Whenever you get a car repair for more than $25, the mechanic owes you something: an estimate.
State law also requires the car repair shop to give you an estimate every time the price increases more than $25 above the last quote it gave you. If the mechanic acts without your permission, you can deposit your money with the court, get your car back and make the shop prove you owe what it charged.
That's good for the consumer and the car repair shop. The business knows the money is there, and the consumer's hard-earned dollars are protected.
It all gets glossed over sometimes, but know that you aren't just at the mercy of auto repair shops.
"If you bring a car in and say, 'I don't know what's wrong with my car,' they can't come back and give you a $1,000 bill," said Terry McElroy, spokesman for the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, which licenses auto repair shops and keeps consumer reports about problems. "It's their obligation to give you an estimate."
Walter Blenner, a Palm Harbor lawyer, says a client was overcharged and the repair shop hasn't been following legal steps in handling the situation. The repair shop wants to put a lien on the rebuilt 1987 IROC Z Camaro and sell it.
In a letter to the repair shop, Blenner challenges the legality of the shop's actions. His client is being charged about $2,300 for repairs — a total cost he did not expect.
"There are a lot of cases like this," Blenner says. "That's what this is about."
Determining who is right and who is wrong can be difficult and ultimately may become fodder for the courts to decide.
But consumers can minimize the kinds of conflicts Blenner's client is facing by doing a little homework on their own with free Internet sites that estimate car repair costs, such as ehow.com. If it all still falls apart, they have recourse even after the work is done.
So here's The Edge, courtesy of Pinellas and Hillsborough consumer protection agencies:
• Don't waive your right to an estimate. Always get an estimate for the work. You can set a maximum for work without an estimate, but always get the estimate either in writing or by phone.
• Deposit bill payment with the court when disputing charges. If you can't work out the bill with the repair shop, get a copy of the bill and take it to the court. You must deposit the full amount of the bill, but the court won't release it to the shop until the dispute is satisfied. The court will give you a receipt to take to the shop so you can get your car.
"As with any other civil case, you have to be cautious about the fact that it might bring court costs and attorney's fees," said Doug Templeton, of the Pinellas consumer protection agency.
• Call the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services with complaints. The department licenses repair shops and can help resolve the dispute. Consumer hotline: 1-800-435-7352 within Florida, 1-850-488-2221 for outside Florida, or online at doacs.state.fl.us/consumer.html.
Ivan Penn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2332.