Smart Buying

How to Save on Auto Repairs

Follow these steps to lower the cost of routine car maintenance and major repair work.

The majority of auto repairs these days are standard wear-and-tear fixes, according to online auto resource AutoMD.com. But when your car needs major repair work, it can take a big bite out of your budget. You could easily find yourself on the hook for a bill that totals thousands of dollars.

There are several ways you can keep the cost of auto repairs – both big and small – under control, though. Here’s how:

Don’t neglect routine maintenance. One of the best ways to avoid costly repairs is to follow your vehicle manufacturer’s maintenance schedule, says Stacey Hamilton, manager of service sales and operations for auto service chain Pep Boys. That means getting your oil changed regularly (follow your owner’s manual interval – the “every 3,000 miles” is an out-of-date money-waster), keeping your tires properly inflated and having them rotated, replacing wipers when they get streaky so they don’t scratch your windshield, and so on.

Also important, replace your car’s timing belt according to the manufacturer’s maintenance schedule (about every 90,000 miles), Hamilton says. Having it replaced will cost about $500 to $1,000. But if it breaks, your engine could be ruined, with a replacement costing up to $5,000, she says.

Take advantage of free services. Several auto repair shops offer free battery testing, and some provide free tire rotation, says Mike Smart, an auto expert who writes about managing money and saving on car costs. For example, Advance Auto Parts will perform a free electrical test on your starter, alternator and battery. O'Reilly Auto Parts will test your car's electrical system and battery for free. Select Goodyear Auto Service Centers will rotate your Goodyear tires for free, and most locations offer free tire consultations as well as a complimentary alignment check, Smart says.

Pep Boys offers several free services including Check Engine light diagnosis and alignment check. However, you have to be a member of its rewards program, which is free to join, to receive some of the free services such as brake inspection and tire repair. Before paying for any sort of testing or minor maintenance, check with repair shops in your area to see if any offer these services for free.

Look for coupons and discounts. You can find coupons for services at most of the major auto repair chains on their Web sites. If one shop is offering a good deal but you prefer to have your car serviced at another, ask about price matching. For example, Pep Boys will beat local competitors’ prices by 5% if shown proof of the lower price, Hamilton says.

Some of the auto service chains, such as Pep Boys and O’Reilly Auto Parts, have rewards programs that are free to join and let you earn points based on how much you spend that can be redeemed for discounts on services. If there’s a repair shop you prefer, ask if it has a rewards program. And many service shops offer discounts for seniors and members of the military, so inquire about special pricing.

Shop around. You likely compare prices to find the best deal when you purchase big-ticket items. You should do the same when getting your car repaired. You can get a good idea how much common repairs cost in your area by using sites such as AutoMD.com and RepairPal. These sites also can help you find a mechanic from their database of vetted repair shops. AAA also has a list of auto repair facilities that meet its guidelines. Get written estimates from several shops with ASE certified technicians – which means they have been tested and certified by the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence.

Ask a lot of questions. Say you take your car to a repair shop because you know something is wrong with the brakes. But then the mechanic tells you that your car needs several other repairs. Instead of asking how much it will cost, ask why so many repairs need to be made. “Don’t accept anything they say at face value,” says Chris Barker, technical services manager for lubricant manufacturer Royal Purple. Make mechanics show you how they know something is wrong, he says. If they won’t take the time to explain, take your business elsewhere because you don’t want to pay for repairs you don’t need. The car-care guide at Carcare.org can help you learn about typical repairs and the right questions to ask a mechanic.

Learn how to DIY. You can save a lot by learning how to tackle minor auto maintenance tasks, such as replacing the air filter, wiper blades and even motor oil. Smart recommends searching YouTube for instructional videos. Many of the service chains that sell auto parts offer free instructional guides. Advance Auto Parts, Pep Boys and O’Reilly Auto Parts will let you borrow expensive specialty tools to repair your car. You’ll have to pay a deposit, but it will be refunded when you return the tool.

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