Getting That Reality Check Before Writing a Check

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | Aug 09, 2016

Dear Car Talk:

Is there a place on the internet where I can look up what a repair should cost? I need an alternative to calling you.

-- Bill

Ah, so you're the one who's been calling at 3 a.m., asking for a price on a brake job for a 2003 Focus.

There are a couple of sites on the internet that can give you an idea of what a repair should cost, but they do have limitations. First of all, you have to know what repair you need. That's easy if it's a 60,000-mile service, or if you've already been to a shop and gotten a diagnosis. In that case, you fill in your year, make and model, and get the price range.

We tried that in our area for a brake job on a 2003 Ford Focus. Since labor rates fluctuate around the country between ridiculous and exorbitant, estimates vary by location. Repair Pal gave us a range of $340-$493 for new front pads and rotors.

Open Bay asked for a little more useful information, like the trim level of our Focus, and whether we wanted only original Ford parts, or were open to aftermarket parts (we said yes). Open Bay's price range for the repair came back at $284-$347.

But here's why it can be tricky. Let's say you're hearing a noise from your brakes but you don't know what it is. How do you get an accurate estimate online? You don't.

Or imagine that you have symptoms but have absolutely no idea what's wrong with your car. That's easy for me to imagine, because I find myself in that situation every half-hour.

For instance, your check engine light comes on. Or your car is stalling. Or you hear a noise from under the hood. In these cases, a repair estimator is no help at all. But if you do know what's wrong, and what service or repair you need, you certainly can use these services to get a "reality check" and see if the quote you've been given is within reason. And both of these sites will refer you to someone on their list of local shops, who will then pay the site a referral fee. That's how they make money.

Another option is to get the names of several highly reputable shops first. You can do that by going to Car Talk's Mechanics Files and entering your ZIP code. You'll get a list of shops personally recommended by other readers and listeners of ours. Then you can call a couple of those shops and ask for a price.

You'll not only get a more-specific price (instead of a wide range), but you'll know that those shops will be likely to do the work correctly and stand by it. Remember, price is only part of the equation.

And most shops won't mind giving you a quote. We get calls like that all the time. Some people try to disguise what they're doing. But when someone says, "How much is it to replace a right lower ball joint on a 2011 Chevy Malibu, and do you want me to give you the GM part number?" we know they're shopping around for a price or getting a reality check on a price they've already been given.

And that's fine. A reputable shop will give you an estimate upfront. True, it's not as easy as going online, Bill. But, rest assured, as long as you don't use FaceTime, you can do it in your underwear.

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