If Your Mechanic Tells You Any of These Things, It's Time to Shop Around for a New Mechanic
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If Your Mechanic Tells You Any of These Things, It's Time to Shop Around for a New Mechanic

Car maintenance costs are high enough without adding unnecessary charges from shady mechanics looking to make a quick buck

July 27, 2021

Nearly everyone has gone to the local shop for routine auto maintenance only to drive away after paying a lot more in unexpected charges. Most mechanics are honest, hardworking people who only want to help you by pointing out problems you may not know about. But some mechanics want to take you and your wallet for a ride. If any of these things sound like your mechanic, start looking for a new one.

  1. "You can use any kind of motor oil."
  2. Some mechanics will tell you that your car can use any kind of oil, especially if it will save you money. There is only a little bit of truth to this. Let's take a very common oil, 5w-30, as an example. The first number is the viscosity, or the ability of the oil to flow, at 0°F. The second number is the viscosity at 212°F, which is the normal operating temperature of most vehicles.

    Some vehicles in extremely cold climates use a thinner oil, such as 0w-30, in order to start easier in the extreme cold. Notice the second number, the viscosity at normal operating temperate, is the same as our previous example. Many vehicles can run on this thinner oil in order to get better efficiency in the minutes after starting. But that second number, the 'hot' number, isn't one to mess with. Using a thicker or thinner oil than recommended for normal operating temperatures can result in damage to your vehicle. So in this case, all oil isn't the same.

    The same goes for conventional versus synthetic oil, each of which has different properties and a number of pros and cons. Synthetic oil is more expensive, but can also be better for your vehicle. Some turbocharged and high-performance vehicles even require synthetic oil in order to perform properly.

  3. "I wouldn't drive that very far."
  4. This is a scare tactic designed to get you to authorize a repair. Mechanics know that most people don't know anything about their cars, so they prey on your fears that you'll not want to break down on the side of the road. If a mechanic is trying to coerce you in this way, get a second opinion immediately.

  5. "We actually recommend doing this maintenance sooner."
  6. Before you agree to any maintenance, check the maintenance schedule in your car's manual. This maintenance schedule is the only schedule you should be following unless some kind of contamination has occurred to necessitate sooner maintenance.

    Shady shops try to convince you that the vehicle's manufacturer really doesn't know about real-world conditions. They may even tell you that they have seen vehicles just like yours that did not have the service performed early and broke down. But this is all a ploy to get you to spend more money more frequently. The manufacturer has done years of rigorous testing in all sorts of real world conditions to develop your maintenance schedule. They've even tested the vehicles in the coldest arctic weather and the driest and hottest desert conditions in order to find things that fail in order to fix them before manufacturing even begins.

    Small shops may do this, but many dealerships also use this trick. The service department is the real money-earner in a dealership, so service advisors and technicians are encouraged to find repairs. Many people don't know it, but your service advisor gets a commission on your repairs. The more you spend, the more your service advisor takes home in his/her paycheck. Many people still buy into the 3,000 mile oil change myth and change oil too frequently.

  7. "We should replace the entire thing."
  8. Sometimes you need to replace the entire exhaust system when something is wrong. But other times, a simple repair will cover it. If you fail an emissions test because of a hole in your exhaust, you should be going the other direction if you hear words like "entire," "whole," or "system." In some cases, a simple problem like this can be fixed with a much cheaper weld or even a quick dab of a sealant. Some shops will even make this type of repair at no charge to you if all that is required is a dab of sealant.

  9. "You need to fix this now before it becomes a problem."
  10. Some greedy mechanics will exaggerate how serious a problem is in order to get you to make a repair, even if it doesn't really have to be fixed right away. You may have a power steering pump, for example, that has started making a minor amount of noise and will need to be replaced down the road. A shady mechanic, while being honest that complete failure can contaminate the entire system, may exaggerate how long you have before a replacement is necessary. That failing pump, while needing to be replaced, might last for a long time before it fails, meaning you can take a few days to shop around.

