By on May 13, 2010

$110 an hour. That’s what certain European dealerships will charge for their $15 an hour technicians. Now granted you’re paying for the nice marble floor and a waiting room filled with old magazines, cable news and pretzels. But still that’s an awful lot of money to part with. In fact, a lot of dealerships make an exceptional living out of highballing the repair cost and lowballing the trade-in value once the customer sees the repair estimate. One outfit in particular with nearly ten dealerships in my neck of the woods clears the two million dollar mark just on this homegrown recipe for consumer disaster. So how do you avoid it?

If you’re not into wrenching consider the repair first. Brakes, filter and fluid replacements, cv joints, alternators, and tie rod ends don’t really take anything more than a will and a way for most cars. Don’t want to do it? That’s fine. But my general rule of thumb is that if you can easily see it and touch it, a hobbyist can do it for you… or with you. Friends, shadetree mechanics, mobile mechanics, and even the neighbor down the street who tunes his own car can handle these things.

The pay is usually between $10 to $35 an hour at what can loosely be termed a ‘fitter’ level. All most folks do with these repairs is remove no more than a dozen or so bolts, take out the old, and put in the new. Speaking of new… here’s a really good parts guide to help navigate the new vs. used parts paradigm. Even a cheap bastard like me will buy a quality part because it always cost less in the long run.

But what if you have something that seems tricky or elusive? A lot of folks will go to a franchised tire or repair shop. These places have the worst combination of high overhead and cheap lower quality parts. For starters, cheap labor is often cheap for a reason and the ones who work at these places are usually inexperienced. I strongly prefer independent mechanics who have set up their own shops. Many of them are hobbyists who have evolved, grown, and experienced all the rigors of learning a craft. A distinct minority have more moderate wrenching experience but are very good at managing other people (and customers).

Virtually all of them will have a system called Autodata which can guide them through a particular type of repair. But the ‘doing’ is usually easy when it comes to tricky problems. I pay these guys for a diagnosis and consider the higher cost of repair as a reward for solving that riddle. In our business it’s actually a nice mutual circle of help. The independent dealer provides clients and cars at all seasons… and the independent repair shop does the same for me. Many of my best customers and trade-in’s have come from this source.

One other thing. Independent shops are very good at having specialists of varying sorts. Air conditioning, electrical, suspensions, many of the issues you will face in these areas require skills that end up interchangeable among a wide variety of cars. This time of year I end up with dozens of cars that need a/c work and one mechanic’s know how in this area can make all the difference.

Finally… you have the big job. An engine, transmission, or a comprehensive vehicle overhaul. For those I’ll usually either get a dealer mechanic on the side that specializes in that brand. Or I’ll get a few shadetrees in the more rural areas who have their own bay and equipment. In the less populated areas you tend to have folks who have more time and resources for their hobbies. You may have to wait a day or two to get your vehicle back. But 90+% of the time the repair pays off. Unlike many franchise dealers, these folks will keep on working on a job until it’s right.

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48 Comments on “Hammer Time: Repairs...”


  • avatar
    CyCarConsulting

    A few additional points here. Shops work best with experienced prior franchised dealer mechanics, who specialize in one manufacturer. They get a lot of training. Labor rates will be 10-20% cheaper than the dealer, any cheaper, I would be concerned about. Also experienced mechanics will not use cheap after market parts,like brake pads, and water pumps, that fail prematurely. A long history of being in business is also key. There are too many butchers out there, and to save a few dollars, you could cost yourself big time in the long run, be sure who you are using.

  • avatar
    65corvair

    Another source is the internet. “Google” it, and look on youtube. Google will help you find what is wrong and youtube will show you how to do it. I had a friend who just spent $500 on a problem, and it still wasn’t fixed. He found what the problem on the internet, and fixed it himself. He doesn’t even change his oil himself. The problem never caused the check engine light to come on, which makes it hard for the “mechanic” to figure it out.

    • 0 avatar
      Deorew

      The internet is a great resource.

      Last year, my 290,000 mile car did not pass NY (downstate) emissions inspection.
      I took it to 2 different places, one a “franchise repair shop” and then a local independent shop. After the $100 and $50, respectively, CEL diagnostic fees, they both gave me an estimate of $800+ to fix the car, without either one pin-pointing the problem. They just gave me the diagnostic code read-outs.
      I did not want to junk the car, since it still ran great and looked great.

