Save time and money by taking control of car repairs

02/14/2014 8:00 AM

02/14/2014 3:55 PM

If you take your car in for service at a dealership or mechanic’s garage, sooner or later you’ll be faced with the prospect of a major repair bill.

It happened to me recently when having the oil changed at the dealership. Instead of owing $40, the service department recommended that I also needed new spark plugs, a timing belt and a valve job. The cost of the fix was about $1,800.

How could that be? The service manager explained the additional work was part of the car’s regular mileage maintenance package and I was long overdue for those repairs. That didn’t sound right and it sent me through my repair records.

The service had actually been performed three years ago, but at another shop. In fairness, I had never thought to share the information with this dealership, so the mechanic had no way of knowing he had recommended redundant work.

The money lesson: Keep good car maintenance records.

For many young drivers, that’s about the last thing they will think to do. More typical is a glove compartment crammed with wadded-up receipts. Good luck finding what you need when you need it.

I keep the receipts in a filing cabinet folder for everything that’s been done to maintain our cars. This includes tire rotations, belt replacements, oil changes — everything. Car experts recommend keeping the repair file in the car.

Even the most organized person can misplace a bill or two, so make sure your records are up-to-date. As my experience showed, inform your shop of any major service performed elsewhere.

Here are some additional tips from several car experts that can help young drivers confront repair issues now or down the road:

• Find a car mechanic or repair shop you like and trust and stick with them. Whether it’s a gas station garage or a megadealer, the key is to build a relationship. What if the car problem is 800 miles away on a college campus? One option is to check with the school’s campus life department, which may have a recommended list of mechanics or dealerships. Better yet, ask around. Students aren’t shy about sharing information.

• Parents, let the kids do the talking. If your 18-year-old is the primary driver, let him make the call or swing by the garage, said Paul Gustafson, co-owner of Roe Body Shop in Roeland Park. Have your teen ask to see what’s causing the problem — that’s the way to tell the difference between a good brake pad and a worn-out one. Sure, it’s easier for a parent to do all this himself, said Gustafson, but the goal is to help your teen learn to interact with a mechanic. They will have to at some point.

• Ask about the parts and the warranties. Are you getting a new part or a salvage yard special? And what’s the warranty on the part — one year, three years or lifetime — and is there any warranty on the labor?

• Ask about discounts. There are almost always coupons or special deals, so it never hurts to ask. But shopping around for the best price on an oil change or brake job could cost you if the work is not satisfactory.

• Bone up. Enroll your student in a basic course in auto mechanics. There are also numerous websites that help you understand specific repairs and what they should cost. Check out, and The Federal Trade Commission website at

also has good information on auto warranties and routine maintenance.

While the owner’s manual should be on your teen’s required reading list, that might take an incentive, like a car wash and detailing job. At the least, the teen should become familiar with the manual and try to learn the car vocabulary.

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