How can a mechanic bill for 8 hours of labor when my car's only been in the shop for 3 hours?

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | Sep 01, 2005

Dear Tom and Ray:

I took my car to a mechanic friend of mine. I talked to him at 11 a.m., and he said that he already had eight hours' labor in the job. I said: "What? You started at 3 a.m.?" Then he said that time is not billed out based on actual clock time, but on what book" says is required. He said if you're fast, you can make more money, but if you're slow, you lose money, so it comes out even. Is this common procedure, or is he a weasel? Just checking! -- JJ

TOM: It's actually very common. The vast majority of shops use "the book" to determine the cost of a repair job.

RAY: We prefer "The Taming of the Shrew" at our place.

TOM: The book your friend was referring to is the "flat rate book," put out by one of several independent companies like Chiltons, All-Data, Mitchells or Motor's. The book lists -- based on surveys and what manufacturers pay for warranty work -- a reasonable number of labor hours that it should take for an average technician to complete a job. And in a way, it does bring some predictability and fairness to the business.

RAY: So if a guy is learning a job on your car, and it takes him all day, you won't have to pay for all the time he's walking around scratching his head.

TOM: And the book rate rewards the guy (like your friend) who has done the job before, remembers which wrenches he needs, and doesn't need to keep referring to the repair manual.

RAY: Of course, it also rewards the guy who rushes through a job and screws it up. So it's far from a perfect system.

TOM: In our shop, we only use the book to give our customers estimates. Then we charge them for the actual time we spend working on their car. And the vast majority of the time, we do jobs faster than the book predicts.

RAY: Our customers seem to prefer this method. Even if, once in a while, we run into a frozen bolt or something that makes a job take longer than the book predicts, they seem to prefer paying for work they're actually getting.

TOM: But we're the exception. The vast majority of shops and dealerships in this country use the flat-rate book, so we can't say, based on the evidence you provided, that he's a weasel. But if you send testimonials from his former girlfriends or business partners, we'd be happy to reopen the case.

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