The best way to
avoid auto repair rip-offs is to be prepared. Knowing how your vehicle works
and how to identify common car problems is a good beginning. It is also
important to know how to select a good technician, the kinds of questions to
ask, and your consumer rights.
In Wisconsin, motor vehicle repairs are governed by Wis. Adm. Code ch. ATCP 132. The law includes businesses that install or repair accesssories (such as stereos) and covers shops that rebuild parts.
recommendations from friends, family, and other people you trust.
Look for an
auto repair shop before you need one to avoid being rushed into a last-minute
Shop around by
telephone for the best deal, and compare warranty policies on repairs.
Bureau of Consumer Protection to see if there is a record of complaints about a
specific repair shop.
Make sure the
shop will honor your vehicle’s warranty.
Finding the right
Look for shops
that display various certifications – like an Automotive Service Excellence
seal. Certification indicates that some or all of the technicians meet basic
standards of knowledge and competence in specific technical areas. Make sure
the certifications are current, but remember that certification alone is no
guarantee of good or honest work.
Ask if the
technician or shop has experience working on your make and model.
repair shops must get your authorization for any repair and must offer you an
estimate or firm price quote if repairs will cost $50 or more.
repairs are allowed. But if you drop off your car before the shop opens with a
note to repair something – and you do not ask them to call you with an estimate
– the shop can charge what it wants.
No unauthorized price increases are allowed. If a shop provided an estimated or quote, they need your permission to increase the price.
A shop may hold your vehicle until you pay for authorized repairs. However, once you have paid for authorized repairs, the shop cannot keep your vehicle because you refused to pay for unauthorized repairs.
additional authorization, the shop must tell you both the cost for the
additional repairs and the new total cost of the complete job. Make sure you
leave a telephone number where the shop can reach you.
The shop must
return replaced parts to you if you ask for them before repair begins. Warranty
parts or parts exchanged for rebuilding need not be returned, but must be made
available to you for inspection.
When work is
completed, the shop must provide you with an invoice describing the repairs,
replaced parts (specifying if used or rebuilt), and warranties for repairs and
If you need
expensive or complicated repairs, or if you have questions about their
recommended repairs, consider getting a second opinion.
Shops that do
only diagnostic work and do not sell parts or repairs may be able to give you
an objective opinion about which repairs are necessary.
Double damages - if the vehicle repair law is violated, you may be able to start an action in small claims court. Wis. Stat. s. 100.20(5) enables consumers to recover twice the amount of any monetary damages, court costs and reasonable attorney's fees.
After the work
The shop must
provide you an invoice describing the work done. The invoice should list each
repair, parts replaced, and the cost of each part, labor charges, the odometer
reading when you brought the vehicle in, and the date the vehicle was returned
The shop must
also return parts if you requested them before the repairs began. If the shop
needs to return a part under a warranty, the shop must allow you to inspect the
parts before your vehicle is returned.
Many parts on your
vehicle are interrelated. Ignoring maintenance can lead to trouble: specific
parts, or an entire system can fail. Neglecting even simple routine
maintenance, such as changing the oil or checking the coolant, can lead to poor
fuel economy, unreliability, or costly breakdowns. It also may invalidate your
manufacturer’s maintenance schedule in your owner’s manual for your type of
shops create their own maintenance schedules, which call for more frequent
servicing than the manufacturer’s recommendations. Compare shop maintenance
schedules with those recommended in your owner’s manual. Ask the repair shop to
explain – and make sure you understand – why it recommends service beyond the
There is no “standard warranty” on repairs. Make sure you understand what is
covered under your warranty and get it in writing.
Be aware that
warranties may be subject to limitations, including time, mileage, deductibles,
businesses authorized to perform warranty work or special procedures required
to obtain reimbursement.
Contracts – Many vehicle dealers and others sell optional service contracts
issued by vehicle manufacturers or independent companies. Not all service
contracts are the same; prices vary and usually are negotiable. To help decide
whether to purchase a service contract, consider:
The repairs to
coverage from the service contract overlaps coverage provided by any other warranty.
repairs are to be performed.
procedures to file a claim, such as prior authorization for specific repairs or
meeting required vehicle maintenance schedules.
costs are paid directly by the company to the repair shop or whether you will
have to pay first and get reimbursed.
of the service contract company. Check it out with the Bureau of Consumer
Protection: (800) 422-7128.
transactions as well as your experiences with dates, times, expenses, and the
names of people you dealt with.
Talk to the
shop manager or owner first. If that does not work, contact the Bureau of
Consumer Protection: (800) 422-7128.
Another option is to file a claim in small claims court. You do not need an
attorney to do this.
The more you
know about your vehicle, the more likely you will be able to head off repair
problems. You can detect many common vehicle problems by using your senses:
eyeballing the area around your vehicle, listening for strange noises, sensing
a difference in the way your vehicle handles, or even noticing unusual odors.
