Owning a car can mean trouble if you are not prepared to handle inevitable mishaps and repairs. It takes preventative maintenance, planning, and know-how to avoid, or deal with, problems when your car needs repairs.
There are several things you can do to save a significant amount of time and money over the lifetime of your car, as well as prolong its life.
Have the oil changed at a dealership, service station or repair facility. Most service stations include a “lube job” along with an oil change, as well as inspect other critical fluid levels in your car. Many new cars, however, do not need traditional lubrication since their parts are permanently lubricated and sealed.
If you are inclined to, you can even learn how to change your car’s oil and filter on your own.
Servicing your car
Despite the best maintenance, problems may occur with any mechanical device as complex as a car.
If your car needs service, first check the owner’s manual. Unusual noises that may at first sound expensive to fix, may be perfectly normal or an easy problem to correct.
If you cannot fix the problem yourself, find a reputable repair shop to do the job. There are many factors involved in finding the right place to take your car for repair, but the search can be simplified if you know what you need.
If your car is still under warranty, you may not have many options. Usually, repair work covered by the warranty on new cars must be performed by a mechanic or an automotive service technician certified by the manufacturer. Often, the manufacturer will specify that warranty work must be performed at a dealer’s service center.
However, the warranty work may not have to be performed where you purchased your car. Read your warranty carefully to determine what procedures must be followed if you are to be reimbursed for the repair costs. If in doubt, ask questions at the dealership where you bought your car.
If your warranty has expired, you are free to shop around for a reputable shop which will perform competent repair work on your car at a competitive cost. The AA has accredited a number of repair centre and service stations under the AA Quality Assured banner. These facilities have to adhere to service levels set by the AA and are audited on a regular basis.
Finding a repair shop
When your car simply needs routine maintenance such as oil changes and tune-ups at the intervals specified by your car’s manufacturer, you may want to take it to a service station. Ask family, friends and co-workers for recommendations for a reputable shop; and check with your local Better Business Bureau about the shop’s reliability. Try to find a service station that has convenient hours of operation and is close to where you live or work.
However, if more extensive work is required, you may want to find either a dealer or a repair shop specializing in the type of repair you need. If you are in doubt about what the problem is, get a professional diagnosis. For warranty purposes, be sure to keep records and receipts for all work done.
High-tech cars generally require high-tech repairs. If yours is a late-model car, make sure the shop you choose has the technology and skilled technicians required to properly diagnose the problem.
Almost all cars built since the early eighties have highly sophisticated electronic “engine-management” systems (computer control systems) designed to increase the engine’s efficiency, reduce emissions, and aid in engine troubleshooting. If the shop does not have the proper equipment or the expertise to diagnose your car, you may be taking a substantial risk by having it repaired there.
Many engine computers have the uncanny ability to compensate for a minor problem, while making it appear to the untrained eye as if several other problems have suddenly cropped up. Tracking down these types of engine problems by guesswork alone can be expensive.
At the shop
If your car must be towed to a shop, request a flatbed tow truck to lessen the chance of damaging the car. After your car has arrived at the shop, inspect the vehicle thoroughly to make sure it has not been damaged in transit. Automotive service clubs may provide free or reduced-rate towing. Also, check your automobile insurance policy for towing coverage.
While at the shop, allow the service technician to perform a diagnosis, unless you are trained in auto repair and know exactly what the problem with your car may be. Describe your car’s symptoms to the service advisor writing up your repair order, and make sure he or she writes down everything you want checked. For example, if your car’s response seems sluggish, make sure the symptom’s description is written on the repair order.
Next, obtain an estimate. Make sure the service advisor notes on the repair order form to have the shop call you with an estimate of repair costs before any work is done. Some locales require owner authorization of repairs and/or notification if the job exceeds the estimate, and the return of any replaced parts. Find out your rights under the laws in your locale.
Getting a second opinion
If your car still runs, you have the option of getting a second opinion from another mechanic. If you receive the same advice from both shops, you can feel more confident about the exact nature of the problem and the likely repair job. However, if the second shop says something radically different, tell the mechanic what the other shop found–there may be an explanation for the discrepancy.
Another option is to take your car to an independent diagnostic center. For a fee, these shops will examine your car and tell you about any problems they find.
Travelling with your car
Preparing your car for travel is very important. Make sure your car is ready for the trip by checking all vital fluids such as the oil and coolant, and by visually inspecting your car for anything that looks out of place. It is always a good idea to double-check the coolant hoses and all belts on your car. Failures of these items are among the most common reasons that cars break down, but fortunately, they are inexpensive to replace.
