Small Claims & Consumer Help

Small Claims Special Topics: Auto Repair

Auto Repair Problems: Pre-litigation

This section on Mechanics and Auto Repairs includes a discussion of certain basic rules to remember so that you do not end up in a lawsuit with your garage or mechanic for car repair problems.

The first item of protection for you is to have the mechanic write down a description of the problem, and give you a complete estimate of the amount expected will be needed to fix the problem. You should be sure to receive a meaningful estimate, or ask the mechanic to take a few minutes to really test the car to see what the exact problem is. Once it is located, then he/she should be able to give you a meaningful estimate of the charges. It is little help to obtain an estimate to fix a leaking radiator hose for example, when you need to replace the entire radiator.

Most states require that mechanics give estimates of work, but many mechanics develop "Garage Policies" that attempt to limit your rights to estimates. For example, after explaining a particular problem, a mechanic or service manager may make you sign a document that says the repairs will be less than $400. Well what happens if the repair was a $3 part with 15 minutes of labor? Of course, you may not know this, and by signing this type of estimate, you have just given the mechanic the authorization to charge you as much as $375 and claim they are giving you a deal.

Another so-called "Garage Policy" is to indicate the lowest possible estimate and then after you have left your car and authorized the work, you get a telephone call claiming your car is all apart and the real problem is now $400 more than the estimate. Avoiding these types of problems should be the foremost in your mind before you leave your car with the mechanic. If you do not have a mechanic or garage which you trust, then make sure they identify the real problem before you leave the car.

Remember, the purpose of this discussion is not to attack all mechanics. In fact, most reputable mechanics will already have policies in effect which comply with proper state law. The purpose of this section is to protect you when you are unsure of the law and to recognize when mechanics are not following basic principles in most state laws.

Also, remember that an estimate is not a guarantee. That is, it is unfair for a person to claim that a mechanic's estimate was all a person had to pay, despite the fact that work was performed and parts were added over and above the estimate amount. The mechanic may be taking a risk if he/she did not obtain your approval. If approval was given or implied by your actions, the law might protect the mechanic, as well as protecting you.

Finally, it is obvious, but worth mentioning that you must obtain a copy of the repair or work order including the estimated costs. You should not leave your car until you have received these documents, and you are sure that your copy is legible.

Another problem is that it is incumbent upon you in many states to indicate specific instructions as to what procedures to follow, in the event that the work required is beyond the estimated cost of repair. Many mechanical problems cannot be discovered until certain repairs are made. For example, a mechanic could not tell if the wheels of a car with a flat front tire are out of balance, until the tire is fixed and the car can be driven. Thus, claiming that the mechanic should have included the cost to repair the balancing of the wheels in the estimate to fix the flat is unrealistic, since the mechanic could not have known the car was out of balance until he/she fixed the flat and drove the car.

What this example does illustrate is what procedures you should take to ensure that the mechanic does not do more than you want him/her to. For example, if all you wanted was to fix the flat tire, you should specifically state that on all copies of the work order, initial it, and have the mechanic or service manager initial it. Also, you could indicate in writing in the order to call you before repairing any further problems found. Again, you should require an estimate of the new costs and be sure that these "new" problems are not a restatement of the old problems, which the mechanic has already estimated for you. When in doubt, call another mechanic for a second opinion, but be sure to tell the second mechanic the full story about the problem uncovered by the first mechanic. Do not be pressured into submitting to additional repairs in midstream.

Most state laws today have requirements concerning old parts, or parts which the mechanic has replaced. Regardless of the state law, always ask for the old parts, including every old part replaced. If you have any doubts, take them to another mechanic to be certain they came from your car. Often, you can tell by raising the hood of the car yourself. While you may not be able to understand what a particular part's function is, you can see certain characteristics. For example if the engine is blue and a mechanic shows you a red part, you need to ask why the old part is red. Or better, ask your mechanic to show you where each part came from. If you want, you can ask for a list of part numbers and names, in addition to the old parts, and call an auto parts dealer and check for yourself. This may be a good way to check the prices of certain parts and determine whether a mechanic is overcharging you for parts or not.

You must request the old parts in writing, and before you leave the car. Put this request right on the work order with the estimate and get the mechanic's approval initials.

Points to Remember

  • Have the mechanic write down a description of the problem and give you a complete estimate before you leave your car.
  • Read the repair order and the fine print before you sign it.
  • Take a copy of the repair order and estimate with you when you leave the garage.
  • Give instructions in writing on the order regarding what to do if the work exceeds the estimate.
  • Always ask for the old parts in writing before you leave your car.

Small Claims Special Topics: Auto Repair
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