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Don't let mechanics sell you unneeded repairs


(MoneyWatch) It is a scene we all dread: You take your car in for minor maintenance and the repair shop or dealership announces they have found more serious problems.

Mechanics pushing people for unneeded or not-yet-timely repairs seems to be increasing, says Pam Oakes, owner of a repair shop in Fort  Myers, FL and author of "Car Care for the Clueless." A customer recently came to her to double-check a long list of proposed repairs totaling $1,200 another shop had given her after she had gone to them for a low-cost oil change.

"None of it was necessary," Oakes says. "The only thing she needed was new windshield wipers, and they missed that."

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Aging baby-boomers may be especially vulnerable to such upselling, Oakes says. Cars have improved a lot in the past 15 years, and many people may not have kept up with those changes. For instance, coolant now rarely has to be changed. "People may be told that winter is coming and that they should flush out and change the anti-freeze, which used to be true but no longer is," she says. That could cost $100 or more.

Be wary of repair shops that push such services -- including flushing out and replacing power-steering or transmission fluid -- unless a vehicle's owner's manual calls for it at the current mileage. Checking such service intervals in the manual can help protect drivers against being gulled into unneeded work.

Oakes adds these additional cautions:

  • Beware of cheap promotional oil changes. Dealerships and repair shops send out coupons for oil changes, often for $19.95 or $24.95. "That is just a loss-leader," Oakes says. "They want to get your car in there so they can promote other work."
  • Question any fees being charged for inspecting individual parts, such as the shocks. Except for required state safety inspections, you should only have to pay if repair or maintenance work is done.
  • Find a good repair shop or dealership and stick with it. The best way to avoid being taken in seeking car maintenance is to find a trusted mechanic or repair shop. Look for a shop recommended by AAA or with a certification from the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (known as ASE).

Finally, don't fall for scare tactics. Some unscrupulous shops may say, "That car really isn't safe to drive until you fix that problem." Oakes says. "If you drove it there OK, you probably can drive it away as well." And once you do, don't drive it back to that shop.

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