Be suspicious of estimates based on incomplete examinations of your car

There are ways of getting a second opinion that can lead you astray. Consider one woman who contacted me in a panic several years ago. Her car had begun making loud noises and would vibrate every time she stopped. So, she took it to her regular shop. These folks took the car for a brief test drive then put it on a lift, pulled the wheels off and came up with an estimate that called for $1,100 in brake work.

Shocked, she took the car to a second shop that, after taking a good look, came up with a $1,200 estimate. This prompted the desire for a third opinion, which she found at a shop that took a cursory look at the vehicle and produced a $430 estimate. Sold.

The next afternoon she received a call from this shop. Now that they had gotten into the job, they discovered that the braking system was in much worse shape than they had originally thought. Their new estimate: $1,200, and unfortunately they had the car’s brakes disassembled so there would be no taking this car to yet another shop without incurring a substantial charge for reassembly. What went wrong?

There is a difference between getting a second opinion and shopping around until you finally find a garage that will tell you what you want to hear. Consumers should be suspicious of any estimate that is based on an incomplete examination of the car. These estimates, better described as “guesstimates,” often fall apart once the actual work begins. In some cases, writing an accurate estimate will require some diagnostic work, for which the customer should expect to be charged.

Diagnostic work is a sore point with many consumers, who feel that the shop should be willing to do this part of the repair for free. Such a service, these customers think, is then rewarded when the shop charges for the actual repair.

Unfortunately, this is not a realistic attitude when it comes to dealing with today’s cars. The days of replacing a few inexpensive parts on the hunch that one of them was causing a problem are long gone.

Today’s cars use sophisticated electronics and replacing these modules on a whim, hoping that a new part will solve a problem, is foolish.  Where you could once replace nearly every part in an ignition system for less than $200, today the engine management computer alone can cost more than a $1,000. Guessing incorrectly which part is at fault is guaranteed to be costly and replacing all the parts in a malfunctioning system, just to be sure, could bankrupt many customers. The only solution is to diagnose the problem so that only the parts needing replacement end up being replaced.

As your car ages, expect to spend more for maintenance and repairs. If one of those repairs happens to be major, don’t hesitate to seek out a second opinion. Just be sure that the second opinion is a valid one based on an appropriately detailed inspection of the vehicle.