    Unfortunately, some honest mechanics will exaggerate a legitimate problem in order to convince a skeptical owner that the problem really does exist. Even worse, a shady mechanic may point out a problem that doesn't exist! When in doubt, get a second opinion!

  11. "Look at this."
  12. Many shops make a lot of money in routine maintenance as opposed to the larger jobs. These services include fluid and filter changes. If you are following your vehicle's maintenance schedule, you should be fine. But if your mechanic is trying to show you just how dirty your fluids or filters have become in an effort to get you to agree to an early service, it may be time to move on. If something looks dirty, it's not necessarily time to replace since these things naturally get dirty with time. Some shady mechanics may even show you dirty fluids or filters from another vehicle in order to convince you to purchase unnecessary repairs.

    Some shady mechanics also like to point out how freely some items move on the vehicle, such as wheel hubs or pulleys, compared to a new one. They know that you probably don't know what it's supposed to be like. So when they show you how freely these things move on your vehicles compared to a new one with a bit of resistance, they hope you'll authorize a repair. But a new part will always have a little bit of resistance until it has had a chance to break in. It's a different story if one of these things is making a lot of noise when moving or binds up when it's supposed to move.

  13. "That didn't happen here."
  14. Accidents happen, from tiny scratches to large dents. Even the people who are being paid to fix your car can sometimes damage it accidentally. Trustworthy mechanics will inform you about such incidents when they notice them. Ideally, they will examine the vehicle with you before and after a repair. Dealerships are often better about this than independent shops because they want you to both come back for service and to buy your next car from them.

    Sometimes it is hard to know whether damage happened at the shop unless you examine your car closely. But a mechanic who is trying to pass the buck on damage that couldn't have happened anywhere other than in the shop is obviously one to avoid.

  15. "It's complicated."
  16. If someone tells you that something is too complicated to understand, run away. Some shady mechanics know that you know absolutely nothing about your car and prey on it. Some repairs are a bit complicated, but honest mechanics will try their best to walk you through it.

  17. "This part/repair cost more than we thought it would."
  18. If it's time to pay and the costs go up significantly, something may be wrong. The shop may have made an honest mistake on the estimate, services required, or the final paperwork. But it's also possible that someone is taking you for a ride.

    Most shops will honor original estimates at a loss in order to get your repeat business. They may present you with a new estimate and offer you some compensation or discount for the error. Unfortunately, it's up to you to decide if the mistake was honest and what you'll do. But if the charges go up significantly without any warning or prior disclosure, you may need to reach out to the North Carolina Attorney General's Office to see if there is a violation of law.

    Always get a written estimate for repairs listing labor costs, parts cost, part numbers, and part brands. Read it before signing since there may be a disclosure that costs could change by a percentage. It's not uncommon for final repair costs to be 10% - 20% higher than the estimate due to hidden problems or if the repair takes extra time. But most shops will contact you if this is the case. If possible, make sure the estimate lists all possible charges, especially if some parts can't be inspected without disassembly. You should know what happens if costs exceed the estimate, such as whether you can get the vehicle back at no charge or if you are responsible for things that have already been done.

    Keep in mind that it's a common practice for shops to make some low-cost repairs without approval. This is usually displayed somewhere in the shop or on the service order. An example might be a charge for light bulb replacement when you get a safety inspection. You can write on the repair order that you want to approve all repairs and charges before work is done. If you are receiving warranty service, you might write that you only approve warranty repairs and that customer pay repairs require approval. If the shop doesn't respect your requests, look elsewhere.

  19. "We had to use a different brand, but it's just as good."
  20. Some shady mechanics will quote you the price for one part only to install a cheaper generic part in its place without telling you. This typically isn't a problem in dealerships, but it can happen anywhere. It's hard to spot the switch unless you or another mechanic can examine the part.

    If you have doubts about whether you're getting what you paid for, ask for the part's packaging and the old part in writing when authorizing the repair. Some parts (exhaust, engines, etc.) aren't packaged at all. If possible, make sure the part number from the packaging or the part itself matches the part number on your estimate.

