Hammer Time: Repairs

Steven Lang
by Steven Lang
hammer time repairs

$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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  • Zoneofdanger Zoneofdanger on May 13, 2010

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

  • Thecavanaughs Thecavanaughs on May 14, 2010

    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.

  • FifaCup Loving both Interior and exterior designs.
  • FifaCup This is not good for the auto industry
  • Jeff S This would be a good commuter vehicle especially for those working in a large metropolitan area. The only thing is that by the time you put airbags, backup cameras, and a few of the other required safety features this car would no longer be simple and the price would be not much cheaper than a subcompact. I like the idea but I doubt a car like this would get marketed in anyplace besides Europe and the 3rd World.
  • ScarecrowRepair That's what I came to say!
  • Inside Looking Out " the plastic reinforced with cotton waste used on select garbage vehicles assembled by the Soviet Union. "Wrong. The car you are talking about was the product German engineering, East German. It's name was Trabant.