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What Goes Into a Car Repair?

Emily Guy Birken

It’s a situation that every car owner dreads. Your car goes into the shop, and the bill for repairs costs more than your mortgage. You’re left scrambling to pay the bill, and wondering why on earth it costs so much to fix your vehicle.

It’s a fact of life that car repairs tend to be very expensive. But despite the cliché of shady mechanics inflating their prices, most car repairs are not pricey for nefarious reasons. There can be quite a lot that goes into a specific repair, and even seemingly simple issues can cost a lot.

Here’s what you need to know about why car repairs cost as much as they do, and some ways for you may be able to mitigate these costs next time your vehicle needs work:

Three Main Pricing Criteria

Every mechanic shop has three criteria on which repair pricing is based: labor, parts, and overhead. To understand how your car repair adds up, you need to understand the specific issues behind each of these pricing criteria.

1. Labor

Labor is the per-hour cost of having a mechanic work on your car. The shop will have a per-hour labor rate, which will vary widely depending on a number of factors, including location, shop specialization, and the skill level of the mechanics. The per-hour labor rate can range from as low as $47 to as high as $215, according to a January 2017 report from AAA on the mechanical repair shops in their network. This per-hour rate would be calculated by the shop to cover things like the mechanic’s salary (which is likely much less than the per-hour rate), the cost of tools, training and equipment, as well as some profit for the shop.

Anyone who has been driving for several decades might reasonably wonder why labor costs seem to have gone up in the past few years. The reason for this is the increased complexity of modern automobiles. According to automotive journalist Steven Lang, “working on cars is no longer a wrench job. You need much more specialized tools.”

That’s because unlike the relatively simple internal combustion engines inside the cars your parents and grandparents may have driven, modern cars are a little bit more like rolling computers. For instance, the Mercedes Benz S-Class requires over 20 million lines of code for the dozens of microprocessor-based electronic control units (ECUs) that form a network throughout the body of the car. Robert N. Charette, writing for the engineering magazine IEEE Spectrum, states that “most new cars are executing tens of millions of lines of software code, controlling everything from your brakes to the volume of your radio.”

All of this software complexity means that your mechanic needs to have specialized diagnostic software that communicate with your car’s computers. Lang explains that there is a trade-off to this computerization of your vehicle: “We’ve gone from a simple diagnostic program from 20 years ago that could give a general diagnosis for every vehicle, to specialized software and programs for specific vehicles. These help make the diagnosis of your car trouble more accurate, but you do pay more for that accuracy.”

Where a car repair might have once simply included a mechanic, a good set of wrenches and a lift, digging through your engine to figure out what was wrong, it now involves a computer diagnosing the problem and a skilled mechanic repairing it with laser-like focus.

SEE ALSO: Why Complex Cars Cost More to Repair

The continual improvements in automotive technology and software also mean that mechanics must receive additional training on technology updates on a regular basis, which another factor is increasing the labor costs you pay.

2. Parts

The cost of the parts that you may need for your car repairs can depend on a number of factors, including how specialized or high-end your car is and what type of parts your mechanic will be using. Specifically, you may have a choice of:

Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) parts are parts made by your vehicle’s manufacturer. For instance, if you drive a Honda Accord and need new brake pads, Honda offers OEM brake pads that are specifically designed for the make, model, and year of your Accord. Generally, the benefit of using an OEM part is you can feel confident that the quality of the new part matches the one you are replacing, and it is compatible with your vehicle and should work correctly. In addition, most OEM parts come with some sort of warranty. However, OEM parts are most often more expensive than aftermarket and used or refurbished parts.

Aftermarket parts are any parts that do not come directly from the car’s manufacturer. In many cases, these parts are designed to function exactly the same as the OEM version, and in some cases the aftermarket part may even work better than the original. That said, there tends to be varying degrees of quality among different aftermarket manufacturers’ parts, and if you use an aftermarket part that is not considered an acceptable replacement part according to your car’s warranty, using it could void the warranty. If you do decide to use aftermarket parts, make sure your mechanic is using high-quality ones that are considered appropriate replacements under your warranty. Aftermarket parts tend to be less expensive than OEM parts.

Used and/or refurbished parts are parts that have been gleaned from other cars. Depending on the condition of the used or refurbished part, it can render an effective repair. However, buyers beware. For the average consumer it may be difficult to determine if a part is in good working condition. Without the expertise of knowing what to look for, choosing used and refurbished parts may be a risk that’s not worth taking. Used and/or refurbished parts tend to be the least expensive parts. However, their prices do vary depending on wear and tear and demand for the part.

