ways mechanics ripping you off
Updated September 29, 2021

3 Ways Mechanics Are Ripping You Off (And What You Can Do About It)

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Do you feel clueless when your car breaks down and you take it to a mechanic and they quote you some price that’s a bit more than you thought you would have to pay?  I’ve been there, done that.

Some of you may have mechanics that you trust—maybe a family member or close friend who you know won’t rip you off. That’s great, but the reality is that most of us don’t.  Some of you might even be mechanics yourselves, maybe you’re even thinking that the title is unfair, and I’m sure that most mechanics are doing everything they can to provide fair and transparent pricing.

Unfortunately, the reality is anytime you’re in a situation where the customer doesn’t have as much knowledge or information as the vendor, there’s going to be the potential for deception and advantage-taking. If your mechanic says you have serious problems with your car and it’s going to cost thousands of dollars to fix them, unless you know a lot about cars on your own you might just accept what they say and fork over the cash.  So in this article I want to cover some of the most common things I’ve seen mechanics try to get away with, and hopefully I’ll be able to give you the tools you need to spot those tactics and make sure you get a good deal.  If you’re a mechanic, by the way, I would really welcome your comments here.

1. Overcharging for services

The first thing you need to watch out for when you’re having work done on your car is that the mechanic might try to charge more than they should for a particular service. Again this is really just a situation where people go to the first mechanic they see on Google Maps, the one closest to their house, they don’t know much about the car, and they don’t know what a fair price would be for the repairs they need.

And most of the time the mechanic will pick up on that. If you don’t seem like you understand what’s wrong, that’s a pretty clear sign that you aren’t going to know how much it should cost to fix it.  In those circumstances, you’re ultimately putting your trust in the mechanic to be ethical and only charge you what they would charge anyone else.

I don’t think that’s going to be a problem most of the time, personally I don’t know that much about cars and I’ve never felt like there was anything shady going on, and mechanics are usually happy to explain the problem if you’re confused. But you don’t want to have to put yourself in that situation where they could take potentially advantage of your lack of knowledge, especially if you’re going to a new mechanic.

So the first thing you should do if you need repairs is do some research on your car until you get to the point where you’ll understand what the mechanic is telling you and how much you would be charged for that service somewhere else. And I think the easiest way to get that number, or at least a rough estimate, is to check the Kelley Blue Book website and use their car repair pricing tool. You basically just enter some information about your car, so the make, model, year, and a few more details. From there, it will automatically pull your location since pricing in New York City, for example, is probably going to be different from pricing in a rural area. Then you can select what you need, whether that’s a major repair or just scheduled maintenance at a certain number of miles.

At that point you’ll get a pretty small range. For example, I did a quick random test with a 2016 Honda Civic at 25,000 miles, in ZIP code 79936, which is actually the most populous ZIP code in the country, in El Paso. Kelley Blue Book told me that a brake pad replacement in that area should run between around $129 and $155.

The website also displays any dealerships near you that work on that specific brand, and you can check availability or even make an appointment. So if you’re not particularly familiar with your car then this is an easy way to learn what you need to know and get in touch with some mechanics in your area. And there’s even a tool for looking up car recalls in case your vehicle has a known issue.

Now if you just need routine maintenance, it might not be worth putting much more effort in—hopefully you’ll get a reasonable quote and everything will work out. On the other hand, if you’re looking for a repair that could run into the hundreds or thousands of dollars, I’d recommend going a little further to make sure you’re saving as much money as possible without getting a lower quality of service.

Some mechanics offer free inspections or free estimates, and if you can get a clear sense of the problem then you’re at the point where you’re ready to shop around. You’re also going to want to get any quotes in writing so that you can take them to other mechanics and see if they’re able to beat the price you were offered.

I want to mention one more thing before moving to the next point. This isn’t just about pricing, but also about the skills and expertise of the mechanic you’re trusting with your vehicle. So getting repairs for half the cost sounds great, but ultimately it doesn’t mean anything if they aren’t able to fix your car. In the same way that you want your doctor to have a medical degree, you want your lawyer to have passed the bar, well you also want your mechanic to be certified.

The most reliable certification board in the United States is the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence, or the ASE. There are others out there, but the ASE has more than 300,000 members, so you shouldn’t have any trouble finding a certified mechanic near your location. In order to get certified, a mechanic needs to pass their test and have either two years of on the job training or one year of on the job training plus a two-year automotive repair degree. Now this doesn’t necessarily mean they’re the best mechanic in the world, but it does mean that they’re reasonably qualified and you can expect them to offer a solid standard of service. So in my view you should pretty much always look for an ASE-certified mechanic just to make sure they know what they’re talking about and you can trust them to take care of your vehicle.