      I did some internet research, went to a local junkyard and got a MAP sensor. I also bought some new vacuum hose to replace some specific brittle/cracked hoses, which someone mentioned on the internet. Total cost $40.

      The car passed inspection, and is still running great now, at 302,000 miles.

      I little internet research can go a long way.

  • avatar
    Juniper

    I have never understood why people will go to a dealer for out of warranty repairs.
    I guess I’m lucky I have two long term indi shops within walking distance. both are excellent. For emissions work they even take your car to the test and get your pass document. Well worth it.

  • avatar
    educatordan

    Once again grateful that I know a good independent mechanic and a good independent transmission guy.

    But my goal for my next car is to buy something older that I really desire and then do as much work as possible myself. I’m finally luck enough to have other forms of transport if my car is out of service for a week or so.

  • avatar
    Robstar

    I have an indy mechanic do my oil change in my Subaru. The car has low clearance and requires moving a piece of plastic on the bottom of the car with like 12 bolts or something to get to the oil filter. When he will let me bring my own oil & filter & will then do it for $20, why would I do it myself?

    I live on a hill (not a lot of flat ground for me to work on outside of the garage which has 2 other vehicles — and a third soon) and I don’t trust getting two jacks to hold my car up over me and hope that I don’t accidently knock them out from under me & kill me.

    For $20, I’ll bring it to him all day long. Anything outside of checking fluids that are accessible by popping the hood is beyond me. I have no tools, no desire, no time, and no flat ground to work on.

    Any parts I want (tires, oil, brakes, etc) he will let me bring my own & charge me labor only if I want and guarantee the work.

    I often ask him about changing stuff that I read SHOULD need it and he will check it & tell me more often than not that he’ll change it if I really want it but it isn’t needed.

    With a decently competent mechanic that doesn’t rape you on charges there isn’t a whole lot of reason to do it yourself unless you really like to do it.

    When I first used him, I compared him to several dealerships and the quote he gave me for parts + labor was about 1/2 of what the cheapest dealership wanted.

    • 0 avatar
      radimus

      You never get under a car that is held up by jacks. You just use the jack to raise the car and then support it with a jack stand. An even safer route that works well for most oil changes is to run the front end of the car up on a set of Rhino ramps.

    • 0 avatar
      Robstar

      I don’t want to be under a car held up by anything when someone else has a lift and can do it a lot more safely. Especially to save $20. That is the point I was trying to make.

  • avatar
    saponetta

    Dealer techs may make 15/hour in the south but they are paid quite a bit more in the northern states. Their hourly pay plus benefits/retirment are a significant expense to the dealers service department and drive up the hourly repair rate. Our nut for our service and parts deparments is over 500k an month. Thats a lot to pay for and the labor rates and parts prices reflect this.

  • avatar

    If you can get the big, phonebook-sized shop manual, cd or pdf, like a Robert Bentley manual, spend the $50 and get it.

    • 0 avatar
      Lumbergh21

      If you plan on doing anything even slightly complicated, get the shop manual. A Chilton’s or Hayne’s Manual works fine for most common basic repairs, though. But, for the most people interested in performing their own repairs, I do typically recommend the shop manual.

  • avatar
    obbop

    It’s almost always caused by an out-of-phase tachyon beam pulse.

    Or a phase inverter not inverting those pesky phases properly.

  • avatar
    pudelpointer

    Just another good reason why my wife and I lease new vehicles every three years. My wifes new Camry has 2 years of service included. I havn’t bought so much as a new tire for about 15 years. Is leasing more expensive? Maybe,but it sure frees up alot of my time.

    • 0 avatar
      srogers

      In the 6 years that I’ve owned my Focus, I have been without it for 2 days due to necessary repairs. That versus what? $4-5000 a year to lease? Even leased cars need to be serviced.

    • 0 avatar
      jmo

      $4-5000 a year to lease

      To lease a Focus? One would hope you could get one for 2400 a year.

