In a down economy, more people are choosing to repair the car they have rather than buy a new one. Nearly 80 percent of drivers plan to put at least 50,000 more miles on their current vehicle than they put on their previous one. And 55 percent say they plan to drive their current car "until it dies," according to a recent survey by AutoMD.com, a car-repair information site owned by U.S. Auto Parts Network. • The problem with car repairs is that prices for the same job can vary widely. Consumers looking for a repair shop and some automotive intelligence can get help online. Here's how:
Repair information sites
Several relatively new websites can be helpful. Try AutoMD.com, RepairPal.com and DriverSide.com for general information on car repairs, including diagnosing your car's problem before you take it to a shop. The repair sites also have forums for asking specific questions about your vehicle.
Particularly helpful is estimating prices for specific repair jobs in your area. For example, RepairPal.com says replacing an alternator on a 2006 Acura TL would cost $439 to $497 in one particular metropolitan area. DriverSide estimates a repair cost of $471. AutoMD.com estimates it would cost about $464. While price estimates differ, they're in the same ballpark and give you a frame of reference. You know that if a local shop quotes you $175, it's suspiciously low, and $900 is outrageously high.
AutoMD estimates it would cost $263 if you replaced the alternator yourself, assuming you knew how and had the tools. All the sites have do-it-yourself repair guides.
Remember these sites are just tools and provide reference points. The diagnoses and price quotes can be inaccurate for a variety of reasons.
"The only way to keep down the pain of auto repair is to choose a high-quality shop. No amount of caution, communicating, or complaining will make up for starting with a second-rate shop," contends Consumers' Checkbook, online at checkbook.org.
There are a number of ways to check out service providers, such as auto-repair shops. Angieslist.com has user ratings for repair shops nationwide. It costs about $6 per month, depending on region and subscription term. Yelp.com is among the free sites to offer user reviews of repair shops. AAA also has a database of its approved shops, at aaa.com.
Low-tech ways to save
The old-fashioned method of finding a repair shop — seeking recommendations from friends, relatives or neighbors — is a good idea. If you're worried that a service manager is suggesting unnecessary maintenance, consult the owner's manual, which will detail what you need, experts say. You can also look for mechanic certifications and repair shops. Consumers' Checkbook praised mechanic certification programs by the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (ASE) and certification of shops by AAA. But oddly, those credentials — sometimes displayed in the shop — did not correlate with better prices or service, according to ratings by Consumers' Checkbook. So you want a certified mechanic and shop, but don't let it be the only factor.
If you're especially wary of a shop that's completing a repair on your vehicle, tell the service manager that you want the old parts back. And you want the boxes the replacement parts came in, Evangelist suggests. That does two things. First, it makes it less likely that the garage will do an unnecessary repair and hand you back a working part. Second, asking for boxes makes it more likely the shop is using an original new part and not an aftermarket part or reconditioned one, unless you agreed to use one.