Did this dealer double-bill for a timing belt change?

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | Jun 01, 2005

Dear Tom and Ray:

This has been bothering me for years. Back in 1996, I took my 1985 Toyota Tercel in to a Toyota dealership at 60,000 miles to have the timing belt replaced. They told me it was a 12-hour job, but they'd have it done for me to pick up after work, eight hours later (it's been a few years, and it's possible the timing belt was not the only work to be done, but the projected 12 hours is the key to my story). I assumed they'd have at least a couple of guys working on this "12-hour job," but when I came to pick it up, I could see just one guy still working away on my car. I commented on this to a mechanic who was apparently done for the day and was hanging around the parts window, and asked whether there weren't more guys working on my car. She said: "No, just him. And he's really busting his keister to get 12 hours of work done in eight hours." My car was finished shortly, and naturally they charged me for 12 HOURS of labor. Apparently the dealership has a standard time it charges per job, regardless of how long the work actually takes. My question is not whether this is ethical; clearly, it's not. My question is whether this practice is common in the industry? -- Jan

TOM: You know, Einstein labored for years to understand the space-time continuum. And here's a Toyota dealer in Podunk who's not only got it all figured out, he's using it to his advantage!

RAY: Actually, this is extremely common, Jan. I would even go as far as to say it's standard practice. It's called the "book rate."

TOM: All repair shops use a flat-rate book that estimates how many hours a specific job should take. For instance, the amount of time allocated for a timing belt on an '85 Tercel is 2.4 hours (so yes, they were doing more than just that). That means the average knuckle-scraping mechanic with four brain cells left should be able to finish the job in 2.4 hours.

RAY: An experienced mechanic, who has done the job 50 times, knows exactly which tools he needs and never needs to look at the manual, can almost certainly do it faster. Sometimes a lot faster.

TOM: But it protects you -- as a customer -- from paying extra for a slow mechanic who has to relearn the English alphabet before he can even read the manual.

RAY: So, the book rate does provide some predictability for the customer, even if most mechanics tend to "beat the book."

TOM: Where it becomes unethical is if they use it to double-charge you for redundant labor. For instance, the book rate for changing the timing belt is 2.4 hours. The book rate for changing the alternator/water-pump belt is 0.8 hours. So, to do both, you might think you should pay 2.4 + 0.8, or 3.2 hours' labor, right?

RAY: Wrong. Because in order to change the timing belt, you HAVE TO remove and then PUT BACK the alternator/water-pump belt. So, to charge you any additional labor at all for that is unethical.

TOM: That's referred to as "double billing." And it wasn't invented by the automotive industry. We picked up that little trick from our lawyers, Jan.

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