The cost to fix a vehicle depends on (1) what is wrong with the vehicle, (2) the repair facility you take your vehicle to for repairs (or whether you try to fix it yourself), (3) the prevailing labor rates in your area, (4) the year, make and model of your vehicle (luxury imports are always more expensive to fix!), (5) the availability of parts for your vehicle (are the parts only available from a new car dealer or can they be purchased from a local auto parts store?), and (6) how much you are willing to pay for repairs (prices and repair options are often negotiable).
Auto Repairs are Unavoidable
Sooner or later, something will break, wear out or fail on every car and truck. Parts that most often wear out include brakes, tires, mufflers, batteries, filters, alternators, starters, water pumps, belts and hoses. At high mileage, you may experience engine or transmission problems.
Nothing lasts forever, so when your vehicle needs repairs you obviously want to know how much it is going to cost -- hopefully BEFORE the work begins. Most reputable shops should give you an estimate that lists which parts need to be replaced, the labor charge to replace those parts, any charges for diagnostic time, and any additional charges for miscellaneous items such as shop supplies, hazardous waste disposal fees, etc.
Repair Labor Rates
Labor is usually the most expensive item on most auto repairs. The longer it takes a technician to replace a part, the more you are going to pay. Accessibility (or the lack thereof) is a major issue on many late model vehicles. Some parts can be very difficult and time-consuming to replace. Time is money, and most shops charge $60 to $90 or more PER HOUR for labor (note: the technician usually receives less than HALF of the labor charge!).
Why are the hourly labor charges so high? Because auto repair is often hard, dirty, back-breaking work that requires a lot of training, skill and experience, and a lot of expensive tools and equipment. The average technician has over $10,000 invested in his tools, and the shop where he works may own thousands of dollars of service equipment. Much of the hourly labor rate you pay goes to shop overhead (things like rent, utilities, equipment purchases & maintenance, employee benefits, etc.) and profit (which every business needs to say in business otherwise they go out of business).
The labor your are charged on your repair bill is usually based on a standard "flat rate" estimate. Repair jobs are classified by year, make and model, and the times can vary a great deal from one vehicle to another. The labor time required to perform a certain task will vary depending on how much other stuff has to be removed to get at the part, the average degree of difficulty of the job, whether any special tools are procedures are required, the age of the vehicle and so on. Changing a starter on one car might be a relatively simple task if the starter is easily accessible, but on another vehicle you might have to remove part of the exhaust system or loosen a motor mount and raise the engine to replace the starter.
All of this is supposedly taken into account when a vehicle manufacturer or aftermarket manual publisher comes up with flat rate tables for various repair jobs on various vehicles. The flat rate information is published in printed or electronic format, and is then used by car dealers and repair shops to prepare repair estimates. Sometimes a shop will add extra time to an estimate depending on the vehicle's condition, or from previous experience if they feel the published flat rate does not allow enough time to complete the job.
But here's how many motorists often get screwed. If the actual time it takes to repair your vehicle is LESS than the estimated flat rate time, you still pay the flat rate. Why? Because life isn't fair. The shop makes additional profit on the job, and the technician who does the work often receives a bonus for beating the flat rate (a good technician can almost always beat most flat rate times). What's worse, if the actual time it takes to fix your car is MORE than the flat rate, you get billed for the extra time!
Ideally, you should only pay for the ACTUAL time it takes to fix your car and not one minute more or less. But that's not the system most dealerships or repair shops use for obvious reasons.
Many shops also have a separate DIAGNOSTIC fee. This covers the time it takes to connect a scan tool to your vehicle and read out any fault codes that may be in the vehicle's computer. The diagnostic charge typically ranges from $75 to $100 or more.
The cost of the parts to fix your vehicle will depend on where the repair facility buys their parts, and how much they mark them up. As a consumer, you usually pay the FULL RETAIL PRICE when you have a repair facility install the parts for you. They typical markup is 30 to 40%, though it may be less on some parts depending on the discount the shop gets from their supplier or distributor. Yes, you could save some money here by shopping around and buying the parts yourself -- BUT most shops will NOT install parts that they do not purchase directly. It's like taking a bag of groceries into a four star restaurant and asking the chef to use your groceries to prepare your meal. Most shops have brand preferences and will only install parts they know are from quality suppliers. That cheap alternator from China may cost $50 less than the brand name OEM alternator, but it probably lacks the durability of the OEM unit.
As a rule, aftermarket parts are usually less expensive than OEM parts. But the quality may not be the same, so stick with brand name aftermarket parts. In some instances, the aftermarket parts supplier is also the OEM parts supplier and the parts are virtually the same.
Where To Go
As a rule, independent repair shops are generally less expensive than new car dealers. Franchised repair facilities such as muffler shops (Midas, CarX, Merlin, etc.), tire dealers (Goodyear, Firestone & independents) and retailers (PepBoys, Sears, etc.) are also very competitive with their pricing.
Independent repair shops and specialty repair shops (those who only work on imports or specialize in alignments, brakes, transmissions, air conditioning, electrical, etc.) tend to be small family-owned and run businesses. You're usually on a more personal level with these people, and may even talk face-to-face with the technician who works on your car. Prices may be more negotiable than at a large new car dealership where pricing is less flexible because of high overhead.
If cash is really tight, check out the community colleges in your area to see if they have an automotive technical program that accepts vehicles for repairs. You still pay for any parts you vehicle needs, but usually there is no charge for labor. All the work is overseen by a qualified automotive instructor. See the video clip below:
Getting an Online Repair Estimate
RepairPal.com is an online resource that can give you a free repair estimate and help you locate a repair facility in your area (by city or zip code). Simply go to their Repair Price Estimator page, enter your vehicle information (year/make/model) and the type of repair you think your vehicle needs. The page will then display an approximate price range you could expect to pay at both a new car dealership or an aftermarket independent repair facility for the repair you selected.
The estimate assumes (1) that you know what is wrong with your vehicle and what needs to be replaced, and (2) that the repair outlets in your area will fall within the range of prices quoted. Though it's nice to have a ballpark estimate of what a repair might cost, it is often difficult to say exactly how much a repair will actually end up costing you until the job is underway or finished. The technician may run into problems (rusty or broken fasteners), he may discover additional parts that also need to be replaced, and the labor may end up being more than the original estimate. So keep these things in mind when using an online repair estimator.
You can also subscribe to an online service information website such as AlldataDIY that allows you to not only look up factory repair times and parts costs fo your vehicle, but also the specific repair procedures, service procedures and recalls. ALLDATA currently charges a subscription fee that is far less than what it would cost you to buy the factory service manuals or access to the OEM service information online.