    • 0 avatar
      PartsUnknown

      pudel – I came to the same conclusion recently. I have always owned old cars, and I immensely enjoy working on them and saving big money, no car payments, etc. I changed the ball joints on my wife’s Saab 9-5 a few months ago, and I walked around my neighborhood with no shirt on for a week, I was that excited about it.

      But with my latest Saab 9000, there was too much time spent on a creeper at the expense of my wife and kids. Leased a ’10 Accord for lunch money. Gas it and go, now my weekends are free. After I mow the lawn, spread mulch, cut down a few trees, fix the shed door….

    • 0 avatar
      pudelpointer

      About 8 or 9 years ago I tried to lease a Focus wagon,the residual was so low that the lease payment was like $525/month! The 10′Camry XLE that I just leased is $404/month for 36/12. Not bad for a fully loaded car,with 2 years of free service.

  • avatar
    nova73

    I’ve been taking my POS cars to the same independent shop for 20+ years. Been in business since 1949 spanning 4 generations. They’ve saved me a ton of money over the years. On the rare occasion they didn’t want to do the job (transmission rebuild, heater core replacement) they sent me to very good indy shops specializing in that type of work. Only drawback is that they’re 15 miles from home.

    My brother in law was getting hosed by the local Dodge dealer for repairs to his Grand Caravan (no, he didn’t talk to me before he bought it.) Now he’s going to my mechanic and can’t believe the difference in price, not to mention attitude.

    Wife bought a new Ford a couple years ago. Dealer gives her free oil changes, but then tries to upsell her on all sorts of unnecessary items. My mechanic often tells me that I don’t need to replace all the things I ask him to replace.

    If the dealers adopted better services practices, the cost of customer acquisition would drop like a stone.

  • avatar
    roadracer

    I had a Chevy Monza in high school which broke about once a week. Consequently, I learned to work on cars at a young age. I’ve been doing all my own repairs for years. Both our road vehicles have over 200,000 miles and are going strong. Only reason to take my car anywhere for repair is if it breaks down far from home. This only happened once in recent memory, and the bill for the tow and repair was about the same as a car payment. Meanwhile, I’ve been making payments to a savings account, and have saved enough to buy my next car outright.

    I’ll admit I’m a nut, and this strategy won’t work for most. Most “normal” people are best served by finding a good independent shop and sticking with them. Cheaper in the long run than buying new every couple of years.

  • avatar
    ExPatBrit

    The key to doing cheaper repairs yourself is backup transportation. Whether it be public transportation or another vehicle, turning the emergency breakdown into an inconvenience buys you time and will probably save you money and frustration. We have an extra vehicle and public transportation is possible temporarily if we move our work schedules around..

    All of our vehicles are 9+ years old at this point ,all with 90,000 miles or more. We drive and maintain all of them.

    When any of them break, I try to research the problem on the internet forums and order the parts either via the internet or locally.Also check what parts are commonly for sale on E-Bay, you don’t have to buy but it’s a very good cross reference of what parts fail often on that vehicle. I rarely buy dealer parts.I rarely visit junk yard, but doing that takes time. Out here even independent shops charge $125 / hour and rarely will let you bring your own parts.

    Bentley manuals are great. Haynes and Chilton are largely redundant with the internet. AllData looks promising.

    • 0 avatar
      lilpoindexter

      Yes, backup transportation is THE key! I drive two older Mazdas, if one has to go down for more than a day, I have the other one.

    • 0 avatar
      Disaster

      Backup transportation is good…if you don’t have to insure it. Depending on where you live, and your driving record, it might cost $500-$1000 to insure that “back up” vehicle.

    • 0 avatar

      Depending on where you are and the time of year Rental Cars can be cheap as well. Last month I paid $28/day for a midsize from Enterprise. Unless your car will be in the shop for more that 2 weeks/year you’re better off just getting a no frills rental.

  • avatar

    I concur with Mr. Lang. That said, locating a worthy mechanic can be damned difficult, and often the only way to find out if one is worth their salt is to take the plunge.

    After 30+ years of car ownership, I’m still doing repair work on my own. I’ve broken it down to three main motivations:

    1) I like working on my cars (most of the time).

    2) I’m also a cheap bastard (though I agree on spending the $$$ for high quality parts).

