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Auto Repair Facts for Consumers
Provided to AA1Car by the Federal Trade Commission, the National Association of Attorneys General and the American Automobile Association.
The best way to avoid auto repair
rip-offs is to be prepared. Knowing how your vehicle
works and how to identify common car problems is a good
beginning. It's also important to know how to select
a good technician, the kinds of questions to ask, and
your consumer rights.
According to the Federal Trade Commission
(FTC), the American Automobile Association (AAA), and
the National Association of Attorneys General (NAAG),
this kind of information about your automobile may help
you keep a lid on mechanical mistakes.
How to Choose
a Repair Shop
What should I look for when choosing a repair shop?
- Ask for recommendations from friends, family, and
other people you trust. Look for an auto repair shop
before you need one to avoid being rushed into a last-minute
- Shop around by telephone for the best deal, and
compare warranty policies on repairs.
- Ask to see current licenses if state or local law
requires repair shops to be licensed or registered.
Also, your state Attorney General's office or local
consumer protection agency may know whether there's
a record of complaints about a particular repair shop.
- Make sure the shop will honor your vehicle's warranty.
How to Choose
Is one technician better than another?
- Look for shops that display various certifications
- like an Automotive Service Excellence seal. Certification
indicates that some or all of the technicians meet
basic standards of knowledge and competence in specific
technical areas. Make sure the certifications are
current, but remember that certification alone is
no guarantee of good or honest work.
- Ask if the technician or shop has experience working
on the same make or model vehicle as yours.
Unlocking the Mystery
Before you arrange to have any work performed, ask how
the shop prices its work. Some shops charge a flat rate
for labor on auto repairs. This published rate is based
on an independent or manufacturer's estimate of the
time required to complete repairs. Others charge on
the basis of the actual time the technician worked on
If you need expensive or complicated
repairs, or if you have questions about recommended
work, consider getting a second opinion.
Find out if there will be a diagnostic
charge if you decide to have the work performed elsewhere.
Many repair shops charge for diagnostic time.
Shops that do only diagnostic work
and do not sell parts or repairs may be able to give
you an objective opinion about which repairs are necessary.
If you decide to get the work done,
ask for a written estimate.
What should a written estimate
- It should identify the condition to be repaired,
the parts needed, and the anticipated labor charge.
Make sure you get a signed copy.
- It should state that the shop will contact you for
approval before they do any work exceeding a specified
amount of time or money. State law may require this.
What should I know about the parts
to be repaired or replaced?
Parts are classified as:
- New - These parts generally
are made to original manufacturer's specifications,
either by the vehicle manufacturer or an independent
company. Your state may require repair shops to tell
you if non-original equipment will be used in the
repair. Prices and quality of these parts vary.
- Remanufactured, rebuilt and
reconditioned - These terms generally mean the
same thing: parts have been restored to a sound working
condition. Many manufacturers offer a warranty covering
replacement parts, but not the labor to install them.
- Salvage - These are used
parts taken from another vehicle without alteration.
Salvage parts may be the only source for certain items,
though their reliability is seldom guaranteed.
What do I need after the work
- Get a completed repair order describing the work
done. It should list each repair, parts supplied,
the cost of each part, labor charges, and the vehicle's
odometer reading when you brought the vehicle in as
well as when the repair order was completed. Ask for
all replaced parts. State law may require this.
What are the consequences of postponing maintenance?
- Many parts on your vehicle are interrelated. Ignoring
maintenance can lead to trouble: specific parts -
or an entire system - can fail. Neglecting even simple
routine maintenance, such as changing the oil or checking
the coolant, can lead to poor fuel economy, unreliability,
or costly breakdowns. It also may invalidate your
What maintenance guidelines should
I follow to avoid costly repairs?
- Follow the manufacturer's maintenance schedule in
your owner's manual for your type of driving.
- Some repair shops create their own maintenance schedules,
which call for more frequent servicing than the manufacturer's
recommendations. Compare shop maintenance schedules
with those recommended in your owner's manual. Ask
the repair shop to explain - and make sure you understand
- why it recommends service beyond the recommended
Your Auto Repair Investment
What warranties and service contracts apply
to vehicle repairs?
- There is no "standard warranty" on repairs.
Make sure you understand what is covered under your
warranty and get it in writing.
- Be aware that warranties may be subject to limitations,
including time, mileage, deductibles, businesses authorized
to perform warranty work or special procedures required
to obtain reimbursement.
