Living

Repairs? Beware!

Car repairs got you scared? Here's how to take your car to the shop-without getting taken for a ride

As an accountant and former single mom, Vancouver’s Sandra Spicer knows the importance of getting the best value for her car repair dollar. She also knows how vulnerable women can be to auto repair rip-offs.

Several years ago, while living in Moose Jaw, Sask., Spicer was visiting Calgary when her 1977 Monte Carlo started running rough. A garage advised a $2,000 engine rebuild. Despite the garage’s dire warnings, Spicer was skeptical and drove home to get a second opinion from a mechanic she trusted. The problem? A fuel pump, which was fixed for less than $100.

Spicer’s experience doesn’t surprise George Iny, president of the Automobile Protection Association. Since 1991, the APA has sent “ghost” cars rigged with a simple problem (such as a loose battery cable) to 120 shops in Toronto, Montreal and Quebec City. “We consistently find that 30 percent of the time, garages in large cities will rip you off,” notes Iny. “Twenty percent of the time, service will be incompetent. In about one out of every two repairs, there’s an element of dishonesty or incompetence.” Iny says that owner-operated independent repair shops outperformed other types of repair outlets in the APA surveys; chains showed a lot of inconsistencies from shop to shop. While the APA tests weren’t designed to detect gender bias, some garages have told Iny that women are susceptible to scare tactics because they tend to be more concerned with safety and reliability.

Despite the grim statistics, consumers can take steps to avoid being fleeced. First of all, you should search for a good garage before a major breakdown occurs. Ask friends, relatives, coworkers and neighbors what garage they use and why. Both the APA (contact their local offices in Toronto and Montreal) and the Canadian Automobile Association (contact your local office, or try the Web site: www.caa.ca) can refer motorists to their approved garages.

Once your car needs service, do some groundwork. Go to the garage armed with as much detail about the problem as possible. Is it worse at start-up? Does your vehicle sound or smell different? The more details you can provide, the easier it is to pinpoint the problem.

Never tell a garage to simply fix a problem. It’s like handing over a blank cheque. Ask the garage to report on what’s wrong, with a written estimate listing parts and labor. Find out the diagnostic fee up front. Say you want your old parts back, where possible; worn or damaged parts usually speak for themselves.

Once you’ve got an estimate, find out what is being done and why. And you can call other shops to compare prices. Getting a second opinion may be a good idea if it’s a major repair. Although you’ll likely pay a second diagnostic fee, you might end up saving hundreds of dollars. Ask how long the repair will be guaranteed.

When you pick up your car, make sure you get a detailed invoice, a written warranty and your old parts. Keep all repair records. If the problem persists, go back and complain. Be firm but polite.

If you can’t solve a repair dispute at the shop level, you may be in for a rough ride. The CAA and APA will mediate complaints against garages they recommend. The Better Business Bureau will review complaints about member and nonmember companies. You can also complain to media help services (check if your local newspaper boasts a consumer advocate) or take your beef to small-claims court (which takes money and loads of patience).

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