Mechanical Nightmares

There are three certainties in life; death, taxes, and dodgy mechanics, Angelique Carr writes. The first one you can’t avoid, the second one you shouldn’t, but the third one you can work around with a bit of luck and know-how.

Last year I took my little Ford Fiesta in for a service before a big road trip. It was the first time I had taken it to this mechanic without my dad, but I trusted that they would give me a good deal like they had in the past. He even asked how my dad was and was surprised to hear that he now lived interstate. What friendly service, I thought, asking about my family.

It was about three hours later when I received a phone call saying that it would cost $1,500 to ‘fix’ my car. I was given the impression that the car was about to fall apart and I was worried that he wouldn’t let me drive it away if it was really that broken. I didn’t have the money, so I took it to a friend instead, who couldn’t find a single thing wrong with it. It’s been a year now and it’s still running smoothly.

Dodgy mechanics are everywhere, especially for women and young people who don’t know about cars. The lucky ones have friends and family who have the knowledge to help them out, but the rest of us are left to fend for ourselves. Each service feels like we’re trying to find the one good mechanic in a sea of crooks. In this article, I wanted to share a few tips and bits of advice that have been handed down to me or hard won through expensive mistakes.

Maintain your car at home

You might not be able to service your whole car yourself, but there are a few things are easy to do; Coolant levels, oil levels and quality, windshield wiper blades, and tyre pressure. There are easy to follow guides online that can show you how to fill up your tyres, change your wiper blades, and pretty much anything else. It is a lot easier than you might think. You can also consult your car’s manual, which you can find online if, like me, you’ve lost your physical copy. Check these once a month and before every service. It will keep your car healthy and if someone says that you need more coolant or an oil change, you can tell if they’re being truthful or not.

Call around for a better price and a second opinion

If a mechanic tells you that your car needs some expensive work done, get them to write down what they are fixing and the cost of each part. Then you can call around to an auto store and see how much it would cost to buy it yourself, or call another mechanic to see if they’re willing to do for cheaper. I recently needed a belt changed and was quoted $220 by the first place I went to. I got the belt myself for $40 from an auto parts store and took it to another mechanic that charged $80 for the hour of labour it took to change it.

If you don’t think your car really needs the work, then take it to another mechanic without mentioning what the first mechanic told you. If they don’t find anything wrong, then it probably wasn’t a problem in the first place.

Be as clear as possible about what you want and expect

Whenever you drop your car off ask for a time and cost estimate. Be clear that if they find anything unexpected they should call you first before going ahead with repairs. If they charge you more than they estimated, have them explain in detail the reason for each repair they charged you for.

Don’t be afraid to complain (or to threaten to complain) to Fair Trading

When you go to a mechanic you are protected by consumer law. If you think you have been ripped off, you can contact the NSW Ombudsman. Their fact sheet regarding mechanics can be found here. An honest mechanic has nothing to fear from the Ombudsman, and a dishonest one will usually be happy to refund any excessive fees that they shouldn’t have charged you with in the first place, rather than deal with Fair Trading.

Average prices for parts at an auto store*:

  • Coolant: $10 – $50 for around 5 litres, depending on quality.
  • Wiper blades: $29 – $40 for one blade.
  • Wiper blade refills (the rubbery bit that touches the windshield): $14 – $25 for a set of two to three.
  • Batteries:  $100 – $200 for a sedan, depending on quality.
  • Tyres: Tyres are tricky to price because the price can range widely depending on size, car type and quality. If you think you could get a better deal elsewhere, don’t hesitate to call around and get a quote.

*These are for retail prices. Expect to pay labour fees if someone is fitting any part in/on your car (but, except for maybe the tyres, these things are really easy to replace yourself).

Feature image: Jeff Eaton via Flickr, no changes made.