    3) Last but far, far from least, I’ve seen the results of half-assed work, outright butchery and financial rape inflicted by local repair shops too many times to want to try to find the holy grail of the “good shop”.

    The motivations all vary in proportion to the job at hand. Dropping that shiny new motor into the engine bay and the satisfaction of successfully starting my up my handiwork for the first time? Motivation 1, all the way. Scraping oily filth off of a part to be rebuilt, or rolling under a wet car in the middle of winter for a necessary repair? Number 2, certainly.

    But motivation 3 is often the big one. I rehabbed a Volvo 245 last year which was in sorry shape, almost entirely due to previous crap repairs and no attention to what was actually broken. I got a thick folder full of receipts with the car from at least five different local shops, something like $4,000 of “repairs” done in the last three years. Hacked up engine control wiring (Scotch-Loks should be BANNED, evil, evil, EVIL), fuel injection so far out of tune the car barely ran, and my favorite, a heater fan replacement job that left out several key fasteners so that the fans rubbed against the housing, prompting my first 240 blower motor repair gig, every bit as much fun as you’ve heard. That’s just scraping the surface.

    But did the professionals check or repair obvious stuff like a clogged flame trap? Broken transmission mount? Split and disconnected vacuum hose lines? No signs of any work there.

    This was just one car, mind you. Most of the other 25 cars I’ve owned over the years have had similar stories, but I’ll spare you the details.

    My friends and co-workers constantly ask me if I know of a good local shop. I usually have to say “no”. I know they’re out there, but I can’t bring myself to spend the big $$$ to find out… so, off to the garage I go. Good thing I like working on cars, huh?

  • avatar
    Lowe9

    Sometimes going to a dealer can be advantageous. For $50, I get my oil changed, have a nice dealership receipt for when I sell my car, and they will drive me to work and pick me back up in the courtesy shuttle.

    I’ve also had sway-bar endlinks replaced at the dealership, as the bolts were seized and I didn’t have muscle to get them off. Labour was only one hour, and while the $100/H for labour may be more than an independent shop, the deal sealer is the free ride to and from work.

  • avatar
    ExPatBrit

    “Backup transportation is good…if you don’t have to insure it. Depending on where you live, and your driving record, it might cost $500-$1000 to insure that “back up” vehicle.”

    If you are worried about $45-85 / month for insurance, you really can’t afford to drive already. If your insurance is $500-1000 a month you need to trade-in that Viper and buy a beater vehicle or a schwinn.

    Over the years we have discovered that running and maintaining three older vehicles is less than 1/2 the cost of running two brand new vehicles. And our current inventory is not exactly beaters (Audi, Lexus + Ford truck).

    • 0 avatar
      Lumbergh21

      Point one is that the back-up car is usually much less to insure because you, rightfully, estimate very few miles per year. Second, older cars are cheaper to insure and register to begin with. I bet that you would find it is cheaper to insure and register two older cars than one new car.

    • 0 avatar
      shiney2

      Depending on where you live and the type of insurance you need, you may be able to get a blanket policy on you as a driver. I currently have 9 cars (down from 11), most of them are 20+ years old, all are paid off, and none have insurance directly on them. I have a blanket policy that provides me with liability insurance on whatever I am driving, and costs just over $1000/year.

  • avatar
    George B

    I saved time and money by scheduling early morning appointments with an independent mechanic. I’d buy the parts and show up with car plus parts before the parts supplier delivery trucks start delivering. The mechanic gets an extra job done at the start of the day and I get repairs done fast while I wait without missing time from work.

    May also find win-win deals where the mechanic does your job on a slow day in exchange for a good price. Got a better price on timing belt replacement by picking a slow day and paying cash.

  • avatar
    wsn

    So how do you avoid it?

    How about read your CR and buy a Lexus?

  • avatar
    slavuta

    I am sick of mechanics.
    A year ago I was looking to replace the timing belt on the Mercury Villager. Called couple people and got $700-$800 estimates (including water pump and belts). I asked them over the phone if they were sane. I told them, that I would pay no more then $350 (timing belt only). They said “no” and I, did it myself. In 7 hours I’ve replaced timing belt, spark plugs and wires, oil/filter, front engine mount, coolant and 3 accessory belts.
    Total cost $200 + time, which I would spend relaxing. So, I relaxed under the car. Actually, I would spend about 5 hours if not for the stuck spark plug, which took me a lot of time to pull out.
    So the timing belt itself for this car with power tools would take 2.5 hours. And they didn’t want to do it for $350. Does it tell what kind people mechanics are? Lawyers in work clothes.

