Last Updated May 25, 2010 12:43 PM EDT
AutoMD, which covers all car-repair topics, collected its data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, the Federal Highway Administration and the Aftermarket Industry Association (the trade group for parts makers and repair shops). Car owners who go to dealers for repairs spend an average of $1,209 a year vs. $903 for those who use independent shops, the study concluded. (For the cost difference on brake jobs, transmission repairs and three other common repairs, see below.)
The biggest cost differentials are often on both the simplest and most complicated jobs. "Routine maintenance, like oil changes, will be much cheaper at independents or chain shops unless the dealer is running a promotional special," says AutoMD president Shane Evangelist. Since all cars need oil changes, dealers use them as a profit center.
Additionally, much of the cost differential is due to higher labor rates at the dealers' service departments. So the longer the job takes--as in the transmission repair below-- the bigger the cost advantage at an independent, says Evangelist. The study points out that, contrary to popular belief, having maintenance or repairs done at a place other than the dealer doesn't affect your warranty coverage.
Dealers do give you price breaks in some situations, though. When a repair is clearly covered by a warranty or the subject of a recall, it will be free at the dealership. And for cars less than three years old, when you need a diagnosis of a problem, only the dealership may have the tools. Manufacturers, with a vested interest in the dealerships, sell to them exclusively the equipment and computer codes to diagnose the newest cars.
As a car ages, independents are able to get more of the necessary equipment and codes. Proposed legislation called the Right to Repair Act would force manufacturers to give independent shops the computer codes and other tools for such new-car diagnosis, but so far it has not moved in Congress.
To avoid overpaying for repairs and maintenance-or being scammed into repairs you don't need-take these steps:
Find a reliable repair shop. One of the most stringent certification programs for independent shops is run by the American Automobile Association (AAA). To get on the AAA-approved list, says Mike Calkins, manager of the program, a shop must pass AAA on-site inspections and demonstrate financial soundness and necessary insurance. In addition, AAA wants to see that individual mechanics have certification in their specialties from the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence. AAA also conducts a consumer satisfaction survey of shops under consideration and requires a 90% positive rating before putting them on the approved list. The AAA site will let you find certified shops in your zip code.
Have some idea of your problem. You're less likely to pay for unneeded repairs if you are fairly certain what's wrong before you bring your car in. The AutoMD site has a list of symptoms to check and then possible reasons for them. A competing service, CarMD.com sells a $99 device that reads the computers in your car and diagnoses any problems. (MoneyWatch will soon test the device; stay tuned.)
Get an idea of repair cost. The AutoMD and CarMD sites will give you an estimate. While it's only an estimate, having the number may help you negotiate with an independent shop over the cost of the repair. Dealerships usually are inflexible on their prices unless the manufacturer is paying, such as in warranty and recall situations.
Here is a list of five jobs with the AutoMD estimates of the average independent shop cost, dealer cost, and savings
- Replace an alternator: Independent $297; Dealer $371; Savings: $74
- Front disc brakes (pad and rotors): Independent $264; Dealer $330; Savings: $66
- Transmission repair: Independent $3,230; Dealer $4,037; Savings: $807
- Replace window motor: Independent $161; Dealer $201; Savings: $40
- Replace cabin air filter: Independent $90; Dealer $112; Savings: $22
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