It’s bad enough to have a car in need of repair. Yet the matter goes from bad to worse when you finally get your prized automobile into the mechanic at the garage for repair only to discover that the job you paid the pros to do was handled badly. Now your vehicle runs worse than before but you’ve already busted your budget on the bad repair job.
You can find yourself not just angry but also frustrated, especially if the repair bill is big and their promise of friendly service was nothing more than a yellow pages motto. When you consider that Americans rate the stress of dealing with an auto repair shop right up there with a serious conflict on the job and a big fight with a family member, it’s easy to understand why people worry that a car repair will turn into a very big deal.
Rather than get mad or frustrated, and far better than trying to get even, it’s time instead to determine how you can get satisfaction: the car repair done right; failing that, you want your money back. Yet the best way to do insure this happens needs to begin before your mechanic ever begins to work.
One of the biggest problems we as consumers have with mechanics and garages is a failure to come to a meeting of the minds. This doesn’t just happen with car repairs; we also hit the same dilemma with plumbers, cable or satellite TV technicians, and customer service associates. Anytime we have to take someone else’s word for what work needs to be done, we worry that we will become the unwitting pawns in a chess game we can’t win.
Part of the trouble lies in the fact that a mechanic – or a technician or operator – speaks a different language from us. He or she rattles off terms, tools, and technology we don’t begin to understand while we nod our heads, pretending as if we do. We often don’t ask any questions beyond the most obvious, such as, “How much will this cost and how long will it take?”
Yet every good contract – from an estimate of repairs at the garage to ordering new cable service – demands a meeting of the minds to enforce. Let’s say you sell widgets. Someone comes up to you asking to buy a half dozen widgets. You give the buyer a price of $7 per widget, he pays you forty-two dollars plus sales tax, and you both get exactly what you contracted to receive.
The same rules need to apply to your car repair. So if you don’t understand what your mechanic will give you in return for your hard earned cash, you need to find out. If it takes 15 questions and a crash course in basic transmission terminology, so be it. The two of you need to determine what work must be done for you to be satisfied and agree to a fair price for the results you want.
When you go in for an estimate on the car repair, go equipped with as many important questions as possible and with the questions as relevant as possible. If you don’t know your catalytic converter from your fuel pump, say so. If possible, do your research ahead of time. For example, if you suspect the problem is with your heating and cooling system, use online auto-related Web sites like www.jonko.com and autos.yahoo.com to learn about different systems on your vehicle, the parts involved, and the kinds of repairs that may be required for specific hardware failures.
Even before you begin shooting questions at the mechanic yet after the mechanic has had a chance to look over your auto, ask him or her to tell you exactly what he thinks is wrong and what exactly must be done to correct it. The mechanic may supply enough information that you don’t have to go down your list of questions or what he or she says may spur newer, better questions from you.
Before you give the go-ahead to proceed with the work, know exactly what the results you can expect for what you agree to pay. Assume nothing. One problem I’ve seen happen again and again is that a mechanic will tell a customer what the person can expect if he authorizes the entire replacement of a broken system. But the customer then hedges and wants to save some money, so he only agrees to a lesser repair. Even if the mechanic carefully explains him that to the car owner he can’t expect the same results as he might with a fuller solution, the customer somehow comes to believe he’ll get what he wants rather than what he has reason to expect.
By going in with questions, by listening carefully, and by setting your sights realistically, you should be able to receive from the garage exactly what you contracted for. So let’s look at what needs to happen if you don’t.
First, it’s usually best to test your vehicle out completely immediately after the repair is complete. If you previously had a problem only when you accelerated on the highway, then get back on the highway to see if the repair job corrected the issue.
Next, once you suspect that the repair job is either incomplete or not adequately done, you need to contact the mechanic and/or garage immediately to inform them of the problem. Normally, this process not only puts the garage on notice you are unhappy, it also gives them the opportunity to try to right the wrong. This is usually your best bet.
Even if you ultimately do not want the same people to do the job over again, you need to advise them of the problem. If you somehow later decide to take a bad repair all the way to court, one of the first questions a judge will examine is whether you did anything to mitigate damages or resolve the dispute before you reach court. For example, let’s say you got your car back after a big transmission job only to discover you can’t get the car to shift into gear. If your first reaction is to rent a car and then send the rental bill to the garage, without ever contacting the garage to let them know of the failure after repair, most judges will balk at demanding the garage pay you the rental car fees. Likewise, if you don’t report the failure and then stop payment on a check or try to reverse a credit card charge, the garage may have sufficient reason to take you to court because you effectively seized your money for a service the garage believes it performed in good faith.
If you can, avoid making your first contact back to the garage sound threatening. If you begin talking lawyers and complaints to the Better Business Bureau, you risk putting the garage so strongly on the defensive you end up with no recourse but legal action which can cost you far more than the repair. If possible, make an appointment to come back in with your vehicle so you and the mechanic can go over the unresolved issues together. Go in as calm and prepared as you can.
I tried this technique with a transmission job that cost me more than $1500 and resulted in a car that would no longer run faster than 30 MPH. I had paid for a complete transmission repair and quickly learned that the garage had actually only performed some simple maintenance instead. While the owner of the garage huffed and puffed at me, implying a “little woman” simply had no way to appreciate the beauty of their work, I had much better luck with the mechanic who went over the car before he agreed that the work was sub-standard. With his help, the garage got my car back in the next day and corrected all the problems the previous job created. The rework cost me nothing additional and I was given an extended warranty on the job as well as a gift coupon for complete maintenance.
If you do your best to get the garage to make good on a bad repair job, you can indeed take them to court – specifically small claims court for work that amounts to less than $1,500 and $5,000 depending on the rules of your state. You can also report them to the Better Business Bureau, which accepts complaints on businesses within a given service area.
Sometimes, however, the most effective means at your disposal is letting friends and family members know that you would not use a particular garage again because of your past experience there. One time, I had a garage owner call me at work when he heard of my poor recommendation for his service. Instead of picking an argument with me, he invited me to come in and give them another chance. I decided to take him up on the offer, and his efforts were enough to get me to rescind my poor opinion of his shop. Your results, like car highway mileage, may vary, but it’s always worth a try.