Repair Costs on the Upswing After Declining for Two Years

repair costs on the upswing after declining for two years

Nothing lasts forever, as Axl Rose once said. After flatlining for a couple of years, during which time car owners — on average — saw no increases in repair costs stemming from “check engine” lights, bills are headed back up.

A study looking at average repair costs in 2016 has found that the price of discovering the cause of that dreaded light rose 2.7 percent between last year and 2015. That brings the average repair bill for this type of garage visit to $398. However, not every region of America took a hit.

In its 2017 Vehicle Health Index study, repair data provider CarMD broke down the tired components that most often sent drivers on a nervous trip to their local service bay last year. Of the approximately 5.3 million repairs logged in its database, the top five culprits happened to be the usual suspects.

Country-wide, the top faulty part was the oxygen sensor, comprising 8 percent of repairs, followed by the pricey catalytic converter at 6.75 percent. Faulty ignition coils and spark plugs came in third at 6.23 percent of mechanic visits, while a loose gas cap was the mystery behind 4.16 percent of “check engine” lights. Non-functioning mass air flow sensors rounded out the top five, at 3.84 percent.

Not surprisingly, 2005 model year vehicles were most likely to have a glowing amber light gnawing a hole in the driver’s stomach. The average age of the afflicted vehicles, 11.9 years, happens to be almost the exact median age of vehicles driving on U.S. roads (11.6 years).

Because of natural variability in the number of vehicles needing certain repairs, the median repair bill fluctuates slightly from year to year, outside of easier to pin down factors like parts and labor. Real estate costs play another role in the final bill. For 2016, average labor costs rose 4.7 percent, while parts saw an inflationary 1.4 percent increase in price.

Drivers in the Northeast saw the largest average bill, at $401. That’s up 6.5 percent over the previous year. The next fastest-growing “check engine” light repair was found in the Midwest, where bills rose 5.7 percent to an average of $385 last year. On a regional basis, that’s still the lowest. The South only saw a 2.9-percent climb, though its bills rang in at $400.

If you’re living west of the Continental Divide, you might be in luck. Average repair bills fell 1.1 percent to $399. Of course, none of this is of any comfort if you inherited someone else’s lemon, or if your long-time vehicle suddenly decided to implode.

Going back in CarMD’s data, it’s interesting to see the drop-off in repair bills following the onset of the recession. In happier times, 2006 to be exact, the average U.S. bill was $422.36. The low point in the past decade occurred in 2011, when average repair costs hit $333.93.

Join the conversation
3 of 56 comments
  • Bikegoesbaa Bikegoesbaa on Apr 26, 2017

    A car is the second most expensive thing many people will ever buy, and the most dangerous object in an average person's life. Given the proliferation of free information available online; I don't have a whole lot of sympathy for people who remain willfully ignorant of the basic maintenance and diagnostics of a machine they own. If my garbage disposal cost $30k and had a decent chance of killing me if something went wrong, I'd be pretty motivated to understand the fundamentals of how to care for and repair it too.

  • Another_VW_fanboy Another_VW_fanboy on Apr 26, 2017

    Having worked in aftermarket auto parts for a time, I can understand the rise in repair costs to a point. To retain a licensed, trained tech(s) is expensive, and cars are much more complicated. Aftermarket parts however are mostly astonishingly cheap Chinese junk. It's amazing how awful some of them are. Were not talking performance parts but the regular stuff you need to keep your car going. So along with the rising cost of auto maintenance and decline of quality in parts I chose to lease my vehicles to avoid the maintenance aspect all together. The peace of mind is worth the affordable payment.

    • Gtem Gtem on Apr 26, 2017

      agreed, it's become a real minefield, particularly when even known good brands start to outsource to China. Not saying all Chinese stuff is inherently bad, but the fact that quality can be so variable depending on how much attention was paid to QC on that particular day makes me leery of anything coming out of there. Having said all that, there's still good stuff out there. When you do a lot of DIY stuff, you also become much more aware of the wildly variable cost of replacement parts across brands and even models. I can buy OEM Motorcraft front shocks for $30 for my very old school twin-i beam ranger. OEM front struts for my Mac-strut ES300 were 6x as expensive, generic Camry-spec aftermarket pieces were more reasonable but still more than 2-3x the cost of Ranger stuff. No springs to compress or anything either, just bolt everything in both front and rear.

  • 2ACL What tickles me is that the Bronco looks the business with virtually none of the black plastic cladding many less capable crossovers use.
  • IBx1 For all this time with the hellcat engine, everything they made was pathetic automatic scum save for the Challenger. A manual Durango, Grand Cherokee, Charger, 300C, et al would have been the real last gasp for driving enthusiasts. As it is, the party is long over.
  • MaintenanceCosts The sweet spot of this generation isn't made anymore: the SRT 392. The Scat Pack is more or less filling the same space but it lacks a lot of the goodies, including SRT suspension, brakes, and seats. The Hellcat is too much and isn't available with a manual anymore.
  • Arthur Dailey I am normally a fan of Exner's designs but by this time the front end on the Stutz like most of the rest of the vehicle is a laughable monstrosity of gauche. The interior finishes suit the rest of the vehicle. Corey please put this series out of its misery. This is one vehicle manufacturer best left on the scrap heap of history.
  • Art Vandelay I always thought what my Challenger really needed was a convertible top to make it heavier and make visability worse.