Why do I sometimes feel that my mechanic is ripping me off?
You don't really think it takes much, do you? Ripping you off is easy, practically effortless, and both you and your mechanic know it. Never mind what the work order says. You couldn't possibly know how many hours it takes to, say, replace a faulty solenoid in the transmission—assuming you even know what a solenoid is.
In other words, your relationship to your mechanic is based on faith, not knowledge. When Dick the Butcher utters the line, "The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers" (Henry VI, Part 2), he's expressing a sentiment common among those who are both dependent on and resentful of experts.
Add to this that repair shops and dealerships have plenty to gain by fudging the bill. To a degree, this suspicion is a mirror of one's own integrity. If you can't imagine yourself resisting the temptation, why would you expect others to?
So much for psychology. There are reasons expenses might mount. In car repair there is something called the "might as well" syndrome. As long as we've got the transmission out, might as well replace the clutch. This may seem plausible to the customer—perhaps your mechanic is trying to save you time and money by pursuing a repair while the system is already pulled apart. But such a cascade of prophylactic maintenance can really add up.
Here's something to bear in mind: How long are you going to keep the car? Try not to get roped into repairs that will outlive the vehicle or your ownership of it. In other words, let some things go.
Ultimately, you need a mechanic you can trust. Begin by soliciting recommendations from people you know. If possible, visit the shop and appraise its orderliness. A well-organized garage is more likely to be an honest one.
Lastly, ask for the parts that have been replaced. In the words of that famous skeptic, Ronald Reagan: Trust, but verify.
Dan Neil won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize in Criticism for his automotive column, Rumble Seat, in the Los Angeles Times.
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This article was first published in November 2008. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.