  • avatar
    Russycle

    I’ve had bad luck having tire shops do anything but tires, learned my lesson. My experience with independent shops has been great, if they’ve managed to survive for a few years they’re probably pretty good. I’m lucky to have a buddy who does work on the side for half to a quarter of what the dealerships charge. Ford wanted $500 to replace a leaky intake manifold gasket, said it would take all day. My buddy did it in an hour. I do give the dealer credit, my buddy couldn’t diagnose the problem, it was worth paying to track it down.

  • avatar
    shortthrowsixspeed

    @ 65Corvair & Deorew: +1 on the internet.

    I do not work on cars + i am not mechanically inclined + i can however, use a wrench, a screwdriver, and Google = i fixed it.

    I recently had my check engine light pop on and the car exhibited a weak idle. I brought it to my stepdad’s mechanic who’s dayjob is turning wrenches at a local service station shop. he diagnosed it as a bad O2 sensor. so i bought one, he put it in, and I paid him $60. 30 min later: CEL and weak idle. took it back to him. now he says its the other o2 sensor. so i buy that, he puts it in, and i pay him $30 more (i think he just felt bad about the first one). 30 min later: CEL and weak idle.

    so I google it and my make and model tends to get a dirty mass air flow sensor, which simply requires a spray cleaner ($15). buy it, get to the MAF, and in doing so I notice that my air intake hose has a big crack in it. hmmmm. perhaps that’s the problem. buy it, put it in, done.

    Lesson #1: always check the cheap stuff first: hoses, wires, etc.
    Lesson #2: do the research on the internet before trusting the “diagnotic”. The forums have hundreds of people telling you about your exact make and model. how many 2003 mazda proteges has your mechanic worked on?
    Lesson #3: get an OBDII – use it and google the code.

  • avatar
    stuart

    My scheme wouldn’t work for author Steven: I buy the Shop Manual. These are often expensive; I spend $300 for the complete set of six manuals for my Peugeot 505. And they’re not brief; the manuals for my Ford occupy almost a foot of bookshelf. However, every shop manual I’ve bought has paid for itself many times over.

    Even if you don’t do the work yourself, if you can diagnose what’s wrong and you understand what needs to be done, you’re in a much better bargaining position when getting it fixed.

    • 0 avatar
      educatordan

      Here’s a crazy question. Are shop manuals still available for new cars? I mean in the era of computers do they still exist?

    • 0 avatar
      shiney2

      Depending on the car you can often get a CD or DVD of the dealer/independents shop manual, complete with updates and service bulletins.

    • 0 avatar
      stuart

      > Here’s a crazy question. Are shop manuals still available for new
      > cars? I mean in the era of computers do they still exist?

      Honestly, I wouldn’t know; I’ve never owned anything new. However, there’s still a legitimate need for documentation, and whether it’s dead trees or shiny plastic discs, there has to be a way.

      My brother is giving me his old 1989 240SX, and for an antique like this, Nissan won’t sell you dead trees or plastic discs for love or money. Instead, you rent time on their website (http://www.nissan-techinfo.com/) and download PDFs. Whatever…

      (Yes, I’m aware of the dozens of “FR33 S3RV1C3 mAnUaL5!!!” for the 240SX. I downloaded one, and it omits several important subjects, like “the transmission.” While it’s a great value for the price, it’s not a real shop manual.)

  • avatar
    golden2husky

    There are a few secrets to not going broke maintaining your ride and it’s not buying what the toaster testers at CR suggest.

    1. If you have the option, buy cars that are common and have high rates of depreciation. This makes parts cheap, even high quality parts. Never, ever cheap out here. Sites like Rockauto give a good selection of many brands for each part.

    2. Buy the factory service manual. Chiltons is not worth much. Another option is Alldata. This is big bucks, but see if you can split the subscription cost with others. Alldata has a diy site called AlldataDIY wich is helpful, but is limited compared to the pro site. Internet research and “fan” websites are also great sources of information.