- Check with the Federal Trade Commission or your
state or local consumer protection agency for information
about your warranty rights.
- Many vehicle dealers and others sell optional contracts
- service contracts -issued by vehicle manufacturers
or independent companies. Not all service contracts
are the same; prices vary and usually are negotiable.
To help decide whether to purchase a service contract,
- Its cost.
- The repairs to be covered.
- Whether coverage overlaps coverage provided
by any other warranty.
- The deductible.
- Where the repairs are to be performed.
- Procedures required to file a claim, such as
prior authorization for specific repairs or meeting
required vehicle maintenance schedules.
- Whether repair costs are paid directly by the
company to the repair shop or whether you will
have to pay first and get reimbursed.
- The reputation of the service contract company.
Check it out with your state Attorney General's
office or local consumer protection agency.
How do I resolve a dispute regarding
billing, quality of repairs or warranties?
- Document all transactions as well as your experiences
with dates, times, expenses, and the names of people
you dealt with.
- Talk to the shop manager or owner first. If that
doesn't work, contact your Attorney General or local
consumer protection agency for help. These offices
may have information on alternative dispute resolution
programs in your community. Another option is to file
a claim in small claims court. You don't need an attorney
to do this.
HEADING OFF CAR PROBLEMS
The more you know about your vehicle,
the more likely you'll be able to head off repair problems.
You can detect many common vehicle problems by using
your senses: eyeballing the area around your vehicle,
listening for strange noises, sensing a difference in
the way your vehicle handles, or even noticing unusual
Small stains or an occasional drop of fluid under your
vehicle may not mean much. But wet spots deserve attention;
check puddles immediately.
You can identify fluids by their color
- Yellowish green, pastel blue or florescent orange
colors indicate an overheated engine or an antifreeze
leak caused by a bad hose, water pump or leaking radiator.
- A dark brown or black oily fluid means the engine
is leaking oil. A bad seal or gasket could cause the
- A red oily spot indicates a transmission or power-steering
- A puddle of clear water usually is no problem. It
may be normal condensation from your vehicle's air
Some problems are under your nose. You can detect them
by their odor:
- The smell of burned toast - a light, sharp odor
- often signals an electrical short and burning insulation.
To be safe, try not to drive the vehicle until the
problem is diagnosed.
- The smell of rotten eggs - a continuous burning-sulphur
smell - usually indicates a problem in the catalytic
converter or other emission control devices. Don't
delay diagnosis and repair.
- A thick acrid odor usually means burning oil. Look
for sign of a leak.
- The smell of gasoline vapors after a failed start
may mean you have flooded the engine. Wait a few minutes
before trying again. If the odor persists, chances
are there's a leak in the fuel system - a potentially
dangerous problem that needs immediate attention.
- Burning resin or an acrid chemical odor may signal
overheated brakes or clutch. Check the parking brake.
Stop. Allow the brakes to cool after repeated hard
braking on mountain roads. Light smoke coming from
a wheel indicates a stuck brake. The vehicle should
be towed for repair.
- A sweet, steamy odor indicates a coolant leak. If
the temperature gauge or warning light does not indicate
overheating, drive carefully to the nearest service
station, keeping an eye on your gauges. If the odor
is accompanied by a hot, metallic scent and steam
from under the hood, your engine has overheated. Pull
over immediately. Continued driving could cause severe
engine damage. The vehicle should be towed for repair.
Squeaks, squeals, rattles, rumbles, and other sounds
provide valuable clues about problems and maintenance
needs. Here are some common noises and what they mean:
Squeal - A shrill, sharp
noise, usually related to engine speed:
- Loose or worn power steering, fan or air conditioning
Click - A slight sharp noise,
related to either engine speed or vehicle speed:
- Loose wheel cover.
- Loose or bent fan blade.
- Stuck valve lifter or low engine oil.
Screech - A high-pitched,
piercing metallic sound; usually occurs while the vehicle
is in motion:
- Caused by brake wear indicators to let you know
it's time for maintenance.
Rumble - a low-pitched rhythmic
- Defective exhaust pipe, converter or muffler.
- Worn universal joint or other drive-line component.
Ping - A high-pitched metallic
tapping sound, related to engine speed:
- Usually caused by using gas with a lower octane
rating than recommended. Check your owner's manual
for the proper octane rating. If the problem persists,
engine ignition timing could be at fault.
