States with the Highest Car Repair Bills

It turns out high gas prices aren't the only hang-up for summer travelers. Big repair bills can also take a bite out of your vacation budget, a new survey has found.

If you're driving to the western states, your mechanic is likely to charge anywhere from 11 to 18 percent more than the national average, according to a study by CarMd. Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado drivers faced the highest bills in the country, it revealed.

But there's a little good news for summer travelers, too. Drivers in the Midwest â€" specifically in Missouri, Ohio, Wisconsin and Nebraska â€" had some of the lowest bills, which were anywhere from 15 percent to 17 percent off the national average.

"[This is] an industry that has been very difficult for the average consumer to understand," says Art Jacobsen a vice president for CarMD. It can be unpredictable even if you are an expert, he says, adding, "The specifics on which repairs are most common and their costs surprised us."

For example, a look at nationwide data revealed that the catalytic converter was the third most common repair.

"It shouldn't even be in the top ten," says Jacobsen. "In most cases, the durable catalytic converter won't fail unless a related part â€" such as a spark plug or oxygen sensorâ€" is ignored for too long."

Another unexpected finding: the number-four most common repair, the mass air flow (MAF) sensor.

He explains:

This is a very specific and revealing example of consumers putting off smaller ticket items and it coming back to bite them. MAF sensors are costly at approximately $400 and typically fail because they become contaminated or coated with dust dirt and debris over time.

The most likely reason they are coated or contaminated is because the $20 air filter was not changed and or properly maintained.

Repair costs for 2010 was roughly the same as the year before. Average total repair costs in 2009 were $359 total for parts and labor versus $356 in 2010, according to CarMD. Labor costs are rose slightly, to $138 in 2009, compared with $143 last year.

Parts cost for 2011 are projected to increase, thanks to supply-chain issues from Japan and higher demand.

Here are the five states with the highest car repair costs in 2010 and the difference between the average repair cost:

1. Arizona $421.49 (+18 percent)
2. New Mexico $406.81 (+14 percent)
3. Colorado $397.83 (+12 percent)
4. California $394.49 (+11% percent)
5. Nevada $393.96 (+11 percent)

CarMD attributed Arizona's top ranking to its warm, dry weather, which wreaks havoc on the longevity of a car's parts. Labor costs in the Western US are also higher than average.

Here are the least expensive states:

1. Washington, D.C. $265.29 (-25 percent)
2. Missouri $297.27 (-17 percent)
3. Ohio $298.49 (-16 percent)
4. Wisconsin $298.76 (-16 percent)
5. Nebraska $301.79 (-15 percent)

What's behind these numbers? The most common repair problem, a busted gas cap, is also one of the cheapest to repair. It accounted for nearly 12 percent of repairs in Washington and 11 percent in Ohio.

Also, more than 12 percent of the repairs in D.C. were made at zero cost in terms of parts and labor charges, likely because of a higher number of vehicles that are new or under manufacturer's warranty, CarMD found.

Avoiding high repair costs means doing preventive maintenance and choosing the right mechanic. And, of course, knowing the basics â€" like the difference between a gas cap and an air filter.

"An educated consumer is better able to communicate with his or her repair shop and more apt to seek repairs and advice from those best qualified to conduct repairs," says Jacobsen.

Oh, and steer clear of Arizona.

Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate, syndicated columnist and curator of the On Your Side wiki. He also covers customer service for the Mint.com blog. You can follow Elliott on Twitter, Facebook or his personal blog, Elliott.org or email him directly.
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Photo: Pylon757/Flickr