    If the part that was installed is different from the one you authorized or if the mechanic tells you that a different part had to be used but does not credit you any cost difference, red flags should go up. Even worse, if you have a part replaced and it's clear that no repair was made, there's definitely a problem. In these cases, you may need to reach out to the North Carolina Attorney General's Office to see if there is a violation of law.

  21. "You have to bring the car back here for service."
  22. It's up to you where you want to have your vehicle serviced for routine maintenance, but some shops want you to think you have to come back for all repeat service. They often use warranties as an excuse. Warranty service cannot be denied if someone else, or even you, performed routine maintenance unless it contributed to the failure. If a mechanic says you have to get all of your services performed at a particular place, go elsewhere.

    Some services must be performed at a particular place. If an independent repair shop replaced a part for you, that shop might be the only place you can go to receive warranty service for that particular part. Authorized dealers may be the only ones who can work on complicated or new systems, such as hybrid battery systems. Authorized dealers are the only ones who can perform repairs for free under the manufacturer's warranty, through special programs, or for recalls. There are limited exceptions, such as if you need emergency repairs and aren't within a certain distance to an authorized dealership, but those conditions are spelled out in the vehicle's warranty manual.

  23. "It will take us at least a week."
  24. Most repairs can be finished in a matter of hours if the parts, supplies and the mechanic are all available. Even an engine or transmission, a very complicated part, can be replaced in a few hours. So if the time for your steering gear replacement or exhaust system service is really starting to rack up, it might be that the shop is trying to pull one over on you in order to rack up labor charges.

    The exception might be for complicated repairs that involve rebuilding or reconditioning a component. A transmission rebuild, not a replacement, might take four days or longer. So it might be more cost effective and more reliable in the long to replace it rather than have someone who isn't too experienced in rebuilds to rebuild it, which can lead to problems down the road.

    In any case, you should look up the average repair time for your specific repair and your specific vehicle and compare it to your estimate. Many repairs times are published online. And you can always call another shop and request a rough estimate for a specific repair. You should not be charged for any time while the shop is waiting for parts or waiting for the mechanic to become available.

  25. "The cheap tires will be fine."
  26. Mechanics may try to talk you into the cheapest brands (or maybe name brand everything) when it's time to replace your tires (and other items). But it's not always a good idea to skimp and get the cheapest parts, especially when it comes to the one thing that connects you and your vehicle to the road. Of course, some shops may charge you for name brand tires only to slap a pair of cheaper tires on the car, figuring that you won't check them before driving away.

    While you can have a little variance, you should always get the same tire size and the same or better treadwear rating, load index, and speed rating. If you are the first owner of a vehicle, you can reference your old tires. The manufacturer knew what it was doing when it selected the original tires for your car. You can also check to see which tires are installed on brand new vehicles that match your size.

    In any case, if a mechanic is trying hard to get you to install tires that are different than what you want, look elsewhere. There might be a higher markup on those tires or the different size might require you to adjust your speedometer, which will result in another charge.

  27. "To fix this, we have to replace that."
  28. You get it. Sometimes repairs do come in groups. But most of the time they don't. If a part inside the transmission is being replaced, you will probably end up replacing the gasket, the fluid, and the filter depending upon what type it is, how long it has been in use, and whether the part failure caused contamination. If your alternator is being replaced, you might end up replacing the belt. But you should really be doing some reconsideration if this happens each time you need a repair, if something that sounds like a simple fix requires a lot of other things to be fixed, or if there are a lot of unrelated repairs needed.

  29. "It's common for this part to fail often."
  30. While some parts may fail very frequently, it's not common and usually happens only on new car models that are under warranty. If you keep going back to your mechanic for the same repair, it could be a sign that your mechanic did a bad job (and doesn't want to own up to it) or used shoddy parts or bad repair procedures. Get a second opinion and definitely get your next repair somewhere else if you're not getting 100% free repairs for repeat issues.