Since your mechanic does need to make a profit, realize that he is marking up the price of your parts. The markup is typically about 30%. In addition to helping the shop’s bottom line, the markup may also allow the shop room to offer a warranty on their repairs, which is a benefit you can reasonably expect from a reputable mechanic.

3. Overhead

Auto repair shops have overhead costs that can affect the prices you pay for labor and parts. Some of the overhead costs are obvious: rent, electricity, heat, and other utilities are all typical for brick-and-mortar businesses.

But auto repair shops must also factor in more specific costs that are particular to their industry, including specialized tools and equipment necessary to work on your vehicle, as well as the appropriate training to keep their mechanics up-to-date on the latest technology. Many shops also carry their own parts inventory, which can include a broad spectrum of parts. The capital required to purchase these parts and retain the space to store them can be costly.

Auto shops’ overhead costs can also increase if they specialize in any types of vehicles that need unusual care. For instance, aluminum-bodied cars, like the Ford F-150s built since 2015, need to be worked on in closed-off areas because aluminum dust can ignite and explode if cross-contaminated with steel dust. The additional need for specialized repair tools and equipment for aluminum-bodied vehicles also adds to the shop’s overhead—which will likely be reflected in your bill.

Keeping Your Repair Costs Manageable

Considering all of the factors that go into a car repair bill, you might conclude that it’s difficult to do anything to lower your bill. However, it is possible to keep your car in tip-top condition without spending a fortune every time it needs work. Here are some steps drivers can take, even if they lack mechanical ability:

Stay on top of regular maintenance. A well-maintained car is a car that needs fewer repairs. Following the regular maintenance schedule recommended in your owner’s manual can do a great deal to keep your repair costs low.

Create and keep a car repair spreadsheet. Blogger Michael Allen Smith of the blog Critical MAS recommends keeping a detailed spreadsheet of every maintenance and repair made to your vehicle, so when you do have a problem with your car, you can quickly tell your mechanic everything that has already been done. Smith realized he needed to create such a spreadsheet after the same part was replaced three times on his Volkswagen Golf TDI. Until Smith was able to provide all of the car’s maintenance history to his mechanic, nobody realized there was an underlying issue that was making that part wear out too quickly.

Invest in a Haynes repair manual for your car. Haynes publishes repair manuals on nearly every make and model of car on the road. While having a copy of this manual on your shelf will hardly turn you into a mechanical genius, it does offer you two incredible benefits. First, a customer coming into an auto shop carrying her Haynes manual will automatically set themselves apart from the majority of customers. Your mechanic may recognize that you do your homework and can talk intelligently about car care—which many professionals very much appreciate from their customers. Second, having this manual can help give you some context for any diagnoses made by your mechanic. When your mechanic gives you the diagnosis, you can look it up in the manual. A little extra background knowledge can help you formulate better and more intelligent follow-up questions and decisions.

Finding a Mechanic You Trust

In addition to the steps above, it’s a good idea to find a reputable mechanic before you actually need one. There are several ways to seek out a mechanic who is likely to be both well-qualified and trustworthy:

Check with your auto insurance company. Your car insurer is likely to have a network of approved repair shops, which you can feel confident have been well-vetted.

Find an online forum for your specific vehicle. A quick Google search of the make and model of your vehicle, plus the word forum, will lead you to a number of forums where you can ask for recommendations for local mechanics.

Pay attention to the appearance of the shop and turnover of vehicles. The car blog Jalopnik suggests that you can tell a lot about a repair shop based on how it looks. The interior should be a clean and neatly organized working environment, and the parking lot should have a number of cars in healthy condition that change regularly. Half-repaired cars that linger in the lot are a red flag.

Ask for recommendations. Ask people you trust for their recommendations. When you know that your friend or colleague has been treated well by a business, you can feel more confident going to it, too.

Once you’ve found a mechanic you’d like to try, start by scheduling a small job with them. Having your new repair shop handle an oil change or inspection can give you a good idea of how they will treat you with a bigger problem.

The Cost of Car Repair Doesn’t Have to Be Painful

Although the elements of a car repair are mostly out of the hands of the average driver, there are things you can do to help minimize the high costs of having your car in the shop. Researching mechanics before you need one, understanding more about your own vehicle, and taking excellent regular care of your car can help you avoid many of those higher cost repairs.

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