Two-Thirds of Americans Don't Trust Auto Repair Shops

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Dec 07, 2016

It should come as no surprise that Americans are suspicious of their car repair bills, but the reality is worse than you thought. A full two thirds of consumers in a new AAA survey say they don’t trust repair shops in general, claiming they’ve been overcharged, or fielded recommendations for unnecessary repairs.

Beware Mr. Badwrench. He may not have your best interests at heart. (AAA photo)

Yes, this is the Car Talk “boat payments” come home to roost. Smart shops don’t cheat their customers because they want their repeat business. I’ve used the same mechanic, Rob Maier, for over a decade because not once have I thought he bilked me on a bill. If anything, he seems reluctant to spend my money on something unless I absolutely need it.

I asked Maier, who runs a respected garage with his name on it in Bridgeport, Connecticut, about this. “Repeat business is everything,” he told me. “When people walk in the door, I treat them as I would want to be treated. Sad to say, there are a lot of guys out there trying to make their first million, but it doesn’t work that way. You have to be willing to earn people’s trust.”

An incredible 76 percent of those surveyed by AAA say they were told to buy stuff they didn’t need. Seventy three percent said they were overcharged, and 63 percent said they’d had negative past experiences. Nearly half (49 percent) said that they were concerned that work won’t be done correctly.

It’s interesting to note that Baby Boomers like me are twice as likely as younger people to trust their garage. I’m in a minority of 20 percent who say they “totally trust” their wrench wielders.

This is hardly the first survey on this kind of thing. One that got a lot of attention back in 2013 concluded that 70 percent of Americans would get a second opinion on major home or car repairs, but only 19 percent would bother to do the same for medical conditions. And only six percent would ask someone else about a dental diagnosis. Wow, we really trust those guys in the white coats.

Another survey, from AutoMD.com, established that 87 percent of car owners feel they get better deals from independent shops than they do from dealerships. In that poll, 80 percent said they felt they’d been overcharged by the local dealer’s service department. Less than half (47 percent) of dealer customers said they were either “satisfied” or “very satisfied” with the service they got.

Independent shops get higher marks than auto dealers. (Debaird/Flickr)

It’s interesting to see results like these broken down by sex, because women in particular feel that repair shops (and new car dealers) cheat them. A 2013 RepairPal car owner survey found that 77 percent think mechanics are more likely to try and sell unnecessary repairs to women, and 66 percent nod knowingly when asked if women are routinely charged more for the same service.

“This is a major problem for the auto industry, and one it has done very little to fix,” reports Patrice Banks in the Washington Post. “Women are the industry’s top customers, holding the majority of driver’s licenses in the U.S. and spending more time on the road than men. They shell out more than $200 billion every year buying new cars and servicing their vehicles.”

Despite this economic clout, the AutoMD data reveals that women would rather go to that dentist (whose opinion they trust) than the auto shop (where they think they’re being cheated).  

Consumer Reports offers some tips on being a savvier repair shopper.

  • Shop around. If you hear your cousin paid $399 for a Toyota Camry alternator that your shop wants $899 for, get a second opinion.
  • Be leery of "parts replacers." These are shops that can't diagnose your problem, so charge you through the nose for new parts that they hope will solve the problem.
  • Watch for padding. It's called "building the ticket," so learn to say no when they ask you if you want your engine or transmission flushed.
  • Beware poor-quality parts. Often, you pay for quality but get cheap replacements. So if they tell you, "It's not unusual for your car to need a new starter every year," look for a new mechanic. 

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