by Peter Zelchenko July 17, 2009
Not a stellar week when it comes to the economy.
I mean my economy. I just dropped $553.85 for a new water pump (for a car that I paid $2,500 for). After the fact, I had the time to call around and confirm that I'd paid about twice what I should have. Sound familiar, or are you smarter than that?
A problem today is that auto-repair places tend to act like doctors' offices. They tell you what they think is good for you; they expect you to keep your mouth shut; they charge as much as humanly possible; and at every possible opportunity they prey on your ignorance.
Customer: "Look, I know your estimate said 'labor 2.0 hours.' But you called me at 5:07 p.m. to say the work was done. Since we left here around 2, and you were working on other cars at the time, you must have had to run and order a new pump and get it here almost immediately to have spent a full 2 hours. That's unlikely."
Clerk: "Sir, we bill for the time that the computer says to bill for."
It's important for them to be able to have a reference, since some customers think that repairs magically occur while they are gone, or they believe that they take far less time than they actually do, because they have never actually done anything like it themselves. It also helps guard against shops that grossly pad their time on their work. It's a very good idea for there to be a standard for this. The problem is that the times tend to be conservative, in favor of the shop, and most shops always charge the full rate regardless of how long it actually takes to perform the job. That's more convenient -- and much more profitable -- than actually looking at a clock.
Customer: "And anyway why did you charge me $143.12 for this pump? I would have paid around $60 bucks for it, and that's retail."
Clerk: "Sir, we use only the highest-quality parts, and this job includes a one-year warranty."
What he didn't mention is that auto-repair places usually charge a markup, often 100% or more, of what they themselves pay for a part. (I paid around 300% here, by my estimate.) They claim it reflects their cost to procure the part. That argument doesn't often make sense. They often get economies of scale on this: maybe they keep the part in stock or at least order it with other parts for other jobs, which means they didn't have to make a special trip. They also pay wholesale prices, which are typically a lot less than what I would have paid on the Internet. My guess is they paid around $45 for this pump. Probably it didn't cost them $98.12 more to procure it, even though they probably made a special trip. They'll also get $20 to $30 back for returning the old pump (the valuable "core"; true for any remanufacturable part). The customer should (but rarely will) enjoy part or all of that core refund (it's ours, after all).
What's a water pump, anyway? Actually, it is one of the simplest devices on your car. It is essentially a rudimentary sealed fan, or impeller, driven by the belt, whose fins circulate water through the radiator and the engine. On a lot of cars, it's also fairly easy to replace. On mine, it's five bolts. It usually slaps onto the front of your engine block, just behind the fan.
Technician: "It's a complicated operation, replacing a water pump. It takes specialized tools and expertise."
Customer: "You're joking. It's five bolts. I wouldn't even have had to change my socket-wrench size."
Technician: "So, why didn't you do it yourself?"
Customer: "I've already replaced the heater blower and power-steering pump, among other things. Those were actually harder, as you know. I just didn't have time to do this and I was hoping I could trust someone else to do the job. But this is way, way too much."
Clerk: "Sir, we did provide you with a 'new customer' discount. We also marked the record of the lady who referred you to us with a discount for the next time she comes in."
Customer: "Yes, I noticed my $10 discount and that you entered '$10 off' in my friend's record, only after I volunteered her information. How very generous of you."
Ten dollars off on this job amounted to a 1.7% discount. I'm touched.
Customer: "And what's this, $28 for coolant?"
Clerk: "Your system takes eight quarts, or two gallons. We charged $3.50 a quart."
Customer: "What?! I can get it for about $2!"
Clerk: "That's our standard charge, sir."
Customer: "Was that before or after you put the water in it?!"
Essentially, I got taken -- charged the highest possible rate they could barely get away with at every single point in the procedure, down to the coolant. And not only did I have to argue with a brick wall, there was another customer, an Area 2 Detective, sitting there supporting them.
Detective: "I've been coming here for 22 years and I love them to death."
Customer: "Yes, but you probably know more about fighting crime than repairing cars. Do you even know where a water pump is located?"
Detective (crosses her arms): "So repair your own car then if you're so smart."
Customer: "Well, I...perhaps you're right, officer."
One thing I know from experience: never argue with a cop. Maybe they'll give her a $10 reward for defending them.
(Most of us don't make $70,000 or so annually like a Chicago Police detective. Of course, that probably makes us bums.)
But she's right, really. That's what it boils down to so often. You have three options: prepare to be gouged, fix it yourself, or prepare to be gouged. Our detective friend is fine with being gouged.
Don't you be, gentle reader. The least you can do is not walk yourself into a corner like I did. Here are some ways to avoid that:
- When calling around to repair places, find ones that will give free or very cheap estimates. If they don't (and many don't), make sure they tell you exactly how much the estimate will cost, and expect a reasonable price. This is what started my problems. I paid $89.36 for my estimate (their hourly minimum). After dropping that much on what was essentially a 10-minute examination, I felt as though I was stuck with them. What was I going to do, leave and pay another $89 for another estimate somewhere else?
- Always obtain at least two estimates, preferably three. Don't let them charge you for a full hour for a diagnostic that will take closer to 10 minutes. Get everything in writing.
- Insist that they show you exactly what they are going to do. If they are claiming they need to "lift the car," be reluctant. If they insist, either say you don't want to be charged for it or, if you're willing, then say they need to bring you to the car under the lift to show exactly what the problem is. If they whine about safety or insurance issues, then go somewhere else. Be prepared to wait for them to lift the car. (I, for example, told them I wanted them to call me when they were ready to lift the car up -- I was five minutes away -- but they did not.)
- Ask pointed questions. "Do you really have to remove that part to get to this part?" Take your time and don't worry about asking stupid questions. "Why do you need to change that? It looks perfectly good." Don't be fazed if they start sounding exasperated. They're probably not used to actually being questioned.
- Expect them to listen to you. After two weeks getting under the car, watching the problem, and testing for and eliminating other possibilities, I told them in detail exactly where I believed the leak was, and I turned out to be right (it was at the pump pulley shaft, as I suspected). The problem and solution were obvious from my own observation. But they insisted on charging $89.36 to lift the car to observe the leak and perform a simple pressure test that merely restated the obvious.
- Just for fun (since they'll probably laugh), tell them you want them to charge only for the time they take to perform the job, not what the computer lists as the standard charge. If the computer estimates '2.0 hours,' and it takes them only an hour, tell them you don't want to pay for two hours. They'll claim their mechanics are better than average, and all that. Try timing them if you want to be sure (leave a video camera in the car at low resolution).
- Do not feel obligated to do exactly what they tell you, or believe exactly what they tell you. The paternalism in auto repair is almost as bad as in the medical profession. Maybe worse. Be skeptical.
- Pay with American Express, if you have it. American Express has a dispute resolution program that you can and should use as often as you feel it is necessary. You should be able to get the company to agree to rebate part of the extravaganza.
- Consider doing the job yourself. Really. If you have the time, and a little nerve, it can be a very enriching exercise. Even things you didn't expect you could do are really not so bad. The Internet now complements the often frustratingly incomplete Haynes and Chilton's manuals, in its ability to guide you through some of this. Even experts refer to these resources, so don't feel like you're cheating.
Good luck out there.
During the 1990s, Peter hosted Chicago's 'Unscrew U,' a do-it-yourself repair forum that had its home at, among other places, the Autonomous Zone. Participants repaired everything from VCRs and vacuum cleaners to cars and computers, doing the work themselves, assisted by guest experts and explanatory commentary and diagrams from the hosts.
(c) 2003-2009, Peter Zelchenko and Gapers Block