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Think twice before authorizing costly auto repair

During a morning drive to work this past summer, Angie’s List member Jon Felix’s 2003 Saturn Vue suddenly became undriveable. His windshield wipers, door locks and horn began going off sporadically, making it a danger to be on the road.

A truck towed his car immediately to a local auto repair center , where his day soon turned from bad to worse. After paying a $116 fee for the mechanics to perform diagnostics on the car, the Los Alamitos, Calif., resident was hit with ahefty price tag he didn’t expect — a $1,160 estimate to have his car’s computer replaced.

"My jaw about hit the floor," Felix recalled. "I was in a dilemma. I went to the bank to apply for a loan. My wife started to check and get some advice and to see if the estimate price was in the right ballpark."

Apparently, Felix would soon learn, it wasn't. Felix contacted Angie's List and asked for three highly rated auto repair shops near his home that specialze in electronics. One estimate came back at $625, while the other two were for $750.

"I had to pick my jaw up off the floor once more to believe there was a $500 difference in my lower estimate," Felix said.

Felix chose highly rated Precision Auto Works in Covina, Calif., which provided a free estimate and performed the work to his satisfaction.

“We only sell people what they need,” said Mark Robinson, with Precision Auto Works. “The purpose of looking around is to try and find the honest guy. That’s part of it.”

Importance of multiple estimates

"The family owned business treated me very nice from the start, gaining my trust by explaining everything that was going to be done to fix my car," Felix said.

Highly rated auto experts say it's critical to get more than one estimate and recommend getting two to four before deciding on a company, especially if it's for a pricey repair.

"Not only is it important to get a second estimate, but it's important to get a second opinion about the diagnostics to see what's wrong with the car," said Robert Ramsey, owner of highly rated Ramsey's Service Center in Drexel Hill, Pa. "You might have a problem with your door handle and one mechanic wants to replace the whole handle while another can fix the broken spring in the handle, which will save you money."

There are several factors that can cause such fluctuations in price, Ramsey said, including the quality of the parts used and whether a business charges per job or per hour.

"In this industry, a lot of parts are imported from China," he said. "Back in the '70s and '80s, for example, a brake rotor was a 30-pound hunk of metal that cost $100. You can buy a rotor from China now for $8. Some shops, with their policy, won't install inferior parts, but some do. Than can affect the price greatly."

Communication is key

Communication between a customer and an auto mechanic is critical, auto experts say, whether the work is for a minor mechanical problem or an insurance claim for a major fix.

Take a look at the company's reputation among past and current customers and look for feedback and online reviews. It's also a good idea to check with neighbors, friends and family about their experiences at local auto repair businesses.

"Try and find a place with roots in your neighborhood; a place that is proud of their work," Ramsey said. “The kind of company where if you see the mechanics out in the community, they may ask you how the car is doing."

Ask plenty of questions up front, including what kind of warranty the auto shop offers. . Also, get a written estimate before authorizing any repairs, so you won't be surprised by any unexpected charges. Before paying, ask for a detailed invoice that shows all of the work completed.

"The first company didn't communicate well with me," Felix said. "But I was blown away by the customer service of the second company. He even picked me up. And he saved me $500. All because I went to Angie's List and got three estimates."

Ideally, the auto body shop’s technicians will be carry ASE certification from the National Institute of Automotive Service Excellence. Before hiring just anyone to work on your car, check their credentials. Many states have their own auto body industry associations, but some national associations include the Independent Auto Body Association (IABA) and the Society of Collision Repair Specialists (SCRS).

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