This article is by freelance writer Roger White and staff writer April Dykman. It originally appeared on Roger’s blog in a different format.

April
As many GRS readers know, last year I quit my job to become a full-time freelancer. The hardest thing about moving on was leaving coworkers like Roger White, a magazine editor and author of the funniest interoffice e-mails ever. Roger and I teamed up to bring you his story about a recent experience paying for an auto repair, along with tactical advice about how to dispute your mechanic bill.

Roger
Our little family was tooling along this year, struggling to stay within our monthly budget while juggling life’s big-ticket items—you know: braces, countless teenage daughter items, summer camp fees times number of children squared, etc., etc.—when the two most feared words in all of suburbia’s lexicon knocked us flat.

Car repair.

Funny thing is, it all started with just a broken brake light. I’m sitting in my wife’s car at a stop light, waiting to turn right, when a smiling woman pulls up next to me and says, “Hey, your right rear light is out. Better get it fixed, ’cause the cops will stop you for that.”

Instant adrenaline panic overdrive. The cops! Where?

Ever since I was a teenager, having a cop stop me for any reason has always struck fear deep in my heart, even when I was doing absolutely nothing wrong. Readers of a certain age will remember the CSNY lyric: “Like looking in my mirror and seeing a police car!”

So the wife and I promptly hightailed it over to our nearest franchise fix-it shop, thinking that a broken rear light costs, what, five bucks maybe?

Hah. The franchise fix-it shop guys saw us coming a mile away. I should have known. I can’t think of any other scenario where I feel so much like a life-sized walking all-day sucker than talking with the mechanic man. I’m thinking I’m not alone on this.

I believe that auto repair types begin sizing you up for the big squeeze the minute you walk in the door.

“Hello, sir, I see you and your wife have a Honda V6.”

“Uh, yes.”

“Does your model have the actuated re-inverter or self-regulating?”

“What?” Off guard, I blurt, “Actuated, I think. Really, we just need a brake light…”

“Uh oh. Actuated.”

(The other guy behind the counter sadly shakes his head at this point. The choreography is keen and well-executed, I must say.)

Still, I play along, because I don’t know enough about cars to bluff them, and they know that I don’t know. Furthermore, I know that they know I don’t know. You know?

Dang, I should have said self-regulating. We’re already off on the wrong foot.

“Well, it may be self-regulating, I’m not sure.”

“No, you said actuated.”

“Is that going to be a problem?” I ask.

“Depends. What are you in for?”

“Busted rear light.”

“Hmmmm.”

More head shaking. Some computer clacking, looking in reference manuals.

We left the car with the fix-it shop crew, said three quick Hail Marios to the Great Grease Gods, hoped and prayed for the best, and went about our day. I tried Googling “re-inverter,” but all I got was something about how to design a death-ray gun. When we got the call that the car was ready, we swallowed our gum, put on our all-day sucker heads, and made our way back to the garage. A different guy behind the counter gave us a bill that was a good 25% over the estimate. On the bill was a hefty item—I kid you not—that was labeled “service fee,” on top of labor, parts, tax, recycling charges, oil disposal fee, and all the rest.

My wife, always the braver of us, questioned this item, noting that the estimate was much less than the sum before us.

“This is way over what you said,” Sue said right out loud, turning all heads in the shop. I cringed. In a western movie, this was one of those moments where the piano player stopped playing and the saloon grew deathly silent. “What is this service charge?”

I expected another stern, condescending talking-to about how variable fluctuations in the world of auto parts derivatives combined with the situation in Libya, hourly swings in crude oil prices, and our particular vehicle’s unfortunate re-inverter configuration all coalesced in the time it took to repair our rear brake light to necessitate an additional service charge. But the guy looked at the bill, looked at my wife, and said, “Huh. Don’t know what that is. I’ll take it off.”

Booiiiinnng. That was the sound of my brain leaping out of my skull and bouncing on the floor. How many people, I wondered as I chased my brain across the floor, pay this “service charge” without a second thought?

April
Repairs are one of the costs that come with car ownership, but it sure is confusing when you don’t speak the lingo. When I go to the repair shop, I’m on the phone with my dad the whole time, repeating everything the mechanic says to my father, then repeating everything my dad says to the mechanic. I should just hand the mechanic my phone and cut myself out of the equation.

Like Roger, I probably wouldn’t dispute my bill, either. I know how anti-GRS that sounds, but I’m being honest. I hate making a scene, and I’m likely to assume it’s my own ignorance about cars that’s the problem, not the service charge.

Obviously, Sue is the one who’s got it right. If a charge looks wrong, you should ask about it. This doesn’t necessarily mean the shop is trying to cheat you — mechanics are human and they can make honest mistakes. How do you make sure you’re being billed fairly? I did some digging and found the following advice for those of us who aren’t so mechanically inclined:

  1. Check to see if your car is under warranty. If it is, you’ll need to take it to the dealer or an authorized repair facility.
  2. Find a good auto shop. Ask coworkers, friends, and neighbors where they take their vehicles for repairs. Is the shop affiliated with AAA or does it have technicians certified by the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (ASE)? Do you like the look of the place (clean, organized, etc.)?
  3. Ask for a written estimate before the work starts. It’s not uncommon for the actual bill to be 10-20% higher, or more if the mechanic finds that the problem is more complicated.
  4. Ask for the mechanic to review your bill with you. It might seem tedious, but it can save you money, as Roger found out. Mistakes happen all of the time. Compare the charges with your estimate.
  5. If you have a bad feeling about the work performed, dispute your bill carefully. If you can’t find a resolution, ask for the old parts (should you need evidence) and take your dispute, in writing, through the chain of command. If necessary, you might turn to the Better Business Bureau or, as a last resort, legal action.

Finally, if you’re happy with the service you receive, become a regular, preferably at a local body shop. From Edmunds.com:

“The one-on-one relationship between driver and mechanic that smaller repair shops foster can really help consumers have confidence in both the work that’s performed and in the vehicle itself. Local mechanics are more willing to help you understand how your car performs and what it needs. You can ask to look under the hood or the chassis with your local mechanic, and perhaps learn something about what goes where or why a service needs to be performed.”

In other words, you might feel a little less clueless each time you bring in your car.

Sources: AA1Car, Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Edmunds

Roger
Meanwhile, back at the franchise fix-it shop…

“By the way,” says the mechanic, “you need new struts. They’re bleeding onto your brakes. That’s about $600 without tax.”

Flush with new confidence instilled by wifey, I took my turn. “Oh, no you don’t. I know how you guys operate. Struts. No such thing as struts, I bet.”

I got some looks of approval from some of the other guy customers as we walked out of the shop. I think they were looks of approval, anyway. I had a bit of difficulty getting my all-day sucker-head in the car, but we drove away with a bit of salvaged pride. Struts, indeed.

“Hey, what’s that noise, hon?”

Readers, got any tips or stories of your own to share? Leave them in the comments!

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