starter depending on the application, electric fuel injection pump, brake rotors, steering rack, and more.
Most repair facilities mark up the parts they install. They buy their parts from wholesale jobbers or warehouse distributors at 30 to 50% off the "list price" they charge you. They're able to get their parts at a good discount because they buy so many parts. Though charging you list price may seem like a rip-off, it's no different than buying merchandise in a retail store. All stores mark up the price of their goods to make a profit. In the case of auto repair facilities, the extra profit on parts helps offset the overhead and expenses of doing business. In fact, most dealers and shops could not stay in business without the extra margin on parts.
Most shops will NOT install parts if you provide them because they don't receive their usual markup. They say its the equivalent of taking your own groceries to a restaurant and asking the chef to cook you a meal.
If you're a competent do-it-yourselfer and can replace a starter, alternator, battery, brake linings or whatever yourself, then you can probably save a bundle on parts as well as labor by purchasing your parts at a retail auto parts store, discount store or other such outlet. But if you're not able to do-it-yourself, then you have to pay for the privilege of hiring someone else to do it for you.
INTEGRITY & COMPETENCE
This brings us back to the issues of integrity and competence. With the high cost of parts and labor, the last thing you want to do is pay for a lot of unnecessary work. In most instances, a service manager, service writer or technician won't tell you your vehicle needs something unless it really does -- that is, if they're honest (which most are).
Technicians are trained to look for things that need fixing. After all, that's their business. If they see a hose that's leaking or find a worn steering or suspension component, they're going to tell you because its their job. In fact, they might be liable for negligence if they overlooked something major that needed attention that later contributed to an accident! So they're not trying to rip-you off. They're trying to tell you what needs fixing so you can have it fixed. You might not want to hear what they're saying because it is going to cost you more money than you anticipated spending. But as we said earlier, repairs are an inevitable and painful part of owing and maintaining a vehicle.
What they should do, however, is explain to you the difference between repairs that are really needed, and those that are only recommended for preventative maintenance or other reasons.
A necessary repair would be one that needs to be fixed as soon as possible because something important is worn out, broken, damaged, inoperative, loose, failed, about to fail or is creating an unsafe condition. These kind of repairs should be made because your vehicle might break down or experience some kind of major problem if the repairs are not made.
In many instances, certain repairs may be recommended to meet the vehicle manufacturer's warranty requirements. If your owners manual says the spark plugs have to be replaced every 30,000 miles and the oil and filter has to be changed at least once every 7,500 miles to keep the engine warranty in effect, you'd be foolish not to have the required maintenance done. Preventative maintenance is a lot cheaper than an overhaul or a new engine.
Sometimes repairs will be recommended or suggested because they could provide some benefit to you (like more reliable starting, improved fuel economy, better ride or handling, etc.). These kind of repairs may be postponed, but should be considered based on their own merits. Replacing a set of worn out shock absorbers, for example, may improve the way your vehicle rides and handles as well as prolong the life of your tires.
Many repairs are performed unnecessarily because of mistakes that are made in diagnosing a problem. Unfortunately, you pay for those mistakes. If a technician replaces something on your vehicle and it doesn't solve the problem, you just paid for unnecessary work.
Diagnosis is often the most difficult aspect of solving a problem, particularly driveability problems like hard starting, stalling, misfiring, hesitation, high emissions, and so on. Nobody bats an eye when a doctor charges them a small fortune for diagnostic tests, but they scream bloody murder if they're billed an hour for diagnostic labor. Shops are justified in charging for diagnostic time because in most instances finding the part that needs to be replaced eats up far more time that what it takes to actually replace it. A technician may spend several hours trying to identify a faulty sensor or other component that's causing a problem, and then take only 15 or 20 minutes to replace it. So the technician needs to be compensated for the time he spent working to solve your problem.
The alternative is probably worse. If technicians are not paid for diagnostic time, they may not spend the time it takes to properly diagnose problems. They'll jump to conclusions and start replacing parts. If one part doesn't solve the problem, they'll try something else -- all the while you're paying for this trial-and-error diagnosis. Eventually he may stumble on the part that actually needs to be replaced but in the meantime you've paid for a lot of parts you didn't really need.
Before you place your trust in a particular service facility, ask the following questions:
* Does the service facility in question have a good reputation? If you don't know, find out. Ask friends. Ask the Better Business Bureau if there have been complaints. If so, what kind of complaints? Ask for referrals. If the service facility can't give you names of satisfied customers, take your business elsewhere.
* Do they adhere to the Motorist Assurance Program (MAP) Code of Ethics? (see related question 133)
* Do they employ ASE certified technicians? (see related question 131)
* Does the facility encourage ongoing training of its employees? Look for wall certificates indicating clinics or training programs that have been recently attended or completed.
* Is the facility AAA-certified or listed with another auto club or agency that attempts to police "approved" facilities?
* Does the place "feel right?" A clean, tidy appearance with friendly manners doesn't guarantee honesty, but it may indicate more of a concern for customer satisfaction.
* Is the work guaranteed? In writing? If not, watch out.