Heavy Knock - A rhythmic
- Worn crankshaft or connecting rod bearings.
- Loose transmission torque converter.
Clunk - A random thumping
- Loose shock absorber or other suspension component.
- Loose exhaust pipe or muffler.
Difficult handling, a rough ride, vibration and poor
performance are symptoms you can feel. They almost always
indicate a problem.
- Misaligned front wheels and/or worn steering components,
such as the idler or ball joint, can cause wandering
or difficulty steering in a straight line.
- Pulling - the vehicle's tendency to steer to the
left or right - can be caused by something as routine
as under-inflated tires, or as serious as a damaged
or misaligned front end.
Ride and Handling
- Worn shock absorbers or other suspension components
- or improper tire inflation - can contribute to poor
- While there is no hard and fast rule about when
to replace shock absorbers or struts, try this test:
bounce the vehicle up and down hard at each wheel
and then let go. See how many times the vehicle bounces.
Weak shocks will allow the vehicle to bounce twice
- Springs do not normally wear out and do not need
replacement unless one corner of the vehicle is lower
than the others. Overloading your vehicle can damage
- Balance tires properly. An unbalanced or improperly
balanced tire causes a vehicle to vibrate and may
wear steering and suspension components prematurely.
Brake problems have several symptoms. Schedule diagnosis
and repair if:
- The vehicle pulls to one side when the brakes are
- The brake pedal sinks to the floor when pressure
- You hear or feel scraping or grinding during braking.
- The "brake" light on the instrument panel
The following symptoms indicate engine trouble. Get
a diagnosis and schedule the repair.
- Difficulty starting the engine.
- The "check engine" light on the instrument
panel is lit.
- Rough idling or stalling.
- Poor acceleration.
- Poor fuel economy.
- Excessive oil use (more than one quart between changes).
- Engine continues running after the key is removed.
Poor transmission performance may come from actual component
failure or a simple disconnected hose or plugged filter.
Make sure the technician checks the simple items first;
transmission repairs normally are expensive. Some of
the most common symptoms of transmission problems are:
- Abrupt or hard shifts between gears.
- Delayed or no response when shifting from neutral
to drive or reverse.
- Failure to shift during normal acceleration.
- Slippage during acceleration. The engine speeds
up, but the vehicle does not respond.
Car trouble doesn't always mean major
repairs. Here are some common causes of trouble and
techniques to help you and your technician find and
For AA1Car articles about common car problems, see COMMON CAR PROBLEMS
- Alternator - Loose wiring
can make your alternator appear defective. Your technician
should check for loose connections and perform an
output test before replacing the alternator.
- Battery - Corroded or
loose battery terminals can make the battery appear
dead or defective. Your technician should clean the
terminals and test battery function before replacing
- Starter - What appears
to be a defective starter actually may be a dead battery
or poor connection. Ask your technician to check all
connections and test the battery before repairing
- Muffler - a loud rumbling
noise under your vehicle indicates a need for a new
muffler or exhaust pipe.
- Tuneup - The old-fashioned
"tuneup" may not be relevant to your vehicle.
Fewer parts, other than belts, spark plugs, hoses
and filters, need to be replaced on newer vehicles.
Follow the recommendations in your owner's manual.
For more information, contact:
Federal Trade Commission
Consumer Response Center
Washington, DC 20580
The main office of your local American
Automobile Association (AAA) motor club, listed under
AAA in the telephone directory.
Your state Attorney General
Office of Consumer Protection
Your state capital
Many Attorneys General have toll-free
consumer hotlines. Check with your local directory assistance.
The FTC works for the consumer to prevent fraudulent, deceptive
and unfair business practices in the marketplace and to provide information
to help consumers spot, stop and avoid them. To file a complaint or to get free
information on consumer issues, visit www.ftc.gov
or call toll-free, 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357); TTY: 1-866-653-4261. The
FTC enters Internet, telemarketing, identity theft and other fraud-related complaints
Consumer Sentinel, a secure, online database available to hundreds of civil
and criminal law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and abroad.
More Auto Repair Articles:
Common Car Problems
Warning Lights: What You Should and Should Not Do
New Car Lemon Laws
Repairophobia -- The Fear Of Auto Repair
Repair Advice: How Much Should It Cost To Get Your Car Fixed?
Update on Motorist Assurance Program (MAP)
How To Buy A Good Used Car (and NOT a Lemon!)
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