Also, check your car’s battery for signs of corrosion or cracks. If the battery is the “self-diagnosing” type with an indicator, make sure it is fully charged. An older, weak battery may fail without much warning. If your battery has cracks, the fluid could leak from one or more cells, rendering it too weak to start your car.
If you are taking an extended trip, or if your car has not been serviced recently, you should have it checked by a reputable mechanic before leaving. A good mechanic can usually spot problems in advance, and advise you on how long you can delay a repair, and what the consequences of not immediately repairing your car may be.
Out-of-town emergency repairs
Despite the best maintenance and pre-trip inspection, cars can still unexpectedly break down when you are on the road. Being a member of an automotive club helps in such situations. Having a cellular phone can also help in an emergency. If your car breaks down in a remote location, you can call for assistance without having to walk several miles to find a phone.
On a cellular phone, the emergency number is usually 112. Some locations, however, may have different codes for roadside emergency assistance. When 112 is not used for this purpose, there are usually roadside signs with the emergency number.
To avoid unnecessary costs and speed-up your repair time, follow these guidelines:
Practice Safety: Do not work on your car or wait in an unsafe place. Pull your car off the road, preferably into a parking lot. Many people are injured while waiting in their cars, or trying to repair them along the side of the road. If you cannot move your car, get yourself off to the side of the road to call for help.
Check the Battery: If your car will not re-start, the battery may be the problem. If it is not a zero-maintenance (sealed) type battery, check the water level in each of the cells (there are usually 6 of them). A low or empty cell can make a substantial difference in starting power. Of course, if the cell is empty because the battery case is leaky, you may need a new battery right away.
However, by filling the battery you may be able to start your car and drive it to a service station, avoiding tow charges. It is best to use distilled water to refill battery cells, although clean tap water will do if distilled water is not available.
Temporary vs. Major Repair: Ask the mechanic if he or she can do a temporary repair. You may be able to have your car fixed enough to “get you home,” rather than completely cure the problem immediately.
If a major repair is needed, sometimes it is possible to prolong it long enough to get home. It is best to avoid major repairs while away from home; if something goes wrong, it may not be feasible to drive back to where your car was repaired to ask the mechanic to correct a problem.
Try to have major repairs done reasonably close to home, at a shop you know and trust. However, do not put off repairs that must be done immediately. If prolonging the repair risks leaving you stranded again on the way home, or poses a safety problem, you may have no other choice but to have the car fixed.
Sometimes delaying a repair can cause much more serious damage. Always ask about the consequences. If your car is still running, you may want to get a second opinion, particularly if the first mechanic tells you a major repair is needed right away. Do not hesitate to ask the mechanic to explain the problem.
Before you pay
Once the shop tells you that your car is ready, check a few items to make sure you are satisfied with the repair work–especially if you are dealing with a shop for the first time. This is even more important if the shop where you are having the repair work done is far from your home.
Examine the service receipt to see exactly what work was done. Is the problem clearly stated, along with the implemented solution? Was the final price close to the estimate? Was there any other work done? Are there any charges you do not recognize or understand? If the shop can not explain a charge, it may not belong on your bill. If you requested to approve work before it was done, and you see charges on the bill that you did not approve, you should ask questions about those items.
Ask to see any parts that were replaced. Under some local and state laws you have a right to keep the old parts. Many reputable shops often keep the old, replaced parts until the customer picks up the car, so he or she can be shown exactly what was wrong.
If you are not satisfied with the repair job, return your car to the shop and explain the situation. If you have a written guarantee of the work (and most reputable shops will either provide you with one or tell you beforehand why they cannot), then the shop should correct or adjust the problem.
Tips to remember
One of the best ways you can protect yourself against disreputable car repair shops and scams is to practice “consumer automotive strategy.”
Be quiet about your lack of knowledge. If you do not know much about automobiles, do not let the mechanic know.
Watch your car if possible. Do not leave valuables in your car while it is being worked on. Remember, even at the best repair facility employees may not be responsible for missing or lost items.
Be aware of common scams used by dishonest repair shops. There are many things disreputable mechanics can do to make a car appear to have more problems than it does. For example, simply switching the spark plug wire connections can prevent a car from starting.
If you feel you have not been dealt with fairly or have been taken advantage of you should first complain to the service manager of the repair shop, or the owner of the facility.