    3. Buy a quality scan tool, one with the ability to freeze frame data streams. Again, split the cost with fellow enthusiasts/relatives/friends. Without a scan tool, you are running blind when you diagnose OBDII codes.

    4. Be SAFE. Don’t work under a car supported by jacks.

    If you have no interest at all at working on you own ride, find a reputable independent repair shop. Dealers are a ripoff. And, they are usually required to use factory parts. Sometimes that’s a good thing, sometimes its not. Many a ’80s era Chrysler or Honda would have benefited from a quality Fel-pro head gasket that wasn’t “value engineered” to save a buck a gasket. Avoid chains and discount houses for any diagnostic work. Lastly, buying/leasing every three years as a means to save on repair work is nonsense. Buy a new car because you want it… it will never be cheaper to replace than repair in the first five years of life…

  • avatar
    brandloyalty

    Definitely get a factory service manual. Researching just one repair will pay for it.

    Your local auto club can recommend good general and specialty repair shops.

    Another source is the auto repair instructors at your local college. Some of them have their own shops, and this is who we take our cars to. Someone you can trust to do only what’s needed, and do it right.

    For most people, dealing with auto repair shops is like walking blindfolded through a minefield. There simply is no excuse for the number of thieves and incompetents in the field. People who don’t know much about their cars get ripped off like crazy, and to generalize and be sexist, women especially get ripped off.

    Here’s a little story. Our cuv needs a periodic valve clearance inspection. It’s a big job because of all the stuff mounted on top of the engine. Our mechanic went to the local xxx dealership to get perishables for the job, such as valve cover gaskets. The dealership’s head mechanic, in the presence of the service manager, advised our mechanic to listen to the engine, and if it sounded ok, do nothing and charge me the full rate for the inspection (which can be as much as $1000.) For one thing, just listening is not sufficient. Second, our mechanic will charge for the time the job takes, not a flat rate. Obviously I won’t take our vehicle to the dealership again for anything.

  • avatar

    Having wrenched a bit in the last five years, both on my Subaru and various other rides, I can tell you this:

    1. Your attitude is about the most important thing when approaching a repair. Having a calm, zen-like approach will bring you success. Closely related to this is

    2. Make double sure you have enough time for the project, keeping in mind that the first time you do something, it will probably take about twice as long or more than any “estimated” time. There’s always something that will come along and slow down or stop your progress. If you get in a hurry, you’ll do more harm than good. Make some time for just walking around the car and thinking. Be aware that you may have to also budget time to

    3. Go get the right tool for the job. When I first started working on cars, I NEVER finished a project without having to run off to the local Sears or auto parts store for a specific tool. Now that I have a few tools lying around, it’s a little easier, but the main point is: the right tool makes the job go much much smoother. Hey, you’re saving a giant wad of cash; don’t skimp on buying a few tools here and there.

    Other notes: as others have posted, the internet is invaluable for finding tutorials and other advice. I’ve even bought used parts online from other forum members. Don’t ever neglect joining an enthusiast forum; they can give you an unbelievable amount of collective knowledge about your ride.

  • avatar
    zoneofdanger

    $110 an hour? Here in N. Calif. my nearby BMW dealer charges $180!!!

  • avatar
    thecavanaughs

    I know one experience doesn’t make for good analysis- but we have both BMW and Mercedes in our household- the BMW service, while expensive, has been stellar. May we loan you a car? Drive you home? Wax your mustache? I don’t have a mustache, but you get the point. The Mercedes service department, on the other hand, gives off an attitude like they are doing me a favor- a very expensive favor. It is as if I am bothering them with my business. Not only that, but the last repair I took in to Mercedes (a malfunctioning door latch) was diagnosed as a bad latch mechanism (actuator and latch all built into one). That is a 600 dollar job. OK- just for kicks I took it to a well respected independent Mercedes mechanic- the actuator and latch were fine, it was a wire coupling that needed to be replaced- for about 125 dollars, including labor. Now paying through the nose for excellent service (e.g. BMW) is one thing, but getting conned by a mechanic with attitude for the same price is just not acceptable. Two BMWs in a row for me, and that trend will continue until Mercedes starts acting like they want to earn my business.


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