How to Save Money on Auto Repair

I’m sad to say that this past year has been rough on my budget. Not because of gadgets, gizmos, or other geeky purchases, but due in part to a series of misfortunes related to our family vehicles. It seems the entire year has been one vehicle breakdown after another. Why is this? Could it be because the warranties expired just a month before the year began?

Either way, mechanics seem to make an arm and a leg off of us on a monthly basis. That is, until I started looking into alternatives and recommendations that have helped lower the price and frequency of repair.

Paying too much for auto repair is like paying too much for insurance. Yes, you get what you pay for, but on the other hand, did you really need to fork over an additional $50 to have someone do what you could do yourself in less than five minutes? Perhaps not.

Here are some tips to help you save money on auto repair.

Check Your Warranty

You might be surprised at just how long certain parts are covered under the manufacturer’s warranty. A power train warranty can extend past the initial bumper-to-bumper coverage available upon buying the vehicle. Even used cars and trucks may still have some existing warranty left from when the car was brand new.

It’s never a bad idea to check your warranty before bringing your car to a repair facility when the problem appears as though it might be covered.

The problem here is that many dealer repair shops that can cover warranty repair also charge for diagnostic services. This means that you are on the hook for the diagnostic fee, even if the repair in question isn’t covered under warranty after all. If it is, this fee is typically waived.

Have Trouble Codes Read for Free

How to Save Money on Auto RepairWhen your check engine light comes on, it could be indicating a variety of different issues ranging from critical problems to sensor misreads. Having these fault codes read can be a great way to determine where a possible fault may appear in your vehicle. Unfortunately, too many shops charge an arm and a leg to plug a simple device in and read the codes provided by your vehicle’s computer.

There are a couple of ways around this problem. One of them can be as simple as taking your car or truck to the nearest AutoZone and having someone there take a look. This service is provided free of charge, and can help you determine what parts you may need to replace. If you don’t have an AutoZone in your area, many other auto parts stores offer similar services.

Another thing you can do to save money here is buying your own. Ray Miller, a member of the LockerGnome community, relayed his experience: “I am not a mechanic, but I have loved my OBD2 scan tool. Cost 100 dollars and you will know in most cases what is wrong with the vehicle before seeing the mechanic.” He continued, “I used mine because of an erratic idle issue… The tool told me it was the idle speed control valve. I replaced it myself within 15 minutes at a cost of 60 dollars.”

In a recent video on the LockerGnome channel, Chris Pirillo reviewed one of these devices. CarMD is a simple device that plugs directly into your car and gives you a progress report directly from the car’s own internal computer. This is a great way to keep updated as to your vehicle’s condition and maintenance needs.

Buy the Shop Manual (Do It Yourself)

Bob O’Bob, a member of the LockerGnome community, suggests: “Get a shop manual. Read it. No matter what your vehicle is, knowing more about it, even if you can’t directly apply the knowledge, will help you manage those who do.”

Believe it or not, the majority of what needs to be done to keep a car running smoothly can be done in a few easy steps. Car manufacturers have taken great strides to engineer vehicles that are easier to work on and maintain. Changing the oil, belts, fluids, air filter, and basic troubleshooting generally doesn’t require a licensed mechanic (if the car is out of warranty).

Learning how to perform basic maintenance tasks on your vehicle can be an extremely helpful and important part of being a responsible driver. Changing a tire isn’t something everyone knows how to do, but this knowledge can save you from being stranded on the side of a country road at night.

Wallace Roberts, a member of the LockerGnome community and former auto technician, suggests: “Check the Internet for videos on a particular repair that you’re considering; if you find a video that makes sense and you think you can do the job yourself, you probably can.”

Perform Regular Maintenance

Cheryl Wireman, an auto technician, suggested, “Complete proper maintenance and do not complain when the car breaks if you don’t. Don’t expect me to repair your car for free.”

Doing things like getting your oil changed, having your belts replaced during recommended intervals, and checking your fluids can mean the difference between a long and trouble-free experience and one riddled with breakdowns and hassle.

Did you know that mechanics recommend checking your belts, battery, air filter, exhaust, fuel filter, hoses, power steering fluid, tire inflation and condition, and lights every three months? Many people drive around on poorly inflated tires unaware that their fuel efficiency and tire longevity can be greatly effected.

