Dollars and sense

Some bargains aren't such a great deal

Have you ever headed to the supermarket to stock up on 49-cent Kraft Dinner, only to end up purchasing $25 worth of other items you didn’t really need? If so, you’re familiar with the siren song of loss leaders, those irresistible deals that can often wind up costing you more money than you save.

The concept of loss leaders isn’t lost on the auto repair industry. Garage owners know consumers love a bargain and deep-discount prices can drive in new business. The trouble is, these special deals don’t always turn out to be such a bargain for motorists. It takes a bit of shopping skill and common sense to take advantage of specials without having a garage take advantage of you. Here’s a guide to the hidden traps you may encounter when chasing discount auto repairs:

The pitfall The shop inspection may simply be a fishing expedition for quick expensive work that may or may not be required. Many years ago, I opted for such a deal when I took my car to a shop for an oil change. To my astonishment, the mechanic recommended $1,200 worth of repairs even though the car was working fine when I took it in. I declined the repairs and continued to drive the car for five more years. None of the problems that I’d been warned about ever surfaced.

The pitfall Instead of a complete tune-up, all you’re getting is a spark plug replacement and a check of other components. If your car isn’t a four-cylinder domestic vehicle, you’ll pay more. If you need common tune-up parts such as a fuel filter, ignition wires, distributor cap or positive crankcase ventilation valve, they aren’t covered in the advertised price.

The pitfall The price only includes the cost of brake pads and not the resurfacing or replacement of rotors, which is usually recommended when the pads are replaced. Since rotors are significantly more expensive than pads, the price balloons.

The pitfall They may be small low-grade tires that are more likely to go out-of-round. Also, the price doesn’t include fees for valve stems, mounting, balancing and tire disposal. If you have to fight to get the deal you thought you were getting, it’s better to walk away and take your business elsewhere. After all, if you can’t trust a shop’s ads, do you really want to trust its workmanship? “You have to be very careful,” says Rob MacGregor of the British Columbia Institute of Technology. “In almost every instance, specials are not done for the convenience of the customer, but on behalf of the shop operator. Don’t be a price junkie.”

The pitfall The shop may opt to use the cheapest pads possible, so they last only 20,000 to 25,000 kilometres instead of 40,000 to 50,000 kilometres. You’re still on the hook for the higher cost of resurfacing or replacing the rotors, which you may end up doing more often.

The pitfall The cost does not include stripping old paint, removing trim, masking windows, fixing rust spots or repairing dents and dings. Used-car dealers can easily spot these bargain-basement paint jobs on cars that have been freshened up before a trade-in. “If it’s not prepped properly, the paint may come off,” notes MacGregor.

The bottom line, notes Kirk Robinson, owner of Robinson Automotive in Mississauga, Ont., is that any time you see a cheap price, expect pressure to buy more items. “The shop isn’t doing it out of the kindness of its heart. There’s no free lunch.”

Maryanna Lewyckyj is consumer advocate for the Toronto Sun. She conducts car care seminars for women through her company, Autophobics Anonymous.