How not to be deceived when repairing a car

Jessica Chow knows that stress—and how it can be exacerbated by gender stereotypes about car knowledge. When she was younger, she would fake a phone call to her father or boyfriend when she was at the mechanic, hoping it would help her avoid overpaying for repairs. Chow eventually decided that learning on her car could help her more.

Since she started posting videos in 2016 to document how she learned to work on her car, she has amassed over 30,000 YouTube subscribers. Chow is currently the director of brand marketing for RepairSmith, an auto repair company, and works with hundreds of mechanics. With his experience on both sides of the industry, Chow understands consumers as well as the behind-the-scenes work involved in car maintenance.

“When I started my YouTube channel, I was frustrated, I was angry,” Chow said. “I didn’t criticize the mechanics openly on my channel, but I felt like, ‘Oh, they’re always trying to take advantage of me, especially because I’m a woman.’ And this is not so.”

Mechanics may not be trying to rip you off, but a little maintenance knowledge can save you money and stress. Here’s what you should know when you pick up your car.

Do not skimp on details

Even if you don’t know anything about the technical aspects of your car, you probably know more about how it usually works than a mechanic. A strange noise coming from a certain place can mean many things, but if you can explain when it’s happening, where it’s coming from, and what it is, you can help the mechanic find the problem faster.

You can also make things easier by telling the mechanic when the problem started, Chow said. If you hit something, be honest.

“Mechanics are not fortune tellers,” Chow said. “Diagnostics are required, and they often charge a fee. It takes an hour, two hours, if not more, to determine where the problem is coming from.”

It can also be helpful to tell the mechanic about your car’s history, including any problems you may have encountered and whether you have been putting off scheduled maintenance.

“Avoid pretending or actually lying to them about whether you’ve taken care of your car or not,” Chow said. “Give them more helpful clues so they can pinpoint the problem.”

When describing problems, try to refrain from diagnosing the problem, said California mechanic Rebecca Fleischaker. It’s best to provide as many details as possible so the mechanic can properly diagnose and fix the problem.

“Going to the mechanic is like going to the doctor,” Fleischaker said. “You can know the symptom, but not the cause of the problem. In my experience, the more information you give your doctor or mechanic, the better and cheaper the outcome.”

Asking Questions

According to Fleischaker, one of the best ways to avoid being scammed is to ask questions.

Some recommended questions to ask before service include:

  • What are you going to do? Can you explain why? “Asking how difficult the repair might be will give you a better understanding of why they’re charging four hours for a job,” Chow said.
  • What parts will you use?
  • Can I see the before and after parts? Sometimes mechanics will charge you for parts they didn’t replace, so if you ask to see the parts that were replaced, you can avoid being overcharged, Fleischaker said.
  • Can you explain what this part does? Why do I need to replace it?

Before paying, Fleischaker and Chow advise asking the mechanic to break down the costs for you. This will help ensure that you only pay for the maintenance that is actually done on your car and will help you avoid hidden costs.

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“I love it when people ask me, ‘Why is it so expensive?'” Fleischaker said. “Great, makes me understand why, and why it’s different for me than it is for other people.”

If you don’t understand an answer, don’t be afraid to ask additional questions.

“If the person giving you an estimate can’t explain why that price is, that’s not your person,” Fleischaker said.

Just remember to ask your questions respectfully and not be accusatory, Chow said.

“After all, mechanics are people too,” Chow added, “and people like to talk about themselves and what they do.”

Get a second opinion

Google is your best friend, Chow said. If you’re worried about being ripped off, you can use Google to compare prices and find mechanic reviews. Get a second opinion.

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“It’s OK to call and talk to other shops and say, ‘Oh, I got a quote for $500, how much would you charge?'” Chow said. “A lot of people do that, and it doesn’t offend us. We want you to be able to afford the repairs.”

When you’re getting a second opinion, be sure to compare apples to apples, not apples to oranges, Fleischaker said, adding that’s one reason to ask what mechanics are charging you for.

Learn the basics of your car

According to Chow, the way to avoid being scammed is to know the basics of your car. This can be useful in general and also save a trip to the mechanic.

You don’t have to be an expert, but a basic knowledge of your car and an understanding of basic maintenance can help you with mechanics, she added.

If you don’t have time to memorize the owner’s manual, here are some basics that may vary by make and model:

  • At what temperature does your car work normally?
  • What the parts and indicators on your car’s dashboard mean. According to Fleischaker, drivers are encouraged to look at their dashboard to make sure their fuel level and temperature are normal. Drivers should also make sure the check engine, airbag (sometimes read as SRS), tire pressure, oil and ABS (anti-lock braking system) lights are off.
  • How often does your car need maintenance?

Once you do your research, you may find that there are a few things you can fix yourself, such as inflating your tires and changing air filters, wiper blades, oil, and spark plugs. But of course there are many other repairs such as fuel leaks, battery installation, any brake, electrical and engine related work that you will want to leave to a professional.

“These areas, if not secured properly, can cause further damage,” Chow said, “and worse, make your vehicle unsafe on the road.”

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