When in Doubt, Get a Second Opinion

Taking a mechanic’s word for it when they tell you that you’ve got hundreds of dollars worth of unforeseen repairs ahead of you can be difficult. Your car is possibly in pieces on the shop floor, and you’ve spent whatever the diagnostic fee is, but as with medical issues, you shouldn’t take the first opinion when your life savings is on the line.

Most honest mechanics are absolutely used to customers who seek out a second opinion. It’s good business practice to facilitate this request as it could lead to a long-term relationship with the client should the initial diagnosis prove correct and the estimate be reasonable.

People make mistakes, and mechanics are only able to do what they can with the knowledge they have at their disposal. A certain knock or tick may be easy for one mechanic to diagnose and an entirely new symptom for any other.

Stick to Small Shops

Mom and pop auto repair shops are a great place to get a good deal. These shops, like any small business, depend on customer loyalty, repeat business, and good word of mouth to stay around. Larger stores tend to forget this as loose hiring policies and poor overall ground-up management is an easy side effect of larger corporations. That’s not to say that there aren’t excellent mechanics working at larger chain shops, but you may find that many of them have their hands tied by corporate policy.

Take for advantage a vehicle that needs several different repairs at a given time. A small, locally owned shop owner can work out a deal that helps you get back on the road without breaking your budget.

Repair prices can also vary greatly by region. This may sound unusual, but I can have a radiator repaired for close to $1,000 in Austin, or take my car to a mechanic in a small town and have the same job done by an equally qualified mechanic for hundreds less. Part of what determines a shop’s prices is overhead — including rent and taxes — which tend to be significantly less in a small town.

Article Written by

Ryan Matthew Pierson has worked as a broadcaster, writer, and producer for media outlets ranging from local radio stations to internationally syndicated programs. His experience includes every aspect of media production. He has over a decade of experience in terrestrial radio, Internet multimedia, and commercial video production.

  • Acecommander

    Some of the tips given are sound advise, however, some of the ideas you’ve shared, including ” Car manufacturers have taken great strides to engineer vehicles that are easier to work on and maintain.” are completely false.  As an ASE Service Writer for over 20 years, I can assure you that today’s vehicles are more complex that ever.  On some vehicles there are over 40 sensors which monitor the vehicles performance, and these operations have to be in perfect sync or the check engine light will trigger.  The equipment needed (and the mechanics knowledge on how to use and interpret it) is costly, and pinpoint diagnostics is sometimes time consuming. 

    I did get a laugh out of this statement-“did you really need to fork over an additional $50 to have someone do what you could do yourself in less than five minutes?  Not only have I never seen a 5 minute repair, but do you have the knowledge and tools to do the work correctly?  I have mechanics in my shop working with tools they’ve bought over their careers that total in the tens of thousands of dollars.  And that does not include the state of the art, up to date diagnostic scanners, pressure testing equipment, yearly software updates, etc. that a competitive shop owner has to invest in.  Also can’t forget to add the investment of additional training for my mechanics to keep up to date on the latest developments, including hybrid and electric vehicles.

    One major point (for me) that is critical.  Maintenance.  I have several different types of regular customers, but the two main groups are 1) the ones who bring (or have their vehicles towed) to me for repairs, and 2) those who bring their vehicles in for regular maintenance.

    • http://twitter.com/MattRyan Matt Ryan

      I thank you for contributing your expertise to the topic. By “5 minute repair” I had in mind something like an air filter change, which some shops will charge an arm and a leg for, even though they bring the dirty filter to you in the waiting room. I’ve seen some speedy technicians tackle belt changes and adjustments at lightning speed, as well. I had a belt slipping once and a mechanic had the problem resolved in less time than it took to find the screwdriver. 

  • Marc Erickson
  • Marc Erickson
  • Anonymous

    hey chris i know you are not a big car fan, but may i suggest please please buy a bmw 2012 3 series its a cool car and i feel u may like it, think about it :)

  • http://livewellsimply.com/ Josh @ Live Well Simply

    Nifty idea. Much better than spending a ton on diagnostics at a shop.

  • http://oldbritishguns.com/ Greg Pfeiffer

    I’ve been a mechanic for 40 years, and I have found that modern cars are NOT built to be easy to work on, they are built to be easy to manufacture. Kudo’s to anyone who want to understand and work on his own car or truck, after all that is how I got into this business. You should understand though that you can easily get bloody, you can get hurt, so it doesn’t hurt to read every thing you can about the subject and use some common sense. Good Luck!