Update: Getting My Car Fixed Without Getting Ripped Off

A Girls Guide To Cars | Update: Getting My Car Fixed Without Getting Ripped Off - Auto Shop

If I seem crabby, it’s been a crummy day.

Auto ShopAfter months of getting recall notices for my 2006 Toyota Highlander–something about a carpet clip that didn’t seem too urgent–I finally made the appointment to take it in. Also, there was a problem with the rear window; it wouldn’t roll up. Should be simple, I was told, labor should be about $250, plus more if a part is needed. OK.

My husband and I dropped the car off at the Toyota dealer. As I waited in our other car (a mistake, I know, I should have gone in with him but I got a call I’d been waiting for) my husband went in to fill out the service forms. He came back to the car, also in a crabby mood. Spark plugs need to be replaced, the timing belt is scheduled for replacement and also, there’s something about a water pump. The service guy had given him a hard time for letting the car lapse in its scheduled maintenance. But we’d had the oil changed at regular intervals, replaced the tires when needed and it was running fine.

We drove home in silence, in fear of the threat of the unknown, my husband seething from the service guy’s beratement. Will it be expensive? Does the car really need this? Can I trust what they are telling me?

Toyota With WindowLove my Toyota. Hubby’s window repair? Not so much
The Bad News: A $2,600 maintenance bill 

A while later Diego, a service rep, called with prices: $400 to fix the window. $350 to replace the spark plugs. Really? I used to buy spark plugs for $10 a pack and replace them myself (not that I want to). How could that be $350???

And the painful one: $1,100 to replace the timing belt, water pump and a few other things. And few other things. What things? Why didn’t he want to be specific? Did he think I wouldn’t understand? Did he not know what those ‘other things’ were?

Then, he suggested that they replace the car’s tires for $750. Tires I just put on the car 20,000 miles ago. Sounds fishy to me.

Diego delivers this very casually, as if I’ve just ordered french fries and a Coke.

Like I’m made of money. I wonder if Diego is made of money. You know, because french fries and a Coke always cost $2,600.

A Little Research saves a lot of money

Stinging from the call, I start Googling: Is it really necessary to replace the spark plugs and does it really cost that much? I find chats between mechanics who curse Toyota for putting the spark plugs deep inside the engine, making replacing them a time-consuming and costly job. Yes, you can do it yourself, but it may take all day, and that’s if you know what you’re doing.

Do I really need a new timing belt? You may suffer engine breakdown if it fails, and that might be more costly to repair than the value of the car. And the way engines are configured, it’s probably worthwhile to replace the water pump even if it doesn’t need to be replaced, an article I found said; it is here.

Does the window regulator really cost $150? Well, no. I found the same part for $63, $90 and $100. But I guess I’m at their mercy, because while I could buy the part, I can’t install it, so they get a markup.

Why Doesn’t Toyota Tell Me These Things?

I know when I need to get my roots done. I know when someone has left pizza crusts under the sofa. I know when I need a colonoscopy. So why don’t I know that my car needs a new timing belt?

If these things are that important, it should be an ongoing conversation with Toyota. So I went to Toyota’s web site to see what they had to say. After spending some time on the site, creating an account and going down some blind alleys, I found a maintenance schedule. It said the same thing Diego said: this is all recommended maintenance.

Dear Toyota Dealer: If you want me to drop two grand, you have to romance me a little bit.

Buy me dinner. Or a manicure. Or even better, make me smart about what I need to do. Post pretty pictures on my Facebook feed. Make the subject interesting. Plant the seeds in my head so I can expect it, budget for it, plan for it, appreciate that my $2,000 spent now doesn’t cost me $5,000 down the road.

Accepting the Inevitable: the work has to be done

I realize that I need to have this work done, but I’m still smarting at the price and the casualness with which the news was delivered (and suffering through my husband’s annoyance at being chided at the dealer). So I Googled and Yelped local auto shops and called a few. Apparently, this service in a common one and it’s one that Toyota has figured out how to package to repair shops. When I said what I needed done, each shop I called knew exactly, and a couple quoted me a price instantly. All of them were less than the dealer by $300-$500. Wow.

Actually, this maintenance service comes as a package, one mechanic told me. Toyota realized that all these parts need to be replaced around the same time so they put them together in a kit. The kit costs about $400.

Smart marketing to mechanics; how about smart marketing to consumers?

And by business goes to…: the mechanic who best answered my questions

So I’m off to take my car to another repair shop. I found one called–coincidentally–Scotty’s. He quoted me $900 for the whole job and he had the best and most convincing Yelp reviews. I’m angry that the dealer wanted to charge me so much for the service, but happy that Toyota made it easy to shop around.

Don’t they know that as a woman, I’ve taken an oath shop around, ask questions and compare prices? Who doesn’t do that?

There will be more to the story when I pick my car up. And while I’m optimistic that it will be a good experience, I’m also skeptical.

Update: Good news from the mechanic!

We went back to Scotty’s to pick up the car, and got some good news: Scotty replaced the timing belt and water pump for the $848 that he quoted me, versus the $1,100 that Toyota quoted. He didn’t think the spark plugs needed replacing, so he left them alone.

When he got under the hood, Scotty said, the spark plugs looked fine. I wonder if that is what Toyota would have decided to do? Or would they just have replaced them anyway, for $350?

So that was my total bill: $848. Much better than $2,600. And not only am I happy that my bill was less than I feared it would be, I feel pretty good about the service, and about Scotty. He seemed honest and knowledgable. When I asked questions he knew how to answer them. He was familiar with the service that my car needed. And, he didn’t talk down to me. As it turned out, he dealt with me on the phone and my husband in person, and we both felt good about working with him.

Which is really the goal, isn’t it? To have faith and trust in the person who is taking care of your baby. To know that you’re getting the right service and paying a fair price. To know that you’re not getting ripped off.

Here’s what we learned about having a car serviced or repaired:

  • Know what you need before you take it for service;
  • Know what the going rate for that service is;
  • If the service center surprises you with additional recommendations, don’t be afraid to get your car back without having those services done by them;
  • Check your manufacturers web site or call the company to verify that the service is one they recommend for both your car model and the mileage on the car;
  • Shop around for the service or repair: Call a number of other shops and ask how much they charge for it (parts and labor);
  • Check Yelp reviews for the repair shops
  • Attend the repair appointment yourself, and deal with the repair shops yourself; don’t pawn it off on your husband or other ‘knowledgable’ man; he may not be as invested in the outcome as you are.
  • Once you get a service schedule from the manufacturer, take a look and see what other services you should plan to have done;
  • Don’t let auto dealer service or repair people intimidate you, unless they can bake cupcakes for the entire class with an hour’s notice, make contest-winning halloween costumes from scraps, or erase marker ink from hotel room upholstery–and then, only let them think they intimidate you. 

Thank you Robert Couse-Baker for the lovely Puurfect Auto Sevice image.


Journalist, entrepreneur and mom. Expertise includes new cars, family cars, 3-row SUVs, child passenger car seats and automotive careers... More about Scotty Reiss