Small stains or
an occasional drop of fluid under your vehicle may not mean much. But wet spots
deserve attention; check puddles immediately.
identify fluids by their color and consistency:
green, pastel blue or florescent orange colors indicate an overheated engine or
an antifreeze leak caused by a bad hose, water pump or leaking radiator.
A dark brown or
black oily fluid means the engine is leaking oil. A bad seal or gasket could
cause the leak.
A red oily spot
indicates a transmission or power steering fluid leak.
A puddle of
clear water usually is no problem. It may be normal condensation from your
vehicle’s air conditioner.
are under your nose. You can detect them by their odor:
The smell of
burned toast – a light, sharp odor – often signals an electrical short and
burning insulation. To be safe, try not to drive the vehicle until the problem
The smell of
rotten eggs – a continuous burning-sulfur smell – usually indicates a problem
in the catalytic converter or other emission control devices. Do not delay
diagnosis and repair.
A thick, acrid
odor usually means burning oil. Look for sign of a leak.
The smell of
gasoline vapors after a failed start may mean you have flooded the engine. Wait
a few minutes before trying again. If the odor persists, chances are there is a
leak in the fuel system – a potentially dangerous problem that needs immediate
or an acrid chemical odor may signal overheated brakes or clutch. Check the
parking brake. Stop. Allow the brakes to cool after repeated hard braking on
mountain roads. Light smoke coming from a wheel indicates a stuck brake. The
vehicle should be towed for repair.
A sweet, steamy
odor indicates a coolant leak. If the temperature gauge or warning light does
not indicate over-heating, drive carefully to the nearest service station,
keeping an eye on your gauges. If the odor is accompanied by a hot, metallic
scent and steam from under the hood, your engine has overheated. Pull over
immediately. Continued driving could cause severe engine damage. The vehicle
should be towed for repair.
squeals, rattles, rumbles, and other sounds provide valuable clues about
problems and maintenance needs. Here are some common noises and what they may
Squeal – A
shrill, sharp noise, usually related to engine speed:
Click – A
slight sharp noise, related to either engine speed or vehicle speed:
Screech – A
high-pitched, piercing metallic sound; usually occurs while the vehicle is in
Rumble – A
low-pitched rhythmic sound.
Ping – A
high-pitched metallic tapping sound, related to engine speed:
Heavy Knock – A
rhythmic pounding sound:
Clunk – A
random thumping sound:
handling, a rough ride, vibration and poor performance are symptoms you can
feel and almost always indicate a problem.
front wheels and/or worn steering components, such as the idler or ball joint,
can cause wandering or difficulty steering in a straight line.
Pulling – the
vehicle’s tendency to steer to the left or right – can be caused by something
as routine as under-inflated tires, or as serious as a damaged or misaligned
Worn shock absorbers
or other suspension components – or improper tire inflation – can contribute to
While there is
no hard and fast rule about when to replace shock absorbers or struts, try this
test: Bounce the vehicle up and down hard at each wheel and then let go. See
how many times the vehicle bounces. Weak shocks will allow the vehicle to
bounce twice or more.
Springs do not
normally wear out and do not need replacement unless one corner of the vehicle
is lower than the others. Overloading your vehicle can damage the springs.
properly. An unbalanced or improperly balanced tire causes a vehicle to vibrate
and may wear steering and suspension components prematurely.
have several symptoms. Schedule diagnosis and repair if:
pulls to one side when the brakes are applied.
The brake pedal
sinks to the floor when pressure is maintained.
You hear or
feel scraping or grinding during braking.
light on the instrument panel is lit.
symptoms indicate engine trouble. Get a diagnosis and schedule the repair.
starting the engine.
engine” light on the instrument panel is lit.
Rough idling or
use (more than one quart between changes).
continues running after the key is removed.
transmission performance may come from actual component failure or a simple
disconnected hose or plugged filter. Make sure the technician checks the simple
items first; transmission repairs normally are expensive. Some of the most
common symptoms of transmission problems are:
Abrupt or hard
shifts between gears.
Delayed or no
response when shifting from neutral to drive or reverse.
shift during normal acceleration.
acceleration. The engine speeds up, but the vehicle does not respond.
does not always mean major repairs. Here are some common causes of trouble and
techniques to help you and your technician find and fix problems.
Loose wiring can make your alternator appear defective. Your technician should
check for loose connections and perform an output test before replacing the
Corroded or loose battery terminals can make the battery appear dead or
defective. Your technician should clean the terminals and test battery function
before replacing the battery.
Starter – What
appears to be a defective starter actually may be a dead battery or poor
connection. Ask your technician to check all connections and test the battery
before repairing the starter.
Muffler – A
loud rumbling noise under your vehicle indicates a need for a new muffler or
Tune-up – The
old-fashioned “tune-up” may not be relevant to your vehicle. Fewer parts, other
than belts, spark plugs, hoses and filters, need to be replaced on newer
vehicles. Follow the recommendations in your owner’s manual.