Buying & Leasing a Car

How to Avoid Getting Ripped Off for Auto Repairs

Nine in ten women believe they are treated differently at auto-repair shops than men are.

Victoria Rumsey felt as if she was being taken for a ride. The brake warning light on her 2000 Volkswagen Jetta was on, so when she was getting her oil changed at the dealership, she asked the shop to look into it. She was told she needed a new suspension, brake pads and rotors. Rumsey didn't want to put a lot of money into the car, so she told the shop to skip the suspension. Then she got a call from the dealership's used-car division telling her that the service department mentioned she might be in the market for a car because hers was not drivable. Rumsey called the shop and found out that a broken knuckle (part of the steering assembly) would add $2,000 to the tab, and she couldn't drive the car without the fix. She decided to have the car towed from the dealership and ask a friend to do the repairs. The cost of parts: less than $150. "I felt as though I was being misled because I was a woman and didn't know too much about cars," she says.

Nine in ten women believe they are treated differently at auto-repair shops than men are, according to a national study by the Car Care Council, an association that encourages consumer education. Even I, the car writer at Kiplinger's, have been the target of repair-shop gender politics. Take our advice on taking control -- but keep in mind, anyone can get ripped off. These rules aren't just for ladies.

Get a clue. You can diagnose what's wrong before you hit the shop by using the CarMD tool ($99; www.carmd.com). Just plug the hand-held device into your car (every model after 1996 has a standard connection port) and it reads the car's computer codes. You can then plug it into your computer for a full report of what problem the codes indicate, the most likely fix, and what labor and parts for the repair cost in your area. The report also lists recalls for your vehicle and summaries of technical service bulletins (recall notices are also available at www.nhtsa.gov). You can also use the car-care guide at www.carcare.org to learn about typical repairs and questions to ask the mechanic.

Show them you know. Familiarize yourself with the owner's manual -- you'll avoid unnecessary maintenance if you know what needs to be done at every service interval. When choosing a repair shop, make sure the technicians are ASE certified by the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence.

Use all your senses to describe a problem, says auto expert Lauren Fix, author of Lauren Fix's Guide to Loving Your Car (St. Martin's Griffin, $17.99). If you say you feel the car pulling to the left, particularly at speeds faster than 40 miles per hour, or you hear a knocking sound only when you turn right, it shows that you've been paying attention and may help the technician diagnose the problem faster.

Don't overpay for repairs. If you're getting the car repaired by an independent shop, call the service department at your dealership after you get the diagnosis to see whether it's covered by the warranty, a recall or a technical service bulletin; having the car fixed at an independent shop won't void the warranty, but you may have to pay for the repair.

RepairPal.com can help you find out whether your mechanic is quoting a fair price. Enter your car's make, model and year, plus your zip code. You'll see a price range for dozens of fixes at dealerships and shops in your area.

Get a second opinion. If you're unsure about what you're being told, go somewhere else. Don't repeat what the other shop said; just provide the same information about the problem and see what the mechanic finds and what the shop will charge to fix it. Before a repair, ask to see the part, where it goes and why it needs to be replaced, and then ask to see the old part after the repair is made. If you feel pressured to make a repair, walk away.

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