Auto shop rip offs: Realities and illusions

Dyrell Hicks Consumer helps

A lot of info on the subject, but something was missing…

Over the years I have noticed a lot of articles and video exposés about auto shop rip offs.  Some of them definitely involve dishonesty, but I’ve noticed that many of the cases that people thought were “rip offs” could have had other explanations.

Of course this subject affects my family and its future since we have a repair shop – that makes the topic important to me – but this also affects everyone, because everyone visits repair shops at one time or another, and it is a major expense to keep a vehicle maintained…

So lets find out the truth.

I understand why some consumers are nervous about getting their car fixed,  you are pretty much at the mercy of the shop.  And car repairs, done honestly or not, make a major impact on someone’s budget and their life; so getting ripped off by one is serious business.  I had one couple who told me that their life started going downhill after getting ripped off at some shop and spending a lot of money on repairs.  I don’t recall if I heard the details of that “rip-off” to know if it was blatant or not.   That’s what makes it scary: it’s actually a mysterious event, because most of the time the consumer does not really even know if they were “ripped off” or not!  They usually have a “feeling” one way or the other, but unfortunately my observations have been that some are wrong on both sides of the fence.  Some folks that think they were ripped off probably were not ripped off; and some that think they are “being taken good care of” were actually taken advantage of.   Maybe this article will help you gain some insight into discerning what amounts to good auto repair service.

Dyrell Hicks, manager of CarScope

The obvious and not so obvious

If there is intentional dishonesty or if the shop intentionally does not do what it was paid to do, of course that’s a blatant rip-off.  But there are other reasons for dissatisfaction that are more communication and competence related that I think you might find interesting.  For example, replacing parts that are not broken would be considered a rip off, yet sometimes that is more difficult to discern than what it appears at first glance.   After all, preventative maintenance is all about preventing a break down, so this is a legitimate reason to replace a part that is at the end of its service life BEFORE the part breaks!  A Timing belt is a good example.

Most of these “Rip off” exposés say 50% and higher of the shops investigated are ripping people off!!  I guess it is possible that there are that many shops that are really ripping people off, but I hope not.  This article is here to give you one side of the story you might not have known about.

Competence and communication

Service writers- the office side

The service writer or manager, the person in the office that you talk to, is your link to the technician;  they have a key role in getting your car fixed right.  He or she is the one that needs to be clear about what the concerns are and what you want to do about them.  And their job is to be sure you get what you authorize from the tech doing the work.   That is actually no small task.  As someone who does both, I find that to do the service writing correctly takes as much or more skill than doing the repair work!

Many of the perceived “rip offs” I have heard about could look that way because of poor communication between the service writer and the customer.  Sometimes it happens because things were too rushed to explain things before or after the job, sometimes because the service writer may not know what should be explained, or they received little communication from the technician.  All of those conditions can and should be corrected, but often they are not.  Sometimes it’s just people being human (i.e. selfish), doing their “own thing” and not caring enough about others to go the extra mile.   In this case the extra mile is a service writer who thinks things through on each job and takes care of communicating with the tech to be sure the car is ready to go and all the concerns are taken care of or noted for the future.

Service Writer Syndrome

What does not help the situation is what we call Service Writer Syndrome.  I titled it with that tongue-in-cheek phrase because it is a bit funny to a technician to hear some of the things some service writers say, but very sad for the customer. The “Syndrome’s” definition is a state of mind that results in the common occurrence where some service writers pretend to – or really do – think they know more than they do about the technical side of shop operations (i.e. “car stuff”).  It can even progress to the point where technical explanations appear to be made up “on the fly”.  At least, it is unknown where they got the strange, wrong explanations for things.   Conveying inaccurate information abut your automotive concerns is a “rip off” in and of itself but can also backfire and cause more obvious problems due to the need to cover for what was said earlier.  In most instances the customer never finds out about the inaccurate information.  I haven’t done a survey and given tests to all the service writers out there, so I don’t know what percentage of service writers this syndrome affects, but I know I’ve seen it a whole lot, as have technicians I have hired who have been in the industry for years.

Talking to Service Writers

My suggestion is: if something they are saying or the way they are presenting it does not “sit right,” there is a good chance you need a second opinion.  It may be you really need the work done, but you need someone who will give you the straight scoop and is willing to say “I don’t know. I’ll ask someone”  when it is appropriate.  This kind of situation is a type of rip off, and if you can’t trust what someone says about why you need something, there’s a good chance you can’t trust what they say about which things you do need.

Competence and complications

Honest Mistakes or rip offs?

Honest mistakes happen, nobody is perfect.  Frequently people get upset because a problem is not resolved right away and they think perhaps nothing was done – they think they were “ripped off.”    Anyone, no matter how careful, can make a mistake.  Car repair shops don’t have the number and level of quality checks that the space shuttle program has, and even they make mistakes, so it should not be a shock that a shop might make some, too.   It should not be a regular occurrence and should be corrected quickly when a mistake is made.

