Saturday, November 11, 2000

Protect Your Wallet at the Repair Shop

(ARA) - Unless you're a mechanic, taking your car into the repair shop can be a scary and mysterious experience. Your car goes behind the doors and minutes later, you're presented with a list of problems, and possibly a large bill. Even if you aren't a car expert, there are things you can look out for to make sure your car repair is honest and necessary.

Brakes are a common area where repair estimates can be inflated. Calipers are the devices that push the brake pads against the disc. They can last up to 100,000 miles; so if the mechanic says they need replacing, ask if you can see how they aren't working properly or where the brake pads are wearing.

An oil change is a fairly simple task, but it can sometimes end up costing you more than you intended. This is because there can be hidden fees, such as disposal fees, extra services included, or extra parts, such as new air filters or wiper blades, added on. Make sure you know what's included in the price of your oil change. Mechanics typically recommend an oil change every 3,000 miles, but many car manufacturers recommend only twice a year or every 7,000 miles. Somewhere in the middle may work for you.

Surprisingly, if your battery is weak or dead, it may not be the battery. Instead of automatically purchasing a new battery, it may be cheaper in the long run to have a reputable mechanic run an alternator and voltage regulator test. This will tell if your car's electrical charge system is working. If there's a problem, it may cost a few hundred dollars to fix, but it will save you hundreds in constantly buying new batteries while the problem goes unchecked.

When you go in for a new muffler, you may also be told you need new exhaust pipes, tail pipes, even a new catalytic converter. Make sure the mechanic shows you the damages on your pipes before paying out. Federal law requires cars built before 1995 to have catalytic converter warranties of five years or 50,000 miles. Cars built after 1995 have warranties of eight years or 80,000. If you're satisfied the work needs to be done, get the estimate and shop around for the best price.

The old standby, the tune-up, is an old-fashioned term these days. Yesterday's tune-ups included carburetor and ignition system adjustments. Today's computerized systems take car of that for you. All you may really need checked are the spark plugs, which should last about 30,000 and cost around $20 to replace. If your car is running rough and you've noticed your fuel efficiency is down, explain the specific problem to your mechanic rather than just asking for a "tune-up."

Getting bodywork done can be extremely expensive - especially if the repair shop puts on used parts and charges you for new. You could also be charged for replacement parts when your old parts were simply repaired. If you suspect this might be done, tell the mechanic you'd like to see your old parts and the packaging and documentation that comes with new parts.

The most important thing to remember is to find a reputable mechanic that you can trust and don't be afraid to ask questions. It's your car and your checkbook, and you have a right to protect them both.

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