2. Overcharging for parts

The tips I just gave you may help you from getting ripped off on the cost of your repairs, but they might not do anything about the cost of parts. Of course, a mechanic who’s been certified by the ASE is probably less likely to scam you, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t still find ways to save money.

Before I get into this section, I want to clarify that just because your mechanic charges a markup on parts doesn’t mean they’re ripping you off. Yes, they’re charging you more than they paid, but so is the grocery store, so are clothing stores, and so is pretty much everyone you buy from.

In the same way that a store is buying huge quantities of food at wholesale prices and then selling them for more, mechanics are buying large numbers of parts, which gives them access to lower prices. So markups are really just part of doing business, and mechanics wouldn’t be able to stay open if they charged exactly what they paid.

On the other hand, that doesn’t mean they should be able to charge whatever they want, and you’ll definitely find mechanics who try to get away with charging a little extra. And as with repairs, this comes down to the fact that a lot of people just don’t know how much parts cost, so you’ll be in a lot better position if you do a little preparation before you go to the mechanic.

For example, just ask yourself this: if your mechanic told you that you need new brake pads, would you have any idea what a fair price is for those parts? I’m sure some of you know how much brake pads cost, but if you don’t have an interest in cars then there’s a good chance that you don’t. And honestly, if you know the ballpark price for parts for your car off the top of your head, then you probably know more about your car than the average customer.

Now I imagine you could try to bring your own parts to the mechanic if you’re really intent on saving money, but that isn’t something I’ve seen many people do. And if I was a mechanic, I don’t think I’d be very enthusiastic about fixing someone’s car when they bought parts separately.

As I said before, the markup on parts is a key piece of their business model, so it’s not like they can just let everyone bring their own parts, and if that started to become more common then they would probably just compensate for it by charging more for services and labor. So in most cases you’re going to be buying the parts directly from your mechanic, and honestly that’s probably a good idea anyway since they’re going to buy the parts they’re familiar with and that they trust to work with your particular vehicle.

Unfortunately, most mechanics have pretty firm prices on parts, so you can obviously try to negotiate but they might not have any room to move on those. Personally, I think it just makes more sense to negotiate a service than a product, so trying to haggle on car parts is a little like going to Walmart and asking the cashier to give you a discount.

Now if you know your mechanic personally, maybe they’ll be willing to give you a deal, but that’s not something I’ve seen negotiated as much as the service itself. So really all you can do is try to find the mechanic with the lowest prices in your area. Of course you can let your mechanic know if you find a better deal somewhere else, and maybe that will motivate them to match that price. But don’t be afraid to switch mechanics or at least shop around if you’re constantly getting overcharged on parts.

3. Overcharging for labor

Different mechanics approach labor differently, so it’s hard to say exactly what to look for in the case of labor. For example, one mechanic might bill for labor based on labor time estimates provided by the car’s manufacturer, and on the other hand another mechanic might charge you subjectively based on how much time they say they spent working on your car.

Obviously that’s going to give them room to fudge the numbers in some cases, and it can be tough to challenge your mechanic when they say they spent a certain number of hours on something. Of course, you don’t want to come off as hostile or combative if you can avoid that, but at the same time it’s important to stand up for yourself if you think you’re being overcharged.

Now as with anything else in car repairs, the going rate is going to vary pretty dramatically depending on where you’re living. So a mechanic in Los Angeles or New York City is probably going to charge more than someone in a rural area. According to AAA, there’s an extremely wide gap between locations and even specific professionals, with their rates going all the way from $47 per hour to $215 per hour depending on the mechanic.

Most mechanics have a set number of hours that they bill for each type of repair, so they’ll just charge you based on that standard rate. If something is listed as a two-hour job then they’re going to bill you for two hours regardless of how long it took the mechanic to get through it. So in that case you’ll be billed the same as anyone else for that repair, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good deal.

Now there are some standard labor time guides for mechanics, but unfortunately those aren’t available for free. So again you’re in a tough situation as the customer and it isn’t always easy to figure out whether a mechanic is giving you a fair price. Again I recommend asking another mechanic or two what they would charge for labor on a particular repair, and if you have the opportunity then make sure to do that before committing to anything. It’s also usually helpful to get these charges itemized so that you get a separate price for parts and labor instead of one total price that might be tougher to negotiate.

All right everybody, that is what I have for you today, but if you have any tips on how to save money at the mechanic and avoid getting ripped off, I’d love to hear it. If you’re a mechanic yourself, or you know a bit about cars, I’d appreciate your perspective as well.  As always, thanks so much for reading to the end, I really appreciate it, and I look forward to reading your thoughts on this issue.

Author:

Logan Allec, CPA

Logan is a practicing CPA, Certified Student Loan Professional, and founder of Money Done Right, which he launched in 2017. After spending nearly a decade in the corporate world helping big businesses save money, he launched his blog with the goal of helping everyday Americans earn, save, and invest more money. Learn more about Logan.

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