Intermittent problems

But sometimes if and when it doesn’t get fixed on the first visit, it is not always the tech’s or shop’s fault.  Some problems can be intermittent and can not be found at just any given moment, we must wait for it to act up to find the cause. Of course, these things should be explained by the service writer.

Qualified Technicians

Other problems are simply out of the skill level of a given shop to find.  Again, they need to be honest and tell you, but the lack of skilled techs doesn’t make them a  rip off,  it is just a sign of the times.  The auto repair industry is a very high-tech, competitive industry that usually advertises and sells its services like it’s selling TVs instead of a complicated and valuable service.  Though fortunately and by necessity, it has begun to change this practice in recent years.  This catering to price-shopping customers has kept prices low, which is nice, but it has made it difficult for shops to afford to attract, keep, and train qualified, honest technicians.

Some say, I don’t know if it is true or not – but “they” say – the amount of accumulated knowledge a good all around master tech has about cars is as much as a medical doctor has in his field.   When was the last time you price shopped for a medical doctor?  You know what you’d get if you did… well, your life is also riding on your wheels.

Because of these challenges, if we did not own a shop, I don’t think I would want my children to pursue this line of work.  I think they will do well in it as owner/techs, but considering the investment in ongoing training, tools and equipment, and the unprofessional financial compensation methods of most job positions in the industry, though it is steady work, it is not a great paying job for the level of expertise and investment that it requires.

Back to the doctor-“knowledge-level” analogy, even master technicians at the top of their career don’t bring home nearly what medical doctors do, so before you get too upset with any shop about a mistake or a skill level issue, please consider the big picture and have a little patience.

CarScope’s Situation

We don’t have many diagnostic problems we can’t solve at CarScope, and we are training the next generation in the Hicks family to continue the tradition.   We even get referrals from other shops for the tough ones they can’t do.   If we make a mistake, or have a problem, we don’t mind owning up to it and standing behind the work.  We have a 1 year, unlimited mile parts and labor warranty to back it up.

Fluid Maintenance

Now this is a tough one, many are accused of ripping people off with this one.    I used to not push fluid changes, but over the years I have learned their value.  There are a few different ways of looking at when a fluid needs to be changed.  I have seen many different AND conflicting methods written by different car manufacturers, “experts” of various types, as well as the chemical and filter companies.  Without doing impossibly precise, controlled experiments, there is no way to know 100% sure what is the best practice in every situation, for every car. But we believe that we’ve listened to all the voices, included our own observations, and come up with reasonable recommendations.

OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturers- Ford, Honda, etc.)  Recommendations

Some put great stock in what their particular car’s manufacturer recommends for their particular vehicle.  While this may seem wise, many manufacturers do not even mention certain fluid changes, they claim they are not needed.  What this usually means in the real world is that they are not needed while the car is under warranty.  The manufacturer’s main concern seems to be that it makes it out of warranty without costing them anything.  And the less maintenance they suggest, the better it looks to prospective buyers. They can give you a “lower maintenance cost” sales pitch for buying that car if they reduce the recommended maintenance needs.  Incidentally, this is a major motivation in some of the ridiculously long oil change intervals that have come out!   But whether the OEM has it in their manual or not, any car is going to need new transmission or brake fluid when it gets a lot of miles on it. (100,000-200,000 mi).  For example, many European cars now have a “sealed” transmission, that never needs fluid, never added, never changed.  Never, that is, until the transmission has a catastrophic failure and needs to be rebuilt.  Then it gets new fluid.  If you had serviced the fluid shortly after that warranty period, before it got so many miles on it, you might  have gotten a lot more years out of it!

In reality, regardless of the make, all car systems are under the same basic stresses and require basically the same maintenance, but between business and engineering policy differences most of the OEMs disagree on what is the best practice.  Your car’s OEM recommendations are not necessarily better than a different manufacturers’ recommendations.  It could be that an accountant made your policy, not the engineers.

There are no industry standards that are universal and perfect, but most thoughtful independent repair shop owners agree, changing fluids make the systems last longer.  These are the guys that see the cars for YEARS after the factory warranty is up and have the on-the-job experience of making them last.

NEW FLUID- but it looks good?

Many of the exposés have a lot of these cases.  The fluid change was sold when it was “not needed”- i.e., the fluid looked clean, so it had to be a rip off!  Some shops use (and flush companies sell) charts that compare your fluid to new fluid.  This does tell you if it looks dirty, but not how many miles or years it’s been since it was changed.   Some OEMS say not to worry if it is dark, some say change it when it is dark, they all vary!!   To top off the confusion of color, some brands of fluids are brighter and newer looking than others, so a tech is never completely sure how old a fluid is.

If the fluid looks bad or dirty, almost all “experts” suggest changing it then, but many sources go further and suggest changing it before it looks bad.  When a fluid is dirty, it means that either there are contaminants in it, or the chemical structure of the fluid itself or its additive package has changed.  Often by the time it is visibly dirty, overheating, moisture, corrosion, or wear has already occurred.  The degree to which this applies varies with the different fluids, but is true to an extent of all of them.   Often the additive package in a fluid wears out even when the fluid itself still performs the job, but this allows corrosion, foaming, and other bad things to happen.  By changing it before it gets dirty, everything lasts longer and systems are fully protected and working as designed.