  31. "We can't let you in the back to show you the problem."
  32. You can play investigator when someone tells you that a part is broken, a belt is cracked, or something is leaking. Just ask to see it. Reputable mechanics have no problem showing you the issue. But if you hear that you aren't allowed into the service area and you can't see the problem, get your car and leave.

    In any case, if you are shown a particular item, you should always do some investigating of your own. Make sure that the cracked belt actually has to be replaced. It might be cracked, but a good belt often has cracks across the belt ribs and doesn't need to be replaced as opposed to a belt that is shredding apart. But you wouldn't know unless you check first.

  33. "We should flush your fluid (or it will fail)."
  34. The fluid flush should be called the wallet flush. They are almost never needed, especially as routine maintenance, and can cause damage. If there is a sample of old versus new fluid out somewhere conveniently for you to see, you'll probably get the sales pitch. But if you are being pressured to get a fluid flush or are told you should do it, consider another mechanic. If someone tells you that something will fail without a flush, definitely go somewhere else. When creating your maintenance schedule, vehicle manufacturers knew that some of the old stuff remains when you drain fluid.

    Fluid flushing as routine maintenance can cause problems by dislodging deposits that aren't doing any harm but then get stuck in sensors or fluid passages. Some flushes use chemicals or detergents that contaminate internal surfaces and sensors, causing failures or warning lights later.

    You might actually need a fluid flush when a component fails catastrophically, such as if the transmission fails and produces containments in the system or other systems. The manufacturer will have specific requirements for flushing the system, often only using new fluid (no chemicals).

  35. "We thought this would fix it, but turns out you need that."
  36. No one likes to have a repair performed only to find out that it didn't fix the problem. But it sometimes happens. The key to knowing if you have an honest mechanic is how the mechanic deals with the situation if it arises and whether it happens a lot. This is a good reason why you should check online reviews.

    Most faulty parts will trigger a check engine light and store a trouble code in the system that the mechanic can use to diagnose the problem. But some failures cause trouble codes that mute trouble codes in other places. A failure of one component can affect how other components operate. So trouble codes for some other components are muted by design until the first one is addressed. This makes diagnosis efficient and accurate. Think of this example. If the fuel pump is failing, everything that is affected upstream by the reduced fuel output is muted so the mechanic knows to focus on the fuel pump.

    The problem comes with mechanics who operate as 'part replacers.' These mechanics have difficulty diagnosing problems and instead replace parts in the hope that it fixes the problem. Sometimes the problem is fixed, but other times it doesn't and the mechanic tries to pass the cost on to you. Sometimes a misdiagnosis is an honest mistake and the mechanic won't charge you. But if the mechanic can't justify the first repair and won't refund it, you should be looking elsewhere. A mechanic that often gets the diagnosis wrong should be avoided.

  37. "It couldn't hurt to do this or that" or "it's only a matter of time."
  38. You learned it a long time ago as a kid. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." The same goes for your mechanic, who may try to get you to replace parts or fluids that don't need to be replaced. Some shady mechanics will tell you about other vehicles they repaired that had certain issues. And while your vehicle may not have that particular problem, it's only a matter of time before your vehicle has that problem. According to the mechanic, it couldn't hurt to do it now. This mechanic should be avoided since it's not likely that your best interests are being put first.

    You know that your refrigerator will need repairs eventually. But why would you buy a new one now if it's working just fine? The same goes for vehicle repairs. If your alternator is working just fine, there's really no reason to replace it. When it starts to fail, you can replace it then.

    Now, there might be some rare exceptions to this rule, but a mechanic that does this frequently is trying to make a quick buck. Doing a repair now might, in rare cases, be something to consider. Take, for example, an issue NCCC worked on for many years. In this case, we recommended anyone who owned certain Nissan vehicles repair a certain part known to be defective, known to cause thousands of dollars in damage, had been subject to a federal investigation, had been the subject of numerous lawsuits, and that had not been recalled.