So we believe the best way to tell if a fluid needs changin’ is how many miles you have gone.  So, the “rip off” problem actually comes from the customer jumping around from shop to shop (usually price shopping) and/or the shop and the customer not keeping good records.   At CarScope, we try to keep track of it for you, but we don’t know the history before it got to us unless you tell us.

Granted, the “rip-off-exposed” companies should have told the undercover reporters that the fluid looked good, but depending on the miles or years since it was done, it may be due for service even though it looked good.  Who knows how many in those exposes did say something like that, and they may have explained what I just did to the reporters.  I hope they did, but of course, showing that conversation doesn’t sell news as well. 🙁

When we recommend  fluid changes, we try to tell you how urgent it is or why we are recommending it.  If we don’t, please just ask.

Cost effectiveness.

Of course, you don’t have to do any preventative maintenance!  Some people never change their engine oil, but almost everyone agrees and knows that neglecting that will shorten the engine’s life.

Similarly, each system has a different value to preventively maintaining it.  We recommend comparing the cost of maintenance to the cost of repairs if the system fails.  Here is more info on that subject.

Suspension parts

Ball joints and tie rod end boots

I have learned that some shops (dealerships in particular) like to sell suspension parts because a tie rod boot or ball joint boot is torn or cracked.  We believe that is definitely overkill.  Yes, it is preventative maintenance: that part will eventually wear out or squeak because of the dirt getting in and the grease getting out – but it may take many, MANY years!!   I’d just wait for it to get worse before I replaced the joint because of a torn boot.  Here are some more solid reasons to replace it:

  •  Squeaks when turning the steering wheel
  •  Joint has worn to the point of being loose
  •  Fails a state inspection
  •  If it is obvious that wear is occurring from seeing metal dust surrounding the joint

If you don’t have state-mandated safety inspections, just have it checked every year or so to make sure the joint itself is not going bad.

Shocks and Struts

Shocks and struts are often over sold.  If you can’t feel that the ride is worse, it can probably wait.   I know that is not what most say, the way many shops are taught to sell shocks and struts is to say that the ride may have changed gradually and you did not notice it, but if it is bad enough to be dangerous, you would likely have noticed it not driving well, bouncing after bumps, etc.  Considering the replacement cost, we don’t do struts for maintenance at all.  Sometimes they will last the life of the vehicle,  so we wait for them to go bad before replacing them..  Of course, if they are clunking, that is different, we’re talking more about bounce – or ride and comfort – here.

Here is an article that corroborates our opinion.

CV (constant velocity) axles

Similar to the cracked boots on ball joints explained above, CV axles are not in URGENT need of replacement when the boot splits, but their life will likely be shorter than the ball joint or tie rod’s life with a torn boot, because a CV axle has a lot more movement and needs the clean lubrication more.

The cost of replacing the whole axle is usually cheaper than doing just the boot. Since you end up replacing the whole axle anyway, you can wait for it to start clicking when the car goes  around corners before you replace it if money is tight.

However, if you have the money now, replacing CV axles when the boots are split badly is a reasonable preventive measure.


Though not needed as often as in the old days, engine performance maintenance is still needed.   These are the regular items today:

  •  Fuel filter (if serviceable) should be changed every 3 years or so
  •  Fuel injector cleaning/ throttle cleaning every year or 2.
  •  Spark plugs should last 30-75,000 miles unless you are burning oil or it’s not running right.  I wouldn’t go the optimistic 100,000 miles unless they are buried in the engine compartment and very expensive to replace.  The 100k miles often works out okay, but some plugs (especially Ford Triton plugs) get seized, and a bad or worn plug may contribute to coil failure.  If they are not buried under the manifold, I’d do them every 75,000.
  •  Spark plug wires if you have them
  •  PCV valve and hoses
  •  Ignition coils themselves often go bad before the plugs do nowadays.  If you have one go bad, I’d just do the one.  But if over the years, 2 or 3 ignition coils have gone bad, the next time one goes bad, I’d consider replacing all of the original coils at one time.   It is not outrageous to consider replacing them all as preventative maintenance to avoid future diagnostic fees, inconvenience and considerable aggravation.  This is especially the case if the engine intake manifold covers the coils, making their replacement a relatively expensive job because of the work needed to access them.

Going further with what you’ve learned

If you have any questions about this topic, email or call and we’ll be glad to help you. Our number is (757) 548-CARS(757) 548-CARS, and you can email us at [email protected].

P.S.      I am reminded that the mystery and fear that accompanies many people on a visit to a shop is a result of living in a “fallen world,” where you never know who you can trust.  This reality is something I’m even more passionate about. To learn how you can overcome this fallenness, please visit this website that I update semi-regularly.

This post was last edited on by Dyrell Hicks.